All’s Well that Ends Well abbreviated

Rossillion is a region in the south of France, near its border with Spain, near the Mediterranean, and it must be a beautiful place, beautiful part of the world the south of France is.  Three principals in the play are from Rossillion, and they are on stage as the play opens, Bertram, Helen and the Countess.

Bertram is the son of the late Count of Rossillion and heir to his father’s position.  Helen is the daughter of Gerard de Narbon who was the late count’s attending physician.  He too has recently died.  The Countess is Bertram’s mother.  She has been charged with overseeing Helen’s well-being, the Countess saying “Her father bequeathed her to me.”

Our guess is that Bertram and Helen are both in their late teens.  Helen has a crush on Bertram, a central theme in the play.  Bertram, too young to inherit his father’s position as Rossillion’s count, has been called to the king’s court in Paris to attend the king under a guardianship.  And Helen is love-sick over the thought of Bertram’s going to Paris while she has to stay there in Rossillion. (Infatuation, Act 1, Scene 1)

We learn that France’s king has a medical problem.  Ever resourceful Helen, whose father bequeathed her his prescriptions, conceives of a plan to aid the king.  Her plan is to restore the king to good health by using the best of her father’s medications, but first she has to get to Paris and to get the king’s attention, but she’s good and she does.  But her greater interest in designing her plan is to get to get closer to Bertram and perhaps win him, but that’s getting ahead of the story.  Parolles, a rascally sort of guy and a friend of Bertram’s, has a talk with Helen, telling her among other things to “get thee a good husband, and use him as he uses thee.” (Humor, Act 1, Scene 1)

We soon learn that a regional war has erupted in northern Italy between Siena and Florence, and for whatever reasons, the French King suggests his soldiers go to Italy and fight for the cause they believe in, wishing them well, saying “Go not to woo honor but to wed it.” Bertram has now arrived in Paris and is warmly greeted by the king, who immediately reminisces about the friendship he and Bertram’s father had when they were boys. The king asks “How long since the physician at your father’s side died?”  Bertram answers “Some six months since.”  The king says “If he were living, I would try him yet, the rest have worn me out with several applications.”  (Honor, Act 1, Scene 2)

Meanwhile back in Rossillion, the Countess learns from her steward Rinaldo that Helen “loves your son.”  The relationship between the Countess and Helen all along has been a little cool.  The Countess confronts Helen, saying “Helen, I am mother to you.”  Helen responds “The Count Rossillion cannot be my brother.”  The Countess continues to press Helen, saying “Do you love my son?” (Mother to Daughter, Act 1, Scene 3)  Helen replies “Be not angry; he is not hurt by my love for him.” (Daughter to Mother, Act 1, Scene 3)  Helen then tells the Countess that she plans to go to Paris with hopes to aid the king with her father’s “prescriptions of rare and proved effects.”

At about the time Helen arrives in Paris, the French soldiers are preparing to leave for Italy. The king tells the young men “Those girls of Italy, take heed of them. Beware of being captives before you serve.” Aware that Helen has arrived in Paris, Lafew, a French lord who was close to Bertram’s father and is well connected to the king, tells the king “I have seen a medicine that’s able to breathe life into a stone, and make you dance with sprightly fire and motion, and write to her a love line.”  The king responds “What ‘her’ is this?”  Lafew says “Why, Doctor She.  My lord, there’s one arrived, if you will see her.”  The king says “Now, good Lafew, bring in the admiration.”  Helen enters saying “Ay, my good lord, Gerard de Narbon was my father.” The king says “I knew him.” She wastes no time making her case to the king, an impressive and persuasive presentation, offering the king her father’s chief prescription, “the dearest of his practice.” (Request, Act 2, Scene 1) But the king abruptly rejects her offer. Not to be denied, Helen presses forward and the king relents, saying “Thy medicine I will try.”  She offers a quid pro quo, saying “Not helping, death’s my fee. But if I help, what do you promise me?”  He takes the bait.  She tells him she wants him to help her get the husband of her choice.  The king says in effect that if you help me “What husband in thy power I will command.”  Helen’s ‘rare’ prescription “restores the king to health.”  Holding up her end of the bargain, she tells the king she wants Bertram for a husband.  But when the king talks to Bertram, suggesting he marry Helen, Bertram rebuffs him, saying “A poor physician’s daughter my wife?  I cannot love her, nor will strive to do ‘t.” (Insight, Act 2, Scene 3)  The king, as kings can do, suggests to Bertram in a firmer tone that it’s in his best interest to reconsider his position. Bertram does. Bertram and Helen are married late that afternoon.  But immediately after the wedding Bertram turns to his friend Parolles and says “They have married me!  I’ll to the Tuscan wars.”  He instructs Helen to pack her bags and to return to Rossillion, to be cared for by his mother.  He promptly leaves for Florence; she for Rossillion.

While in Italy Bertram sends his mother a letter, meant for her and his new wife Helen, bringing them up to date with current events.  The letter is delivered to the Countess soon after Helen arrives in Rossillion. In his letter Bertram says: “Show me a child begotten of thy body that I am father to, then call me husband.”  A broken-hearted Helen decides to slip away alone that night on a pilgrimage to the shrine at Saint Jacques. (Prayer, Act 3, Scene 2)

Meanwhile in Italy, the Duke of Florence has welcomed Bertram and his support of his cause, whatever it might be.  Helen writes a letter to the Countess who in turn instructs Rinaldo to write to her son, hoping he’ll return to Rossillion once he learns that Helen has left, and if he does, the Countess believes that Helen “hearing so much, will speed her foot again, led hither by pure love.”  (Grief, Act 3, Scene 4) It doesn’t work out that way.  On her way to the shrine at Saint Jacques Helen meets the Widow of Florence and her daughter, Diana.  Feeling sorry for Helen, alone and forlorn, the Widow offers her room and board, and Helen accepts.  In their conversations, the Widow and Diana tell Helen about a Frenchman, a Count Rossillion, who “has done worthy service” for the Florentines.  When asked if she knows him, Helen says “but by the ear. His face I know not.”  When they tell Helen that they’ve heard that “the king had married him against his liking” she says only that “I know his lady.”  Helen soon learns that the not-ready-to-be-married Bertram has been expressing a serious interest in Diana. (Proposal, Act 3, Scene 7)

In Italy, two French lords tell Bertram that Parolles is “a most notable coward, an infinite and endless liar.”  No one seems to disagree.  At about this time we learn that Parolles is concerned with the loss of a drum.  It seems no one else has even thought about the missing drum. He says “I’ll about it this evening.”  Bertram’s plans that evening are to visit Diana.  All the while resourceful Helen is gaining the trust of the Widow.  Quick-thinking and clever Helen suggests to her two new-found friends that she substitute herself for Diana in the dark of the night, in the dark bedroom, very early in the morning, at the time Bertram plans to visit.  During the heat and passion of the moment, Helen plans is to talk Bertram out of his ring, an ancestral ring that had been given to him by his father, who had received it from his father, as it had for generations been handed down father-to-son.  The Widow and Diana like the idea. Helen says “Why then tonight let us assay our plot, which, is wicked meaning in a lawful deed. But let’s about it.”    

Meanwhile, Parolles, having slipped away to look for the lost drum, finding himself seemingly alone in the woods, begins to realize the fruitlessness of his effort and says to himself “What devil should move me to undertake the recovery of this drum?”  Unbeknownst to him the French Lords, hiding in wait, snare him when they see him.  He’s blindfolded and led off crying “Let me live. And all the secrets of our camp I’ll show, their force, their purposes.” 

Separately, Diana has agreed to meet Bertram in her bedroom at midnight.  The ancestral ring is transferred and the other part of the bargain is kept. In setting up the encounter with Bertram, Diana had earlier told him that “on your finger in the night I’ll put another ring, that what in time proceeds may represent to the future our past deeds.”  An in-love Bertram had told her “A heaven on earth I have won by wooing thee.”  Consumed with desire, Bertram was oblivious to the thought of whose ring he might get that night. (Deception, Act 4, Scene 2)

The French Lords let us know that Bertram has been heard to have been bragging about town about his night with Diana; that she has his ancestral ring; that it has been reported that Helen died on her pilgrimage to Saint Jaques; and that Bertram has now decided to return to Rossillion.  The First Lord says “The web of our life is a mingled yarn, good and ill together.” 

Parolles had made some unfortunate-for-himself comments while captive and blindfolded earlier that evening, such as when asked “If your life be saved, will you undertake to betray the Florentine?”  Parolles had said “Ay, and the captain of his horse, Count Rossillion.”  All the while he had been surrounded by Bertram and the two French Lords.  As his blindfold is removed, Bertram says “Good morrow, noble captain.”  Bertram and the French Lords kindly let him slink away. 

Meanwhile, Helen persuades the Widow and Diana to travel with her to Marseilles.  Their hope, having heard that the king is there, is that they can visit with the French king, all believing he can help them. (Observation, Act 4, Scene 4)  At Marseilles, they learn that the king was there but has left for Rossillion.  In Rossillion, the king hears the report that Helen has died; that in turn Lafew has encouraged Bertram to marry his daughter; and that Bertram has agreed to marry her.  To set things up, Shakespeare has the king forgive Bertram for his past indiscretions. Bertram casually gives Lafew a ring, Lafew having requested it “as a favor to sparkle in the spirits of my daughter.”  (Acceptance, Act 5, Scene 3)

Events move swiftly here.  Lafew shows the ring to the king, who says “This ring was mine, and then I gave it Helen, I bade her if her fortunes ever stood necessitied to help, that by this token I would relieve her.”  The king, Lafew and the Countess all swear the ring was Helen’s, but Bertram denies the possibility. The king has Bertram taken away under guard.  The king reads a letter from Diana implicating Bertram.  The king calls Bertram back.  Bertram is followed onto the stage by Diana and the Widow. Bertram’s arguments collapse when Diana shows Bertram’s ancestral ring to the king.  Talking about his own ring, the king says to Diana “This ring you say was yours?”  Diana agrees, but refuses to tell him how she came to have it and the king says “To prison with her.”  She says to her mother “fetch my bail,” which she does.  The Widow leaves and returns to the stage with a pregnant Helen.  Helen then reads part of Bertram’s letter from back in Act three where he had written “Call me husband when from my finger you can get this ring and are by me with child.”  Helen wins Bertram back as her husband, a dubious victory.  He says “I’ll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly.”

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