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.
Social Classes Theme Icon

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.

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Social Classes 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 Social Classes.
Act 1, Scene 1 Quotes

My imagination
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.

Related Characters: Helen (speaker), Bertram
Page Number: 1.1.87-92
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote brings up a force that will move the action forward for the entire play: Helen's desperate and unremitting love for Bertram. At this moment, however, Helen firmly believes that she loves hopelessly: he is as far away from her as a "star" is from humans, because of his social class and noble birth.

Despite Helen's pessimism, she still cannot rid herself of her passion. Instead, she tells us, "There is no living...If Bertram be away." This statement will remain true as the play continues--Helen simply cannot bear to be away from Bertram, and will follow him, no matter the cost. 

These opposing emotions create a consistent sense of conflict within Helen. She assumes that she does not deserve Bertram, yet cannot help but love him. The characters around Helen (and the audience) take quite a different attitude, however: to them, it is the proud and shallow Bertram who is unworthy of Helen's love. 


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Act 1, Scene 3 Quotes

Pardon, madam.
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.

Related Characters: Helen (speaker), Bertram
Page Number: 1.3.159-165
Explanation and Analysis:

Helen converses with the Countess, who--secretly knowing of Helen's love for Bertram--calls herself Helen's "mother." Helen, however, reacts with violent dismay: she explains that however close she may be to the family, she could never refer to Bertram as her "brother."

At least on the surface, Helen claims that her upset comes from her own "humble" station. She thinks of Bertram as her "master" and her "lord." She is not his equal, and therefore could never be related to him. Her birth is too low and his too high for them to be a part of the same family.

Of course, on another level, Helen's immediate denial of a sibling relationship between herself and Bertram springs from her desperate romantic love for him. She shies away from thinking of him as her brother because that would make her love incestuous, and therefore even more sinful than she already believes it to be (since she yearns for one of higher birth than herself). 

Act 2, Scene 1 Quotes

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

'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.

Related Characters: The King of France (speaker), Helen, Bertram
Page Number: 2.3.128-155
Explanation and Analysis:

After being chosen by Helen, Bertram is furious, stating that he can never love her. The King, however, convinced of Helen's worthiness, grows angry with Bertram. In a long tirade, he explains that Bertram "distain'st" only Helen's lack of title and wealth, which he, as the King, can fix. He goes on to praise Helen's virtue, attempting to explain to Bertram the value of that attribute. He continues by asserting that Helena is rich in those qualities that only nature can bestow: "She is young, wise, and fair." He ends by telling Bertram that "scorn" is not an honorable emotion, and reminds the young lord that he can give Helen "honour and wealth," while only she herself can provide virtue and beauty. 

The King's speech is a complex one, revealing the complex nature of class within this society. Although Helen is lowborn, the King recognizes her noble qualities, and wishes to reward her with wealth and a title to match. Bertram, however, cannot see past Helen's low birth; he is moved only by the King's power and veiled threats, not by the logical argument that he hears proposed. 

This passage also reveals the transactional nature of marriage in this society. The King firmly believes that beauty, wealth, and equality of birth are enough to make a happy marriage. Further, he believes that Bertram should marry whomever he, the King, commands. This view even further complicates the already thorny subject of marriage within the play. 

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.