All's Well That Ends Well | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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All's Well That Ends Well | Act 2, Scene 3 | Summary

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Summary

Back in Paris, a miracle has occurred. Parolles, Lafew, and Bertram watch in astonishment as the king of France enters the throne room, completely cured and accompanied by Helen, whom he calls "my preserver." The king of France orders all of the eligible lords in court to appear before him. In order to reward Helen as promised, the king will allow her to choose one of the men at the court to be her husband. Helen tells the young men her only wealth comes from heaven allowing her to cure the king, and she is a maid. Her only fear, she says, is the one she chooses will reject her. The king makes it clear, however, "Who shuns [Helen's] love shuns all his love in [the King]." In other words the man she chooses would be wise to accept her, or he risks the anger of the king.

One by one Helen addresses the lords, playfully telling each why she will not choose him to marry her. Finally, Helen turns to Bertram and announces he is her choice. To everyone's shock Bertram immediately rejects her, asking the king to let him choose a wife with "[t]he help of [his] own eyes." Though Helen has cured the king, Bertram insists this is not a valid reason he should be forced to marry her. He goes on to state Helen would "bring [him] down," in his social station, since she is nothing more than a poor physician's daughter.

The king of France, astonished, tells Bertram rank is just a meaningless title and means nothing when compared with true goodness and worth. He says if Bertram can love Helen for herself, he will, as king, bestow upon her the rank, honor, and wealth Bertram seems to feel is lacking. Amazingly, Bertram responds he "cannot love her, nor will strive to do 't." Embarrassed, Helen does not push the issue, but the king, concerned about upholding his end of the bargain, decides to exercise his power. He calls Bertram a "[p]roud, scornful boy" unworthy of Helen, but insists Bertram take Helen's hand in marriage or suffer the king's "revenge and hate." Realizing he is on dangerous ground, Bertram grudgingly says he now realizes the woman he thought was "most base" is in truth the "praisèd of the King" and ennobled as a consequence. He agrees to the match, and the king of France announces the ceremony will be held immediately.

All but Lafew and Parolles exit. Lafew tells Parolles it is good his "lord and master" recanted. Parolles bristles at being labeled a servant and the men get into a war of words. Lafew easily bests the younger man and then heads off to see what is happening elsewhere. Stewing in resentment, Parolles vows to best Lafew at some point. Lafew returns, announcing Bertram and Helen have been married and Parolles has a new mistress, incensing the younger man even more. When Parolles begins sputtering in anger, Lafew concludes he is "not worth another word" and leaves him once again.

At this point Bertram enters, miserable, and Parolles teasingly asks his "sweetheart" what is wrong. Bertram says he has been forced to marry Helen but vows, "I will not bed her." He swears he will, instead, go off to the wars in Italy to avoid her. Parolles, seeing a way to get revenge on Lafew and anyone else who looks down on him, encourages Bertram to proceed with his plan. Bertram agrees, saying he will send Helen to the countess's house along with a sealed letter that will let his mother know the hate he feels for his new bride.

Analysis

All's Well That Ends Well is considered by many critics to be the most problematic of Shakespeare's comedies, so much so many don't consider it a comedy at all. Act 2, Scene 3 provides an example of why this opinion is so prevalent. Helen is portrayed as intelligent, admired, well-spoken, and clever. Bertram, however, continues to be presented as shallow and immature. Blinded by his worship of status and rank, he is unable to see any of Helen's many admirable qualities, even when the king offers to raise her status.

The audience will likely perceive the dramatic irony working in the play. Bertram doesn't realize his actions are proving he is the opposite of what he perceives himself to be. He is a spoiled child, not a respected nobleman. Just as he pouted when he could not go to war, he now acts like a little boy throwing a tantrum. He also displays an astonishing disrespect for the king of France, originally ignoring his statement to shun Helen is to shun the king and by dismissing the importance of the king's return to health at Helen's hands. Also, although Bertram is ambitious, he doesn't even realize by marrying Helen he would seal a strong relationship with the king.

The scene reveals Bertram's values are as far from the king's, and those of his own father, as it is possible for them to be. Both older men demonstrated humility, respected all individuals despite their social station, and valued character over title. It is a mystery, then, why Helen would want someone who not only rejects her, but who is clearly inferior to her in every conceivable way. Bertram's "solution" to his problem, which is to run away and leave it to his mother to help him sort out his situation, is further evidence the young man is still a child, unworthy of Helen's love. But through this situation, Shakespeare may simply be showing the reality of love—that even the most intelligent person may adore another who is completely unworthy and be blind to their flaws as a result.

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