Study Guide

All's Well That Ends Well Sex

By William Shakespeare

Sex

COUNTESS
I have those hopes of her good
that her education promises. Her dispositions she
inherits, which makes fair gifts fairer; for where an
unclean mind carries virtuous qualities, there
commendations go with pity—they are virtues and
traitors too. In her they are the better for their simpleness.
She derives her honesty and achieves her
goodness. (1.1.40-47)

In Shakespeare's day, the ideal woman was supposed to be obedient, chaste, and silent. This is what the countess is getting at when she says she hopes her foster daughter (Helen) will turn out to be a good girl who doesn't develop an "unclean mind." But as we'll see, Helen not only thinks about sex, she also likes to talk about it. Keep reading...

PAROLLES
Are you meditating on virginity?
HELEN
Ay. You have some stain of soldier in you: let
me ask you a question. Man is enemy to virginity.
How may we barricado it against him?
PAROLLES
Keep him out.
HELEN
But he assails, and our virginity, though
valiant, in the defense yet is weak. Unfold to us
some warlike resistance.
PAROLLES
There is none. Man setting down before you
will undermine you and blow you up. (1.1.1015-124)

We weren't kidding when we said that Helen's not afraid to talk about sex. Here, she's confronted by Paroles, who asks her if she's thinking about virginity. She doesn't back down. Instead of being embarrassed, she plays along and holds her own. Be sure to read our "Character Analysis" of Helen for more about this.

There's little can be said in 't. 'Tis against the
rule of nature. To speak on the part of virginity is
to accuse your mothers, which is most infallible
disobedience. (1.1.141-144)

Paroles has a way with words, wouldn't you say? Here, he tries to say that girls who refuse to lose their virginity are being disobedient to their mothers. In other words, Paroles is pointing out that every girl's mother has lost her virginity (duh), so girls should follow in their moms' footsteps. Wow. It's no wonder that Helen says women have to "barricado" their virtue from men who try to "assail" their virginity (1.1.3).

FOOL
I have been, madam, a wicked creature, as you
and all flesh and blood are, and indeed, I do marry
that I may repent. (1.3.36-38)

According to Lavatch, the best reason for him to get married is so that he can have sex with a woman without sinning or breaking the law. What's this all about? Well, sex outside of marriage (a.k.a. fornication) was illegal in Shakespeare's day. It was also widely considered a major sin for which one should repent.

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

This is weird, right? Why does Helen worry that she'll be called a "strumpet" if people were find out she tried to cure the king's disease? Well, it seems like Helen's afraid that people will think she knows a little too much about male anatomy if she has close contact with an older man who isn't her husband. Unfortunately, Helen is probably right. Even Lafeu cracks a crude joke about Helen playing doctor. When he introduces her to the king, he says "I am Cressid's uncle, / That dare leave two together" (2.1.96-97). In other words, Lafeu compares himself to Pandarus (a notorious pimp who acts as a go-between in Troilus and Cressida).

Mine honor's such a ring.
My chastity's the jewel of our house,
Bequeathèd down from many ancestors,
Which were the greatest obloquy i' th' world
In me to lose. Thus your own proper wisdom
Brings in the champion Honor on my part
Against your vain assault. (4.2.55-61)

When Bertram says that his precious ring is a family heirloom, Diana replies that her virginity is actually a lot like his ring because it's the "jewel of [her] house." What does this mean? Well, she's basically saying that if she loses her virginity to Bertram before she's married, no one else will ever want to marry her. This idea keeps resurfacing throughout the play. In fact, at the very end, the king of France promises to help Diana find a husband, but only if she's still a virgin.

KING
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)

Before his young noblemen run off to join the foreign war, the king of France warns them to watch out for those dangerous "girls of Italy." This is weird, right? Especially given that we never see any Italian women trying to seduce French men. (It's actually the other way around.) So, what's going on here? Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom thinks this passage could be evidence that the king may have picked up an STD from an Italian woman and that the STD may have led to his mysterious illness. There's no direct evidence in the play for this but it's an interesting theory, don't you think?

DIANA
Ay, so you serve us
Till we serve you. But when you have our roses,
You barely leave our thorns to prick ourselves
And mock us with our bareness. (4.2.22-25)

Here, Diana uses a common metaphor to describe the loss of female virginity. She suggests that her virginity is like a rose to be plucked by men like Bertram, who, more often than not, turn out to be love-'em-and- leave-'em kinds of guys. We see something similar in Hamlet, when Laertes compares a guy having sex with a virgin to a "canker" worm invading a delicate flower before its buds, or "buttons," have had time to open (Hamlet, 1.3.39).

DIANA
When midnight comes, knock at my chamber
   window.
I'll order take my mother shall not hear.
Now will I charge you in the band of truth,
When you have conquer'd my yet maiden bed,
Remain there but an hour, nor speak to me.
My reasons are most strong, and you shall know them
When back again this ring shall be delivered. (4.2.65-72)

This is where Diana agrees to sleep with Paroles. Go to "Symbols" and we'll tell you all about the big bed trick that she and Helen pull off.

BETRAM
I think she has. Certain it is I liked her,
And boarded her i' th' wanton way of youth.
She knew her distance and did angle for me,
Madding my eagerness with her restraint,
As all impediments in fancy's course
Are motives of more fancy. (5.3.240-245)

In the previous passage, we heard Diana say that men like Bertram lose interest in the women they've been pursuing once they've had sex with them. This passage is evidence that Diana was right about Bertram, don't you think? Bertram admits that he was hot for Diana only as long as she refused to sleep with him. Once he had her, though, he completely lost interest.

KING
If thou be'st yet a fresh uncroppéd flower,
Choose thou thy husband, and I'll pay thy dower. (5.3.372-373)

This is where the king says he's going to let Diana pick the husband of her choice...if she's still a virgin (an “uncroppéd flower”). Hmm. This is weird for so many reasons. First of all, Diana has already said that she doesn't ever want to get married (4.2). Plus, the last time the king let a young woman pick a husband like some kind of game show prize, things didn't exactly work out so well. We also want to point out that the king is reiterating an idea that we've already seen in this play: the notion that a deflowered woman is damaged goods that no man will want to marry. 

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