William Shakespeare's Works/Comedies/All's Well That Ends Well/Act II, Scenes IV-V and Act III, Scenes I-IV
Act II, Scenes IV-V and Act III, Scenes I-IV
Helena receives the Countess's greetings from the Clown, and inquires after her new stepmother's health. Parolles joins them and informs Helena that pressing business calls Bertram away, so their marriage must remain unconsummated for the present. Her husband, Parolles reports, wants her to make ready to return home, and then come say goodbye to him. Meanwhile, Lafew warns Bertram that Parolles is not a great soldier, as he claims to be, but Bertram pays no attention to him. Helena comes to her husband, who apologizes for his hasty departure; she begs a kiss from him before he goes, but Bertram refuses, and rides off, accompanied only by Parolles.
The First Lord and Second Lord are in Florence, where the Duke of Florence expresses his regret that the King of France has refused to assist him in battle. The two noblemen share his unhappiness, but remind him that many young French nobles will come to fight for Florence independent of their King. Meanwhile, Helena has returned to Rousillon, where the Countess reads a letter from her son that declares his intention to remain in foreign lands rather than endure his marriage. Helena has also been given a letter, which declares that when she wears his ring (which he never takes off) and bears his child (impossible, since he has not slept with her), he will live as her husband--in other words, he will never be a spouse to her. Brokenhearted, she resolves to leave Rousillon, since her presence is keeping Bertram from his home, and seek refuge elsewhere.
In Florence, the Duke makes Bertram a general of his horse. In Rousillon, the Countess discovers a letter from Helena, declaring her intention to make a pilgrimage to a monastery. The old woman curses her son's folly, and orders letters sent immediately to Bertram, in the hopes that he will hurry home. She hopes also that Helena will eventually return as well, and that a reconciliation can be effected.
Bertram's distasteful behavior only grows worse in these scenes. His parting from his new wife is a painful thing to watch, since Helena's devotion is so naked--she raises no objections to his hasty departure, and plaintively asks only for a kiss goodbye--and the contempt he offers is so obvious and brutal. "What would you have?" he asks curtly, and she replies uncertainly "something, and scare so much: nothing, indeed. / I would not tell you what I would, my lord. / Faith, yes--strangers and foes do sunder and not kiss." Bertram, taking his cue, treats her like a stranger or a foe, refusing the kiss and urging her to "stay not, but in haste to horse" (Act II, Scene V, Lines 84-88). Even at that she raises no objection, and willingly returns home to Rousillon, where his contemptible letter, with its impossible conditions, waits for her. (Again, as with the curing of the King, the quest to meet impossible conditions has a fairy-tale quality to it.) Indeed, Bertram's conduct is so despicable that even the Countess declares that "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 call her, hourly, mistress" (Act III, Scene II, Lines 82-85). His own mother, who in the first scene held high hopes for her son, recognizes here that Helena is worth twenty Bertrams.
Does Bertram have any redeeming qualities? In the entire play, the only arena where the unpleasant Count distinguishes himself is warfare--he is, in spite of his other flaws, both a great leader and a good companion to his fellow soldiers. If Shakespeare wishes us to believe that there is hope for Bertram, that he will grow up eventually, than that hope lies in the regard that other soldiers hold for him. The Duke of Florence is sufficiently impressed to make him a general, and the brothers Dumaine--indistinguishable from one another, but nevertheless good-hearted men--are willing to be his friends, despite their disapproval of his conduct.
Meanwhile, Helena's departure from Rousillon raises the question of her intentions. She leaves word that she plans to go to St. Jaques monastery, and her closing speech in Act III, Scene III gives no hint that she plans to follow her husband. Is her later appearance in Florence (where she appears dressed as a pilgrim) a coincidence? This is possible, but given that St. Jaques' shrine was in Spain, which is west of Rousillon and France, and Florence is to the east of France, it seems more likely that even in her "selfless" departure from Bertram's family home, the redoubtable Helena is already plotting to regain her lost husband.