Shakespearience 3: Helena’s Fantasies (Part 1)

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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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Ewan Fernie is Chair and Professor of Shakespeare Studies at the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham. His books include critical and creative works and he is General Editor (with Simon Palfrey) of the provocative Shakespeare Now! series.
  • Humphrey

    Hahaha Prof Fernie is right, she runs rings around him in that scene! And let’s be honest, she needn’t have started the conversation with ‘I was just meditating on virginity,’ if she didn’t want to be ‘affronted’ by the notorius scoundrel Parolles (who she knows well and is not just some random soldier -er, I think). I saw it in the National a couple of years ago and it was HILARIOUS. But overall I think you are right and it is true women have a hard time putting up with all men everywhere always hitting on them the whole time. If anything, this scene is a cunning woman getting a little payback for the female race! Poor, hopeless Parolles… hehehe

  • rana

    Aha, you are right about that and this is an interesting point to make in our day and age when virginity is also seen in negative terms. But the important thing here I guess is not virginity or the lack of it, but linking sex with love and desire and personal choice, rather than making yourself into a commodity that exists to fullfil other people’s desires and needs (including random soldiers). Also neither women nor men should ever feel that they have to justify themselves to each other in that way. That soldier is ‘everyman’ and he feels entitled to judge and expects Helena to defend herself. And that is such an affront. But the sort of affront that happens every day, everywhere.

  • E Fernie

    Thanks Rana.  Point taken!  But, as next week’s blog will show especially, I think Helena really gets the better of Paroles here.  As I read the exchange, he just shrinks and she gains real, really impressive personhood.  One interesting thing is that her speech shows that the virginity he insists on thinking of in conventionally negative terms–as just the absence of experience–can be as rich, strange and full as anything that what we might crudely think of as real experience.  I love that, and think it’s true.


  • Rana

    Why does that solider not talk about his own virginity and/or lack of it? Infuriating really, particularly as in most of the world this question is still being asked, women are still being judged either for being too virginal (in the west), or not virginal enough (in the rest of the world)…..Women need to stop answering that question and just walk away! ‘Goodbye Mr Soldier. None of your business. Who the hell do you think you are?’

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