All's Well That Ends Well | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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All's Well That Ends Well | Act 2, Scenes 4–5 | Summary

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Summary

Act 2, Scene 4

This brief bridge scene and the one that follows show Bertram's plan being put in motion with Parolles's help. In Act 2, Scene 4 Helen speaks to the fool, who has traveled to Paris from the countess's court. He tells her while the countess is well, she longs to leave this earth and ascend to heaven, presumably to be with her husband. Parolles appears, looking for the fool. The fool immediately insults him by suggesting that Parolles could have found a fool by looking within himself. Ignoring him, or perhaps not understanding him, Parolles delivers the news Bertram must leave tonight on "very serious business" and the pleasures of the marriage bed must be delayed. Parolles also says Bertram wishes Helen to make some believable excuse to the king of France and take her leave of him. She will receive additional directions from her new husband later.

Act 2, Scene 5

Act 2, Scene 5 begins with a conversation between Bertram and Lafew. Bertram tells the older man Parolles is a good soldier and respected by many. Lafew fears he has misjudged Parolles and asks Bertram to make amends between them. Parolles enters and tells Bertram Helen has spoken with the king and will leave tonight. Bertram says he has prepared for his own departure and will also leave before he and Helen have had a chance to consummate their marriage. Lafew, quickly seeing he has not misjudged Parolles, warns Bertram, "The / soul of this man is his clothes"—entirely superficial—and tells him not to trust him in any important matters. Then Lafew leaves.

Helen enters and is quietly described by Bertram as "my clog," or obstruction. She tells Bertram she has spoken with the king, who, in turn, wishes to have a private conversation with him. Bertram continues his lie, reassuring Helen the situation they find themselves in is beyond his control and he will return to her in two days' time. In the meantime he asks her to return to his mother's home and deliver a sealed letter to her. Helen responds she will do as he asks and she is in all things his "most obedient servant." This comment and her other affectionate and loyal statements make Bertram uncomfortable, and he asks her to stop. She does, but not before asking for a farewell kiss, saying, "Strangers and foes do sunder and not kiss." Although there are no stage directions at this point, Bertram appears to ignore the request though he may give her a perfunctory peck. In any case he immediately sends her on her way and then tells Parolles he will not return to Helen as long as he can "shake [his] sword and hear the drum."

Analysis

Bertram's weaknesses become even more apparent in these scenes. Not only is he continuing his childish plan to escape his responsibilities by playing at war—not, apparently, realizing he could die or be horribly wounded—but he continues to take advice from Parolles, choosing as his mentor the one individual everyone else knows is worthless. This is particularly surprising given the role model he had in his father, the wise counsel available to him from Lafew and his mother, and the advice of a king who is loved and respected by all who know him. Bertram's criteria for choosing his adviser, therefore, seems to be this person agrees with everything he says and helps him do whatever he wishes.

Bertram's treatment of Helen continues to show his character flaws. Despite her offers of loyalty and love, he only wishes to be rid of her. He lies to her about the length of their separation and sends her home with a note he hopes will free him of her. He refuses to give her even a meaningful parting kiss. The only sign he might have some decency is his discomfort when Helen declares her loyalty to him. This appears to make him feel guilty, and he asks her to stop. Whether this is a sign he will grow in the course of the play is not yet clear.

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