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.
Gender Roles ThemeTracker
Gender Roles Quotes in All's Well that Ends Well
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.