Act 1, Scene 1
All’s Well That Ends Well opens at the palace in Rossillion, a region in France that borders Spain and the Mediterranean Sea. Here, the Countess of Rossillion mourns her recently deceased husband and the imminent departure of her son, Bertram, the Count of Rossillion, who has been summoned to Paris by the king. The countess and her friend, the elderly Lord Lafew, discuss the king’s poor health and lament that Gerard de Narbon, a famous court doctor who has just died, is not around to heal him. The doctor’s daughter, the beautiful and vivacious Helena, has become the countess’s ward. In a soliloquy, Helena reveals her love for Bertram. Because she is a commoner, there is no hope of them being together, and yet she cannot bear the thought of his departure. Parolles, Bertram’s best friend, whom Helena acknowledges is a liar and a coward, enters and engages Helena in a coarse conversation about the pros and cons of her virginity. Helena intends to protect her virginity, but Parolles urges her to give it up. To him it is a wasted virtue, particularly once a woman becomes a certain age. The conversation prompts Helena to take matters into her own hands. Her love for Bertram can be realized only through her own actions, and not by waiting for something to happen: ‘‘Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, / Which we ascribe to heaven,’’ she says.
Act 1, Scene 2
In Paris, the King of France confers with two lords, the Brothers Dumaine, about the dispute between Sienna and Florence; he states that he will allow his soldiers to fight on either side. Bertram, Parolles, and Lafew enter, and the king welcomes them, reminiscing fondly about Bertram’s father, and wishing that Gerard de Narbon were still alive to cure his fistula.
Act 1, Scene 3
Back in Rossillion, the countess confers with Lavatch, a morose and ribald clown. The countess calls him a knave (stupid) and urges him to marry the servant woman he has gotten pregnant. She then asks her steward to fetch Helena. The steward tells the countess that he has overhead Helena talking to herself about her love for Bertram. When the lovesick Helena appears, the countess comments sympathetically on the girl’s emotional state, for she was once young and in love. The countess tells Helena that she loves her like a daughter, but Helena objects. If the countess were her mother, then Bertram would be her brother. Initially, Helena states that she cannot be the countess’s daughter because she is a servant, and Bertram is a lord; they cannot be equals. The countess urges Helena to admit her real objection—that having feelings for her own brother would be improper—and she does. Helena also admits that she has plans to follow Bertram to Paris in order to try her father’s cures on the king. The countess is doubtful; she says that the king’s doctors have told him nothing can be done. Helena objects; she bets her life that she can cure the king. The countess relents and sends her off to Paris.
Act 2, Scene 1
In Paris, the king bids farewell to the Brothers Dumaine, who are off to fight for Florence in the war with Sienna. Lafew announces the arrival of Gerard de Narbon’s daughter, Helena, who has come to cure the ailing king. Helena explains that upon his deathbed, her father passed on his knowledge to her. The king doubts her ability to make him better, but she swears upon her life that he will be healed within a day or two. She offers a wager: If she fails, she will be put to death; if she succeeds, she will be able to choose her own husband from among ‘‘the royal blood of France.’’ With little conviction, the king accepts her offer.
Act 2, Scene 2
The countess entrusts Lavatch with the task of traveling to Paris to give Helena a note and check up on Bertram. In a series of bawdy comments that frustrate the countess, Lavatch agrees.
Act 2, Scene 3
Bertram, Parolles, and Lafew are stunned to see the king miraculously cured. The king urges Helena to have a seat and take her pick of husbands from the assembled gathering of lords. Lafew wishes he were younger so Helena might pick him. Helena addresses the lords, claiming to be a simple maid, and all refuse her. Then she decides on Bertram. ‘‘This is the man,’’ she says. Bertram argues with the king on account of the fact that she is ‘‘a poor physician’s daughter.’’ The king responds that ‘‘From lowest place, whence virtuous things proceed, / The place is dignified by th’doer’s deed.’’ Furthermore, she is pretty and smart, and Bertram should be happy to have her. As for her lack of wealth and the social status, the king states that he is capable of granting them. Bertram reiterates that he will never love her. Helena briefly recants her decision, but the king will not hear of it. His reputation is at stake, so he forces Bertram to marry her that night. When the others have departed, Lafew and Parolles talk about what Lafew perceives as Parolles’s lack of loyalty to Bertram. Lafew also derides Parolles’s pompous personality and gaudy clothes. Parolles dismisses Lafew as an old man with no wisdom to impart. Lafew warns that such foolishness will lead Parolles to ruin. Offstage, Helena and Bertram are married. When Lafew tells Parolles that he has a new mistress (Helena), Parolles responds that he has no mistress and no lord other than God. Lafew responds that the devil is his master and that he should be beaten. After Lafew leaves, Bertram enters. Bertram says that he will never consummate his marriage to Helena. Instead, he will go off to fight in the Tuscan wars and send Helena back to Rossillion. Parolles agrees to join him.
Act 2, Scene 4
Lavatch arrives in Paris and greets Helena and Parolles, whom he insults by calling him a knave. Parolles does not realize Lavatch has insulted him. Parolles tells Helena to prepare for her wedding night, and she leaves to await Bertram.
Act 2, Scene 5
Lafew tries to convince Bertram that Parolles will not be a trustworthy ally in battle, to no avail. Helena reappears, and Bertram tells her that he will not sleep with her that night because of his prior obligations. He gives her a letter to give to his mother and tells her to return to Rossillion. Helena vows that as his obedient servant she will do what he asks. After she leaves, Bertram confesses to Parolles that he will never return to her, and they go off to battle.
Act 3, Scene 1
In Florence, the duke addresses his troops, which include the Brothers Dumaine, who are both serving as captains. The duke is perturbed that the king of France has not sided exclusively with him in the war, but the two lords proclaim their allegiance to the duke nonetheless.
Act 3, Scene 2
Lavatch returns to Rossillion and delivers Bertram’s letter to the countess. The letter states that Bertram has been forced to marry Helena against his will. He has run away and plans never to return to the palace. The countess is angry that he is dishonoring both the king and Helena, whom she calls ‘‘a maid too virtuous / For the contempt of empire.’’ Helena arrives in Rossillion with the Brothers Dumaine. She realizes that Bertram is gone for good when the two lords tell the countess that Bertram has gone to battle for the Duke of Florence. Helena reads a passage from Bertram’s letter, which states that she can only be his wife if she wears his ring (which he has refused to give her) and bears him a child. Furthermore, he says that as long as Helena is alive in France, he shall not return. The countess renounces him as her son. In a soliloquy, Helena laments her position. She is sad for herself, but also worried that Bertram will be hurt or killed in battle. She decides to leave France so Bertram can return home safely.
Act 3, Scene 3
In a brief scene, the Duke of Florence leads Bertram and others into battle. Bertram bravely heads up the troops, and Parolles, coward that he is, follows in the rear.
Act 3, Scene 4
In Rossillion, the countess receives a letter from Helena stating that she has gone on a pilgrimage to the burial site of Saint Jacques le Grand (St. James the Greater) in hopes that her departure will prompt Bertram to return home. The countess urges her steward to write to Bertram in an effort to extol Helena’s virtues and point out how childish he is being in refusing her as his wife. The countess thinks that if Bertram returns home and Helena hears about it, then she will return as well due to her immense desire to be near him.
Act 3, Scene 5
In the city of Florence, the Widow Capilet and her daughter, Diana, discuss the war. News of the young Count Bertram’s heroism on the battlefield has spread fast, and they are aware of his brave deeds. However, Parolles has been seeking a female companion for the count and has spied Diana. Both the Widow and her friend Mariana warn Diana vehemently against becoming involved in an affair. If Diana loses her virginity to the Count of Rossillion, she will be ruined. Helena arrives at the Widow’s house in search of a place to stay on her pilgrimage to Saint Jacques le Grand. The Widow welcomes her and says that the Count of Rossillion, a war hero, is in town. Helena says she does not know him, but finds him handsome. Diana says that the count should not be so mean to his wife, but that Parolles should be poisoned.
Act 3, Scene 6
At the camp, the Brothers Dumaine try to convince Bertram that Parolles is a scoundrel, liar, and coward. Bertram doubts that they can prove such accusations. The lords offer to pose as the enemy, capture and blindfold Parolles, bring him back to the tents, and interrogate him, knowing full well that he will incriminate Bertram to save his own skin. Bertram agrees to the plan. Parolles enters the tent, stating his intent to find a prized regimental drum that was lost in battle. The others tell him to forget about it, but he is adamant, believing he will be deemed a hero for retrieving it. They relent, deciding that it will be the perfect time to capture him. Parolles proclaims he will attempt the dangerous maneuver that night.
Act 3, Scene 7
Helena convinces the Widow that she is the count’s wife. She proposes a plan in which Diana’s virtue will be spared by switching places with Diana during her scheduled rendezvous with Bertram. Thus, Bertram will be sleeping unknowingly with his wife, not Diana. Ahead of time, Diana will ask that Bertram give her his ring and that neither of them speak for the hour they are together. The Widow agrees to the plan, because it will allow her daughter to retain her chastity. To seal the deal, Helena offers a great deal of money to Diana so that she will have a significant dowry and will be able to find herself a worthy husband afterward.
Act 4, Scene 1
Parolles arrives in a field, ostensibly on his quest to find the drum, but he has no intentions of doing so. Instead, he plans to take a nap, feign some injuries, and return to camp with a story about his brave but unsuccessful exploit. The two lords are hiding in the bushes, and they jump out, throwing a sack over his head. They have an interpreter utter some mumbo jumbo—‘‘Boskos thromuldo boskos’’—to make Parolles believe he has been captured by the foreign enemy. Parolles immediately offers to spill the beans about his army’s secrets in an effort to spare his life. His ‘‘captors’’ agree to take him to their general, so Parolles can tell him everything.
Act 4, Scene 2
In his effort to plan his conquest, Bertram tries to seduce Diana by comparing her to the Greek goddess Diana and saying that remaining chaste would be a waste of her beauty. Diana reminds him that he is married, but Bertram brushes it off. He says he loves only Diana. Diana is not convinced; she knows that he just wants to sleep with her. She declares that she will believe his declaration of love only if he backs it up with the promise to marry her after his wife dies and if he gives her the family ring he wears on his finger. He protests, but gives in fairly quickly. Diana says she will meet him at midnight in her room. He will stay for only one hour, and neither of them will speak. In return for his ring, she will give him one of her own in return. After Bertram leaves, Diana gives a short soliloquy stating that her mother was right about him. All men are the same; they will promise anything to get a woman into bed.
Act 4, Scene 3
The Brothers Dumaine discuss Bertram. The first lord tells the second lord that Helena is dead, having succumbed to grief on her pilgrimage to Saint Jacques le Grand. Her death was confirmed by the priest of the shrine. Furthermore, Bertram knew this when he made his deal with Diana. The lords are saddened by Helena’s death, and they are dismayed (but not surprised) that Bertram is cheered by it and happily announces that he will return to Rossillion shortly. The two lords tell Bertram that Parolles has been held in the stocks, offering his ‘‘captors’’ a litany of confessions. Bertram still does not believe Parolles would say anything bad about him. To prove him wrong, Parolles is sent in, still blindfolded. Parolles says that the duke’s horses are weak, his troops scattered, and his commanders are poor rogues. He further indicts Captain Dumaine as a low-level apprentice who once impregnated a mentally retarded girl. One of the captors retrieves a letter from Parolles’s pocket, in which he wrote that Bertram is a fool. He claims to have been warning Diana that the count was ‘‘a dangerous and lascivious boy, who is a whale to virginity, and devours up all the fry it finds.’’ He begs for his life and continues to say terrible things about Captain Dumaine, including that ‘‘drunkenness is his best virtue.’’ He also condemns the other Captain Dumaine and readily agrees to betray all of them if only he is allowed to live. Bertram is livid at Parolles’s betrayal. When Parolles is unmasked, he balks at being fooled but readily apologizes.
Act 4, Scene 4
Following the bed-trick (which takes place offstage), Helena tells the Widow and Diana that they will all return to France in order to make good on her promise. When they get there, Diana will need to do one more thing before their scheme is complete. Diana vows to do whatever Helena desires, such is her gratitude for having her virtue saved by the bed-trick. Helena assures her that ‘‘all’s well that ends well.’’
Act 4, Scene 5
In Rossillion, Lafew criticizes Parolles, and the countess wishes she had never known him. She laments Helena’s death, stating that she loved her as if she were her own child. Lafew proposes that Bertram marry his daughter, and the countess agrees. Lavatch engages in some off-color banter with Lafew and the countess; they both state that he is morose but harmless. Lavatch announces that Bertram has returned.
Act 5, Scene 1
While traveling to Rossillion as fast as they can, Helena, Diana, and the Widow encounter a gentleman. Helena asks him to take a message to the King of France. The gentleman states that the king is not in Paris but in fact heading for Rossillion. ‘‘All’s well that ends well yet,’’ Helena reminds the Widow. Helena promises a reward to the gentleman if he can deliver her letter to the king promptly, and he obliges.
Act 5, Scene 2
Parolles returns to Rossillion and urges Lavatch, who roundly criticizes Parolles’s withered clothes and body odor, to give Lafew a letter. But Lafew enters, and Lavatch introduces Parolles as a ‘‘poor, decayed … foolish, rascally knave.’’ Parolles begs forgiveness from Lafew, who grants it.
Act 5, Scene 3
The king mourns Helena’s death, and with Lafew and the countess present, he summons Bertram. The king asks Bertram if he knows Lafew’s daughter. The count says he was in love with her, and the king announces their betrothal. Lafew asks Bertram for a ring to give his daughter. He presents the ring he believes Diana gave him during their rendezvous. Lafew instantly recognizes it as Helena’s ring, but Bertram objects. He claims it was thrown from a window by a woman who wanted to sleep with him. The king sides with Lafew, saying that Helena promised only to take it off her finger if she consummated her marriage with Bertram. Bertram remains adamant—he did not receive the ring from Helena. The king orders Bertram to be taken away. As Bertram is being led away, he says that if the ring belonged to Helena, then she, in fact, became his wife in Florence, and yet, she was not there, so the ring was not hers and she is not his wife. Bertram is led away, and the king is perplexed. Meanwhile, the gentleman arrives with a letter to the king from Diana. The letter claims that Bertram promised to marry her upon the death of his wife, but that he fled Florence without making good on that promise. She is on her way to Rossillion to seek justice. At this turn of events, Lafew recants his daughter’s hand in marriage, believing Bertram not worthy of being her husband. The king agrees and starts to believe that Helena met with foul play, possibly at Bertram’s hands. Bertram and Diana, along with her mother, are brought to court. The king asks Bertram if he knows either Diana or her mother, and Bertram refuses to answer, but states that Diana is not his wife. Diana insists that Bertram believes he took her virginity. Bertram says she was a whore. Diana presents his ring as proof that she is telling the truth. The countess and the king instantly believe her. Diana says that Parolles can vouch for her story, and he is ordered to appear. Bertram backtracks, saying he slept with Diana and she stole the ring. Diana says that she gave Bertram the ring the king is now wearing. Bertram finally confesses; Parolles appears and confesses that he was the go-between for Bertram and Diana. The king questions Diana about the ring some more, and she cryptically says she never gave it to Bertram. The king knows full well the ring was Helena’s and orders Diana to be sent to jail for refusing to cooperate. She sends her mother to fetch her bail. Diana enjoys the riddle she has presented, and knowing of Helena’s ensuing pregnancy, she tells the king: ‘‘Dead though she be, she feels her young one kick. So there’s my riddle: one that’s dead is quick.’’ The Widow presents Helena, who quotes Bertram’s original letter: ‘‘When from my finger you can get this ring, / And are by me with child,’’ proving that she has achieved Bertram’s seemingly unattainable criteria. Presented with this evidence, Bertram professes his undying love for Helena and promises to be a faithful husband. The king, delighted at this turnabout, applauds Diana for retaining her chastity while allowing Helena to fulfill her role as Bertram’s wife. He offers Diana a dowry and her choice for a husband.
(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