I promised last time to discuss a female character’s fantasies, and the character I had in mind was Helena from All’s Well that Ends Well. In the curious first scene of that play, Paroles (a posturing soldier) asks her with a leer, ‘Are you meditating on virginity?’ Helena’s reply suggests a witty wench on the defensive, ‘Man is enemy to virginity. How might we barricado it against him?’. They each go on, playing their assumed parts, but their slightly jaded and pretentious conversation changes when Helena suddenly asks, ‘How might one do, sir, to lose it to her own liking?’
This is stunningly direct and serious and, I think, a great moment of unashamed female sexuality.
Not that it makes any difference at all to Paroles, who rolls on regardless in his rather unconvincing ‘gather ye rosebuds’ way. It’s unconvincing because he’s not really interested in Helena’s rosebud. Quite the contrary, in fact. He imagines it as rotting fruit, crawling with maggots, before trailing into his disgusted conclusion and negligent question: ‘’tis a withered pear. Will you anything with it?’
This cues one of the most bewildering speeches in Shakespeare. The first thing to notice is that Helena responds to Paroles’s misogyny by switching to verse:
Not my virginity yet—
There shall your master have a thousand loves,
A mother, and a mistress, and a friend,
A phoenix, captain, and an enemy,
A guide, a goddess, and a sovereign,
A counselor, a traitress, and a dear;
His humble ambition, proud humility,
His jarring-concord, and his discord-dulcet,
His faith, his sweet disaster; with a world
Of pretty, fond adoptious christendoms
That blinking Cupid gossips. Now shall he—
I know not what he shall. God send him well!
The court’s a learning place, and he is one—
Well. Verse makes for more deliberately patterned speech, but I imagine you’ll agree that Helena’s switch into verse doesn’t make for clearer meanings here. But perhaps it is meant to encourage us to look for a more mysterious kind of significance, one which defeats easy paraphrase: an order not of cliché but of complex EXPERIENCE, one which we can’t understand without vicariously undergoing it for ourselves.
So, once more into the breach, dear friends!
We’ll have to postpone a full exploration of the speech till next time but let’s make a start here. One thing to note before we do is that ‘your master’ refers to Count Bertram, with whom Helena is in love. Then a good place to begin, perhaps, is the ambiguity of that ‘yet’. ‘’Tis a withered pear. Will you anything with it?’, says Paroles. And perhaps Helena is saying, ‘Not YET, I won’t’. Or ‘yet’ might just mean ‘but’. ‘Not my virginity but—’ But what would THAT mean in the context of the speech? Maybe she is so vividly and precipitously imagining doing things with her virginity that she can’t honestly lay claim to it anymore.
Do something with virginity and it’s gone!
Of course when Shakespeare’s characters are speaking with this sort of intensity and urgency, they often mean more than one thing, and that goes for Helena here. She’s not imagining doing anything with her virginity YET. And yet, she IS imagining doing—she can’t help but imagine doing—that virginity-dispersing thing, and many times. Shakespeare is admirably sexually frank in this speech. ‘There’ can only mean ‘my virginity’ and ‘there shall your master have A THOUSAND loves!’ Which reminds me that we may take Helena to mean that she’s not going to do anything with her virginity herself because it’s not for HER to do things with.
There shall YOUR MASTER have a thousand loves.
Tentativeness, coyness and sexual avidity all come together here, bewilderingly for us and Helena. And no doubt it’s often like that in life, for men as well as women.
SHAKESPEARIENCE illuminates the chaotic inwardness of life that much other literature cannot reach, and is one of Shakespeare’s greatest legacies to art and thought, but criticism is often too rational and removed really to get it.
We haven’t yet scratched the surface of what Helena says. Next time we’ll go deeper into her perplexing utterance.
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