All’s Well That Ends Well: With this ring…

Just a quick note to kill off the month… The major piece of iconography from All’s Well That Ends Well is the ring. Or rather, rings:

The first is the family heirloom from the Count of Rossillion’s family. Helena describes it as

 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.
  • III.vii.22-25

Despite its value, Helena is sure that Bertram will use it “to buy his will” (III.vii.27) with Diana; “will” here is not just his desire, but his “passionate, or powerful, sexual desire” (Shakespeare’s Bawdy, Partridge, Eric. New York: Routledge Classics, 2001; page 284) as well. And, of course, she’s right.

The second ring is originally the king’s, who describes what he did with it:

 when I gave it Helen,
I bade her if her fortunes ever stood
Necessitied to help, that by this token
I would relieve her.
  • V.iii.83-6

This same ring Helena gives to Diana to be a part of planned assignation between the virgin and Bertram:

And on your finger in the night I’ll put
Another ring, that what in time proceeds
May token to the future our past deeds.
  • IV.ii.61-3

Of course, it will be Helena in that bed, Helena who puts the ring on Bertram’s finger. And this ring on Bertram’s finger begins the revelation in the play’s final scene.

Two rings, whose passing on to our two main characters play such a huge role in the plotline of All’s Well That Ends Well.

However, neither transaction takes place on stage (though the BBC Collected Works version has the countess giving the ring to her son during her farewell speech to him in the first scene as she mentions his “birthright” [I.i.64]). And while we do see Bertram hand over his ring to Diana, we do not see the placement of the king’s/Helena’s ring onto Bertram’s hand–since the “bed trick” takes place out of sight of the audience.

Oh, and one more thing on the ring:

It’s not-so-subtle vagina reference. Really.

When Lavatch the clown talks to the countess about his answer to serve to all questions, he references “Tib’s rush for Tom’s forefinger” (II.ii.22). Tib is a “pet-name for Isbel… used generically for ‘girl’ or ‘woman” (Bawdy, 139). Partridge also equates “forefinger” with “penis” (Bawdy, 139). We’re flirting with border of Bawdy-ville (and we’ll make that crossing in a couple of days), but the key here is that the ring fits the finger (like a glove, to continue a handy pun).

It’s not that all a stretch to see our most important icon of the play as a metaphor for the vagina (which Partridge supports this equating “ring” as well as “circle” and “O” with “pudend” (Bawdy, all 237) No irony at all that the act of putting the Helena’s ring on Bertram’s finger will immediately follow the putting of Helena’s “ring” on Bertram’s “finger.”

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