Study Guide

All's Well That Ends Well Society and Class

By William Shakespeare

Society and Class

HELEN
'Twere all one
That I should love a bright particular star
And think to wed it, he is so above me.
In his bright radiance and collateral light
Must I be comforted, not in his sphere. (1.1.90-94)

It doesn't take a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature to see that Helen thinks Bertram is way too good for her. But why does she feel this way? Here, she calls Bertram a "star" because his social status is so far above hers that they're not even in the same "sphere." In other words, Bertram was born into a noble, high-ranking family and Helen was not. Like we've said elsewhere, Helen's not exactly a peasant, but in Shakespeare's day, being the daughter of a doctor wasn't exactly the same as being the child of, say, a rich count. In some Shakespearean plays, trying to marry above one's social station was frowned upon. (Check out what happens to Malvolio in Twelfth Night if you don't believe us.) Still, Shakespeare does something new in this play by showing us that Helen is more than good enough for Bertram.

COUNTESS
Be thou blessed, Bertram, and succeed thy father
In manners as in shape. Thy blood and virtue
Contend for empire in thee, and thy goodness
Share with thy birthright. (1.1.63-66)

Here, the countess gives her son some parting advice before he leaves for Paris. She wants her son's behavior ("manners") to match his noble blood. This is worth thinking about: the countess says that being born into a high ranking family isn't enough. Being a good person also requires "virtue," which isn't necessarily something a person is born with. 

HELEN
Pardon, madam.
The Count Roussillon cannot be my brother.
I am from humble, he from honored name;
No note upon my parents, his all noble.
My master, my dear lord he is, and I
His servant live, and will his vassal die.
He must not be my brother. (1.3.159-165)

After the countess says that she considers Helen a daughter, Helen insists that her social station is too "humble" for her to be considered a sister to Bertram. In fact, we hear her say that she's not good enough over and over (and over) again in this play. The funny thing is that, later, Helen will insist on being Bertram's <em>wife</em>. Hmm. It sounds to us like Helen is more worried about the potential incest factor than anything else, but can we blame her? After all, nobody wants to think of their dream guy as their brother.

PAROLLES
Use a more spacious ceremony to the noble
lords. You have restrained yourself within the list
of too cold an adieu. Be more expressive to them,
for they wear themselves in the cap of the time;
there do muster true gait, eat, speak, and move
under the influence of the most received star, and,
though the devil lead the measure, such are to be
followed. After them, and take a more dilated
farewell. (2.1.57-65)

This is kind of an odd moment: Paroles is giving social advice to Bertram, who's a count (a.k.a. a nobleman who outranks Paroles in every way). The thing about Paroles is that he's kind of a poser. As we can see, he thinks of himself as an expert on how to fit in at court, but the reality is that nobody (except for Bertram) respects him. By the end of the play, he's put in his place, so to speak, when he loses all his friends and becomes a beggar.

LAFEU
Your lord and master did well to make his
recantation.
PAROLLES
'Recantation'? My 'lord'? My 'master'?
LAFEW
Ay. Is it not a language I speak?
PAROLLES
A most harsh one, and not to be understood
without bloody succeeding. My 'master'?
LAFEW
Are you companion to the Count Roussillon?
PAROLLES
To any count, to all counts, to what is man.
LAFEW
To what is count's man. Count's master is of
another style.
PAROLLES
You are too old, sir; let it satisfy you, you are
too old.
LAFEW 
I must tell thee, sirrah, I write man, to which
title age cannot bring thee. (2.3.200-213)

When Lafeu refers to Bertram as Paroles' "lord and master," he means it as an insult; and Paroles is definitely offended. Like we've said, Bertram obviously outranks him, but Paroles acts like it's the other way around, which is what bothers Lafeu. Apparently, in this play it's okay to be poor and low ranking (like Helen), but it's not okay to pass yourself off as something you're not.

HELEN
Then shalt thou give me with thy kingly hand
What husband in thy power I will command.
Exempted be from me the arrogance
To choose from forth the royal blood of France,
My low and humble name to propagate
With any branch or image of thy state;
But such a one, thy vassal, whom I know
Is free for me to ask, thee to bestow. (2.1.114-121)

This is where Helen makes a deal with the king: if she can cure him, then he has to let her choose any husband she wants. What's weird is that Helen promises that she won't try to choose a guy with "royal blood." In other words, Helen thinks she's not good enough to "propagate" (have babies with) a member of the royal family. (The idea is that she wouldn't want to contaminate the royal family tree with her "humble name.") We also notice that the king doesn't exactly argue with her. Does he think she's good enough to marry one of his noblemen but that she isn't exactly royal marriage material?

BERTRAM
But follows it, my lord, to bring me down
Must answer for your raising? I know her well;
She had her breeding at my father's charge.
A poor physician's daughter my wife? Disdain
Rather corrupt me ever! (2.3.123-127)

Bertram is a snob who doesn't want to marry Helen because she's a "poor physician's daughter" and her lowly social status could "bring [him] down." Although we can understand why Bertram doesn't want to marry a girl he's not in love with, this is where he begins to lose sympathy points.

KING
'Tis only title thou disdain'st in her, the which
I can build up.
[...]
What should be said?
If thou canst like this creature as a maid,
I can create the rest. Virtue and she
Is her own dower, honor and wealth from me. (2.3.128-129; 152-155)

This is where the king of France promises to make Helen rich and elevate her social status so Bertram can feel good about marrying her. The king also says that Helen has something even better going for her: she's full of "virtue" (she's a good person and also a virgin). The funny thing is, Bertram still doesn't want her.

HELEN
Sir, I can nothing say
But that I am your most obedient servant—
BERTRAM
Come, come, no more of that.
HELEN
                                               And ever shall
With true observance seek to eke out that
Wherein toward me my homely stars have failed
To equal my great fortune. (2.5.77-83)

Even after she's married, Helen portrays herself as being unworthy of Bertram's love and affection. Notice the way she uses the word "servant" to suggest that she's an obedient wife who's willing to serve her husband. This word is also a reminder that Helen comes from a lower social class than Bertram. In other words, Helen is being a martyr here and Bertram knows it.

PAROLLES
My lord, I am a man whom fortune hath
cruelly scratched. (5.2.27-28)

In many ways, <em>All's Well </em>is a play about the reversal of social fortune. When Paroles is revealed to be a liar and a coward, he loses his friends <em>and </em>his social status, showing up in France as a beggar whose fortune has been reversed. In other words, Paroles has now been punished for his behavior. We can also say that Paroles' fate turns out to be the exact opposite of Helen's. As we know, Helen goes from being a "poor physician's daughter" to the wife of a noble count.

The King's a beggar, now the play is done. (Epilogue.1)

In the previous passage, we pointed out that Helen's and Paroles' social fortunes are reversed by the play's end. Here, the actor playing the role of the king steps out on stage to "beg" for the audience's applause. Of course, the king isn't actually a beggar (he's still the king of France, after all), but this is a subtle reminder that the play is interested in the possibility of one's fortune being reversed. As Shakespeare was writing <em>All's Well</em>, social class was becoming more fluid; basically, just because a person was born into a certain class, they didn't necessarily have to stay put. The Epilogue hints at that.

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