The Many Masks of Parolles

By Schork, R. J. | Philological Quarterly, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

The Many Masks of Parolles

Schork, R. J., Philological Quarterly

As a romantic comedy there are a number of very odd twists to All's Well That Ends Well. Its adolescens hero is a reluctant lover, delinquent husband, and a liar. The King of France practically forces the youthful Count of Rossillion to marry a poor, but beautiful and intelligent commoner; Bentram's noble mother thoroughly approves of this match. In terms of the stock roles of the genre, the play's villain is an even greater bundle of contradiction. Parolles is acknowledged as part miles gloriosus, part parasite, and all rogue. The purpose of this note is to add aspects of two additional New Comedic roles to the list of type-characters which he enacts in the play. At times Parolles inverts the duties of a servus callidus; he also briefly appropriates the manner (and the morals) of a leno. The presence of an unscrupulous wordwizard and a procurer manque in All's Well What Ends Well adds a new level of complexity to the action--and to our perception of Shakespeare's adaptation of chemical motifs to the needs of his plots.(1)

First a brief review of Parolles' more obvious stock roles. Although he appears in Rowe's Dramatis Personae as a "parasitical follower of Bertram," one of the primary functions of the Plautine parasite is adroitly deflected by Shakespeare. Parolles is assigned none of the fawning catalogues of praise by which he could, in typical realizations of the role, curry the favor of or cadge a dinner from his master.(2) Rather, after his "capture," he indicts the Count of Rossillion in several series of hyperbolic lies: "for rapes and ravishments he parallels Nessus ..."; "in breaking [oaths] he is stronger than Hercules" (4.3.250-53). Indeed, Parolles does not hesitate to reveal to his captors the strength of his comrades' forces:

Spurio, a hundred and fifty; Sebastian, so many ... mine own company, Chitopher, Vaumond, Bentii, two hundred fifty each; so that the muster-file, rotten and sound, upon my life, amounts not to fifteen thousand pole ... (4.3.161-167)

The same sort of specific detail and zany arithmetic is used by the parasite Artotrogus in Plautus' Miles Gloriosus. In a catalogue of Pyrgopolynices' far-flung slaughter of enemy forces, he incorrectly -- and improbably -- announces that their total is septem milia (42-54).

In classical New Comedy villains are frequently punished in a way that fits the crime. Pyrgopolynices, for example, is led in trap by a slave. The boy disarms the victim by hailing him as the special favorite of two gods. The gullible braggart asks which pair: Mars et Venus (1384). These patrons personify and divinely supervise the spheres of human activity in which the soldier claims egregious heroism, war and love. Thus, in the next scene the avengers threaten to castrate him. Pyrgopolynices thereupon promises to reform. His captors exact a stiff monetary fine so that there will be sound witnesses that they have sent Venus' pet grandson away, gonads intact ("saluis testibus ut ted hodie amittamus Venerium nepotulum" [1420-21]). The double intent of Plautus' verbal byplay is obvious. In threat, oath, and release, Pyrgopolynices is paroled on the pledge of his bogus integrity, martial and venereal.(3)

In All's Well That Ends Well Parolles suffers an analogous fate. He is the only character in the play to speak in Latin. He does so when he claims that he will retrieve his lost drum from the field of battle, or "hic jacet" (3.6.62). That boast is never fulfilled; but this bravo does know the terminology. Significantly, then, pseudolinguistics is the springe in the trap that exposes Parolles' sham courage and counterfeit loyalty. The trap is neatly built and baited by Bertram's fellow officers, who ambush Parolles while he scours the field for his missing drum. They know that their prey "hath a smack of all neighboring languages" (4.2.15). Thus, as they pretend to be members of the enemy force, they speak "clough's language" (4.2.19) and appoint a soldier to act as an interpreter for the blindfolded Parolles. …

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