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.
Virginity, Sex, and Marriage ThemeTracker
Virginity, Sex, and Marriage 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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
I wonder, sir, since wives are monsters to you
And that you fly them as you swear them lordship,
Yet you desire to marry.
If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly,
I’ll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly.
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.