Many characters in this play make faulty assumptions about a person’s character, only to discover later that someone they thought to be one kind of person is actually quite different. The king, for example, drastically underestimates Helen as a doctor, while Bertram gets himself into trouble because he misjudges Helen and doesn’t realize how good of a wife she would make (mostly because he is fixated on her lower social status). The major example of this pattern in the play, though, is Bertram’s misjudging the character of Parolles. He thinks that Parolles is a brave and loyal friend, only to discover that he is actually an untrustworthy, cowardly traitor. Practically no one’s character is not open to misjudging and reinterpretation over the course of the play. The countess must revise her idea of her own son, as she becomes increasingly frustrated with his behavior, while Helen can be seen as dramatically misunderstanding Bertram’s character. She at first sees him as an excellent potential husband, but later learns from experience that he can be spiteful and unfaithful, as he deserts her and tries to sleep with Diana. The memorable trick in act four when Bertram mistakenly sleeps with Helen (thinking she is Diana) can even be seen as a comically literal version of this pattern of events, as Bertram literally misjudges the character he is in bed with.
All of these reversals of character could be taken to suggest that character is more of a fluid, changing thing than something innate and permanent. However, the end of Shakespeare’s play seems to make a different point. Characters’ inner natures appear to be constant—Parolles really is a cowardly liar, while Helen really is a virtuous woman. It is only people’s judgments and estimations of others’ character and personality that are inconstant. Characters in All’s Well that Ends Well do seem to have a definitive personality, but how they are perceived by others changes drastically as the plot develops and their true colors are gradually revealed. Shakespeare’s comedy thus shows the risks of forming an overly hasty judgment of someone’s character based on limited knowledge, while also delighting in the humor and mishaps that these assumptions can cause.
Character and Judgment ThemeTracker
Character and Judgment Quotes in All's Well that Ends Well
But think you, Helen,
If you should tender your supposed aid,
He would receive it? He and his physicians
Are of a mind: he that they cannot help him,
They that they cannot help. How shall they credit
A poor unlearned virgin, when the schools
Emboweled of their doctrine have left off
The danger to itself?
I have seen a medicine
That’s able to breathe life into a stone,
Quicken a rock, and make you dance canary
With sprightly fire and motion, whose simple touch
Is powerful to araise King Pippen, nay,
To give great Charlemagne a pen in ‘s hand
And write to her a love line.
What “her” is this?
Why, Doctor She. My lord, there’s one arrived,
If you will see her. Now, by my faith and honor,
If seriously I may convey my thoughts
In this my light deliverance, I have spoke
With one that in her sex, her years, profession,
Wisdom, and constancy hath amazed me more
Than I dare blame my weakness. Will you see her—
For that is her demand—and know her business?
That done, laugh well at me.
Now, good Lafew,
Bring in the admiration, that we with thee
May spend our wonder too, or take off thine
By wond’ring how thou took’st it.
'Tis only title thou disdain'st in her, the which
I can build up. Strange is it that our bloods,
Of colour, weight, and heat, pour'd all together,
Would quite confound distinction, yet stand off
In differences so mighty. If she be
All that is virtuous, save what thou dislikest,
A poor physician's daughter, thou dislikest
Of virtue for the name: but do not so:
From lowest place when virtuous things proceed,
The place is dignified by the doer's deed:
Where great additions swell's, and virtue none,
It is a dropsied honour. Good alone
Is good without a name. Vileness is so:
The property by what it is should go,
Not by the title. She is young, wise, fair;
In these to nature she's immediate heir,
And these breed honour: that is honour's scorn,
Which challenges itself as honour's born
And is not like the sire: honours thrive,
When rather from our acts we them derive
Than our foregoers: the mere word's a slave
Debosh'd on every tomb, on every grave
A lying trophy, and as oft is dumb
Where dust and damn'd oblivion is the tomb
Of honour'd bones indeed. 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; honour and wealth from me.
I did think thee, for two ordinaries, to be a pretty wise fellow; thou didst make tolerable vent of thy travel; it might pass. Yet the scarves and the bannerets about thee did manifoldly dissuade me from believing thee a vessel of too great a burden. I have now found thee. When I lose thee again, I care not. Yet art thou good for nothing but taking up, and that thou’rt scarce worth.
To th’ wars, my boy, to th’ 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!
Fare you well, my lord, and believe this of me: there can be no kernel in this light nut. The soul of this man is his clothes. Trust him not in matter of heavy consequence.
I know that knave, hang him! One Parolles, a filthy officer he is in those suggestions for the young earl. –Beware of them, Diana. Their promises, enticements, oaths, tokens, and all these enginges of lust are not the things they go under. Many a maid hath been seduced by them; and the misery is example that so terrible shows in the wrack of maidenhood cannot for all that dissuade succession, but that they are limed with the twigs that threatens them. I hope I need not to advise you further; but I hope your own grace will keep you where you are, though there were no further danger known but the modesty which is so lost.
Do you believe I am so far deceived in him?
Believe it, my lord. In mine own direct knowledge, without any malice, but to speak of him as my kinsman, he’s a most notable coward, an infinite and endless liar, an hourly promise-breaker, the owner of no one good quality worthy your Lordship’s entertainment.
Upon his many protestations to marry me when his wife was dead, I blush to say it, he won me. Now is the Count Rossillion a widower, his vows are forfeited to me and my honor’s paid to him. He stole from Florence, taking no leave, and I follow him to his country for justice. Grant it me, O king. In you it best lies. Otherwise a seducer flourishes, and a poor maid is undone.
I wonder, sir, since wives are monsters to you
And that you fly them as you swear them lordship,
Yet you desire to marry.