All’s Well That Ends Well: Welcome to Rossillion, next stop Bawdyville!


When I first read Act One, Scene One of All’s Well That Ends Well, I thought bawdiness was ushered in by Parolles. But on a second reading, I see Shakespeare priming the nudge-wink pump with some very VERY subtle bawdiness from Helena. As the virgin soliloquizes over her love for Bertram, she creates a metaphor for herself in the wild: “The hind that would be mated by the lion // Must die for love” (I.i.93-4). Beyond the innocent reading of “mated” as “matched” and “die” for “expire,” anyone who’s been around this blog for any length of the time knows that to “die” was also to “experience a sexual orgasm” (Shakespeare’s Bawdy, Partridge, Eric. New York: Routledge Classics, 2001; page 118). Now that adds a little sexuality to that use of the verb “mated,” now doesn’t it?

With the entrance of Parolles, however, we move from subtlety to hyperdrive in terms of bawdiness… Once the pleasantries of greetings are passed, Parolles’ first question for Helena leaves no doubt as to where his mind is: “Are you meditating on virginity?” (V.i.112). If this was any other situation, I’d be surprised by the response, but given her “mated/die” soliloquy earlier, her response asking him how she might “barricado” (I.i.115) her virginity against man is not shocking. He couches his answer in military terms of siege: “undermine you and blow you up” (I.i.121), and while this sounds like a reference to tunnel digging and explosives, according to Eric Partridge in his great discourse on the naughty bits of the Bard, Shakespeare’s Bawdy, what Parolles is really referencing is the “undermin(ing of) a woman’s sexual resistance” (Bawdy, 271), and inflating in looks, impregnating in practice–and to do this, the soldier in question would need to explode and ejaculate into her.

When asked how virgins might explode or “blow up men” (I.i.124), Parolles states that virginity being defeated (“blown down” [I.i.125]) will be enticement or excitement enough for men to “be blown up” (I.i.126), inflated, aroused and engorged; the virgin can then defeat them (“blowing him down again” [I.i.126]), he says, though “with the breach (virgins) made you lose your city” (I.i.127). Here, not only is the “city” her virginity, but Parolles slips in another bawdy nudge: “breach” could also refer to “the pudend” (Bawdy, 87), or pussy, as well.

The “loss of virginity is rational increase” (I.i.129), Parolles says, meaning that the loss of virginity (sex) leads to pregnancy and birth (thus, increasing the population). Spoiler Alert: this is foreshadowing. He also states, humorously, that “there was never virgin got till virginity was first lost” (I.i.1129-30), and that the loss of one virgin could make ten more virgins.

When Parolles says that Helena should abandon virginity, she responds, rather bawdily, “I will stand for’t a little, though therefore I die a virgin” (I.i.135-6). She’ll continue to be a virgin, she says, even if that means she’ll die a virgin; that’s the innocent reading. The flip-side includes references to erections (“stand for’t”) and orgasms (“die”).

Parolles concludes by saying that Helena’s virginity “is like one of our French withered pears: it looks ill, it eats dryly” (I.i.161-2), And if you’re thinking this might have something to do with Helena’s nether regions, you’d be right. According to Partridge, the withered pear references

Her virginity (being) localized in, and made synonymous with, the pudend, which unused, becomes dry and atrophied, with certain parts (e.g., the clitoris) recessive and increasingly latent
  • Bawdy, 287

Wow, Partridge just made something sexual sound downright scholarly. Very sad.

Our next bawdy bit comes when the countess discusses marriage with her clown Lavatch. He asks for the countess’ “good will in this case” (I.iii.21), and when the countess asks what case, he replies, ‘In Isbel’s case” (I.iii.23). It’s all innocent if you want it to be, but remember (from a few days back) that “will” can mean “strong sexual desire,” and “case” can mean “pussy” (as it can hold a sword, or cock). If that bawdy reading seems a little much, note that Lavatch’s speech continues with the discussion of “barnes” (I.iii.25), or children, being blessings. You can’t get children without sex (and that would be Spoiler Alert #2). He also laments that he’s “driven on by the flesh” (I.iii.29), so sex is at least subtext (if not in the forefront). He may claim that he has “holy” (I.iii.32) reasons for marriage, but his reasons may also have to do with her hole.

Later in the same scene, his mind hasn’t left sex, but he’s moved along in his matrimonial timeline: now he’s a married man, and a knave has (happily for Lavatch) made the clown a cuckold (or “cuckoo” [I.iii.62]):

the knaves come to do that for me which I am aweary of. He that ears my land spares my team and gives me leave to in the crop; if I be his cuckold, he’s my drudge. He that comforts my wife is the cherisher of my flesh and blood; he that cherishes my flesh and blood loves my flesh and blood; he that loves my flesh and blood is my friend. Ergo, he that kisses my wife is my friend.
  • I.iii.43-9

“Earing” land is to plow it; here, the land is his fertile wife, and plowing is having sex with her. Lavatch says that such a knave is actually his friend because Lavatch will tire of his wife (become “aweary” of sex with her), and the knave’s plowing her allows Lavatch to rest his, ahem, “plow.” He goes so far as to say anyone who “comforts” or screws, his wife, loves his flesh and blood, and in doing so loves him, as well. He concludes that anyone who fucks (“kisses”) his wife is his friend.

[CONTENT REDACTED: In this blog entry, I made reference to Dr. Pauline Kiernan’s work and book on bawdy in the Bard, Filthy Shakespeare; in doing so, I have offended her by my tone and use of her material. I apologize for the offense, and have thus redacted the reference.]

Later, when Lafew attempts to convince the king to allow Helena to try and cure him, his language conveys some sexual aspects:

 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.
  • II.i.76-9

“Araise” is to lift up so the innocent reading is simply to heal King Pippen, but given that King Pippen was the father of Charlemagne, causing Pippen to rise up definitely begins to take on a phallic implication, especially when Charlemagne himself has a phallic object (“pen”) in his hand. Araising, arousing, all leading to, or leading from a “love” line.

After Bertram has been married against his wishes to Helena, Parolles suggests that they go to the wars in Italy:

 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.
  • II.iii.276-81

Parolles dismisses women as “kicky-wicky,” according to some critics as mere nonsense syllables, to others as a bastardization of the French word quelquechose (meaning a mere “thing”). In either sense, staying with such a valueless object puts a man’s honor in a box unseen (both a place where no one can see it, as well as–you probably can see this coming (no pun intended)–pussy). For Parolles, it’s silly to screw a woman (“spending his manly marrow”… and what a great phrase is that), when he could go to war.

When Lavatch returns from the court, he says,

I have no mind to Isbel since I was at court. Our old lings and our Isbels o’ th’ country are nothing like your old ling and your Isbels o’ th’ court. The brains of my Cupid’s knocked out, and I begin to love as an old man loves money, with no stomach.
  • III.ii.12-6

While he has been away, he hasn’t thought of his fiancee. The “ling” here is a kind of fish, so, according to Partridge, is equated to–wait for it–”Woman as pudend; what, in modern vulgarism, is known generically as ‘cunt’” (Bawdy, 178). So the cunts and girls of the country (and don’t think “country” here isn’t related to “country matters” in Hamlet [III.ii.112]), cannot be compared to the cunts and girls of the court. And now, returned from the court, Lavatch feels as if the intelligence of his cock (“brains of my Cupid”) is gone and he no longer has any sexual appetite (“stomach”). His cock may no longer have the ability to think, but Lavatch can still pun on the idea of “standing to’t” and the “getting of children” (III.ii.40 and 41).

When we next see Lavatch, he seems to have rediscovered his interest in sex. He talks of being “a fool, sir, at a woman’s service, and a knave at a man’s” (IV.v.23-4), telling Lafew, “I would cozen the man of his wife, and do his service… And I would give his wife my bauble, sir, to do her service” (IV.v.27-8, 30-1). And if you think “bauble” refers to anything but “penis,” and “service” refers to anything other than sexual… have you learned nothing in our time together? His bawdy view of the world continues as he speaks of Bertram’s return from Italy with a velvet bandage on his face. He implies that the bandage is less for war wounds than those found in less than heroic exploits: his is a “carbonadoed face” (IV.v.98), one which has had venereal sores lanced.

The First Lord in Florence seems to know of Bertram’s more seamy side as well, and talks of Bertram and how he

hath perverted a young gentlewoman here in Florence of a most chaste renown, and this night he fleshes his will in the spoil of her honor. He hath given her his monumental ring and thinks himself made in the unchaste composition.
  • IV.iii.14-8

Perversion, honor, ring, unchaste: all of these contribute to a bawdy tone, but you have to hand the prize of bawdy-turn-of-phrase in this speech to “fleshes his will.” Now, that’s bawdy. And it’s this sort of perception that gains the young Count of Rossillion the “ruttish” (IV.iii.211) reputation of being “a dangerous and lascivious boy, who is a whale to virginity, and devours up all the fry it finds” (IV.iii.216-7). Bertram is the kind of man who would ask the king to “lay a more noble thought upon (his) honor // Than for to think that (he) would sink it (in Diana)” (V.iii.179-80). The thought communicated here is slimy enough, denying his assignation with Diana, but to use “sink” as a verb to coarsely refer to “sexual intercourse” (Bawdy, 238) is to make him almost completely unsympathetic. It doesn’t make it any better when he uses so many terms of prostitution in reference to Diana: “a common gamester to the camp” (V.iii.187)–a camp follower; “subdued (Bertram) at her rate” (V.iii.216); “market price” (V.iii.218). And all of this has an effect, making it easy for the king to dismiss Diana as “some common customer” (V.iii.283), or whore.

Now, looking back on All’s Well That Ends Well, what a journey we’ve made: from virginity to prostitution… perfectly fitting for a play that Partridge calls “not a ‘nice’ play” (Bawdy, 57).

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