Bertram (Count of Rossillion)
Bertram is the Count of Rossillion. His father has recently died, and his mother, the Countess of Rossillion, is still in mourning. Bertram is quite young, perhaps no more than twenty, and he is eager to join the king’s ranks in Paris and then go off to battle in Florence. Bertram’s best friend is Parolles, but he is oblivious to the fact that Parolles is an opportunist and a scoundrel. Bertram balks at marrying Helena because she is a commoner with no wealth or status. He agrees reluctantly only after the king promises to endow Helena with wealth and a title in order to sweeten the deal. This is evidence of Bertram’s snobbishness, as Helena’s social standing outranks all her other positive qualities in Bertram’s eyes. Finding himself trapped in a marriage to Helena, whom he does not love, he flees to Florence to join the wars. While there, he proves himself valiant on the battlefield, and his reputation as a hero spreads quickly throughout the city. He spies Diana in town and sends Parolles to set up a rendezvous. Before their scheduled tryst, he promises the young virgin that he truly loves her and will marry her as soon as his wife dies. That night, he believes he sleeps with her, but he beds his wife, Helena, instead. Thinking he is with Diana, he gives her his family ring as a token of his affection.
Bertram’s first change of heart takes place when he witnesses the blindfolded Parolles’s exuberant confessions to the Brothers Dumaine. Parolles declares that Bertram is a coward, liar, and promiscuous to boot. Bertram is forced to accept that Parolles has been duplicitous. After the wars are over, Bertram returns to Rossillion. He thinks Helena is dead and that he has slept with Diana; in fact, he is adamant about it when Diana appears before him and the king. When the bed-trick is revealed and Helena appears, ostensibly pregnant with his child and bearing his ring, he happily concedes defeat. She has fulfilled the requirements he stipulated in his letter as being necessary for him to accept her as his wife, and he vows to love her forever.
Commentators are divided over Bertram. Most agree that he is immature and full of shortcomings, but some critics find him sincere and repentant by the end of the play and thus worthy of the honorable Helena. Others find this turnaround in his character implausible and false. ‘‘No Shakespearean hero is so degraded and so unsparingly presented,’’ wrote Russell Fraser in the New Cambridge edition of the play. One of the harshest summaries of Bertram’s character came from renowned literary critic and philosopher Samuel Johnson, who summarized Bertram (as quoted in Fraser) as ‘‘a man noble without generosity, and young without truth; who marries Helena as a coward and leaves her as a profligate; when she is dead by his unkindness, sneaks home to a second marriage, is accused by a woman whom he has wronged, defends himself by falsehood, and is dismissed to happiness.’’ The outrage, for those who dislike Bertram, is that he is given a happy ending he does not deserve.
Critics who argue that Bertram has truly repented by the end of the play suggest that it is his immaturity and desire for life experience that cause him to initially reject Helena. Elizabethan audiences, they argue, would have found Bertram’s desire to go to war entirely honorable. Likewise, his blindness to Parolles’s true nature is attributed to his inexperience, but once it is demonstrated via the kidnapping episode, Bertram becomes wiser. Those scholars who find Bertram entirely despicable and without merit conclude that his acceptance of Helena in the final scene of the play is one calculated to save his neck, as he finds himself backed into a corner with all the evidence (Helena, Diana, and Parolles all testify against him) stacked against him. A few critics abstain from roundly praising or condemning Bertram, offering other ways to interpret his character.
The Brothers Dumaine, sometimes called the two French lords, serve as captains for the Duke of Florence in the war with Sienna. They are honorable men, fond of Helena, friends with Bertram, and convinced of Parolles’s bad nature from the start. They try in vain to convince Bertram that Parolles cannot be trusted. In order to prove their case, the Brothers Dumaine enact a plan to ambush Parolles and reveal his true nature to Bertram. They disguise themselves as enemy soldiers and kidnap Parolles near Florence when Parolles embarks on a mock-heroic quest to recapture the regiment’s drum. The Brothers pretend to speak a different language, and while Parolles is blindfolded, he betrays Bertram openly and vociferously.
(extracted from) Shakespeare for Students:Critical Interpretations of Shakespeare’s Plays & Poetry, Second Edition, Volume 1, authored by Anne Marie Hacht & Cynthia Burnstein, published by Thomson-Gale, 2007