Study Guide

All's Well That Ends Well Gender

By William Shakespeare

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Man is enemy to virginity.
How may we barricado it against him? (1.1.117-118)

Helen and Paroles take the battle of the sexes concept to a whole new level, don't you think? Here, Helen suggests that men and women are at war and that young women have to protect ("barricado") their virginity from guys like Paroles. 

FOOL, sings
'Among nine bad if one be good,
Among nine bad if one be good,
There's yet one good in ten.' (1.3.78-80)

Shakespeare's comedies are notorious for characters who run around accusing women of being promiscuous. Here, Lavatch sings that nine out of ten women can't be trusted to be faithful to their partners. But does the play support this idea? Not really. There aren't any she-cheaters in <em>All's Well</em>. In fact, its men like Bertram who seem to have trouble with fidelity.

How shall they credit
A poor, unlearnèd virgin (1.3.225-226)

When Helen says she thinks she can cure the king's mysteriously untreatable illness, the countess doubts anyone will take Helen seriously because she's just a "poor, unlearned virgin." Translation: Helen has little formal education and no medical training (because she's a girl). So what the heck does being an "unlearned <em>virgin</em>" have to do with anything? Well, the countess reminds Helen that she's never had sex and, therefore, has zero knowledge of the male body.

Tax of impudence,
A strumpet's boldness, a divulgèd shame;
Traduced by odious ballads, my maiden's name
Sear'd otherwise; nay, worse if worst, extended
With vilest torture let my life be ended. (2.1.190-194)

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. (2.1.21-24)

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. (2.3.53-57)

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...

Why then, young Bertram, take her. She's thy wife.
My wife, my liege? I shall beseech your Highness
In such a business give me leave to use
The help of mine own eyes.
                                            Know'st thou not,
What she has done for me?
                                         Yes, my good lord,
But never hope to know why I should marry her. (2.3.113-121)

In the last passage, we pointed out that in a lot of quest-romance stories, a poor or unknown young man (a nobody) completes a seemingly impossible task and is rewarded with a beautiful princess. Here's the thing: in all those old folktales and fairy tales, we never hear a single peep out of the princess and nobody ever really asks her if she's cool with being a prize in a contest. Yet when Shakespeare takes the same plot and reverses the genders, all hell breaks loose. In this play, the prize (Bertram) is a man, and he's pretty vocal about being forced to get hitched against his will. What's up with that?  

What's the matter, sweetheart?
Although before the solemn priest I have sworn,
I will not bed her.
What, what, sweetheart?
O my Paroles, they have married me!
I'll to the Tuscan wars and never bed her. (2.3.283-288)

Like we said, Bertram is not happy about being forced to marry Helen. His solution is to "never bed her." Here, Paroles is sympathetic to Bertram's situation, but most of the characters in this play criticize Bertram for running away from his wife. Is it fair to criticize Bertram? Literary critic Jonathan Bate doesn't think so. He points out that, "if a woman were forced to marry in this way, we would rather admire her for withholding sexual favors from her husband" Citation? So, what do you think? Does Jonathan Bate make a good point? Why or why not?

In this passage, we also notice that Paroles calls Bertram "sweetheart" twice, which suggests to us that Bertram's friendship with Paroles is a classic Shakespearean bromance – the kind of super-close male friendship that's valued above all other relationships, especially a guy's relationship with his wife. Compare this friendship to that of Bassanio and Antonio The Merchant of Venice or Valentine and Proteus in Two Gentlemen of Verona.

Ay, that would be known. To th' wars, my
boy, to the wars! He wears his honor in a box unseen
That hugs his kicky-wicky here at home,
Spending his manly marrow in her arms
Which should sustain the bound and high curvet
Of Mars's fiery steed. To other regions!
France is a stable, we that dwell in 't jades.
Therefore, to th' war! (2.3.293-301)

Here, Paroles associates warfare with masculinity and also suggests that guys who stay home and have sex with their wives are basically sissies. ("Kicky wicky" is a rude term for wife and "box unseen" refers to a woman's vagina.) Paroles claims that men should be on the battlefield riding the god of war's "fiery steed" (horse), not cooped up at home like a "jade." (A jade is a female horse that's used for breeding and is also a slang term for whore.) We see this kind of attitude over and over again in Shakespearean drama. Just ask Hotspur from <em>Henry IV Part 1.</em>

In everything I wait upon his will. (2.4.56)

Ugh. Is Helen taking this whole "obedient wife" routine too far? Does her willingness to act like her husband's doormat undermine all of her character's strong qualities (her ingenuity, boldness, and willingness to take risks)? What do you think?

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