The setting of All’s Well That Ends Well begins in Rousillon, which is in southwest France. The setting alternates between Rousillon, Paris, and Florence, Italy.
LIST OF CHARACTERS
The heroine and orphaned daughter of the famous physician, Gerard de Narbon. She loves Bertram and is determined to marry him in spite of the vast difference in their social rank.
Bertram, Count of Rousillon
The young Count of Rousillon, whose father has also recently passed away. Bertram is forced to marry Helena on the insistence of the King. He dreams of great military honors and values his high social rank as extremely important. He is young and very impetuous.
King of France
The ailing King who is suffering from painful, incurable ulcerous sores. He is physically weak until he is cured by Helena’s potion. In return, he tells Helena to select any lord she likes as husband and says that he will force him to marry her. As King, he has absolute reign over his subjects and does not take kindly to disobedience. He is a strong believer in personal virtue’s superiority to inherited rank.
Countess of Rousillon
Bertram’s mother and Helena’s guardian. She is a powerful woman who is sometimes ashamed of her immature and often dishonorable son. She thinks lovingly of Helena.
Lafeu, an old Lord
A sagacious old lord who is the confidante of the King of France and the Countess of Rousillon. He cautions Bertram to be careful of Parolles. He displays fatherly feelings towards both Bertram and Helena.
Parolles, a follower of Bertram
Bertram’s confidante and flatterer. He is a mercenary soldier, a braggart, and a liar. He is disliked by the other characters who seek to expose his true character.
A clown who was formerly employed by Bertram’s late father. He is now a dependent of the Countess. He is a sometimes sarcastic, sometimes melancholy, court-jester.
She is an old woman of Florence with whom Helena lodges. She accepts a large sum of money to help Helena trick Bertram.
Duke of Florence
A duke that is involved in the Florentine wars. He welcomes the French Lords who offer him their help. He appoints Bertram general of his army and provides him with letters of commendation for his bravery in the war.
The daughter of the widow of Florence with whom Helena lodges. She is named after the virgin goddess of hunting and moon. She is a spunky young woman so incensed by Bertram’s behavior toward his wife that she willingly helps Helena trick him and vows never to marry.
A young Florentine girl who is solicited by Parolles. She warns Diana against the visiting Frenchmen and tells her to beware of their false promises and oaths.
Helena is the chief protagonist of the play. In love with Bertram, she is determined to marry him in spite of the huge difference in their social scales. After she cures the King of France of his ulcerous sores, she claims Bertram as her fee. Critics see her as the representative of the “clever wench” of folklore, a girl who is able to fulfill the seemingly impossible conditions imposed on her by an alienated and uncaring husband. She bribes her way into Bertram’s bed, pretending to be Diana. She, therefore, meets the conditions set by Bertram. The audience is made to like her immensely and wants her to persevere over every obstacle placed in her way.
Bertram functions as Helena’s antagonist. The greatest complication in the play arises from Bertram’s refusal to accept Helena as his wife, since he considers it a degrading alliance. He sends Helena a letter in which he states that he will not consummate their marriage until she can obtain the ring he always wears on his finger and beget a child by him. The action of the play chronicles how Helena manages to fulfill these impossible conditions. In the end, there is some attempt, however unconvincing, to make Bertram become a normal fellow and to see his union with Helena as the traditional, happy ending to a normal comedy. Since the play ends well and on a happy note, his bad qualities are set aside.
It could be argued that Bertram himself is a victim of the true antagonist, which is social rank. Bertram’s biggest problem with marrying Helena is that he sees such a union as too lowly for him. All his hopes and aspirations revolve around high class and superiority. If it were not for the importance of these things in human nature, perhaps Bertram would prove himself a worthy mate for Helena and be better liked by the audience.
The play’s action rises to a rapid-fire, inevitable climax in Act V, when all the characters are in the Court at Rousillon, and Bertram is at the center of enormous accusations. In a brilliant upstaging, Helena presents herself, confounds the court, and explains the events that have led to the chaos. She presents Bertram’s ring that she has schemed to possess and tells everyone she is pregnant with his child. Since she has met his requirements, he must now truly take her as his wife.
On the textual level, the play ends happily. Helena finally wins Bertram, who at last declares he is prepared to “love her dearly, ever, ever dearly,” and the King’s closing words are “All yet seems well “. The play, indeed, appears to end with mirth and hope for the future. Realistically, however, this “comedy” does not have a traditional ending. The audience cannot help but be a little skeptical of Bertram, since he has continued to lie and deceive. This dichotomy is at the heart of the “problem” in this Shakespearean comedy.
SCENE SUMMARY (Synopsis)
Helena, the orphaned daughter of the celebrated physician Gerard de Narbon, is in love with the Countess’s son, Bertram, but despairs of ever winning his affection because of the vast difference in their social rank. Bertram leaves his mother’s home to present himself to the King for service, and Helena, despairing, thinks of a way to win his love. She will use her father’s medicine to cure the King of France, and in return, will ask for a husband of her choosing. When the King is restored to health, Helena chooses Bertram, who vehemently objects to what he thinks is a humiliating alliance. Social rank is extremely important to Bertram, and he is too proud to have Helena for a wife, despite the fact that she is loved by all. Bertram finally agrees to marry Helena because he is afraid of displeasing the King. But with the encouragement of Parolles, Bertram decides to leave for Paris immediately after the wedding, abandoning his new bride before consummating their union.
In his letter declaring that he is leaving her, Bertram agrees to consummate his marriage with Helena if she can do two things: first, she must obtain the family ring that he always wears around his finger, and second, she must have his child. Clearly, neither is feasible since he has run away and refuses to sleep with her. The King and Bertram’s mother are incensed at his abandonment and vow to disown him. Helena is hurt by the fact that she has caused Bertram’s flight to Paris.
She disguises herself as a pilgrim and sets out for the shrine of Saint Jaques le Grand, hoping to trick Bertram into returning home. Helena learns on her arrival in Florence, that Bertram has attempted to seduce a young woman named Diana, who lives with her widowed mother. Helena convinces the widow that she is Bertram’s wife and promises a generous reward to the two ladies if they will help her carry out a plan to win Bertram. She asks Diana to pretend to yield to Bertram’s entreaties, then demand from him the ring on his finger. Then Diana is to fix a time for Bertram to come to her bed, and there, in the dark, Helena will take her place.
Bertram, after sleeping with “Diana” and promising to marry her when his wife is dead, learns that Helena is dead (it is a rumor spread by Helena herself). Bertram abandons the “virgin” he thinks he has taken, and returns to France. In France, everyone is prepared to forgive Bertram, and Lafeu, an aging Lord and good family friend, even offers his child as a second wife for Bertram, to help mend the wounds of the past months. Bertram agrees to the proposal and, as a favor for his bride-to-be, gives Lafeu the ring he had received from the woman he thought was Diana.
The King immediately recognizes the ring as the one which he had given to Helena and, suspecting Bertram of plotting Helena’s murder, orders him to be arrested. Diana arrives with her mother and accuses Bertram of seducing her and violating his promise to marry her after his wife’s death. Bertram replies by lying and trying to smear her reputation. When all seems chaotic and confusing, Helena appears, quite alive, and very pregnant. She tells Bertram she has fulfilled his conditions, and he, seeing that she has indeed, answers that he is prepared to “love her dearly, ever, ever dearly.”
The play is a fairy tale of a poor girl’s love for a handsome courtier of noble birth. The main theme of the play is the contrast between a person’s honor and a person’s birthright. In this play, Shakespeare shows that virtuous actions are clearly more important than virtuous birth.
Several minor Themes pervade the play, lending it real complexity. There is a juxtaposition between youth and age, appearance and reality, idealism and cynicism, and moral culpability of the young compared to the moral steadfastness of the older generation.
The mood of this play varies from mourning to hopefulness, from possibility to devastation, and defeat to victory over great odds. For the most part, the mood follows Helena’s actions. When she is grieving, the mood is somber. When she feels guilty, the mood is uneasy. When she is victorious, the mood is jubilant.
Bertram is young, awkward, and inexperienced. He is impressionable and primarily influenced, unfortunately, by Parolles. He desperately wants to find honor for himself, but he has no idea what true honor is. At Parolles’ urging, he goes off to be a soldier in Florence, even though he is too young by the King’s decree. He deserts his wife Helena, who has been given to him by the King, because he believes she is not his social equal. Throughout the course of the play, Bertram displays a despicable nature as he lies, deceives, and attempts to seduce a young virgin. Even his mother, the Countess, is disgusted with his immature behavior.
Throughout the early scenes, both she and the King, however, express their hopes that Bertram will turn into a responsible and honorable adult. He does have the potential to become a good person, for he has the right background and upbringing, but he is not one yet Unfortunately, the character of Bertram is one of the most questionable aspects of the play. It is difficult to believe that Bertram has truly become a good person by the end of the play; in fact, it is difficult to believe that this immature and despicable young man is even on his way toward becoming a good person. Even in the very last scene of the play, he still lies and connives. The only redeeming thing about Bertram is the fact that Helena loves him passionately.
In the end, this is his only saving grace–the only thing that allows one to believe that all is well with Bertram. Helena is a true heroine in the play, and she has succeeded in overcoming Bertram, by beating him at his own games of deception. There is little, if any, evidence that Bertram has truly gotten his due.
Helena is the protagonist and true heroine of the play. She is a truly ambitious and dedicated character who, it could be argued, does not deserve what she gets when she finally wins Bertram. She begins her role as the “clever wench,” a girl who is able to fulfill the impossible conditions imposed on her by an alienated husband. At the onset of the action, she appears as the typical fairy-tale heroine in love with a handsome courtier. She is so much in love with Bertram that she has even forgotten her father: “What was he like? / I have forgot him; my imagination / Carries no favor in’t but Bertram’s”. The tears that she sheds are not for her late father, but for her true love, who is leaving for Paris. She knows the vanity of her love for Bertram and remarks that “he is so above me / In his bright radiance and collateral light / Must be comforted, not in his sphere”.
At this stage, it is possible to say that Helena’s love is selfless and she does not aspire to possess Bertram. She secretly adores Bertram and remarks “Religious in mine error, I adore / The sun, that looks upon his worshipper, / But knows of him no more.” Her absolute love drives her to Paris, where she hopes to cure the King and elevate herself in the eyes of the world. It could be argued that Helena’s curing of the King is part of an elaborate plan to gain Bertram. The lines “Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, / Which we ascribe to heaven” could be taken as an indication of her intentions. She lays her plan quite well and executes it perfectly. Unlike Bertram, Helena knows what she wants and needs advice from no one in order to gain it. She is self-fulfilling in every sense.
Helena presents herself to the King, a young female, and convinces him she can cure him of an illness that he is sure will soon kill him. If she fails, she confidently promises her own life; if she wins, she will be allowed to choose a husband from the court. Amazingly, her arguments and confidence are strong enough that the King accepts her offer. When she is successful in the cure, thanks to the medicines of her late father, she, of course, picks Bertram as her husband.
Bertram is horrified that he has to marry Helena, for he thinks she is way below him on the social scale. He is too young and immature to realize her true worth. As a result, he quickly deserts her and says he will never return to her until she is able to obtain his family ring, which he always wears, and carries his child. Both conditions seem like total impossibilities. The clever and doggedly determined Helena, however, is not discouraged. She dresses herself as a pilgrim and journeys to Florence, the city to where Bertram has fled to become a soldier. In Florence, Helena comes up with a fantastic scheme to meet Bertram’s conditions. She convinces Diana to pretend to accept Bertram’s advances and plan a tryst. Helena, however, takes Diana’s place at the meeting and obtains the ring and becomes pregnant with his child.
Helena defeats incredible odds in her fight to win Bertram’s fidelity and heart. In this way, she attracts the complete sympathy of the audience. She is a feminist heroine who upsets the patriarchal order by asserting her right to choose her own husband. She is the most liberated of Shakespeare’s heroines. Her role combines hard nosed determination to achieve her desires with a poignant fear that she may fail in her endeavors and a vulnerable heart that is truly injured by Bertram’s coldness toward her. But Helena never gives up. On the whole, Helena is an extraordinary character who finally manages to transcend the constraints imposed upon her by the men of society, especially Bertram. Her “victory”, in the end, is sweet simply because she gets what she has wanted, regardless of what the audience thinks she, or Bertram, deserves.
The King of France
At the beginning of the play, the King is an ailing monarch who still manages to exert complete control over his people. He acts as the voice of authority, promising rewards when due, and punishment when deserved. His primary role in the play is that of patriarch. He makes things happen in the play, such as a forced marriage, a trial, a reconciliation. His character, however, is of extreme importance to the plot movement in this play. If Helena had not cured the ailing King, she would never have been able to marry Bertram and the plot could not have existed.
Lafeu is the trusted confidante of the King of France and the Countess of Rousillon. He is among the older characters of the play, a wise man with fatherly love for Bertram and for Helena. Lafeu is the first to warn Bertram that Parolles is not to be trusted. He is also among those who condemn Bertram early on for his treatment of Helena. Lafeu is a peacemaker and a trusted person who constantly seeks to protect and pacify those in need, and put an end to all troubles. Lafeu’s commitment to peace is most evident in the final scenes, when he offers his daughter as a second bride to Bertram, in order that forgiveness might be complete and life might go on as before.
Parolles, though base and deceitful, is also a genuinely comic character. He is the evil angel who tempts Bertram and is generally disliked by all the other characters. Parolles seems to have been intended by Shakespeare as a contrast to Bertram. He enables the audience to view Bertram’s misdoings with less intensity, since they are but a minor duplication of Parolles’ actions and lies.
Some critics have suggested that he functions as an alternative to Helena on the level of a morality play. He is Bertram’s confidante and flatterer. His name Parolles means “words,” and he is a mercenary soldier who lives by his wits. He is a braggart and a liar. At the opening of the play, Helena says of him, ” I know him a notorious liar, / Think him a great way fool, solely a coward”. All the characters detest him and the First Lord summarizes him as “a most notable coward, an infinite and endless liar, an hourly promise breaker, the owner of no one good quality worthy your lordship’s entertainment”.
Still, Parolles does provide some laughter in the play. His exposure is comic and provides great entertainment. Thinking that he is alone, Parolles sets out to formulate a plan not to recover the drum lost to the enemy. He is bent upon turning everything to his advantage and thinks about self-inflicting wounds to provide a credible story. But he refrains from doing so, owing to his cowardly nature. After he has been exposed and thoroughly humiliated, Parolles still says, ” There’s a place and means for every man alive”. Although Parolles is a fool and a knave, in the end even Lafeu forgives him. Parolles is assured of “place and means”, “drink and sleep”.
Shakespeare finds it difficult to villainize a character completely, especially in a comedy. By the end of the play, Parolles seems to have been fully reconciled to Lafeu, even offering his handkerchief to the elder Lord. And Lafeu, for his part, offers Parolles a home, so that all can end well.
Countess of Rousillon
The Countess, though Bertram’s mother, spends much of the play sympathizing with Helena and voicing displeasure with Bertram. She is merely an accessory most of the time, facilitating Helena’s plans in the beginning, observing the chaos in the end, and occasionally verifying some fact or recounting some opinion.
The major theme of the play finds expression in the Helena – Bertram story. Helena, who is the daughter of a poor physician, is in love with Bertram, who is a Count and a ward of the King of France. This is a traditional feature of the fairy tale, when the hero and heroine are kept apart by familial or social differences. Helena recognizes that she can never get what she wants because of the vast difference in their social scale. She herself confesses, “I know I love in vain, strive against hope; / Yet in this captious sieve / I still pour in the waters of my love”.
Despite this recognition, she is unable to accept it and is driven by her love to Paris where she hopes to cure the King and elevate herself in the eyes of the world. The contrast between inherent and inherited virtue is spoken by many characters, including Bertram’s own mother, who believes Helena has inherent virtue and who suspects that though Bertram has inherited honor, he has not virtue. The King laments the fact that many noblemen are unable to see beyond class differences. Even the soldiers whom Bertram fights with think his military honor is meaningless when compared to his personal dishonor.
The theme of the contrast between the inherited honor of Bertram and the intrinsic virtue of Helena pervades the play. The King delivers a long and surprisingly democratic speech in Act II, Scene III, about the two distinct kinds of honor. The King upholds personal virtue as more desirable than merely inherited qualities. He states that inherited rank unsupported by virtuous action cannot produce true honor. He proclaims “… honors thrive / When rather from our acts we them derive / Than our foregoers”.
Another theme of the play is the contrast between youth and age. The older characters, including the Countess, her late husband, Helena’s father, Lafeu, and the King, are set in distinct contrast to the young characters consisting of Bertram, Helena, Diana, Parolles, the clown, and the two French Lords. The aged characters constantly refer to a happy past, while the young characters appear to be an unsatisfied lot yearning for something out of their reach. The older characters worry about the youth and hope that the present generation will inherit the traits of their fathers.
In Act I, the Countess expresses hope that Bertram will succeed his father “in manners as in shape!” In Act II, the King remarks on Bertram’s striking physical resemblance to his late father and wishes that he also inherits his “father’s moral parts”. Similarly, in Act I, as Lafeu bids Helena farewell, he says, ” Farewell, pretty lady; you must hold the credit of your father”. Thus, the youth is seen as the preserver of the father’s reputation. This is linked to a related theme of the juxtaposition between the moral culpability of youth and the moral steadfastness of the older generation.
Appearance vs. reality is also a key theme in the play. Throughout the play, deception reigns supreme, and much of what appears to be is not really fact. Bertram, who is the son of the Count, has been highly born and well trained. It would seem that he would be the picture of pride and honor; in reality, he is a despicable and immature young man, given to selfish causes. Parolles, dressed impeccably in his finery, appears to be a gentleman, but is truly the evil tempter of the play. Helena pretends to be dead and disguises herself as a pilgrim, in order to trick Bertram, who has deserted her. Bertram pretends to be in love with Diana, when he is simply eager to have her body. Helena, in turn, pretends to be Diana and allows herself to be seduced by her own husband so she can trick him out of his ring. In truth, the entire plot of the play is built on deceptions and appearances.
There is also an underlying religious theme in the play. Helena is the representative of heavenly grace, and Bertram is symbolic of fallen man. This viewpoint holds Helena as a specially favored divine agent on earth, almost a Christ figure. She cures the King because of “divine” powers and saves Bertram from his fallen state. Such religious interpretation of the play strikes two major points. The first is the Biblical doctrine of man’s depravity, which requires divine grace for redemption, and it seems only Helena, the Christ-like figure, is capable of saving Bertram. The second is the belief that sin will ultimately be revealed and answered, just as Parolles and Bertram are finally exposed for their wicked ways.
All’s Well That Ends Well can also be analyzed as a morality play with a contest between good and evil forces. The pure Helena is the symbol of goodness, while Bertram represents the fallen prince. The forces of evil are clearly represented by Parolles, who constantly tempts Bertram. Ultimately, the good triumphs when Parolles is exposed and defeated and the good Helena wins Bertram.
BACKGROUND INFORMATION – BIOGRAPHY
William Shakespeare is usually considered the greatest dramatist and finest poet the world has ever known. No other writer’s plays and poetry have been produced so many times or in so many countries or translated into so many languages. One of the major reasons for Shakespeare’s popularity is the variety of rich characters that he successfully creates, from drunkards and paid murderers to princes and kings and from inane fools and court jesters to wise and noble generals. Each character springs vividly to life upon the stage and, as they speak their beautiful verse or prose, the characters remind the viewers of their own personalities, traits, and flaws. Shakespeare also made his characters very realistic. The dramatist had an amazing knowledge of a wide variety of subjects, and his well-developed characters reflect this knowledge, whether it be about military science, the graces of royalty, seamanship, history, the Bible, music, or sports.
In Shakespeare’s time, few biographies were written, and none of the literary men of the Elizabethan Age was considered important enough to merit a book about his life. The first portfolio of his works, collected as a memorial to Shakespeare by members of his own acting company, was not published until 1623, seven years after his death. His first biography was written one hundred years later. As a result, many of the facts of Shakespeare’s life are unknown. It is known that he was born in Stratford-on-Avon in England, sometime in early 1564, for his Baptism is recorded on April 26 of that year. His mother Mary had eight children, with William being the third. His father, John Shakespeare, was a fairly prosperous glovemaker and trader who owned several houses in Stratford and became the town’s mayor when Shakespeare was a boy. The young Shakespeare probably studied in the local grammar school and hunted and played sports in the open fields behind his home.
The next definite information about William Shakespeare is that the young man, at age 18, married Anne Hathaway, who was 26, on November 28, 1582. In 1583, it is recorded that Anne gave birth to their oldest child, Susanna, and that twins, Hamnet and Judith, were born to the couple in 1585. By 1592, the family was living in London, where Shakespeare was busy acting in plays and writing his own dramas. From 1592 to 1594, the plague kept most London theaters closed, so the dramatist turned to writing poetry during this period, and his poems, which were actually published unlike his plays, became popular with the masses and contributed to his good reputation as a writer. From 1594 to the end of his career, Shakespeare belonged to the same theatrical company, known first as Lord Chamberlain’s Men and then as the King’s Company. It is also known that he was both a leader and stockholder in this acting organization, which became the most prosperous group in London, and that he was meeting with both financial success and critical acclaim.
In 1954, Shakespeare was popular enough as an actor to perform before Queen Elizabeth. By 1596, he owned considerable property in London and bought one of the finest houses in Stratford, known as New Place, in 1597. A year later, in 1598, he bought ten percent of the stock in the Globe Theatre, where his plays were produced. In 1608, he and his colleagues also purchased The Blackfriars Theatre, where they began to hold productions during the winter, returning to the Globe during the summer months.
Throughout the rest of his life, Shakespeare continued to purchase land, homes, and businesses. He obviously was a busy man between handling his business ventures, performing on the stage, and writing or collaborating on the thirty-seven plays that are credited to him.
Shakespeare’s most productive years were from 1594 to 1608, the period in which he wrote all of his great tragedies, such as Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Romeo and Juliet. During these fourteen years, he furnished his acting company with approximately two plays annually. After 1608, it appears he went into semi-retirement, spending more time in Stratford and creating only five plays before his death on April 23, 1616. He was buried before the altar in the Stratford Church, where his body still lies today. Many literary students and visitors make a pilgrimage to this shrine each year in order to honor William Shakespeare, still recognized after 400 years as the world’s greatest poet and dramatist.
The Source of the Play
All’s Well That Ends Well finds a great deal of its origin in the ninth Novella of the third day in Boccaccio’s Decameron. This is the story of Beltramo de Rossiglione and Giglietta de Narbone, young lovers kept apart by social differences. It is a plot from which many fairy tales have originated, and Shakespeare probably read it in translation in William Painter’s Palace of Pleasure.
The play was first printed in the Folio of 1623, and most, if not all, editions have been derived from that source.
SCENE SUMMARY WITH NOTES
ACT I, SCENE 1
The play begins in the Countess’ palace at Rousillon, where all the characters are in mourning. Bertram, his mother (the Countess), and Lafeu (her confidante), all mourn for the recently deceased Count of Rousillon, and young Helena mourns for her recently deceased father. Bertram announces that he must leave for Paris and present himself to the King for service. His mother expresses sorrow over his eminent departure, especially in her period of mourning, but is encouraged by Lafeu, who reminds her of the King’s good will toward them all.
Lafeu’s words comfort the Countess, who then inquires about the King’s ailing health. She is told that the King has abandoned all hope of getting well. The Countess remarks that Helena’s late father, the famous Gerard de Narbon, was a greatly skilled and honest physician who would surely have been able to cure the King. She speaks with maternal affection about young Helena, who is genuinely touched by the tenderness and begins to weep.
In the meantime, Bertram asks his mother for permission to leave for France. The Countess lets him go, expressing her hope that he will someday be as great a man as his father. She gives him a lot of advice and asks Lafeu to watch over Bertram since he is young and inexperienced. Her son and the lord depart, and the Countess retires.
When Helena is alone, she speaks to herself about her present feelings. She sighs that she no longer thinks about her father and admits that she has quite forgotten him and that her imagination is transfixed by Bertram. Her tears are, in fact, due to Bertram’s departure, for she cannot imagine life without him. She is in love with him, deeply in love, but thinks they are too far apart in social status for her love to ever be recognized.
Helena notices Parolles, Bertram’s friend, approaching. Though she feels a fondness for Parolles because Bertram has chosen him as friend, she believes he is a “notorious liar,” a “fool,” and “a coward”. She believes evil is an inborn part of his character. Still, she greets him. Parolles mockingly prompts a discussion with Helena on virginity, trying to shock her; but Helena, not shrinking from the conversation, tells Parolles that a woman need not always protect her virginity. She might lose it to her own liking. A page interrupts, carrying a message that Bertram is waiting for Parolles.
As Parolles takes his leave of Helena, she reminds him that she has had the last word in their verbal exchange. Unable to compete with her in a battle of wits, Parolles retreats, promising that he would have outdone her had he more time.
Alone again, Helena reflects that the current situation is bleak, but that remedies lie within human beings themselves and not in the stars under which they were born. She believes that she is the architect of her own fate, that she can win Bertram by her own efforts.
This expository scene serves to introduce many of the main characters and thematic concerns of the play. The opening of the play reveals the mourning at Rousillon, the eminent departure of Bertram, the Countess’ affection for Helena, and the significance of her late father the doctor. The revelation of Helena’s feelings for Bertram is also introduced and provides a springboard for the entire action of the play. The idea that virtue is something one possesses independent of social rank is a theme that will often resound. It is this battle, between personal virtue and inherited rank, that will define the relationship between the protagonist and the antagonist of the play.
In terms of mood, the scene opens with the Countess expressing sadness at the loss of her husband and Bertram’s imminent departure. The mood of mourning is furthered when the Countess mentions that Helena, too, has lost a loved one and has been left all alone. These feelings of sadness are directly contrasted with Bertram’s own impatient and eager plans to go away to Paris and further his own desires. Oblivious to the sadness of the two women, he can only think of how quickly he can depart. Of course, he expresses his deep feelings for his dead father, but quickly insists that he must leave for Paris at once since he is bound by his duty to the King. His espousal of loyalty sounds false when viewed in the context of the entire play, since Bertram’s actions show no deference to the King’s authority and mostly preference for his own personal advancement.
A very important plot construct is also introduced in the opening scene; the King is very ill and has given up hope of ever being better. The King’s doctors have been unable to cure him with all their treatments and medicines. Then the Countess reveals that Helena might be the only hope of curing the King, if only she possesses some of her father’s skill.
The thematic relationship of parent to child is not limited to Helena and her late father; it also includes Bertram’s legacy, or lack thereof, from his father. When the Countess bids farewell to Bertram, she expresses hope that he will be like his father and says “succeed thy father/In manners as in shape!” The Countess’ anxious hopes and constant advice reveal that she is not certain of Bertram’s character and only hopes he will prove himself worthy of his rank. When she asks Lafeu to guide Bertram, she seems acutely aware that Bertram is stepping out into the real world for the first time and may not be able to handle it or himself.
When Bertram departs for Paris, Helena is terribly grieved, but not by the loss of her father. Her love for Bertram is absolute and all consuming. Her own revelation of the depths of her feelings, even while she ought to be grieving for her father, alerts the audience that she is consumed by this love. She cannot bear the thought of living away from him. At the same time she confesses her ideal love of Bertram, she also expresses her awareness of the impossibility of their union since he belongs to a higher class. She herself says, “`twere all one / That I should love a bright particular star / And think to wed it, he is so above me”. Helena, however, is not simply thwarted by social differences. Bertram seems to be unaware and indifferent to her feelings. His parting comment to her is coldly distant, as he says, “Be comfortable to my mother, your mistress, and make much of her”. He has no thoughts for the young girl, other than perfunctory social niceties. As a result, Helena’s love for Bertram has two obstacles: class and his total indifference to her.
In the loud and bawdy conversation with Parolles regarding the subject of virginity, which seems an abrupt change in tone to the early part of the scene, Helena shows excellent argumentative powers, proving herself to be more than a naive, lovesick girl. Even before the discussion, when Helena recognizes Parolles as a liar, she shows perceptive insight that Bertram seems to lack. Helena swiftly defeats Parolles in their verbal battle and proves herself to be a competent conversationalist, both quick and witty.
After Parolles is called away by Bertram, Helena is once again left to her thoughts and decides her love must not be wasted. If she is to save it, she must act. She states that “our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, / Which we ascribe to heaven.” This philosophy of self-reliance underlines all of Helena’s actions to come. She observes that the unlikeliest things can be achieved if a person only works toward them. Helena resolves to go to Paris and cure the King of his ailment. She feels that she can win Bertram if she tries hard enough and sees this act as her best chance of determining her fate.
ACT I, SCENE 2
This scene shifts to Paris. There is a flourish as the King of France enters clutching letters in his hand. He is accompanied by lords and other nobles. The King says that both the Florentines and Senoys have fought equally well and are continuing to fight a brave battle. He indicates that he considers this war a mere training exercise for the many young soldiers who are eager to gain experience and valor in battle. At this moment Bertram, Lafeu, and Parolles enter.
The aging and sickly King affectionately welcomes Bertram to Paris. The King comments on Bertram’s striking physical resemblance to his father and hopes that he has inherited his father’s morality as well. The King wishes that he were as physically fit as in the days when he, along with Bertram’s father, first tried his hand at being a soldier. He reminisces of the bygone days and praises Bertram’s father for his courage and valor. He says that talking about Bertram’s father soothes his falling spirits. He observes that such a man would serve as an excellent role model for the young generation of soldiers in his command.
The opening conversation between the King and the nobles provides the relevant background for the Florentine war. France has decided to deny Florence aid but will not restrain individual nobles and lords from serving the Duke. In fact, the war will be welcomed by the young lords who are starved for action and eager to head towards Italy in search of military glory. Their excitement and youthful vitality provides a striking contrast to the ailing King’s physical frailty. While the lords are brimming with confidence, the King seeks refuge in days of bygone glory with his thoughtful reminiscence. The scene does much to establish the theme of youth vs. age.
The King welcomes Bertram heartily and comments on the striking physical resemblance he bears to his father. The King expresses hope that Bertram has also inherited his “father’s moral parts”. Like the Countess in the preceding scene, the King expresses hope, rather than conviction, that Bertram will inherit his father’s moral steadfastness and virtuous qualities. The entire action assesses Bertram’s capacity to fulfill this hope. An important and recurring theme of the play focuses on the moral frailty of the youth as contrasted with the steadfastness of the older generation.
The King feels a genuine sense of loss by Bertram’s father’s death. He eulogizes the late Count’s character as one nearly perfect and praises his valor in warfare. Ironically, it is the late Count’s ability to interact comfortably with men of varying social classes which receives the King’s highest praise. The late Count made everyone feel as if they were his equals. He had the knack of treating his social inferiors with deference. The King sighs that he might have served as “a copy to these younger times” had he lived longer. The King’s eulogy speaks pointedly to the difference between Bertram’s father, who was blind to class issues, and Bertram, who will slowly prove himself to be quite arrogant and class conscious.
ACT I, SCENE 3
This scene takes place once again at Rousillon, where the Countess meets with her steward and the clown Lavache. The clown requests the Countess’ permission to marry because he is driven to do so by the desires of the flesh. In the course of the ensuing quibble, the clown sings a song with the words “your marriage comes by destiny”. The Countess impatiently tells him to leave.
When they are left alone, the Steward informs the Countess that he has overheard Helena musing to herself that she loves Bertram. The Countess dismisses the Steward, asking him to keep the matter to himself. Helena enters and the Countess remarks that she appears to be sick with love, then confides she feels like a mother to Helena, who protests. The Countess asks her why she does not want to be thought of as a daughter, and Helena explains that to be the Countess’ daughter would make her Bertram’s sister, and she feels more than brotherly toward him. The Countess says she now realizes the mystery of Helena’s loneliness and her frequent tears, knowing that Helena loves her son. Helena begs forgiveness from the Countess for daring to love Bertram with her poor, but honest, love. She is surprised to discover that the Countess does not disapprove.
The Countess then asks Helena whether she intends to go to Paris. Helena answers that she wishes to help the King. Her father has left her with some rare prescriptions. Among these there is a remedy to cure the disease plaguing the King. The Countess asks her if this is her only reason for going to Paris, and Helena truthfully replies that Bertram’s departure for Paris has also been an influence. The Countess gives Helena her permission and support.
The scene opens with a curious conversation between the Countess and the clown, in which the clown describes the use that he will make of his wife Isbel to create friends for himself. The implication is that voluntary cuckoldry can create a natural bond among men. When the Countess remonstrates him for his foolishness and tells him that such friends are in fact enemies, the clown argues that the person who “comforts my wife is the cherisher of my life and blood; he who loves my flesh and blood is my friend; ergo, he who kisses my wife is my friend”. This frank sexual discussion, shortly following Helena’s graphic exchange with Parolles, is a good suggestion of the highly sexual nature of things to come in the play.
When the Countess learns that Helena is in love with Bertram, she recalls her own youthful days. She sees love as the prerogative of the young. Once again, the older characters view the younger with some nostalgia and yearning. Interestingly, the Countess has high expectations of Helena and is convinced of her worthiness. This is in distinct contrast to her hesitant expectations for her own son, Bertram. She asserts of Helena that “there is more owing to her than paid, and more shall be paid than she’ll demand”.
The Countess, in this moment of nostalgia, allows Helena to speak without any restraint about her desires. Helena confesses that “I know I love in vain, strive against hope. Yet, in this captious sieve, I still pour in the waters of my love”. Helena hopes to deserve Bertram’s love, despite her lowly status. The Countess, realizing that Helena’s worth has little to do with her class or social bearing, promises to help in every way she can. When Helena reveals her plan of curing the King in an effort to elevate herself in the eyes of the world, the Countess supports her decision. It is more than evident she considers Helena a suitable daughter-in-law, despite the difference in their social statures. She also feels certain Helena can accomplish the task that she has set before herself: winning Bertram’s love.
ACT II, SCENE 1
This scene opens in the King’s palace in Paris. The King is accompanied by Bertram, Parolles, and several young lords who are ready to leave for the Florentine wars. The King exhorts them to fight valiantly in the true French spirit; in a lighter vein, he tells them to watch out for Florentine girls. Bertram, who is not allowed to accompany the lords to battle because of his youth, decides, at the urging of Parolles and others, to sneak off to war.
Parolles and Bertram leave in pursuit of the departing lords after Parolles decides it might be a good idea for them to ingratiate themselves with the other soldiers. In the meantime, Lafeu enters. He kneels before the King and tells him a lady doctor has arrived who believes she can cure him. The King agrees to see her, and Lafeu re-enters with Helena. After Lafeu leaves, Helena introduces herself as the daughter of the famous physician Gerard de Narbon. She tells the King she can cure him with her father’s remedy. The King is doubtful that she can succeed, especially when she proposes to cure him within the space of twenty-four hours. Helena strikes a deal with the King that if she is unable to cure him, he can kill her on the spot. But if she succeeds, he must allow her to choose a husband from among the noble bachelors of the court as payment for her services.
This scene is important mostly for the way it depicts first the hero, then the heroine, of the play. The scene opens with Bertram denied a chance at military victory because of his youth. He is petulant, eager, and enthusiastic. He feels left out and rejected by the lords and the King who are used to valors in life. This young impressionability in Bertram is further heightened in the way that Parolles counsels him, advises him, seeks to shape him into the kind of man he would like to be. Parolles, acting as a tempter, persuades Bertram that youth should not stop him; instead he tells his friend to take matters into his own hands and sneak off to battle. Bertram, utterly impressionable and spineless, does everything Parolles tells him to do.
In direct contrast, young, confident, and determined Helena boldly petitions the King for a chance to prove herself. She comes before him, not only young but also a woman, and proposes that he allow her an honest chance to cure him. After some persuading, Helena succeeds in speaking for herself honestly and openly. She strikes up a bold and confident deal with the king, proving that she is not in need of flattering counselors and false praises and suggestions in order to achieve what she wants. If she cures the King, she will be able to choose anyone she wants for a husband; of course, she has Bertram in mind.
Throughout this scene, Helena proves herself to be self-driven, ambitious, and doggedly determined; she knows what she wants and is not afraid to go after it. In sharp contrast, Bertram is weak, easily led, and in need of both confidence and direction; he has no idea of what he really wants in life, but allows Parolles to influence all his decisions.
It is important to notice the importance that Parolles places on clothing and fashion. He is the main character in the play to establish the theme of appearance vs. reality. He always seeks to be perfectly dressed, as if to hide his very imperfect being. The audience, however, can easily see right through his appearance to his rotten core. At the end of the drama, when his true self has been revealed to all, including Bertram, he will be shabbily dressed.
ACT II, SCENE 2
This brief scene moves back to Rousillon. The Countess jests with the clown, then commands him to deliver a letter to Helena and bring back her reply.
This short scene provides a lull in the action and a humorous entertainment before the events unravel that lead to the central climactic moment of the play. It is frequent in Shakespeare’s drama for the lowly characters to make the most perceptive comments. In this scene, the clown’s silliness is almost entirely directed at the affectations of the court. He mocks the way in which members of the court speak and act. His clowning is a stab at the high-class world, which is so elevated and all-important to many in the world of the play, especially Bertram.
ACT II, SCENE 3
The setting once again returns to Paris. Bertram, Lafeu, and Parolles enter in amazement that Helena has cured the King. The King enters along with Helena and his attendants, one of whom he instructs to assemble all his noblemen. Gently addressing Helena as his “preserver,” he renews his commitment to fulfill his part of the bargain. As several lords enter, the King tells Helena to freely choose a husband from among them, telling her no one may turn her down.
Helena claims Bertram, who protests that he should be allowed to choose his own wife and that he considers a match with Helena degrading to his noble birth. The King sternly admonishes Bertram for his arrogant defiance. He says that he can elevate Helena’s title. In a long speech, the King states that it is astounding that social differences are so important to Bertram when human blood is quite indistinguishable from one class to another and is the same color. The King argues that Bertram should not compare social status but actions. Helena’s lowly status is dignified by her virtuous deeds. The King exhorts Bertram to accept Helena, but Bertram is adamant. He insists he cannot love her, nor will he even try. The King admonishes Bertram for his reply and warns Bertram that if he refuses to accept Helena, he will be disowned by the King. Fearful of such a public dishonor, Bertram finally agrees to marry Helena.
Out of earshot of Bertram, Lafeu reminds Parolles that he now has a new mistress. Parolles denies Bertram’s authority; he tells Lafeu that Bertram is his lord, but his master is God. Lafeu ridicules Parolles by saying that his master is the devil. He rebukes Parolles for his airs and declares that if he were but two hours younger, he would beat Parolles. He denounces Parolles as a “general offense,” who is a liar and a coward. Parolles protests that Lafeu’s censure is hard and undeserved. Before leaving, Lafeu impatiently states that he has no more words to waste on Parolles.
In the meantime, Bertram laments his misfortune. He tells Parolles that although he has married Helena, he will never consummate their union. Instead he will go away to Florence. Parolles encourages him, saying it is unmanly to stay behind in the arms of his wife when he should be proving his valor on the battlefield. In essence, Parolles feeds the impressionable Bertram with nonsense.
Bertram decides that he will send Helena to his house with a letter to his mother stating how he detests his forced bride. In addition, he will sneak off to Florence without even telling the King. Parolles approves of Bertram’s decision and encourages him to execute it, subtly insinuating that the King has wronged Bertram by forcing him to marry Helena.
The scene opens with the idea of divine agency–that is, individuals empowered by God to do great things. Lafeu sees young Helena as aided by the grace of heaven which has enabled her to cure the King. He is convinced of the possibility of divine intervention in the state of human affairs. Helena’s curing of the King is seen by all as a miracle and a wonder. Helena herself reinforces the divine theme of the play when she acknowledges that “heaven hath through me restored the King to health”. She sees herself as the agent of great things. She, with the help of God, has gotten what she wanted. Once again, she asserts her control of her own fate.
One note of historical significance involves the authority of the King to arrange marriages. From the modern standpoint, the King’s imperial dominance over his subjects might seem more like tyranny, but one must remember that this play is written in the context of the Renaissance age when the King enjoyed absolute power over his subjects. It was very common for a King to arrange marriages without possibility of dispute. Understandably, the people are horrified at Bertram’s insolent and immature response to the King’s command.
As far as character development is concerned, this scene reiterates Helena’s complete and utter submission to Bertram, whom she loves unquestioningly. When Helena selects Bertram as her husband, she reveals her own sense of modesty and unworthiness with her choice of words. She does not say that she takes Bertram as her reward; rather, she surrenders herself to him, saying, ” I give/ Me and my service, ever whilst I live,/ Into your guiding power.” Bertram’s rejection of Helena because she is “a poor physician’s daughter” is in extreme bad taste and reinforces the picture already painted of his weak character. When Bertram complains about marrying Helena, the King asks him, “Know’st thou not, Bertram,/What she has done for me ?”. Bertram’s reply is rude and insolent, “Yes, my good lord, /But never hope to know why I should marry her.” Bertram quite explicitly states that to marry Helena would be to endure dishonor because of her inferior social status. This is a clear expression of one of the dominant thematic concerns of the play: the contrast between inherited rank and intrinsic virtue. Clearly Bertram holds that personal virtues are worthless and social status is all important.
It is also important to notice that this scene also contains the unmasking of Parolles by Lafeu. Lafeu sees through Parolles’ disguise and recognizes him as a tempter and an inconstant friend to Bertram. This is significant, since Bertram is unable to see the true nature of Parolles. He will continue to confide in him and follow his advice. Bertram’s lack of perception and his faulty judgment are all the more evident when Parolles encourages him to steal away to Florence. Rather than see through Parolles, Bertram allows himself to be led astray by the poor advice of an unfaithful “friend”.
ACT II, SCENE 4
Parolles interrupts a paradoxical conversation between Helena and Lavache, the clown. The clown begins insulting Parolles, whom he calls a wise man who says nothing, does nothing, knows nothing, and has nothing. Parolles dismisses the clown as annoying and turns to Helena. He tells her that Bertram has been called away on important business and cannot consummate the marriage. Furthermore, he tells the young bride she is to leave at once and carry a letter from Bertram to his mother. She is not to tell the King where or why she is going. Unsuspecting of any dishonorable actions, Helena agrees.
This short scene serves to enhance even further the characterizations of Parolles and Helena. While the clown’s trivial banter provides yet again a welcome relief from the disturbing events in the play, it also serves to illuminate that even the clown thinks Parolles is no good and worthy of contempt.
Helena’s unquestioning submission to Bertram’s commands reinforces the depth of her devotion to him. Her passive acceptance and fulfillment of all of Bertram’s wishes is remarkable, if not pathetic. And the fact that she herself must carry the letter that declares her an unwanted wife is quite ironic and creates great sympathy for her plight.
ACT II, SCENE 5
Once again, this short scene takes place in Paris. Lafeu is trying to persuade Bertram of Parolles’ true nature, but Bertram continues to defend his “friend”. Lafeu leaves Bertram with a warning about Parolles: “the soul of the man is his clothes”, meaning he has not depth of character. His personality is as changeable as his garments. Bertram then asks Parolles whether he and Lafeu have fallen out, but Parolles pretends not to know why there is a problem between him and Lafeu.
Helena approaches and tells Bertram that she will obey his commands. Bertram gives Helena the vicious letter and tells her to leave. Helena willingly complies, asking only for a farewell kiss, which Bertram coldly refuses. After Helena leaves, Bertram muses that he will never go home as long as Helena is alive. Then Bertram and Parolles set out for Florence
The scene is significant because Lafeu has seen through Parolles’ disguise and warns Bertram not to trust him in matters of grave importance. The audience has already seen Lafeu’s unmasking of Parolles. He now shrewdly tells Bertram that “the soul of this man is his clothes”, a truth that will soon become evident. But Bertram remains blind to Parolles’ hypocrisy and insists that he “is very great in knowledge, and accordingly valiant”. This provides a telling comment on Bertram’s inexperience and his faulty judgment. He does not possess the quality of discernment and cannot see through the obviously disloyal Parolles.
This scene clearly illustrates how coldly Bertram chooses to treat Helena, though she is utterly obedient and unquestionably loyal in a way Parolles will never be. When Helena approaches, Bertram remarks with disdain, ” Here comes my clog”. Bertram also shows himself to be a liar, in addition to being a feckless, impressionable youth. Bertram does not possess the strength of character to tell Helena on her face that he is abandoning her so he takes the coward’s way out and steals away to Florence on the pretext of serving in a war, sending his wife home with a letter designed to insult her. Bertram’s behavior makes it very difficult for the audience to sympathize with him and see him as anything more than cruel and self-absorbed.
ACT III, SCENE 1
This scene shifts to Florence. The Duke enters accompanied by two French lords and soldiers who are discussing the imminent war. The Duke expresses his astonishment at the French King’s refusal to help. The First Lord refuses to divulge the reasons for the French King’s refusal, but the Second Lord quips that the younger lords will soon come to Florence to exercise their talents in military exploits.
This brief scene provides the necessary background to the Florentine wars. The setting shifts to Florence, a necessary move for the coming action of the play, in which Bertram tries to escape his wife. Helena, with plans of her own, sets out on a pilgrimage for Florence.
The scene also reiterates the theme of military honor, which Bertram so eagerly seeks. He will arrive here because he values the honor he thinks military exploits will bring. Several young lords echo his feeling, giving the impression that the eagerness for war belongs to the young and inexperienced..
ACT III, SCENE 2
This scene shifts back to Rousillon and opens with a conversation between the Countess and the clown. The Countess expresses satisfaction at the way things have turned out. Her only grudge is that Bertram is not accompanying Helena home. The clown says that Bertram had appeared to be very melancholic. Taking up Bertram’s letter, the Countess remarks that she will read what he has written and find out when he intends to come home. The clown remarks that he has dropped his intentions of marrying Isbel since he has been at court, for he has found a great difference between the Isbels of the country and Isbels of the court.
The clown leaves while the Countess is reading the letter. The contents of the letter shock the Countess, who is afraid Bertram’s foolish actions will anger the King. The clown re-enters with the news that Bertram has run away. As the clown leaves, Helena enters along with some gentlemen. She has already heard about her abandonment and is heartbroken. One of the gentlemen attempts to console Helena. The Countess tells her to be patient. She says that she has experienced so many situations of grief and joy that they have lost the capacity to move her excessively. Then she asks the gentlemen if they know where Bertram has gone.
The Countess is told that Bertram has gone off to serve the Duke of Florence in battle. Helena shows her the letter she has received, in which Bertram states that he will never be her husband until she can obtain the ring that he always wears on his finger and becomes pregnant with his child. He also tells her he will never return to France as long as she is alive. The gentlemen who have brought this letter express their apology for its sorrowful contents and inform the Countess that Parolles is accompanying and advising Bertram. The Countess is incensed at Bertram’s conduct and says that he does not deserve to have Helena’s love. The Countess further denounces Parolles as a “tainted fellow, full of wickedness” who is corrupting her son by encouraging him in his waywardness. The Countess asks the gentlemen, who are returning to Florence, to tell Bertram that he will never regain the honor that he has lost by abandoning his wife. She gives them a letter for Bertram in which she disowns him.
The Countess and the gentlemen leave together. Helena, left alone, begins to cry. She blames herself for Bertram’s being in the war. She prays for his safety and expresses her belief that if Bertram is killed in battle, it will be her fault. She desperately wants Bertram to return to Rousillon, away from battle. Since it is her presence in France that keeps him away, she decides to sneak away at night, hoping he will consider it safe, and return.
The central event in this scene is the delivery of Bertram’s letter. It is important to note that while Helena is deeply hurt by Bertram’s callous behavior, she does not show any resentment towards him. Instead of feeling anger at her shoddy treatment, she is driven by a sense of guilt and blames herself for his departure. She even worries about him being killed, which would be her fault, and thinks, “Whoever shoots at him, I set him there; Whoever charges on his forward breast; I am the caitiff that do hold him to’t; And though I kill him not, I am the cause; His death was so effected”. Her concern for him and lack of regard for the way she has been treated are almost pathetic.
There is a distinct contrast between the reactions of the Countess and Helena to Bertram’s letter. While Helena blames herself for driving Bertram away, the Countess is explicit in her denunciation of her son. Like many others, she refers to her son as a boy, indicating his extreme immaturity. She is angry that he does not follow the King’s desires and honor Helena. She remarks furiously, “Nothing in France until he have no wife! / There’s nothing here that is too good for him / But only she, and she deserves a lord / That twenty such rude boys might tend upon / And hourly call mistress”. The Countess is deeply shocked by Bertram’s rash behavior and makes the statement that Bertram cannot hope to win back the honor that he has lost by mistreating his wife, not even as a hero of war. Her words reiterate Lafeu’s earlier idea — that virtuous deeds are more important that noble birth, and that noble birth can never make up for virtue-less actions. Several other characters also spout this view at various points in the play.
The terms of the riddling letter are cruelly blunt but do provide a clear and decisive course of action for the impetuous and determined Helena. As a result of Bertram’s letter, Helena formulates her plan to steal away in the cover of darkness. Perhaps this will bring Bertram back to France. Once again, she makes her own destiny.
ACT III, SCENE 3
There is a flourish and sounding of trumpets and drums as the Duke, Bertram, and Parolles enter the court at Florence, along with the soldiers. The Duke appoints Bertram the general of the cavalry and says that he invests his trust and love in him. Bertram courteously replies that although it is a heavy responsibility, he will endeavor to discharge it to the best of his ability and will venture to the very edge of danger. The Duke is satisfied by Bertram’s reply and wishes him good fortune in his endeavors. Bertram appeals to Mars, the god of war, and remarks that from this day onward, he will be a lover of the drums of war and “hater of love”.
This brief scene shows Bertram’s arrival in Florence. The duke appoints him the general of his army, the first step toward the military glory Bertram is certain will make him great.
It is important to remember that Bertram was not supposed to go off to fight. Once again he shows disobedience to the King and furthers the theme of deception in the play.
ACT III, SCENE 4
In Rousillon, the Countess enters along with the Steward, upset over Helena’s midnight departure. In a farewell letter, Helena tells the Countess she is responsible for the entire mess and hopes now Bertram will feel free to come home. She says she has gone off on a pilgrimage, never to return. The Countess is incensed by Bertram’s conduct and the hurt she can sense in Helena’s words. She tells the Steward to write to Bertram about Helena’s departure and to choose his words appropriately so as to do justice to Helena’s worthiness and the Countess’ grief. She hopes that Bertram will return as Helena suspects, and that Helena herself, after hearing of his arrival, may be drawn back to Rousillon by her pure love.
This scene is in perfect contrast to the one immediately preceding it. Blameless Helena, deeply troubled and sorrowful, presents herself as a calm, noble figure while Bertram, who truly is to blame for a bad situation, carelessly pursues his military career with no thought to the suffering of others. Once again, the Countess shows her fondness for Helena and recognizes that she is a more noble character than her own son. She is hopeful that the couple will somehow make amends in the future.
ACT III, SCENE 5
The scene opens outside the walls of Florence. A Florentine widow, her daughter Diana, and a girl named Marianna enter with some citizens. Mariana urges the young Diana to be cautious of the great French Count, Bertram, who is pursuing her. The widow tells Marianna that the Count and his companion, Parolles, have been coming around. She says that Parolles seems to be influencing the young Count to act in a way less than gentlemanly. She also cautions Diana to beware and reminds her that a maiden’s honor is her unsullied name. The widow tells Mariana that she knows that she has been solicited by a gentleman companion of the Count. Mariana replies that the man is Parolles.
As the ladies are talking, a pilgrim, who is Helena in disguise, comes asking for a place to stay. The widow directs her to a lodge at Saint Francis. They are interrupted by the sound of marching in the distance. The widow offers to escort Helena to St. Francis after the soldiers come through the town. She tells Helena a noble and valiant Count from France will be among them. When Diana informs Helena that the count is Bertram, Helena pretends not to know who he is, only to have heard of him. Diana tells Helena the rumor that Bertram has come to Florence to escape from an arranged marriage and wife he detests, and Helena says she has heard the story and knows it is true. Diana sighs that it must be terrible to be a detested wife. The widow sympathetically remarks that his wife must have a heavy heart and be in need of help. Then she tells Helena that Bertram has attempted to seduce her daughter, but Diana has kept her guard.
A section of the Florentine army, headed by Bertram and Parolles, enters to the sound of drumbeats. The widow points out Antonio, the Duke’s eldest son, and Escalus. Diana identifies Bertram and remarks that it is a pity that a man so gallant is not honest. She blames Parolles, “that jack-an-apes with scarfs” for leading the Count astray. Helena thanks the widow for directions and invites them all to dinner that night, an offer they accept.
The significant aspect of this scene is that while there is public praise for Bertram’s military achievements, in private many citizens deride the “hero’s” treatment of his wife. Even though Bertram has received the honor he so desperately wanted, his lack of character has stripped him of true respect. Also, Parolles is once again suspected by many of being inconstant and shifty.
Helena humbles herself, dressing as a holy pilgrim; it is an appropriate disguise for this character who seems willing to sacrifice all for love. It also furthers the theme of deception. When the disguised Helena arrives in Florence, she hears all about her husband and remains calm, not revealing her true identity. She learns that Bertram has been trying to seduce the widow’s daughter. As a result, a plan begins to formulate in Helena’s quick and competent mind. She invites the ladies to dinner to gather more information.
It is important to note that this scene is filled with dramatic irony. The audience, of course, knows that the pilgrim is really Bertram’s wife Helena. As a result, there is double meaning in much of what transpires throughout the scene, for the three ladies have no idea that they are talking to Bertram’s spouse.
ACT III, SCENE 6
This scene shifts to a camp outside Florence. Bertram enters along with two French Lords. They are determined to expose to Bertram the true character of the despicable Parolles, who is disliked by them for his bragging and posturing. Listening to his fellow officers, Bertram begins to wonders if he has been deceived by his friend, Parolles.
The First Lord denounces Parolles as a “most notable coward, an infinite and endless liar” and “an hourly promise-breaker” who does not possess a single good quality. The Second Lord suggests a plan to expose Parolles so that Bertram will see the error in the friendship before something terrible happens. Bertram wonders on what particular charges could Parolles be tried. The Second Lord proposes that Parolles should be allowed to recapture the drum taken by the enemy in a recent battle.
The First Lord suggests that he will suddenly surprise Parolles with a troop of Florentines and pretend to be the enemy. They will blind and hoodwink him and lead him to believe that he is being carried to the enemy camp when he is actually placed in their own tents. Bertram is asked to be present during Parolles’ examination. The First Lord is confident that Parolles will betray Bertram and reveal important information to the people he assumes are his enemies. The Second Lord enthusiastically supports this proposal, thinking it will convince Bertram and also be very funny. He reminds them how Parolles always boasts he has strategies for recovering the drum and says this will give him his chance.
At this moment Parolles enters. Bertram and the two Lords hint around that recovering the drum would surely be a great achievement, a cause for heroic celebrations. As expected, Parolles takes the bait, boasting that he alone can get the drum back. Parolles leaves and the Lords comment on his confidence. Bertram is unworried, thinking Parolles’ confidence is just a sign of his good intentions and honest capabilities. The fact that Parolles is a boaster and liar does not seem real to him. The First Lord says that he must prepare the trap for Parolles and leaves. Bertram tells the Second Lord about the young virgin Diana, whom he is relentlessly pursuing. He tells the Lord the girl’s chief fault is her honesty, because she keeps turning him down. Bertram invites the Lord to accompany him on his next visit to Diana.
This scene lays important groundwork for the downfall of Parolles, setting up what will soon prove to be a set of very complicated farce-like scenes. The scene also develops the Themes of the play. The scheming to entrap Parolles is furthers the deception that is rampant in the play. The importance of honor is also emphasized. Bertram wants to belief that Parolles is honorable, but he accepts the fact that what Parolles appears to be to him may not be reality. To find out the truth, Bertram assents to a plan that will essentially prove the honesty or dishonesty of his friend. It is ironic that Parolles’ honesty seems important to him, yet he sees Diana’s honesty as her chief failing.
It is also ironic that Bertram has a preoccupation with honor. He stakes his life on the battlefield to win honor for himself, but he attempts to steal the honor away from Diana, a pure and honest virgin. He is concerned with Parolles’ honesty, but he himself has acted dishonestly throughout the play, betraying both the Kind and Helena. This inconsistency makes Bertram a very unusual and disliked character.
ACT III, SCENE 7
This scene moves to the widow’s house in Florence. Helena is trying to convince the widow that she is Bertram’s wife. She is exasperated and says that she does not know how else to assure the widow that she is telling the truth. The widow is suspicious and does not want to get involved in Helena’s plan to win Bertram back.
Helena offers the widow a purse of gold coins in exchange for her help with additional payment when the plan is finished. Helena tells the widow that when Bertram comes around again, Diana should pretend to yield to his advances and demand from him the ring that he always wears on his finger. Since the ring is a family heirloom that has been handed down from one generation to another, Bertram will be reluctant to part with it but will eventually do so in order to win Diana. Diana should fix a time and place for a secret meeting between the two, and when Bertram arrives, Helena will take the girl’s place in bed with Bertram.
In this scene, the clever Helena reveals her deceptive plan for winning Bertram back. By offering monetary payment, she convinces the widow to help her; she also convinces her that the deceitful actions have an honorable result, for a wife and husband will be together as they should. This is one of the first times Helena alludes to her apparent philosophy that all is truly well as long as it ends well.
It is important to realize that the audience is supportive of, rather than appalled by, all the deception happening on the stage. The deceptive scheme against Parolles is meant to reveal his truly detestable nature, and the deceptive scheme against Bertram is to win him over to Helena.
ACT IV, SCENE 1
The scene opens outside the Florentine camp. The Lords enter, prepared to ambush. Parolles then enters, talking to himself. The Lords listen as Parolles confesses first that he knows he is a liar, and second, that it seems everyone else is beginning to notice. He is, of course, too frightened to go after the drum, so he begins concocting lies about why he does not have it. The Lords marvel at Parolles’ self-awareness that he is a cad. Finally, the Lords capture Parolles, cover his eyes, and begin to talk in a nonsense language to him. Frightened, Parolles does exactly as predicted and promises to betray Bertram and all his other comrades if only his “captors” will not hurt him. They take him away and go to find Bertram, so that he can hear for himself.
In this scene, the Lords marvel that Parolles is aware of his own deceitful nature, and yet he does nothing to change it. This further convinces them of his despicable nature, and they are glad they have a plan to expose his true self to Bertram. The Lords know that any honorable man who recognizes weaknesses in himself would try to improve; but Parolles has no desire to better himself.
Although Bertram has been much like the despicable Parolles in the early part of the play, Bertram, unlike his friend, finally comes to his senses and realizes how terribly he has been acting. While Parolles is a flat character who never changes, Bertram, in contrast, has some measure of redemption later in the play.
ACT IV, SCENE 2
In this scene, Bertram pursues Diana, who appears to succumb to his flirtations. She asks him for his ring. At first he declines to give it to her since it is a token of family pride and honor; but Diana insists, saying she will only give herself to him if he gives her the ring. She then makes plans to meet him after dark for one hour. She sets the condition that he is not to speak to her during that hour. Then, she promises to give him her virginity.
Bertram’s character is further degraded in this scene. He debases himself by seducing Diana and giving away his family heirloom to supposedly win her body. His courtship is obviously marked by shallow sentiment as opposed to true affection. He states that “love is holy,” but ironically urges Diana to satisfy his “sick desires”.
Diana’s mother has warned her all about Bertram and told her of the plan she has made with Helena. As a result, Diana holds the wicked Bertram in complete contempt and remarks after he leaves that my mother told me just how he would woo, / As if she sat in’s heart”.
When Diana remains aloof to his advances, Bertram becomes more pressing in his protestations of love. He explains to her that he was forced to marry Helena and never loved her. At the same time, the hypocritical man asserts his undying love for Diana while knowing all the time that he just intends to make temporary use of her. To satisfy his own desires of the flesh, he lies openly to her by pledging, “I love thee / By love’s own sweet constraint, and will for ever / Do thee all rights of service.” Diana knows better than to believe him. She claims that his pledges and swearing are just a common trick used by men trying to seduce women. Bertram insists that he is innocent and that his “integrity n’er knew the crafts / That you do charge men with”.
This scene moves the plot of the play towards its resolution. In accordance with Helena’s plan, Diana pretends to yield to Bertram and demands his ring. At first Bertram is reluctant to part with it because it is a symbol of his family honor and faith. Diana retorts that her chastity is a precious jewel that demands a high price. Finally, Bertram agrees and says, “Here take my ring ; / My house, mine honor, yea, my life be thine, / And I’ll be bid by thee”. Bertram is such a cunning seducer that he even promises to marry Diana after his wife’s death, showing that he is devoid of honor and honesty.
ACT IV, SCENE III
The two French Lords, who are brothers, enter the Florentine camp talking about the supposed death of Bertram’s wife, Helena. Both of them condemn Bertram, claiming that his actions have totally dishonored him, and no amount of military valor can ever make up for that. At this point, Bertram enters boasting about his exploits and his tryst with Diana. He feels hopeful that he will soon be restored to the King’s good graces. The other soldiers listen with disgust as he lists his many successes in a boastful and proud manner.
After he is finished praising himself, Bertram tells the men he is ready to listen to Parolles being questioned. Bertram is still quite certain that his blindfolded friend will not betray him. The First Lord asks his questions in a strange language. The first soldier is acting as the “interpreter” and tells Parolles that he is going to have him tortured until he confesses. Parolles, eager to save his own skin, replies that he will reveal all that he knows without any limitations. He begins to recount a number of secrets about his own comrades, many of whom are in the room. He then tells about Bertram and even calls him a fool. The men allow Parolles to betray everyone as thoroughly as possible; then they take off the blindfold and reveal that they have tricked him into showing his true self. Unabashed, Parolles simply says there is a place and means for every man alive.
There are no surprises in this scene, for both Parolles and Bertram act as expected. Bertram enters in a proud and boastful way, bragging about his military successes and his tryst with Diana. Ironically, the soldiers have just judged Bertram as a weak person for the dishonor he has dealt his “dead wife”. Bertram does not know yet that his military heroism means little next to his personal acts of deceit and dishonor.
Parolles continues to reveal his low moral character. When threatened with torture, he reveals everyone’s secrets, including those of Bertram; he even calls Bertram a fool. When his blindfold is removed, he discovers that several people that he has betrayed are in the room, including Bertram. Amazingly, Parolles shows no remorse or guilt; he simply says there is a place for everyone in the world.
Bertram is totally shocked by the behavior of his good friend. Being despicable himself, he has been unable to see Parolles’ lack of honor. Instead, he has judged him as worthy and has mimicked Parolles’ base deeds to only a slightly lesser degree.
ACT IV, SCENE 4
In Florence, Helena thanks the widow for her help and assures her she will be greatly rewarded for it. Turning to Diana, Helena tells her she must do a little more on her behalf, and Diana replies she will do anything to help Helena bring Bertram down to size, because she herself thinks his actions have been despicable. The scene comes to an end with Helena musing that time will heal all the wounds suffered on her behalf, uttering the title words that all is well that ends well.
At this point in the play, chaos reigns. Helena is supposed to be dead, Bertram is poised to spoil Diana’s chastity, and Parolles is tricked into revealing his base character. The confident Helena believes that the greater plan at work will more than justify all the confusion. All will be well when it ends well. This theme is not only the title of the play, it is also at the very heart of the action, for throughout the play the ends justify the means.
ACT IV, SCENE 5
The Countess enters Rousillon with Lafeu and the clown. Lafeu insists that Parolles has been responsible for leading Bertram astray. He tells the Countess that her daughter-in-law Helena would be alive were it not for the interference of the “red-tailed humble-bee”. The Countess mourns the death of Helena and praises her as the “most virtuous gentlewoman” ever born. Lafeu then informs the Countess that since hearing the news of Helena’s death and Bertram’s return to France, he has spoken to the King about offering his own daughter as Bertram’s second wife. Lafeu says that the King himself had proposed the match, when both his daughter and Bertram were children. The Countess agrees to the marriage, hoping this will make things well again. Lafeu tells her the King is coming from Marseilles and will arrive the next day, as will Bertram. They decide to propose the marriage sometime after that.
In this scene, Lafeu blames Parolles for misleading Bertram and describes him as “a snipped – taffeta fellow … whose villainous saffron would have made all the unbak’d and doughy youth of a nation in his color”. Interestingly enough, the Countess and Lafeu have already devised a plan to forgive Bertram and reinstate him to good graces. Lafeu’s daughter will be offered as a bride to Bertram, since his first wife is supposedly dead. At the same time, they place nearly all the blame on Parolles’ bad influence. In essence, Parolles must pay for his poor moral character, but it almost seems as if Bertram will get away with his.