All's Well that Ends Well

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Themes and Colors
Virginity, Sex, and Marriage Theme Icon
Social Classes Theme Icon
Remedy and Resolution Theme Icon
Character and Judgment Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon
Lies, Deceit, and Trickery Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in All's Well that Ends Well, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Gender Roles Theme Icon

In addition to class distinctions, the social world of the play is structured also by a rigid hierarchy of gender (as was the society of Shakespeare’s England), in which men exercise power and women are assumed to be inferior to men. But with All’s Well that Ends Well, Shakespeare challenges traditional assumptions about gender in a variety of ways. First, the play is replete with clever and strong female characters. Helen takes an active role in seeking a husband, choosing Bertram rather than vice versa. Moreover, she actively pursues him after he deserts her. Additionally, the countess exercises a fair amount of power in Rossillion. With the absence of her husband (and with Bertram away for much of the play), she is essentially in control of Rossillion. And Diana and her mother (the widow) both team up with Helen in order to trick Bertram successfully, and gain a substantial fortune for themselves—not to mention a husband for Diana, assured by the king as a gift.

Second, assumptions regarding gender in the play are often revealed to be false. Helen is underestimated by the king early in the play, who doubts that she—a mere young girl—can heal him when his educated (male) doctors haven’t been able to. But, of course, she is able to heal him. Also, masculinity is generally associated with war in the play. French noblemen and soldiers go off to Italy to show their military prowess and bravery, and Parolles and Bertram excitedly go there for similar reasons. But once there, Parolles displays cowardice rather than traditionally masculine bravery. And Bertram seems more interested in wooing Diana than in defending Florence. On a broader level, through repeated similes comparing love to war, the more traditionally feminine arena of domestic love becomes its own kind of battlefield—and the women of the play are its most skilled soldiers. The play thus challenges assumptions about brave men and subservient women, as well as the idea of a proper place or activity for each gender. While All’s Well that Ends Well is a light comedy. it is remarkable for offering serious examples of female empowerment and poking holes in traditional Renaissance ideas about gender roles.

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Gender Roles Quotes in All's Well that Ends Well

Below you will find the important quotes in All's Well that Ends Well related to the theme of Gender Roles.
Act 1, Scene 1 Quotes

Are you meditating on virginity?

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?

Keep him out.

But he assails, and our virginity, though valiant in the defense, yet is weak. Unfold to us some warlike resistance.

There is none. Man setting down before you will undermine you and blow you up.

Bless our poor virginity from underminers and blowers-up! Is there no military policy how virgins might blow up men?

Virginity being blown down, man will quicklier be blown up.

Related Characters: Helen (speaker), Parolles (speaker)
Page Number: 1.1.115-129
Explanation and Analysis:

After Helen's mournful speech about Bertram, her next dialogue with Parolles strikes a very different tone, as they banter about the subject of virginity. Although their retorts may seem simply bawdy and comic, they actually bring up a vital theme: the close connection, within All's Well That Ends Well, between love and war.

As Parolles and Helen discuss relations between men and women, they consistently use warlike metaphors to express themselves. In fact, they describe the entire act of losing one's virginity as a siege that ends only when (presumably female) virginity is at last "blown down." 

Although she claims to be a meek and modest maiden, it is important to note that Helen is not shocked or frightened by Parolles' vulgar talk. Instead, she meets him on his own turf, challenging his wit with sharp replies of her own, and proving herself a master of metaphor and language. 


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Act 1, Scene 3 Quotes

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?

Related Characters: The Countess of Rossillion (speaker), Helen, The King of France
Page Number: 1.3.249-256
Explanation and Analysis:

During her conversation with the Countess, Helen, a doctor's daughter, decides to travel to Paris and attempt to cure the King of his long, mysterious illness. The Countess, however, initially reacts with skepticism. She reminds Helen that everyone considers the king's condition hopeless, and that they are unlikely to change their minds based on the opinions of "a poor unlearned virgin." 

The Countess's comment reveals the many obstacles that Helen faces in her quest for social advancement. First, she is poor and of low birth; although her father was a well-respected doctor, their family is not noble. Second, she is a young, unmarried woman, and therefore inhabits a very low status within this patriarchal society. Although the Countess's words are not discouraging, they are also not unwise: it is highly unlikely that the king and his counselors will trust someone like Helen, at least at first. 

Act 2, Scene 1 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: The King of France (speaker)
Page Number: 2.1.21-24
Explanation and Analysis:

The King of France is sending his lords to Italy, where they will aid in a war. Mixing language of love and war, he warns the noblemen not to fall in love with the "girls of Italy," who supposedly have great power over Frenchmen. He asserts that these women may take the lords captive and distract them from the war effort.

The King's language cements the connection between violence and sex that continually comes up throughout the play. Once again, love is compared to war. In this case, though, women are the aggressors, able to take unwitting men captive with their charms and wiles. 

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.

Related Characters: The King of France (speaker), Parolles (speaker), Helen
Page Number: 2.1.84-104
Explanation and Analysis:

The high-ranking lord Lafew has decided to help Helen, and so makes her presence known to the King, telling him that there is a "Doctor She" who can even raise the dead, and who has amazed him with "her sex, her years...Wisdom, and constancy." Although Lafew can hardly believe what he is saying, the King responds positively, saying that he will meet with Helen either to wonder at her with Lafew, or to cure his friend of his (presumably falsely inspired) amazement. 

The King and Lafew's surprise makes a great deal of sense, given the classist, sexist, hierarchical nature of their court. Young women like Helen were not supposed to have "wisdom" or learning, and yet she seems to possess a "medicine" so powerful that it could raise the King's famous ancestors. Despite their skepticism and the rigid hierarchies of their society, though, both men are open to the idea of seeing Helen, proof of their desperation, given the King's long illness. 

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.

Related Characters: Helen (speaker)
Page Number: 2.1.214-221
Explanation and Analysis:

With the King having consented to undergo Helen's treatment, he asks her how he can reward her if her cure is successful. It is here that Helen's true ambition is finally revealed: she asks that she may pick whatever husband she desires from one of the noblemen of France.

Helen's tactics here are incredibly complex and astute. It is a daring thing for any woman in this society—let alone a lowborn one like Helen—to ask to choose her own husband. Additionally we, the audience, know that she has one specific noble husband in mind: Bertram.

Even as she makes her audacious request, though, Helen maintains her language of humility and submissiveness. She makes clear to the King that it will be a display of power for him to "bestow" one of his "vassal[s]" on someone as unworthy as she is. She repeatedly reminds the King how "low and humble" she is, and asks him to pardon her from "the arrogance" of her wish. 

Act 2, Scene 3 Quotes

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!

Related Characters: Parolles (speaker)
Page Number: 2.3.294-301
Explanation and Analysis:

Bertram has just informed Parolles that rather than stay with his new wife, he will escape to the wars in Italy. The fickle Parolles thinks that this is an excellent plan, even though it goes against the direct wishes of the King. Parolles begins to tell Bertram about the honor of going to war, and scorns men who choose to stay at home out of love or sexual desire for women. 

This speech is mostly ironic, of course, as it comes from the cowardly Parolles. Although he claims to wish to participate in the bravery of the battlefield, he is in fact out to save his own skin, and nothing else. Parolles is merely telling the shallow Bertram what he wants to hear, rather than voicing a valid or informed opinion. He also again displays a contempt for women, viewing them as objects to be conquered and left behind, rather than as people in their own right. 

Act 2, Scene 5 Quotes

Sir, I can nothing say
But that I am your most obedient servant.

Related Characters: Helen (speaker), Bertram
Page Number: 2.5.77-78
Explanation and Analysis:

As Bertram prepares to leave, a dismayed Helen comes to watch him depart. Although they are man and wife, they have not consummated their relationship, and it is plain to Helen that her husband is determined to leave her. That said, she does not attempt to stop him. Instead, she only reminds him that she is his "most obedient servant" and that she will do whatever he says. 

Once again, we witness the complexity of Helen. Despite being a strong and independent female character, she also appears completely submissive to her careless and cruel husband. In other words, she is determined to be the perfect wife, no matter how badly Bertram may treat her. This submission is born both from the societal expectations that wives be docile and obedient, and also from Helen's deep love for Bertram, and her desire to please him no matter what. 

Act 3, Scene 5 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Mariana (speaker), Bertram, Parolles
Page Number: 3.5.17-29
Explanation and Analysis:

The Italian women, along with a disguised Helen, watch the French soldiers process into their city. One of the women is Diana, the brand-new object of Bertram's affections. As Parolles goes by, Diana's friend, Mariana, speaks her mind, voicing how much she hates Parolles, and how she believes that he has corrupted Bertram. 

Mariana's tirade continues, encompassing her feelings about men in general. She believes that men can promise and entice a maiden only to take her virginity, leave her, and ruin her. In short, her view is that all men are deceitful, immoral, and immune to the consequences of their actions, and so the best thing a young woman can do is to stay far away from them. 

In Mariana's rant the somewhat-secret war between men and women within All's Well That Ends Well becomes fully apparent. Men believe that women are tricksters who use their wiles to seduce and manipulate men. Women, meanwhile, believe that men are destructive liars, who care only about "conquering" a woman and are happy to leave her high and dry afterwards. In short, each sex thinks the worst of the other. 

Act 3, Scene 7 Quotes

The Count he woos your daughter;
Lays down his wanton siege before her beauty,
Resolved to carry her. Let her in fine consent
As we’ll direct her how ‘tis best to bear it.
Now his important blood will naught deny
That she’ll demand. A ring the County wears
That downward hath succeeded in his house
From son to son some four or five descents
Since the first father wore it. This ring he holds
In most rich choice. Yet, in his idle fire,
To buy his will it would not seem too dear,
Howe’er repented after.

Now I see the bottom of your purpose.

You see it lawful, then. It is no more
But that your daughter, ere she seems as won,
Desires this ring, appoints him an encounter,
In fine, delivers me to fill the time,
Herself most chastely absent.

Related Characters: Helen (speaker), The Widow (speaker), Bertram, Diana
Related Symbols: Bertram’s Ring
Page Number: 3.7.20-38
Explanation and Analysis:

Back at the Widow's home, Helen reveals herself as Bertram's scorned wife. Rather than hating Diana for having attracted Bertram's attention, Helen instead has a much craftier plan: she will use Bertram's attraction to Diana in order to gain both his ring and his child, fooling him into thinking that he is pledging his love to and sleeping with Diana, when in fact Helen has taken her place.

This passage yet again shows the complexity of Helen's thinking. She does not hate Diana, but instead views the other woman as a means by which she can eventually be reunited with her husband (and fulfill his previous, seemingly impossible demands). She assures the Widow that Bertram will give the ring to Diana, despite his noble blood and the ring's importance to his family, knowing all too well that her faithless husband is driven by his desire rather than his judgment. 

Helen also tells both the Widow and the audience that her plot, which will culminate in Bertram sleeping with and impregnating her, is "lawful," because she is in fact Bertram's wife. Deceit and trickery, in Helen's mind, are utterly justified when they are carried out on behalf of the "lawful" bonds of matrimony. 

Act 4, Scene 2 Quotes

Mine honor’s such a ring.
My chastity’s the jewel of our house,
Bequeathed down from many ancestors,
Which were the greatest obloquy i’ the’ world
In me to lose. Thus your own proper wisdom
Brings in the champion honor on my part
Against your vain assault.

Related Characters: Diana (speaker), Bertram
Related Symbols: Bertram’s Ring
Page Number: 4.2.55-61
Explanation and Analysis:

Now a willing participant in Helen's plan, Diana pretends to flirtatiously banter with Bertram. She promises to offer him her virginity, but will only do so (she says) if he gives her his ancient and valuable ring. When he protests, she explains that her "honor" and "chastity" are the only "jewl" that her family has. In short, if he cannot give her the ring, she cannot give him her virginity.

This passage makes clear Diana's own cleverness, but once again makes clear the transactional way that all the characters think about both love and sex. Bertram and Diana are essentially bartering, each trying to gain advantage over the other. At the same time, Diana appears to have bought into the idea that women's worth is tied into their reproductive value: a valuable married woman bears children, while a valuable unmarried woman is necessarily a virgin. Still, Diana uses the system against Bertram in this case, making clear that he must give her a priceless jewel in exchange for her equally priceless virginity. 

Act 5, Scene 3 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Diana (speaker), Helen, Bertram
Page Number: 5.3.159-166
Explanation and Analysis:

As Helen's plot continues to unfold, Diana and her mother appear before the King, and accuse Bertram: they say that he promised to marry her, took her virginity, and abandoned her. Here Diana describes how Bertram supposedly fooled her into giving up her honor, only to leave without her knowledge. She pleads for justice, and asks for Bertram to be punished.

This is a complex speech, full of both pathos and irony. On one hand, Bertram does indeed think that he committed all these crimes (and is now denying it). On the other hand, the woman he actually slept with is not Diana, but Helen, his "lawful" wife. Essentially, Diana and Helen have banded together both to reunite Helen with Bertram (however unwilling he may be) and to punish him for his deceitful, unfaithful behavior.

As is standard for All's Well, Diana also takes care to portray Bertram as the aggressor, and herself as the conquered victim. Once again, love and war come together, highlighting both traditional gender roles (and their sometimes-comic reversals) and the characters' individual views on the subject.