Parolles, Bertram’s friend in Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, has often eclipsed Bertram in productions of the play and become the male centre of it, much as Falstaff overshadows Prince Hal in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2. Indeed, Parolles as a character has been likened to Falstaff by numerous critics, most famously, Samuel Johnson. In Johnson’s time and in the nineteenth century, it wasn’t unusual to go and see productions of Parolles rather than All’s Well That Ends Well, with the all-mouth-and-no-trousers coward taking centre-stage and becoming the titular focus of the play. These days, you’re lucky to find any production of All’s Well That Ends Well being staged, but when it is, it’s usually under the play’s original title, rather than as Parolles.
What kind of man – and what kind of Shakespearean character – is Parolles? It’s worth mentioning that the literal meaning of Parolles’ name is ‘words’, implying that he is all words: in other words, his name neatly maps onto his character, since he is, ultimately, all talk. He can talk a good talk but his actions cannot match his boasting. And like many a braggart in a comedy, he is heading for a fall – a fall which comes spectacularly when a group of soldiers fighting with Parolles and Bertram in the French army in Italy decide to trick the cocky Parolles. By pretending to be foreign soldiers ambushing him and taking him prisoner, they are able to expose him as a coward. They threaten to torture him and he readily gives away information about the army to his fellow soldiers (not realising that they’re his fellow soldiers, of course). Exposed as a coward and someone who will dish the dirt on his best friend to save his own skin, Parolles goes down in Bertram’s estimation.
There are some superficial similarities between Parolles’ fall, and the end of his friendship with Bertram, the young hero of the play, and Falstaff’s fall in Henry IV Part 2, when Prince Hal, upon coming of age, forsakes his old drinking partner with the famous words, ‘I know thee not, old man’. There is more depth in Falstaff’s fate, though, because he had been a kind of surrogate father figure to Prince Hal, the future King Henry V, whereas Parolles is just a soldier who impresses the naïve Bertram with his big talk.
Nevertheless, Parolles’ role in the play is far from mere comic relief, even if he is the play’s most consistently comic character (in so far as All’s Well That Ends Well can be described as a straightforward ‘comedy’, anyway). The fact that he is all talk, and that the origins of name bear out the key aspect of his character, maps onto one of the main theme of the play, as all good subplots and secondary characters should. Honour – or the ‘word’ or good name of a character – is a recurring theme in All’s Well That Ends Well. The King’s honour is ‘at the stake’ if Bertram refuses to honour the promise the King made to Helena on Bertram’s behalf. Bertram has to honour the King’s word and agree to marry Helena. But once he’s married her, he reneges on his responsibilities by using words to shun her, setting her, in a letter, those two unreasonable tasks which she must fulfil to become his ‘proper’ wife. The gulf between words and actions is a key theme for both Parolles’ character and Bertram’s: Parolles talks a good game but his deeds do not match it, and Bertram marries Helena but his words and vows are soon cast aside.