Countess of Rossillion
The Countess of Rossillion is Bertram’s mother, and she is still mourning the recent death of her husband. She has also willingly become Helena’s guardian since the young woman’s father, a physician of local renown, has also recently passed away. Kind and generous, the countess exemplifies the best of the noble tradition and encourages Helena’s love for Bertram, even though she thinks her son is foolish and headstrong for rejecting the talented, vivacious girl. The countess rates honesty and virtue higher than valor in battle or nobility of rank, even when this means that she must side against Bertram. She believes her son is old enough to get married, but too young to go into battle. She mourns Bertram’s departure for Paris in the same way she mourns the loss of her husband.
The countess’s fondness for Helena is evident when she tells the girl she loves her as if she were her own daughter. But when Helena offers to travel to Paris to heal the king, the countess encourages her to go. Even after Helena professes her love for the countess’s son, the countess is understanding and does not discourage Helena’s passion. She understands the spell of ‘‘love’s strong passion,’’ having fallen under it herself when she was younger.
The countess has been widely praised as one of Shakespeare’s best female characters. Famed nineteenth-century critic and playwright George Bernard Shaw (as quoted in Fraser) called the countess ‘‘the most beautiful old woman’s part ever written.’’ One of the most famous actresses to play the role was Academy Award-winner Judi Dench, who played the countess in 2003 at the Swan Theatre in Stratford, England.
The daughter of the Widow Capilet, Diana is courted by the Count of Rossillion while he is fighting with the king’s regiment in Florence. She is a virgin, and she knows Bertram’s reputation as a cad, and that he is married. When Helena arrives in Florence as a traveler and agrees to stay at the Widow’s inn, Diana tells her about the count’s awful wife. At first, Helena pretends to be someone else, but after she confesses to being Bertram’s wife, Diana agrees to the bed-trick scheme as a way to preserve her own honor. She is also happy to help Helena achieve the demands of Bertram’s letter. After the bed-trick has been carried out successfully, she and her mother accompany Helena back to Paris.
Diana plays a major role in revealing the bed-trick in the play’s final act. She delights in this role, presenting a maddening riddle for the king, Bertram, and others to decipher. She insists she never slept with Bertram, even as Bertram insists that she did. When the king threatens to put her in jail for her insolence, she presents her bail in the form of Helena, the answer to the riddle and the person they all thought was dead. When all is revealed, the king applauds Diana’s role in the bed-trick scheme and rewards her by letting her choose a husband from among the men at court. She will thus be spared the hardship and poverty of her life in Florence. For her, the story truly ends well.
(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