Shakespeare’s play takes place in a world with a rigid social hierarchy, reflecting the social world of the early modern England in which Shakespeare lived. Society is divided along lines of class, with the king at the very top, and under him various levels of noblemen (including those with and without titles like “Count of Rossillion”), those who fall somewhere in the middle (such as Helen), and lower-class soldiers and peasants. A character’s place in this social order is more than just a matter of relative wealth; it determines many things about his or her life. Helen at first has no hope of marrying Bertram because of their class difference: as she puts it, he is so far out of her reach that it is as if he is a star in the sky to her. And the only reason Helen finally is able to marry Bertram is through the power of the king, who is at the top of the social hierarchy and thus has the power to compel Bertram to marry Helen.
But despite the rigid social structure of the world of the play, there is some class mobility. The king and the countess both recognize Helen’s virtues in spite of her class status, and the king even delivers a stirring speech to Bertram in which he says that all people’s blood is the same, and that Helen’s low title is a minor matter because of her natural virtues. By marrying Bertram, Helen actually is able to move up the social ladder. Similarly, Diana and her mother, the widow, attain wealth by helping Helen and—as the king promises Diana a husband—have hope at the end of the play of moving upward in society, as well. Even the lowly fool is able to get back at his social superiors in his own subtle way, with his clever wit, through which he teases and combats those who order him around. There is thus a degree of flexibility and ambiguity in the apparently strictly stratified social order. But social flexibility and mobility is not always a good thing. As Parolles’ true character is revealed, he drops in everyone’s esteem and also in social class, going from a noble friend of Bertram to a lower attendant of Lafew, as we can tell when Lafew addresses him as “sirrah,” a term for social inferiors. Thus, while Shakespeare depicts the rigid social hierarchy of his day and how it dictates many facets of people’s lives, he also shows how exceptional people can maneuver their way through this hierarchy and climb up the social ladder—or, as in Parolles’ case, slide perilously down it.
Social Classes ThemeTracker
Social Classes Quotes in All's Well that Ends Well
Carries no favor in ‘t but Bertram’s.
I am undone. There is no living, none,
If Bertram be away. ‘Twere all one
That I should love a bright particular star
And think to wed it, he is so above me.
The Count Rossillion 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.
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.
'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.
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.