All's Well That Ends Well | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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All's Well That Ends Well | Act 2, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

Act 2, Scene 1 returns the action to France, where the king of France is receiving oaths of loyalty from First Lord Dumaine and Second Lord Dumaine as many of his young lords head off to war. The king of France encourages them to conduct themselves as "the sons / Of worthy Frenchmen" and humorously cautions them to beware the girls of Italy who might take them captive. The scene is bittersweet, however, because neither the king of France nor his lords expect he will live to see their return.

Bertram, who is attending the king, is frustrated because the king has ordered him to stay behind, saying he is too young to go to war. As the king of France speaks to his attendants, Bertram expresses his frustration to Parolles, First Lord Dumaine, and Second Lord Dumaine. Parolles suggests Bertram may want to ignore the king of France's orders and steal off to join the army, a move First Lord Dumaine and Second Lord Dumaine both playfully encourage. For now, however, Bertram peevishly says he must stay with the king.

In the king of France's chamber, Lafew arrives in a state of great excitement. He tells the king of France a young female doctor has arrived with a cure for the king's illness. The king is skeptical, but agrees to see her. Lafew presents Helen and leaves her alone with the king of France. He tells Helen he does not believe she can cure him, and he does not want to allow himself to hope. But she presses the king to allow her to try, saying, "My art is not past power nor you past cure." Helen urges him to at least believe in the power of heaven. He asks her what she offers as collateral, and she says she offers both her reputation and her life. The king, impressed by her, finally agrees, but Helen is not done. She elicits a promise from the king if she succeeds, "Then shalt thou give me with thy kingly hand / What husband in thy power I will command." The king, finally daring to hope, agrees.

Analysis

The beginning of Act 2, Scene 1 reinforces the audience's initial impression of the king of France. He is a good man, beloved by his people, but resigned to his impending death. His acceptance of his mortality may explain why, later in the scene, he is so reluctant to accept Helen's offer of help. Having come to terms with death, he does not seem to be able to bear the possibility a second chance at life is being dangled in front of him, perhaps only to be snatched away. His eventual trust in Helen and the hope he finally allows himself to feel are both surprisingly poignant.

In this exchange with the king of France, Helen finally demonstrates the full extent of her intelligence, courage, and determination. She provides myriad reasons for why the king should trust a young girl when his own doctors have failed. She appeals to his logic, his faith, and his belief she has the same affection for him all his subjects display. She cements that belief by offering her own life as collateral. Yet the audience is also aware for Helen, curing the king is really a strategy she is using to win Bertram.

This scene may make the audience wonder why Helen feels so strongly about Bertram. In his conversation with First Lord Dumaine and Second Lord Dumaine, Bertram reveals himself to be little more than a shallow, petulant child who dreams of going to war and being a soldier. And the lords themselves don't seem to take him too seriously, with First Lord Dumaine seeming to taunt him—"O my sweet lord, that you will stay behind us!" Then they tease Bertram about ignoring the king's command and running away with them. Parolles, ever the bad influence, more seriously encourages him to defy the king and run off to the wars. Not recognizing the teasing or Parolles's bad advice for what it is, Bertram, at first, agrees but then changes his mind and decides to remain with the king.

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