Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Act I, Scene I: Virginity

Helena has lamented her lack of social status and how it makes her love of Bertram seemingly impossible.  "In his bright radiance and collateral light Must I be comforted, not in his sphere.  Th'ambition in my love plagues itself."  But when she talks with Parolles (whose name is reminiscent of the French "paroles," or words--as if he is all words and no action), we see another facet to her character.  She jokes about social status when Parolles approaches her with "Save you, fair queen!" and she responds, "And you, monarch!"  "No," says Parolles.  "And no," Helena responds.  She sports with hierarchy as if it is light, though when she was alone she found it heavy.  Later, after Parolles has left, she tumbles the hierarchy of heaven:  "Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, Which we ascribe to heaven.  The fated sky Gives us free scope, only doth backward pull Our slow designs when we ourselves are dull."

She is not dull.  Her conversation with Parolles shows that she has the power to play with words.  Her plan to cure the King that is later revealed demonstrates her ability to act.  She relies on herself, not on heaven, to achieve her aim.  But are her actions in accordance with heaven, or against natural order?  She asks, "What power is it which mounts my love so high?  That makes me see, and cannot feed mine eye?  The mightiest space in fortune nature brings To join like likes, and kiss like native things.  Impossible be strange attempts to those That weigh their pains in sense, and do suppose What hath been cannot be.  Who ever strove To show her merit that did miss her love?  The King's disease--my project may deceive me, But my intents are fixed and will not leave me."

Helena is a secret revolutionary.

The war is love.

The battle of the sexes is well expressed in her conversation with Parolles about virginity.  He begins it with, "Are you meditating on virginity?"  She says "ay," and then, "Man is enemy to virginity; how may we barricado it against him?"  She asks him how to make warlike resistance.  Of course, this is a game.  We have seen no man assailing her for her virginity.  Instead, she seeks to determine herself who will have her virginity, and she certainly doesn't want barricading against the man she desires.  Bertram will be the one barricading himself against her.

"Bless our poor virginity from underminers and blowers-up!  Is there no military policy how virgins might blow up men?"  And yet she will blow up Bertram...by trumping his arrogant distance, but by losing her virginity, not preserving it.

Both Parolles and Helena have their metaphors for virginity, which express their beliefs about women.  Parolles:  "Your date is better in your pie and your porridge than in your cheek; and your virginity, your old virginity, is like one of our French withered pears: it looks ill, it eats drily."

To Parolles, a woman is an aging commodity to be consumed.

Photographs:  The Virginity of Parolles

He urges her to marry before she dries.  "Marry, 'tis a withered pear; it was formerly better; marry, yet 'tis a withered pear!  Will you anything with it?"

Photographs:  Helena's Virginity

For Helena, her virginity is multi-faceted, a gateway to a series of roles that defines a woman as thinking, feeling, acting, and communicating.  "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 counsellor, a traitress, and a dear..."  Parolles does not seem to understand that she is speaking of her virginity and what losing it will lead to.  He could believe that she is only referring to what Bertram will find at court, and it is possible that she is speaking dually, that she is saying that Bertram might find those people at court, but also in her.

Parolles has not registered her claims.  "Little Helen, farewell" he says, "if I can remember thee, I will think of thee at court."  He underestimates her, and she returns this condescension and insult by a false compliment.  "Monsieur Parolles, you were born under a charitable star," seemingly acknowledging herself as an object of charity, but then turning the tables by labeling him as under a retrograde Mars, debilitated by cowardice.

"I am so full of businesses I cannot answer thee acutely," Parolles says, again dismissing her importance.  His busyness overshadows her.  Parolles can be seen as a more gross Bertram.   Parolles has neither Bertram's physical appeal, or his status, or his youth, but he has Bertram's condescension towards Helena, and his blindness towards her virtues and possibilities.  And he is Bertram's companion.  He "goes with him," as Helena says, and is therefore an expression of Bertram's choices.  He is an aspect of Bertram.

When Helena says of Parolles, "One that goes with him.  I love him for his sake; And yet I know him a notorious liar, Think him a great way fool, solely a coward.  Yet these fixed evils sit so fit in him That they take place when virtue's steely bones Looks bleak i' th' cold wind."  We must wonder how much her words express the shortcomings of Bertram.

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