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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 3, Scenes 1–2 | Summary



Act 3, Scene 1

This brief scene introduces the audience to the war. The Duke of Florence, along with the French lord, First Lord Dumaine, wonders aloud about the king of France's neutrality in the Italian wars. The lord suggests the war seems holy to the duke but a black and fearful thing to any who oppose it. In any case it is clear the king of France has allowed his young men to go to war simply to allow them an opportunity to gain experience and prove their manhood.

Act 3, Scene 2

Back in Rossillion, the countess is delighted to hear Helen and her son have married, saying, "It hath happened all as I would have had it." She wonders, though, why her son has not accompanied his bride home. The fool cautions her Bertram had seemed melancholy when the fool last saw him, which perplexes the countess until she reads the letter Bertram has sent. He reveals in the letter the marriage has "undone" him and he has wedded but not bedded Helen. He tells his mother he does not plan for the wedding vow to be permanent; he has run away, and he will stay away as long as possible.

The countess reacts not with sorrow but with anger, calling her son a "rash and unbridled boy" who has both shown disrespect for the king of France and rejected a woman who is more than worthy of his love and admiration. The fool tries to make her laugh, saying if Bertram continues to "run away" at least he will not be killed in battle.

Two gentlemen, first gentleman and second gentleman, appear with Helen, who is holding a paper. The gentlemen reveal they have seen Bertram and he has gone to serve the Duke of Florence in the Tuscan wars. Helen, shaken, reads from the letter Bertram has sent her through the gentlemen. In it he proclaims if Helen can get his ring, which he never removes from his finger, and bears his child, even though he will never lie with her, only then may she call him her husband. He also writes in the letter, "But in such a 'then' I write a / 'never'" and finishes with "Till I have no wife I have nothing in France."

The countess, furious at Bertram, says she "wash[es] his name out of [her] blood" and proclaims Helen is her only child. She adds Helen deserves a true lord and Bertram is only fit to be one of the boys who might serve her and call her mistress. When she learns from the gentlemen Parolles is with Bertram, she is certain the "tainted fellow" has, at least in part, corrupted her son. This does not excuse her son in her eyes, however, and she asks the two gentlemen to convey to her son that "his sword can never win / The honor that he loses" through his treatment of Helen.

The countess leaves with the two gentlemen. Helen is left alone. She rereads the sentence that states, "Till I have no wife I have nothing in France," and, instead of being angry, she berates herself for driving Bertram to war and putting him in harm's way. She prays no bullets reach him, for she will feel she has caused his death. She decides the only solution is for her to flee France, which would give Bertram the freedom to return home.


Once again Helen shows herself to be Bertram's superior in every way except for her blindness when it comes to his character. Rather than be angry with him for his treatment of her she worries only about his safety, feeling she has driven him from his home country. The countess, on the other hand, recognizes Helen's worth and her own son's lack of honor, immediately disowning him and taking Helen as her true child. She also becomes one of the increasing numbers of people who feel Parolles is worthless and wicked. It appears only Bertram trusts the man, which provides more proof of his immaturity and lack of discernment.

The most important element in Act 3, Scene 2, however, is Bertram's letter to Helen. He sets up the two conditions that must be met for her to be able to call him husband. First, she must gain possession of a ring that never leaves his finger. Second, she must become pregnant with his child, though he will never lay with her. These conditions are reminiscent of old folktales where a hero or a heroine must accomplish impossible tasks to win a kingdom, the hand of a prince or princess, or something else their heart desires. It could be argued Helen has already completed one impossible task by curing the king of France. Bertram has now given her the remaining two. But the audience, unlike those who listened to the folktales, may wonder if Helen's objective—winning Bertram—is worth her efforts.

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