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All's Well That Ends Well | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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All's Well That Ends Well | Act 1, Scene 1 | Summary



The play opens during a time of mourning. The Count of Rossillion has died, and his wife, the countess, and son Bertram are grieving their loss. The countess feels she is about to lose her son as well. Upon his father's death, Bertram, who is not yet of age, has become ward to the ailing king of France; the king has now summoned Bertram to his court. Lord Lafew, an older nobleman, reassures Bertram and his mother the king is a good man, despite his illness. The countess and Lafew note how unfortunate it is Gerard de Narbon, a talented physician who worked in the Count of Rossillion's court, has recently died. A good man "whose skill / was almost as great as his honesty," they are certain Gerard de Narbon could have cured the king.

Gerard de Narbon's daughter, Helen, was raised in the Count of Rossillion's household and is now a ward of the countess. The older woman introduces Helen to Lafew and says Gerard de Narbon's virtues live on in his daughter. Helen begins weeping. As Bertram prepares to leave for France with Lafew, his mother gives him some last words of advice, telling him, "Love all, trust a few, / Do wrong to none." The two men then depart, with Bertram asking Helen to care for his mother.

Once she is alone, Helen admits to herself her tears are not for her father, but because she is deeply in love with the countess's son and because, "There is no living, none, / If Bertram be away." She also considers how Bertram is like "a bright particular star / ... so above [her]," it is useless to hope to marry him. As she continues to recall Bertram's charms, Parolles, another courtier who will be accompanying the young count to France, enters the room. Helen considers the man to be a liar, a fool, and a coward, but she nevertheless allows him to engage her in lewd banter about virginity and the eternal conflict between men and women. Helen almost reveals she will give herself only to Bertram, but catches herself just as Parolles is called away. Helen decides to find a solution to her problem, saying, "Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie." She implies her plan has something to do with the king's illness.


The opening scene introduces key characters and provides the information necessary for the audience to understand the repercussions caused by the death of Bertram's father. Bertram has not only lost a parent, but he must also suddenly leave his home and his widowed mother, which makes him feel his father's death even more strongly. The countess is attempting to cope with the double loss of her husband and son, but she puts up a stoic front and sends her son off with wise advice. Yet it is the least of the losses—Helen's impending loss of Bertram, who seems barely conscious of her existence—that will drive the events of the play.

Helen is a romantic, comparing Bertram to a bright star and sighing over their separation more than she mourns the father who raised her and died only six months before (as Bertram reveals in the next scene). She longs for Bertram, even though it is clear Bertram thinks of her only as a childhood acquaintance, barely worth noticing because she is from a lower class. However, Helen reveals herself to be much more intelligent, strong, and determined than Bertram realizes. She has the admiration of the countess and is able to hold her own with the lewd Parolles. It is also clear she is devising some intricate plot to win Bertram back, something to do with the king's health.

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