Discuss the perspective on relations between the sexes in All’s Well That Ends Well

All's Well That Ends WellLike all of Shakespeare’s comedies, the plot of All’s Well That Ends Well is primarily concerned with bringing young people together in marriage. It is not, however, a romantic play: relations between the sexes are relentlessly demystified. The good characters, like Helena and Diana, are moral, defending female virtue and monogamy against the lechery of Parolles and the adulterous advances of Bertram, but they are cynical about the opposite sex nevertheless. Helena is “in love” with Bertram, but she seems unconcerned by the fact that he does not love her back, busying herself instead with trapping him into marrying–first through the King’s command, and then by tricking him into sleeping with her. “But, O strange men!” she says, anticipating her night with Bertram. “That can such sweet use make of what they hate, / When saucy trusting of the cozen’d thoughts / Defiles the pitchy night; so lust doth play / With what it loathes for that which is away.” (IV.i.21-25) In other words, men will sleep with anyone, and cannot tell one woman from another. Helena takes advantage of this animal-like trait, and we applaud her practicality, but we cannot say that her ultimate union with Bertram has anything to do with romance. Marriage in this play is the result of determination on one side, and lust and foolishness on the other.

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