All's Well that Ends Well

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Virginity, Sex, and Marriage Theme Analysis

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.
Virginity, Sex, and Marriage Theme Icon

The central plot of All’s Well that Ends Well revolves around the marriage between Bertram and Helen, and his refusal to consummate it by sleeping with her. Issues of virginity, sex, and marriage pervade the play even beyond these two characters’ relationship, though, with even the fool wanting to get married and Diana (who is named after the Roman goddess of virginity) defending her chastity against the advances of Bertram. Shakespeare’s comedy pokes some fun at traditional ideas about virginity as a precious thing kept safe until marriage, when a husband and wife finally sleep together as part of their happy union. Parolles’ argument to Helen early in the play, for example, condemns virginity as cold and unnatural, and he encourages Helen to lose hers as soon as possible. Repeated similes in the play compare love to war and wooing to besieging a city, portraying sex less as a consensual act between married partners and more as a man’s battering down the defenses of a resisting woman. (Bertram and Helen’s relationship, though, flips this dynamic, with Helen trying to get Bertram into bed with her.) Moreover, the high value of chastity as a precious thing has the unintended consequence that women are able to use it strategically, like a bargaining chip. Diana is able to manipulate Bertram by withholding sex and then appearing to give in to him, while Helen uses sex with Bertram to trick him into fulfilling his duty as her husband.

If the realities of sex and virginity in the play don’t exactly match up to traditional ideals of them, neither do the realities of marriage. Ideally, marriage unities two loving partners, but this is not exactly so in the play. Marriage is Helen’s reward for curing the king, and Bertram is forced into his marriage against his will by the king. Additionally, while Helen professes that she really does love Bertram, she may also partially desire to marry him because of his high social status. Marrying him allows her to move up the ladder of the social hierarchy. And when Helen appears to be dead, Lafew strategizes to get Bertram to marry his own daughter, showing that marriage is often about strategizing the union of families and movement through the highly stratified social order.

At the end of the play, the king still uses marriage as a reward for Diana, telling her that she can marry anyone she chooses—on the condition that she is still a virgin. Thus, issues of virginity and marriage remain important to the society represented in the play, even if they function in ways rather different from the ideals society treats them as. Shakespeare does not contest the central importance of sex and marriage to the society of his time, but suggests that the way these matters play out is often much more complicated and less becoming than society often thinks.

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Virginity, Sex, and Marriage 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 Virginity, Sex, and Marriage.
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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Virginity, like an old courtier, wears her cap out of fashion, richly suited but unsuitable, just like the brooch and the toothpick, which wear not now. . . . And your virginity, your old virginity, is like one of our French withered pears: it looks ill, it eats dryly; marry, ‘tis a withered pear. It was formerly better; marry, yet ‘tis a withered pear. Will you anything with it?

Related Characters: Parolles (speaker), Helen
Page Number: 1.1.161-170
Explanation and Analysis:

As he continues his banter about virginity with Helen, Parolles launches into a long explanation of the definition of virginity. Trying to explain to Helen why maidens should attempt to lose their virginities, he explains that virginity is like "an old courtier" who is out of fashion. He then compares it to "a withered pear" that "looks ill" and is dry. Finally, he asks Helen why she wants to keep it.

In this speech, we see how contradictory the idea of virginity is in this play, and how obsessed the characters are with it. On one hand, characters like Parolles selfishly want women to give up their virginities. On the other hand, unmarried women who are not virgins are thought of as little better than prostitutes. For a poor, unmarried woman like Helen, the situation appears to be lose-lose. 

Act 1, Scene 3 Quotes

Tell me thy reason why thou wilt marry.

My poor body, madam, requires it. I am driven on by the flesh, and he must needs go that the devil drives.

Is this all your Worship’s reason?

Related Characters: The Countess of Rossillion (speaker), The Fool (speaker)
Page Number: 1.3.28-32
Explanation and Analysis:

In another comic interlude, the Countess, Bertram's mother, exchanges jokes with her fool as the two discuss the topic of marriage. The Fool, who claims that he means to marry, says that he will do so because his body "requires it"--basically, he wishes to marry in order to engage in sexual intercourse.

The Fool's retorts go against the generally accepted idea that marriage is a holy institution, driven by a combination of love and piety. His view, however joking, is not without merit: people in All's Well often enter into relationships for reasons other than love, and the connection between marriage and sex is both stronger and more complicated than the characters want to admit. 

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. 

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 2 Quotes

I have sent you a daughter-in-law. She hath recovered the King and undone me. I have wedded her, not bedded her, and sworn to make the “not” eternal.

Related Characters: Bertram (speaker), Helen, The Countess of Rossillion, The King of France
Page Number: 3.2.19-22
Explanation and Analysis:

Helen travels back to Rossillion to the countess, where she gives her new mother-in-law a letter from Bertram. Within it, he explains that Helen has cured the King, but that he considers himself "undone" by their marriage. He goes on to say that while they are married, he has not slept with his wife, and intends never to do so. 

This note reveals the cruelty and shallowness behind the noble Bertram. Although he may be highborn, handsome, and brave, he acts callously towards Helen, the woman who loves him most in the world, and even goes so far as to deceive her in order to get what he wants. Further, he even ridicules her to the Countess, who loves Helen as much as (or even more than) her own child. 

It is also notable how obsessed Bertram is with the idea of sex as it relates to marriage. As long as Helen remains a virgin, Bertram believes, they are not truly man and wife. This idea will come back to haunt him as the play continues. 

When thou canst get the ring upon my finger, which never shall come off, and show me a child begotten of thy body that I am father to, then call me husband. But in such a “then” I write a “never.”

Related Characters: Bertram (speaker), Helen
Related Symbols: Bertram’s Ring
Page Number: 3.2.58-62
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Helen reads aloud a letter from Bertram, in which he tells her that they will only be married when she can get "the ring upon my finger," and prove that she is pregnant with his child. To Bertram, of course, these requirements seem like impossibilities. As far as he is concerned, he will never give Helen a ring (implying his loyalty to and love for her), nor will he ever sleep with her, making a child out of the question. 

Helen, however, takes the letter in a different way. After all, she has already cured the King of a deadly illness and married a man considered far above her in terms of wealth and nobility; it makes sense that she would believe Bertram's requirements to be merely difficult, but not impossible, tasks. This difference in understanding highlights the gap between Bertram's shallow arrogance and Helen's determined, can-do attitude.

At the same time, this passage also underlines Bertram's equation of sex, marriage, and love. He believes that his marriage to Helen will never be real unless they consummate it--and so Helen decides to challenge him on his own terms. 

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. 

I wonder, sir, since wives are monsters to you
And that you fly them as you swear them lordship,
Yet you desire to marry.

Related Characters: The King of France (speaker), Bertram
Page Number: 5.3.176-178
Explanation and Analysis:

Furious with Bertram, the King questions why Bertram wished to marry Lafew's daughter, since he has now (supposedly) promised to marry two women (Helen and Diana), only to abandon them. 

The King has in fact astutely pointed out a pattern in Bertram's behavior: his consistent mistreatment of women, and his belief that he is entitled to do what he likes with them simply because he is a man.

The King believes that these actions make Bertram ignoble and unworthy of marrying anyone. In fact, however, they are more or less standard in a society that treats women like property, valuing them only for their virginities and childbearing potential. Although Bertram is cruel and careless, he is also a product of the patriarchal society in which he has been brought up. 

If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly,
I’ll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly.

Related Characters: Bertram (speaker), Helen
Page Number: 5.3.360-361
Explanation and Analysis:

At last, with her plot complete, Helen emerges. Not only is she alive (to the surprise of all but the Widow and Diana), but she is also in possession of Bertram's ring, and pregnant with his child. The entire court is shocked by this apparent miracle, but none more so than Bertram, who has been fooled into sleeping with his own wife (an act in which he vowed never to engage).

In proving that Bertram has taken her virginity and impregnated her, Helen has essentially proved the validity of their marriage to all--including Bertram himself. She has tied herself to him forever, and has proven that their lawful connection is a physical one as well. In short, she has used society's obsession with sex, marriage, and virginity to get exactly what she wanted: the man of her dreams. 

Of course, Helen has also done so through a great deal of deceit--but Bertram now seems past caring. At this point in the plot, he wishes only for understanding and resolution, and so vows to "love" his formerly hated wife "dearly" if she will explain to him how these events came to pass. Although this resolution may seem weak and suspect, it is the best that the characters of the dark and complex All's Well can manage. 

If thou be’st yet a fresh uncropped flower,
Choose thou thy husband, and I’ll pay thy dower.
For I can guess that by thy honest aid
Thou kept’st a wife herself, thyself a maid.
Of that and all the progress more and less,
Resolvedly more leisure shall express.
All yet seems well, and if it end so meet,
The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet.

Related Characters: The King of France (speaker), Diana
Page Number: 5.3.372-379
Explanation and Analysis:

Amazed and happy that Helen is alive, the King now turns to Diana. He tells her that (as he did with Helen), he will allow her to choose any husband she wants, and will make her a wealthy woman by "pay[ing] her dower." However, he will only do so if she is indeed still "a maid." The King's promise shows that, despite the complications that ensued after he made the same promise to Helen, he is willing to do the same thing all over again. HIs qualification that he will only do so if Diana is a maid, meanwhile, displays his society's continuing obsession with virginity (and female virginity in particular).

The King goes on, saying that "All...seems well" in his kingdom, and that though the past may be "bitter" it only makes the ending of the play more "sweet." This type of happy resolution is common for a comedy, yet in the case of All's Well, it seems somewhat jarring. The "past" has indeed been very "bitter," and the seemingly unworthy Bertram has ended up with the brave, loyal Helen. Although the King may tell us one thing, it is up to the audience to determine whether we really believe the happy ending occurring in front of us, and accept the play's title without reservations.