From Stories of Shakespeare’s Comedies by Helene Adeline Guerber. New York: Dodd, Mead and company.
The first act opens in the palace of the Count of Rousillon, just as his widow is bidding farewell to her son, Bertram, who has been summoned to court. The mother is loath to part with him, but Lafeu, the messenger, graciously assures her the king will father the youth, and further his fortunes. Close beside the countess stands Helena, whose tears the messenger notices, just after his hostess has mentioned how she regrets the death of the physician, who sojourned with them, the father of the young lady beside her, for she feels sure he could have cured the king’s illness, which the courtier reports serious. When Lafeu inquires the name of this doctor, the countess introduces Helena, and fancies her tears are for her dead parent. Although warmly praising the maiden, who ‘derives her honesty and achieves her goodness,’ the countess warns her people may deem her grief affectation, until Helena exclaims hers is no feigned sorrow. She does not even notice Lafeu’s remark that ‘moderate lamentation is the right of the dead, excessive grief the enemy to the living,’ but turns aside to escape further attention.
Meanwhile, the countess bestows good advice upon her son, bidding him bear himself suitably at court; then addressing Lafeu, she begs him watch over the youth, whom she blesses ere leaving the room. The young lord now takes leave of Helena, urging her to ‘be comfortable to my mother, your mistress, and make much of her,’ while the courtier bids her uphold her father’s credit.
After they have gone, Helena reveals in a soliloquy that her tears are for Bertram, whose image is graven in her heart, although she knows he is far above her in station. Her reminiscences of past joy in watching him are interrupted by the entrance of Parolles, Bertram’s follower, whom she knows to be a ‘notorious liar,’ a fool and coward, but with whom she indulges in frequent bouts of repartee. When he addresses her as ‘queen,’ therefore, she retorts by hailing him as ‘monarch,’ and for a while they bandy remarks in Elizabethan taste. This word-skirmish ceases only when a page summons Parolles to attend his master, and Helena, relapsing into soliloquy, concludes that ‘our remedies oft in ourselves do lie,’ for she has suddenly thought of a plan whereby she can, perchance, relieve the king and avoid losing sight of the man she loves.
In the next scene we are transferred to the king’s palace, just as he is telling his courtiers that Florence and Sienna being at war, a call for assistance has come from the former city. Although the king himself does not wish to appear openly in the fray, he gives his nobles permission to enter Tuscan service; for this war, as one of the courtiers explains, will serve as ‘a nursery to our gentry, who are sick for breathing and exploit.’
Just then Bertram is ushered in, followed by Lafeu and Parolles, and is graciously welcomed by the king, who remembers his father as one of the cherished companions of his youth. Such is the praise the monarch lavishes upon the deceased count of Rousillon, that Bertram rejoins his father ‘lies richer in your thoughts than on his tomb,’ for even an epitaph could not laud the departed more extravagantly. Consumed with sadness and suffering, the king soon adds he wishes he were beside his former companion, one of whose favourite sayings was, ‘let me not live after my flame lacks oil.’ Although the courtiers try to encourage their monarch, he insists he has not long to live, and inquires when the famous physician died in the castle of Rousillon. When Bertram states this happened six months ago, the king sighs that were this man still living, he would gladly try his skill, for nature and sickness have long been disputing the possession of his poor body. Then, after a last gracious word to the newcomer, the monarch departs with his train.
We return to the castle of Rousillon, where the countess, summoning her steward and clown, inquires what they have to report in regard to her gentlewoman. Such are the rambling answers she receives, and the clown’s anxiety to obtain her consent to his marrying, that she has to dismiss him ere she can question the steward in peace. She then learns that Helena has been brooding lately, and that, while talking to herself, was overheard to confess she loved Bertram, and that fortune was cruel to place such difference between their estates. He feels confident the young lady has, besides, some plan in view, and hence deems it his duty to warn his mistress. After thanking the steward for this information, the countess dismisses him, with orders not to mention the matter, and, while waiting for Helena, murmurs she felt just the same when she was young, for ‘this thorn doth to our rose of youth rightly belong.’
As soon as Helena comes in, the countess addresses her in tender tones, saying she considers herself her mother. Because the maiden starts at the word ‘mother,’ the countess repeats it, seeming surprised when Helena rejects such relationship. Urged to explain, the girl declares it is impossible a humble maiden should be sister to the high-born Bertram, whose servant and vassal she will always be, but whom she has no desire to call brother. When the countess tenderly inquires whether she is equally reluctant to accept her as mother, the girl hesitates; then replies she would not be Bertram’s sister under any circumstances. With kindly emphasis, the countess then explains she might become her daughter by marrying her son, and noting Helena’s change of colour and lack of response gently reproves her for obstinacy. She thus gradually induces the girl to admit a love for Bertram, which, in spite of all her attempts to root it out of her heart, has constantly grown and increased. Still, because her affection is pure and true, Helena implores the countess ‘let not your hate encounter with my love for loving where you do,’ and craves permission to carry out a cherished plan. This consists in a journey to Paris, to offer the king one of her father’s prescriptions, which, she feels confident, will cure his disease.
When the countess shrewdly inquires whether this is her sole motive, Helena truthfully rejoins that, had not Bertram gone there first, she might never have thought of carrying medicine to his majesty. But, when the countess objects that the learned physicians at court may refuse to let a maiden try her skill, Helena declares that, if the king will only grant her leave to try, success will ensue, and that no time is to be lost. Convinced by these words, the countess not only allows her to depart, but furnishes money and attendants, so she can present herself at court in a suitable manner, proposing, meanwhile, to remain at home, and pray God to bless her undertaking.
The second act opens in the palace in Paris, just as the king is taking formal leave of the nobles who are to take part in the Florentine wars. After expressing thanks for his good wishes, one lord voices the fervent hope they will find him better on their return. The monarch, however, sadly rejoins this cannot be, although his ‘heart will not confess he owes the malady that doth his life besiege.’ Then, playfully cautioning the youths against the wiles of Italian maidens, the king leaves the room. While the lords chat together, Bertram openly regrets being ordered to remain at court, for he longs to take part in the adventures his companions are seeking abroad. Perceiving his regret, his companions playfully suggest he steal away, advice he is inclined to follow when they take leave of him and Parolles, who, meantime, has been boasting freely of the deeds he once performed in Italy. The lords have scarcely gone, when Parolles urges Bertram to remain with them until they leave, for he secretly hopes his master will yet decide to join them in Florence.
As Bertram and his attendant pass out of the room, the king comes in and sits down. He is sunk in reverie when Lafeu kneels before him, begging pardon for intruding, but craving a boon. Invited to speak, the courtier inquires whether the king would like to be cured of his infirmity, and hearing him answer ‘no,’ pityingly rejoins it is the old story of fox and grapes! When he adds that a doctor has come whose remedies can raise the dead, the king inquires who it may be, and is so surprised on learning it is a woman, that curiosity overcomes his reluctance. He therefore bids Lafeu admit her, threatening him with ridicule in case he spoke too highly of her. Delighted with the success of his venture, Lafeu hurries out, to return immediately with Helena, whom he fussily introduces, bidding her speak her mind to the king, and leaving the two together only after making a would-be facetious remark.
The monarch now questions Helena, who gravely states her father, on his deathbed, entrusted to her keeping a wonderful remedy for the very disease from which the king is suffering. It is this nostrum she tenders, for which kindness the king graciously thanks her, saying, however, it is useless to try it as his physicians have pronounced his malady past cure. Hearing him refuse her offer, Helena begs to be dismissed with a kind thought, so she can return home. Then the king, touched by her unselfish desire to serve him, expresses such gracious thanks, that Helena feels emboldened to urge it would do him no harm to try her remedy, and to remind him that wisdom has often come from the mouth of babes. Although the king persists in his refusal, Helena, detecting wavering in his tone, expresses such confidence in her drug that he finally inquires how long it would take to show its effect. Hearing the young lady state the miracle would be accomplished in forty-eight hours, the king asks what she would be willing to stake on the venture, and when she exclaims her very life, decides to try her physic. Although he warns her it may minister to her death should he succumb, Helena remains undaunted, and confidently inquires what reward he will grant her if she succeed. The king swearing by his scepter she shall choose it herself, she requests that since he can dispose of the bachelors in his realm, he will permit her to select a husband among those beneath royal rank. Not only does the king readily subscribe to this, but shakes hands upon it ere leaving the room with ‘Dr. She,’ who is to make the immediate test of her remedy, and thus save his life, if possible.
We are next vouchsafed another glimpse in the castle of Rousillon, just as the countess has summoned her clown, and, after wasting many words in bandying witty remarks with him, entrusts to his keeping a letter he is to carry to Helena at court. Meantime Bertram, conversing in the palace with Lafeu and Parolles, learns that, although people claim the age of miracles is past, strange things can still happen! The miracle now causing a sensation at court is the fact that, at the end of two days, the new remedy has caused such a difference in the king’s health that he has been pronounced cured. They are still discussing the wonder, when the king enters with Helena, whom all regard curiously, and whom Parolles recognises as an old acquaintance, when the king presents her to the court as his preserver.
After summoning all his followers, the king bids Helena consider the bachelors and select among them the one she desires to marry. Greeting them courteously, Helena considers each in turn, while Lafeu openly regrets not to be eligible for her favour. Addressing the bachelors, Helena states that, being a maid, she blushes at having to make, a public choice. Still, encouraged by the king, she approaches one noble and asks whether he would be willing to listen to her suit. Although he expresses cordial readiness, she passes on to another, whose answer Lafeu deems too cold, since he mutters ‘these boys are boys of ice!’ Finally, Helena pauses before Bertram, declaring she dares not say she takes him, but that she is willing to give herself and her service ever, whilst she lives, into his guiding power.
Seeing her choice is made, the king orders Bertram to marry her, but the youth restively vows he will select his own wife! When the monarch indignantly reminds him of what Helena has done in his behalf, Bertram acknowledges her services, but persists that is no reason why he should marry her. Then the king insists, but Bertram expresses such disdain for a person brought up as dependant in his mother’s house, that his sovereign reproves him for haughtiness, and promises to bestow gifts upon Helena, which, backed with her virtue, will equal any rank. Because Bertram petulantly rejoins he cannot love her and will not try to do so, Helena implores the monarch not to insist, and declares herself satisfied; but this fails to please his majesty, who, feeling his honour engaged, orders Bertram to make good his word, under penalty of his ‘revenge and hate.’ Thus adjured, Bertram is forced to yield, although he mutters he submits his fancy to the king’s eyes, when, at the monarch’s command, he takes Helena’s hand, and all file out of the room for the wedding.
The only persons left on the stage are Lafeu and Parolles, who discuss this forced match. During this interview Lafeu discovers what a hollow boaster Parolles is, and shows such contempt for him that, when he leaves the room for a moment, his interlocutor mutters he will get even with him yet! On returning, Lafeu reports the marriage concluded, and, when Parolles resumes his boasting, calls him a worthless, saucy fellow, and turns his back upon him in scorn.
Shortly after Lafeu has gone, Bertram joins Parolles, petulantly complaining he is undone, and ‘forfeited to cares forever!’ In his anger, he vows he will have nothing to do with the bride forced upon him, but will hasten off to the Tuscan wars, in spite of the king. He has, besides, no desire to ascertain what the letters contain which have come from his mother, but is eager to depart, a decision welcome to Parolles, who is longing to go to Italy. He, therefore, strengthens his young master’s resolution by every means in his power, assuring him, among other things, that ‘a young man married is a man that’s marr’d,’ and urging him to avenge the wrong the king has done him by forsaking his bride.
After they have gone, Helena enters with the clown, who has brought her letters, and from whom she inquires about her mistress’s health. These two are soon joined by Parolles, who, after a wordy encounter with the clown, delivers a message from Bertram, to the effect that Helena is to return immediately to Rousillon, as business calls her husband away, and will prevent his joining her for a few days, in spite of his fervent desire to be with her. Bertram’s orders are that his new-made wife take immediate leave of the king, offering such apologies as she thinks fit, and, this done, present herself before him, as he wishes to give her his last orders.
Meantime, Lafeu has gone in quest of Bertram, to warn him that his follower, Parolles, is a mere trifler a warning the youth scorns because he has taken this man at his own estimate. When Parolles enters, therefore, reporting Helena is already on her way to the king, Bertram states that, having written his letters, collected his treasures, and given orders for his horses, he will depart at the very hour when he should take possession of his bride. During this scene, Parolles vainly tries to conciliate Lafeu, who dubs him a nut without kernel, tells Bertram ‘the soul of this man is in his clothes’ and repeats he is not to be trusted ‘in matter of heavy consequence,’ all of which warnings prove vain.
It is now that Helena humbly presents herself to receive her husband’s orders, and is told that, although called away from her side, Bertram will soon rejoin her, but that, meantime, she is to hasten home, and deliver to his mother the letter he entrusts to her keeping. Rejoining that she is his obedient servant, and will try ‘with true observance to eke out that wherein toward me my homely stars have fail’d to equal my great fortune,’ Helena is impatiently interrupted by Bertram, who bids her begone. Although she implores him to part kindly from her with a kiss, he dismisses her abruptly, and after she has vanished, grimly vows he will never visit his home as long as she is there. Then, turning to his companion, he invites him to flee with him to Italy.
The third act opens in a palace in Florence, where the duke has interviewed the French noblemen, and explained to them his quarrel with Sienna. All the young adventurers pronounce his cause holy, and report that, although their monarch would gladly help him, he can do so only by allowing his nobles to join in the enterprise. Promising to welcome all who come, the duke announces they will take to the field on the morrow.
In the castle of Rousillon the countess has just finished perusing a letter brought by the clown, which announces her son’s marriage and the return of the bride. She marvels that Bertram should not accompany Helena, which causes the clown to term him a melancholy man, a statement he explains by describing how absent-mindedly the youth continually sang the same tune, thereby betraying a preoccupied mind. While the countess reads her missive a second time, the clown avers court life has spoiled him for his country sweetheart, and leaves the room.
Left alone, the countess cons aloud her news, for Bertram writes that forced to marry against his will, he refuses to live with his wife, and has run away. Indignant at such conduct, the mother calls him a ‘rash and unbridled boy, to fly the favours of so good a king,’ and adds he is shaming a maid too virtuous to be scorned by an emperor.
It is at this moment the clown announces the arrival of his young lady, escorted by two gentlemen who bring terrible tidings. When the countess tremulously inquires what he means, he comforts her with the assurance that war is not the most dangerous occupation. Just then Helena and her companions enter, and, after greeting them, the countess, without heeding a despairing cry from Helena, asks about her son. The gentlemen explain that Bertram has gone to Florence to offer his services to the duke, and then Helena tenders the letter they brought her, wherein this youth baldly states that, until she secure possession of his ancestral ring, and can boast she is mother of his child, he will never behold her. Learning this cruel ultimatum was entrusted to these gentlemen, the countess informs them she will have nothing further to do with her recreant son, but will adopt Helena as her child in his stead. This gives Helena sufficient courage to finish perusing her letter, which contains the additional statement that, until Bertram learns he is wifeless, he will never return home.
Such a decision increases the wrath of the countess, who vows her daughter-in-law deserves ‘a lord that twenty such rude boys might tend upon.’ But when she learns how Bertram has gone to Italy with Parolles, she realises her boy’s ‘well-derived nature’ is being corrupted by a ‘man full of wickedness.’ She, therefore, enjoins upon the gentlemen, who are on their way to Florence, to tell Bertram ‘his sword can never win the honour that he loses,’ and to convey a letter she will write. Promising obedience, the gentlemen follow her out of the room, while Helena, left alone on the stage, muses on Bertram’s cruel ultimatum, and decides he shall soon have no wife in France, since she means to run away, in hopes that when rumours of her flight reach him, he will return and cease exposing his ‘tender limbs’ to ‘the event of non-sparing war!’ Then she leaves the stage, exclaiming that, as soon as night falls, she will steal away like a thief.
We now behold the palace in Florence, where the duke is appointing Bertram his general of horse, a charge the youth modestly deems beyond his capacity, although his superior encourages him to assume and perform it with valour.
Returning to the castle in Rousillon, we next perceive the countess interviewing her steward, who has just delivered a letter from Helena. The mistress reproves him for accepting such an errand, stating he might have known the missive would never have been entrusted to him unless his young lady was about to depart. On reading the letter aloud, the steward discovers that Helena has gone on a pilgrimage to St. Jacques, and wishes her husband informed that she is no longer in France, so he may return home without breaking his vow. Meantime, she fervently hopes death may overtake her during this journey, and thus set Bertram definitely free. Had the countess known Helena’s intentions sooner, she would have defeated them, for she vows her unworthy son will never thrive, unless his wife’s prayers divert Heaven’s wrath from him. Then she bids the steward write to Bertram all that has occurred, hoping he will return, and that Helena, urged by love, will come back, for, ‘which of them both is dearest’ to her she cannot tell. Finally, oppressed by all the sorrows assailing her at once, she leaves the stage crying, ‘grief would have tears, and sorrow bids me speak.’
The next scene is played outside the walls of Florence, where a number of people have assembled to witness the return of the troops, it having been rumoured that Bertram has distinguished himself in the late encounter. Chief among the spectators is a widow lady, with her daughter and neighbours, and the latter rally the young woman upon having made a conquest of the French nobleman. This damsel, whose name is Diana, doesn’t deny the fact, but good-naturedly receives her neighbours’ warning that men are deceivers, and that many dangers beset maidens. While all stand talking, Helena joins them in the guise of a pilgrim, and the widow, who entertains such travellers, eagerly offers her lodgings.
While they are talking, a military march resounds, and the widow informs Helena that if she will wait a few moments, she can witness the triumphal return of one of her countrymen, who has ‘done worthy service.’ On hearing this hero is the Count of Rousillon, Helena claims to have already heard his praises, and listens eagerly while Diana relates how the youth stole away from France, having been married, contrary to his will, to a lady of whom his companion, Parolles, speaks most disparagingly. At mention of this name, Helena exclaims she can credit Parolles had nothing good to say of her, a remark Diana does not heed, for she avers it must be hard to be wife to a lord who detests you, while her proud mother plainly intimates her child experienced no difficulty to win that young nobleman’s affections. Then, perceiving Helena’s interest, the widow relates how Bertram has been courting Diana for some time past, adding that naught save honesty prevented her listening to his suit. Just then the troops file past, and the widow points out Bertram, while Diana, designating Parolles, vows, were she Bertram’s wife, she would poison that rascal for leading his master astray. The troops having passed, the widow offers to guide the pilgrim to her house, an invitation Helena accepts, bidding all present to supper, and promising to bestow some good advice upon Diana.
We now behold the camp before Florence, where Bertram, talking to his mother’s messengers, is told he is greatly mistaken in his estimate of Parolles, whom the lords sweepingly designate 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.’ In proof of the truth of this estimate, they propose Parolles be challenged to recover a lost drum, in regard to which he has been making a great fuss. As Bertram consents to this test, Parolles no sooner enters than a lively and amusing dialogue ensues, during which the lords and Bertram play upon Parolles’ vanity, until the boaster finally sallies forth upon his venture. Meanwhile his companions aver he will take no steps for the recovery of the drum, but will return with some astounding tale, and form a plot to expose him.
One of the lords departing, Bertram volunteers to conduct the other to the widow’s house and show him the beautiful lass of whom he has spoken so enthusiastically. Still, he admits she met his advances coldly, although Parolles had assured him she was ready to accept his proposals.
We are now transferred to the widow’s house, where Helena, after an interview with her hostess, exclaims she must be convinced by this time of her identity. When the widow demurs that she will risk her reputation, Helena reiterates she is the count’s lawful wife, and that, if her hostess will only aid her, she will not only give her a purse of gold, but will promise a greater reward later on. Helena’s plan is that, since the count has been wooing the widow’s daughter, Diana should pretend to yield to his suit and make an appointment with him, provided he give her as pledge his ring. This jewel, Diana is to deliver to Helena, remaining chastely absent while Bertram’s wife receives him in her stead; earning in return for such services a sum of money sufficient to enable her to contract an honourable marriage.
Enticed by such a bribe, the widow yields, and it is arranged that meeting shall take place that very night, Helena assuring her hostess that, if their plot succeed, it will be ‘wicked meaning in a lawful deed, and lawful meaning in a lawful act, where both not sin, and yet a sinful fact.’
The fourth act opens in the Florentine camp, where some practical jokers are lying in ambush to capture Parolles on his way back from his supposed enterprise, and make him think he has been taken by the foe. The men are instructed to use varieties of gibberish to gull Parolles, who is welcome game to them all. A few minutes later the boaster draws near, muttering he has lain low for three hours past, and can now return with a plausible tale to account for the lack of the drum. Talking to himself, he wonders whether it would be better to slash his garments and break his sword as colour to his tale, while the plotters comment on what he says. Suddenly, the men in ambush crowd around him, vociferating meaningless words, which are supposed to represent foreign languages. Seized and blindfolded, Parolles cries that, if they will only take him where he can speak, he will ‘discover that which shall undo the Florentine.’ The whole scene proves most comical, owing to the gusto with which the soldiers play their part and, as Parolles leaves the stage under guard, one of the officers sends word to the Count of Rousillon that they have ‘caught the woodcock,’ and will keep him until his arrival.
The curtain rises once more on the widow’s house, where Bertram is interviewing Diana, upon whom he lavishes compliments to entice her to consent to his wishes. Pretending reluctance, Diana gradually yields to her suitor’s entreaties, stipulating, however, that he give her the ring he wears. When Bertram objects to part with such an heirloom, Diana pertly vows her chastity is equally precious, and makes it so apparent she will consent only if he yields to her request, that he bestows the ring upon her. Then she directs him to knock at her chamber window at midnight, so softly her mother shall not hear, promising to admit him, provided he does not speak and remains with her but an hour. During that interview in the dark, she proposes to give him a ring as pledge of their secret troth, and of the explanation she promises him later on. Delighted with his success, Bertram departs, while Diana concludes her mother is a wise woman, since she told her exactly what Bertram would say, by what steps he would proceed, and how fervently he would promise marriage as soon as his wife was dead. The curtain falls just as she sagely decides it is no sin ‘to cozen him that would unjustly win.’
In the Florentine camp, we now overhear the lords who have brought the countess’ letter, openly blaming Bertram for having shaken off a good wife. They add that the king is sorely displeased with him, and that rumours are afloat in camp he has perverted a Florentine lady upon whom he bestowed his ancestral ring. By their talk we further learn that peace will speedily be concluded, and that the Count of Rousillon’s occupations being over, he will soon leave Florence for home. They add his wife left Rousillon two months before, and that her pilgrimage to St. Jacques has proved fatal, as a report claims she died by the way. At this point a messenger joins them, stating Bertram has already taken leave of the duke, who graciously ‘offered him letters of commendations to the king,’ which will restore him to favour.
A moment later Bertram appears, commenting upon the fact that he is winding up his affairs, and has already written to his mother to announce his return. All that now remains for him to do is to see that Parolles convicts himself, and to keep his love-tryst. He, therefore, orders Parolles taken out of the stocks, in which he has languished all night, and brought blindfolded before him as before a court-martial.
Before long the prisoner is ushered in, volubly offering to reveal everything, provided he is let go. Throughout this scene the soldiers use gibberish, and when his interrogatory begins, Parolles eagerly reveals the exact number of the Florentine forces, and answers every question asked. He even offers to prove his statements by letters on his person. As the first they open and read is his warning to Diana in regard to Bertram, he jauntily proceeds to betray his master’s private affairs, terming him contemptuously ‘a foolish, idle boy.’ After wringing from Parolles all the information they desire, and frightening him with dire threats of immediate execution, the soldiers unbind him, and remove his bandage. Then only the wretch discovers he is in the midst of his own people, in whose presence he has uttered all these mingled truths and lies.
With a glance of withering scorn for his treachery, Bertram leaves him, an example soon followed by the rest, and Parolles, perceiving all chance of favour and advancement gone, decides to thrive hereafter by villainy only, and not mind his shame.
Returning to the widow’s house, we find Helena telling her hostess and daughter that, although she is supposed to be dead, and her husband has preceded her on his way home, she will have to hasten to Marseilles with them to secure the king’s aid. The widow, who admires Helena, vows she ‘never had a servant to whose trust her business was more welcome,’ and expresses fervent thanks when Helena hopes her daughter may secure a good husband, thanks to the dowry she has earned. It is evident Diana does not mind the obloquy under which she rests, for she and her mother gladly accompany Helena, who exclaims: ‘All’s well that ends well’ adding, ‘whate’er the course, the end is the renown.’
The curtain next rises on the castle of Rousillon, where the countess is learning from Lafeu how her son was led astray by a worthless fellow named Parolles, and how, had it not been for this, Helena might be still alive and Bertram in full enjoyment of royal favour. The countess wishes her son had never known so bad an adviser, and entertains Lafeu and her clown with praises of the dead Helena. Dismissing the clown, whose witty remarks call forth a tip from Lafeu, and whom the countess excuses by saying her husband made so much of this jester that he considers it ‘a patent for his sauciness,’ the former conversation is resumed. Lafeu reports he is about to return to court, where he hopes to make Bertram’s peace with the king, and arrange for his marriage with his daughter, for he has heard the youth is arriving from Marseilles with a suite of twenty men. On learning her son will be with her soon, the countess expresses delight, just as the glad tidings are confirmed by the clown’s announcement that his master is coming, wearing a bandage across his face, which, Lafeu explains, covers a wound honourably received.
The fifth act opens in Marseilles, where Helena, the widow, and Diana, have arrived, weary with posting night and day. In spite of her own fatigue, Helena greatly pities her companions, just as a gentleman joins them, whom she remembers having seen at court. To this emissary she eagerly entrusts a petition, and is dismayed to learn the king has already left Marseilles. Still, comforting herself with her favourite maxim, ‘all’s well that ends well,’ she inquires whither he is bound, and, learning he is to spend the night at Rousillon, bids the gentleman hurry on with her petition, leaving her to follow as fast as possible, so as to receive the king’s answer in person.
We now behold a square before the castle of Rousillon, where the clown and Parolles meet. On this occasion, Parolles, who brings a letter for Lafeu, is so muddy and povery-stricken in appearance, that the clown orders him to stand at a respectful distance, as he cannot endure filth too close by. When Lafeu appears, the clown vanishes, and Parolles humbly presents himself as ‘a man whom Fortune hath cruelly scratched.’ Deeming he richly deserves such treatment at her hands, Lafeu feels no pity, but taunts Parolles with the matter of the drum, ere he bids him begone. Then, hearing a trumpet announce the arrival of the king, he suddenly relents and sends Parolles to the kitchen for something to eat, a small favour the villain thankfully receives.
Next, the king is seen approaching, speaking to the countess, and assuring her his court lost a jewel in Helena, and that her son must be mad since he ‘lack’d the sense to know her estimation home!’ Excusing Bertram under plea his shortcomings were due to ‘the blaze of youth,’ the countess pleads for his pardon, while Lafeu reminds the king that Bertram wronged himself most by losing a wife of such perfection. The king graciously expressing his forgiveness and desire to see Bertram, a gentleman hurries off to get him.
Meantime the monarch asks Lafeu whether rumour is correct when it states this youth is about to marry his daughter. Learning such a plan has been mooted, the king consents to the match, because the letters he Las recently received speak so highly of Bertram. Just then, the youth in question humbly presents himself, and, when the monarch addresses him as a sun which has been obscured for a time by clouds, he dutifully begs the royal pardon. After granting it, the monarch inquires whether Bertram remembers Lafeu’s daughter, and hearing him enthusiastically praise her beauty, promises to forget the past, provided he immediately marry this young person.
The countess expresses a fervent hope her son’s second marriage will be more blessed than the first, and Lafeu welcomes his new son-in-law, who gives him a ring for his daughter, upon which the nobleman stares in amazement, because he saw it on Helena’s hand, when he took leave from her at court. As this is the ring Bertram received at Florence, during his midnight interview, he swears Helena never owned it. Hearing this, the king demands sight of the jewel, and recognises it as the one he bestowed upon Helena, in case ‘her fortunes ever stood necessitied to help,’ when, at sight of the token, he would grant any favour she asked. Unable to believe Helena would part with such a treasure, he does not credit Bertram’s assertion that the ring was never in her hands, especially as both the countess and Lafeu swear they saw her wear it.
To account for his ownership of the ring, Bertram claims it was tossed to him from a casement in Florence by a noble lady, whom he could not marry, being already bound. Deeming this mere evasion, the king repeats he gave the ring to Helena, and that Bertram can have obtained it only by rough means, or as love token. When Bertram reiterates that Helena never saw it, the king decrees the matter be sifted to the bottom, and, knowing how Bertram hated his wife, orders him arrested until the affair is cleared up. But, as the guards lead the youth away, he angrily cries they can just as easily prove the ring was Helena’s as that he lived with her in Florence, where she never was!
At this juncture a gentleman delivers a petition sent by a Florentine lady, who vows it concerns the king as well as herself. On reading the petition, the king learns that Diana claims the Count of Rousillon as her husband, now he is a widower, he having promised her marriage in Florence. Indignantly refusing to accept such a trifler as son-in-law, Lafeu is told by the king he must have won Heaven’s favour, since this discovery occurred before the marriage with his daughter took place. Then, his majesty orders Bertram brought again before him, crying he fears foul play in regard to Helena.
Once more ushered in, Bertram is undergoing reproof at the king’s hands, when the widow and Diana appear. When the king inquires who these strangers may be, Diana states she is the lady whose petition he holds, her mother adding they have come here to have their wrongs righted. Confronted with the ladies, Bertram does not deny knowing them, but glances so coldly upon Diana that she reproaches him for looking thus at his wife. When Bertram denies being her husband, Diana claims he promised to marry her, while Lafeu mutters his reputation is far too smirched to aspire to his daughter. Wishing to extricate himself from an awkward predicament, Bertram pronounces Diana ‘a fond and desperate creature that some time I have laugh’d with,’ until she exhibits his ring, asking whether a family treasure would have been bestowed upon her in that case. Besides, the countess, recognising the jewel and perceiving the blush which rises to her son’s cheek, declares the lady must have some claim upon him. When the king asks whether any one knows Diana, she calls for Parolles, who is immediately summoned; but hearing this man is to testify, Bertram protests he is ‘a most perfidious slave’ who will say anything they wish, until silenced by a royal reminder that the lady holds his ring.
Seeing no other way out of the dilemma, Bertram now confesses Diana angled for him, and by cunning methods obtained possession of his ring. Rejoining that a man who rejected so noble a first wife must be patiently dealt with, Diana offers to release Bertram, provided he will return her own token. When he says it has passed out of his keeping, the king questions him, until he discovers that the very ring supposed to have been thrown out of a window is the one bestowed upon him in the midnight interview. The monarch is chiding Bertram for duplicity, when Parolles is shown in, and testifies that his master has tricks ‘which gentlemen have.’ But, when the king inquires whether Bertram loved Diana, Parolles states he did and did not, admitting that he served as go-between, and was aware of their midnight tryst.
Satisfied in regard to this point, the king asks how Diana obtained the ring she bestowed upon her lover, and learns it was neither lent nor found, although she was not present at the love tryst. Because she refuses to add anything further, the king bids her to speak or die within an hour, and orders her removed from the scene. Driven thus to bay, Diana offers bail, declaring she has accused Bertram ‘because he is guilty and he is not guilty,’ and reiterating that her reputation has been smirched, although she can swear she is a maid. Because such contradictory statements are received with incredulity, Diana urges her mother to produce her bail, imploring his majesty to postpone judgment until he hears the jeweller who owns the ring. Meantime, she insists that Bertram’s conscience should trouble him, and adds a pertinent statement, just as the widow ushers in Helena, whom the king immediately recognises, although she claims to be only the ‘shadow of a wife.’ At the same moment, recognising his wronged spouse, Bertram humbly begs her pardon, while Helena tells him, ‘When I was like this maid, I found you wondrous kind.’ She then produces his letter stating under what conditions he will acknowledge her, and claims they have all been fulfilled, thanks to Diana’s aid. Still half incredulous, yet greatly relieved, Bertram promises to love Helena dearly, provided all is made clear, while she rejoins that unless he is satisfied, she hopes ‘deadly divorce’ may step between them.
The scene wherein husband and wife are thus brought together, proves so affecting that Lafeu has to borrow a handkerchief from Parolles to staunch his tears. Meantime, the king promises to pay Diana’s dowry provided she has told the truth, and the play closes with an epilogue, stating the dowry had to be paid, and calling for the public’s applause.