All's Well That Ends Well
How we cite our quotes:
Tax of impudence,
A strumpet's boldness, a divulged shame
Traduced by odious ballads: my maiden's name
Sear'd otherwise; nay, worse--if worse--extended
With vilest torture let my life be ended. (2.1.5)
Anyone who's ever worn
Anyone who's ever worn an embarrassing paper gown in a doctor's office knows that physician-patient relationships are intimate. When Helen sets out to treat the king's fistula, she realizes that some people might get the wrong idea if they found out she had such intimate contact with a man. Here, she says they might call her a "strumpet" (prostitute). In other words, Helen's quest to heal the king is dangerous for her and could potentially ruin her reputation.
Those girls of Italy, take heed of them.
They say our French lack language to deny
If they demand. Beware of being captives
before you serve. (2.1.3)
The king of France obviously thinks that Italian girls are easy. Here, he warns a group of young French soldiers to "take heed of them” and avoid giving women the upper hand. What's interesting is how the king uses military language to talk about sexual relationships between men and women. (We've seen this before, right?) He suggests that a guy could become a "captive" to a mistress when he should be focusing all his attention on "serv[ing]" in the military. Yet, as we'll see later in the play, it's actually the Italian girls (like the virginal Diana) who have to watch out for lusty French soldiers like Bertram.
Fair maid, send forth thine eye: this youthful parcel
Of noble bachelors stand at my bestowing,
O'er whom both sovereign power and father's voice
I have to use: thy frank election make;
Thou hast power to choose, and they none to forsake. (2.3.1)
After Helen cures the King's disease, she's rewarded with the husband of her choice. Literary scholars (like Katharine Eisaman Maus) point out that this is a classic example of the quest-romance pattern, where a lowborn or unknown young hero sets out on a seemingly impossible quest to confront, say, "a dragon no one else can slay, a riddle no one else can solve, a wound no one can cure. The grateful recipient of his aid, a king or a mighty duke, rewards the youth with marriage to a princess who would ordinarily be above his station" (source).
There's just one catch in this play – the gender roles are reversed. Instead of a male quester, we get Helen, who has set her sights on Bertram, the count of Roussillon. Why does Shakespeare flip-flop the quester's gender? And what kind of impact does that have on our experience of the play? Keep reading...