All’s Well That Ends Well

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Comedies

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Shakespeare. All’s Well That Ends Well. (The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies, 3rd ed. 971-1033).

Act 1, Scene 1 (971-76, Elders’ hopes for the young; Helen’s idolatry of Bertram; Paroles.)

The Countess and Lafeu posit a balance in the young between inherited virtue and acquired grace and honor. The Countess says of Helen that she “derives her honesty and / achieves her goodness” (972, 1.1.40-41), while the wish for Bertram is, “Thy blood and virtue / Contend for empire in thee” (972, 1.1.56-57). Helen, however, looks forward to her immediate future with the unsparing determination we find in Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich. The tears she cries are not for her father, and her grief seems to be more pretense than sincere affection. The obstacle in her way is Bertram’s great rank. The affection she feels for this man amounts to the product of “idolatrous fancy” (973, 1.1.93), says Helen, especially since it is not reciprocated by Bertram: “’Twere all one / That I should love a bright particular star / And think to wed it, he is so above me” (973, 1.1.81-83).

Helen’s conversation with Paroles centers upon the concept of virginity, which of course this rascal dismisses out of hand as worthless, or at best a fashionable commodity to be sold to the highest bidder at the best time: “Off with’t while ‘tis vendible; answer / the time of request. Virginity, like an old courtier, wears / her cap out of fashion …” (974, 1.1.144-46). Helen’s regard for this parasite, whom she sees for what he is, stems from her admiration for Bertram. Nonetheless, she manages to get in some excellent barbs: “The wars hath so kept you under, that you must needs / be born under Mars” (975, 1.1.182-83).

With Paroles dismissed after his pledge to “return perfect courtier” (975, 1.1.193), we see Helen’s faith in merit properly showcased over destiny and the handicaps such quality sometimes confronts: “Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie / Which we ascribe to heaven…. / … Who ever strove / To show her merit that did miss her love?” (923, 1.1.201-02, 211-12) Helen already has it in mind to pay the King a visit and try her father’s cure: “The King’s disease—my project may deceive me, / But my intents are fixed and will not leave me” (976, 1.1.213-14).

Act 1, Scene 2 (976-78, King welcomes Bertram, but praises Bertram’s father more.)

In the second scene, there is still more praise amongst the elders when the King showers encomiums upon Bertram’s father: “He had the wit which can well observe / Today in our young lords, but they may jest / Till their own scorn return to them unnoted / Ere they can hide their levity in honour…” (977, 1.2.32-35). The Second Lord Dumaine suggests that young aristocrats need the exercise of war to keep them sharp and in line. Though the King won’t send the Florentines any help directly because the Duke of Austria has asked him to refrain, some martial experience “well may serve / A nursery to our gentry, who are sick / For breathing and exploit” (976, 1.2.15-17). This advice no doubt plays to the aging King’s anxiety about the transference of deep qualities and proper forms from the old to a new generation. (We might question whether or not military experience does anything for Bertram, but that’s a question for later.) 

The King reflects that Bertram’s father had said young people care for nothing but fashion, implying that the young inevitably exhaust their energy upon unworthy objects: “‘Let me not live’, quoth he, / ‘After my flame lacks oil, to be the snuff / Of younger spirits, whose apprehensive senses / All but new things disdain …” (977, 1.2.58-60). What’s in doubt here, as mentioned above, is the success of a process central to many of Shakespeare’s comedies: the transference of virtue from one generation to the next. Is there any continuity beyond the lowest common denominator, the shallowest patterns of conduct and belief? Yet this anxiety is set forth with becoming humility: of himself, the King says in response to the Second Lord Dumaine’s praise, “I fill a place, I know’t” (978, 1.2.69). Bertram exits after his warm reception by the King.

Act 1, Scene 3 (978-83, the Clown shows himself to be a pragmatic materialist; the Countess sides with Helen, who will go to court to offer the King a cure.)

The Clown (who is referred to as “Lavache” in some editions) doesn’t pay much attention to the concept of virtue, whether inner or outer. Parodically recycling this play’s emphasis on organic imagery implying nourishment and growth, he even praises adultery: “He / that ears my land spares my team and gives me leave to in / the crop…. / He that comforts my wife is the cherisher of my flesh and blood …” (979, 1.3.38-40). This character is a naturalist who doesn’t suppose there is any way to escape from the world, the flesh, or the devil: as he says while explaining to the Countess why he intends to marry, “My poor body, madam, requires it; I am driven on by / the flesh, and he must needs go that the devil drives” (978, 1.3.24-25). 

When Reynaldo reports on Helen’s affection for Bertram (980, 1.3.93-98), the Countess sides entirely with natural desire and quality in the person of Helen: “Even so it was with me when I was young” (980, 1.3.113). She is charitable where this young woman is concerned, and somewhat shocked when Helen seems afraid of the term “mother” (981, 1.3.139). Helen certainly shows her merit when she confesses her thoughts about Bertram to the Countess, saying, “I follow him not / By any token of presumptuous suit, / Nor would I have him till I do deserve him …” (929, 1.3.182-84). She shows it too in her determination at this early point to risk her life in administering her father’s medicines to cure the King: “I’d venture / The well-lost life of mine on his grace’s cure …” (983, 1.3.232-33).

A key issue in the play is the propensity in individuals and entire societies to hollow out even their deepest values and become empty formalists. Bertram is such a formalist. No doubt Shakespeare’s Renaissance women like a project. But is Bertram a project that can be redeemed from failure—is he worth the effort? That is a question to ask as we go through the play and see how things turn out.

At this point, I’ll just suggest that perhaps this play is not so much about the usual happy transition of a value system intact to a younger generation, but instead about accommodation between old and young, and between one young person and another by arrangement. It’s about mediating between the common lot of any rank and excellence so that a satisfactory solution can be obtained. The eventual marriage between Helen and Bertram may be nothing more than an excellent marriage of convenience backed by the power of a countess and a king. In a sense, the Countess is doing what aristocrats eventually must do: invigorating her stock with new blood.

Act 2, Scene 1 (983-88, Paroles counsels Bertram to pay homage to military fashion; Helen succeeds in her pitch to the King.)

In advising Bertram to show more regard for the Lords Dumaine, Paroles intimates that he’s always willing to fit in, to conform and follow the courtly and military fashions of great lords: “for they wear them- / selves in the cap of the time” (984, 2.1.50-51). Belonging is his imperative, not merit. 

Lafeu cajoles the King into admitting Helen: “I have seen a medicine / That’s able to breathe life into a stone …” (985, 2.1.70-71). The King at first refuses Helen’s offer to cure him since he believes it would be indecorous and perhaps even undermine his dignity: he “may not be so credulous of cure, / When our most learnèd doctors leave us …” (986, 2.1.113-14). But in the end, Helen wins the argument by her boldness: “Oh heaven, not me, make an experiment” (987, 2.1.152). The young woman must venture her very life (987, 2.1.171-72) for this royal place-filler, but in return she will gain exemption from the charge of trying to rise beyond her place. There will be a suspension of the ordinary rules in this matter: “Then shalt thou give me with thy kingly hand / What husband in thy power I will command …” (988, 2.1.191-92). Historically, the rules weren’t rigid, and even illegitimacy wasn’t necessarily a bar to advancement if one had the right backing. But let’s leave that aside.

Act 2, Scene 2 (988-89, the Clown’s courtly critique: “O Lord, sir!”)

Bantering with the Countess, the Clown utters his wonderful catch-phrase “O Lord, Sir!” (989, 2.2.39) redolent of courtly deception and evasion: it’s the kind of thing you’d say when you want to intimate that you can’t believe your interlocutor would be so naïve or impertinent as to ask such a question. This is the opposite of Helen’s bluntness in advancing her love for Bertram, even though she resorts to a species of sanctioned deception to complete the match. The Countess drives home the play’s interest in youth and age in her manner of soliciting the Clown to make good on his offer of courtly insight: “To be young again if we could! I will be a fool in / question, hoping to be the wiser by your answer. I pray you, / sir, are you a courtier?” (989, 2.2.36-38)

Act 2, Scene 3 (989-96, King’s recovery; Bertram rejects Helen, overawed by king; Lafeu pegs Paroles; Bertram decides to escape Helen and France for the Florentine wars.)

The King enters fully recovered, and even dancing: says Lafeu, “Why, he’s able to lead her a coranto” (990, 2.3.40-41), and again we see that the old in this play are not so irrelevant after all. They are not stage props. But when Helen chooses him out of an aristocratic lineup with the formula, “I dare not say I take you, but I give / Me and my service, ever whilst I live / Into your guiding power” (992, 2.3.100-02), Bertram rejects what is effectively the King’s choice and will not take Helen for his wife. This rejection is obviously understandable in purely human terms. Helen has said she will not force herself on the young man, but nonetheless she forcibly gives herself to him even though he does not want her. Under the circumstances, Bertram’s request, “In such a business give me leave to use / The help of mine own eyes” (992, 2.3.105-06) sounds reasonable. Still, reciprocity may not be the issue here. The King’s will is supreme in such a society as Shakespeare conjures, and Bertram is being disrespectful since he’s the King’s ward. 

It’s clear that the King believes his authority has been impudently challenged by a subject. Part of his reasoning with Bertram lies in trying to explain to the brittle young man where honor comes from in the first place: “’Tis only title thou disdain’st in her, the which / I can build up” (992, 2.3.115-16) and “From lowest place when virtuous things proceed / The place is dignified by th’ doer’s deed” (992, 2.3.123-24). But when that logic fails, the King gets to the point: “My honor’s at the stake, which to defeat / I must produce my power” (993, 2.3.147-48). Overawed at last, Bertram makes a hollow submission: “I submit / My fancy to your eyes” (993, 2.3.165-66). 

And then comes Paroles, who comically rejects the category of servitude to which Bertram has just offered unsuccessful battle. Lafeu is always needling Paroles, playing him like a fiddle: “Your lord and master did well to make his recantation,” offers Lafeu, to which Paroles replies, “Recantation? My lord? My master?” (994, 2.3.184-85) One wants to say of this character much the same thing Kent says about the corrupt servant Oswald in King Lear: “Nature disclaims in thee. / A tailor made thee!” (Norton Tragedies, Combined text 788, 2.2.48) The clothes really do make this man, and he is not well-made. Lafeu’s put-down of Paroles is classic: “I did think thee, for two ordinaries, to be a pretty / wise fellow…. / Yet the scarves and the bannerets about thee did manifoldly dissuade me from believing thee a vessel of / too great a burden” (994, 2.3.197-201).

The elderly Lafeu has the perspicacity to make this judgment after a few suppers’ talk with Paroles, a man whose words and decking-out don’t match his true qualities or deeds. Perhaps we had best not make too much of this species of wisdom since, after all, Bertram comes by it without too much of a struggle later in the play, in Act 4, allowing the Lords Dumaine to demonstrate the true mettle of one Paroles, liar and coward.

In any case, Bertram huddles with Paroles after Lafeu is finished insulting the fop, and decides to leave France and Helen in favor of participating in the Florentine wars: “Wars is no strife / To the dark house and the detested wife” (996, 2.3.278-79).

Act 2, Scene 4 (996-97, the Clown’s pessimism; Helen obeys Bertram’s wish through Paroles: leave the court.)

The Clown insists that the Countess is not well for two simple reasons: “One, that she’s not in heaven …. / the other, that she’s in earth …” (996, 2.4.9-10). He is ever the pessimist, and as the Norton editors point out, he is echoing the ancient notion of Solon and later the Greek tragedian Sophocles in Oedipus Rex: count no one happy until he or she has died well. This insight gives way to a silly wit-match between the Clown and Paroles (996-97, 2.4.15-36), and a simple declaration of obedience from Helen when she hears that Bertram wants her to take her leave from the King’s court and go home: “In everything I wait upon his will” (944, 2.4.53). She will not keep to this declaration, we should note with approval.

Act 2, Scene 5 (997-99, Lafeu needles Paroles in Bertram’s presence; Bertram gives Helen a letter, refuses a parting kiss, prepares to leave France.)

Lafeu continues to needle Paroles, hoping to disabuse Bertram of his admiration for this fool: “The soul of this man is his / clothes; trust him not in matter of heavy consequence” (998, 2.5.40-41). But it is too soon for Bertram to accept such a verdict against a man who is, after all, counseling him to do precisely what he wants to do. Bertram hands Helen a letter to be opened by his mother, rudely refuses his bride’s polite request for a kiss, and prepares to take his leave from France without bothering to visit the King as required (998-99, 2.5.66-84). It would be difficult for our opinion of Bertram to get any worse, but he will manage to do something in that regard later.

Act 3, Scenes 1-2 (999-1002, The Duke of Florence prepares for battle; Bertram’s letters to the Countess and Helen: his impossible conditions for accepting Helen; Helen stricken with guilt, determines to depart.)

The Duke of Florence prepares for battle in the first scene (999-1000, 3.1.1-23), and the second scene takes us to the Countess, Helen, and the Clown in France. First comes Bertram’s letter explaining why he has run away to the wars, and this of course earns the Countess’s disapproval (1000, 3.2.19-25). In a separate letter to Helen, Bertram sets forth what he thinks are the impossible conditions for his acceptance of her: “When thou canst get the ring upon my finger, / which never shall come off, and show me a child begotten / of thy body that I am father to, then call me husband …” (1001, 3.2.53-55).

We learn Helen’s fearful reaction to this piece of news: she believes she has driven Bertram to this extreme and put him in deadly peril: “And is it I / That drive thee from the sportive court … / to be the mark / Of smoky muskets?” (1002, 3.2.101-04) This is what determines her to leave Roussillon: “My being here it is that holds thee hence” (1002, 3.2.119). Apparently, she has not yet conceived of her device to satisfy Bertram’s conditions.

Act 3, Scenes 3-4 (1003-04, Bertram’s at the wars, Helen’s gone, the Countess hopes for a reconciliation.)

In the third scene, we learn that Bertram pays homage to drums of war, not thoughts of love: “Great Mars, I put myself into thy file” (1003, 3.3.9), and in the fourth, Reynaldo informs the Countess that Helen has supposedly decided to go on a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. James in Compostela, Spain. The Countess still hopes for a reconciliation in the aftermath of this news, and finds that she can’t choose between them: “Which of them both / Is dearest to me I have no skill in sense / To make distinction” (1004, 3.4.38-40).

Act 3, Scene 5 (1004-06, Widow Capilet and Diana watch soldiers pass; Helen invites them to dinner.)

The action now moves to Florence, where Widow Capilet and her daughter Diana (along with Mariana) are watching the soldiers file by below. Helen, who has apparently changed her plans from that visit to the shrine in Spain, finds out in talking to them that Paroles has been badmouthing her, and she is hardly surprised to hear it (1005, 3.5.56-61). By the scene’s end, Helen invites the two women to supper.

Act 3, Scene 6 (1006-09, Lords Dumaine prevail upon Bertram to try Paroles’ mettle.)

Bertram’s two friends, the first and second Lord Dumaine, are trying to disabuse him of his regard for Paroles. By now, Bertram is open to the idea of testing this detestable character, having heard his friends declare the man “a most notable coward, an infinite and endless / liar, an hourly promise breaker …” (1006, 3.6.9-10). The idea is to pretend to capture Paroles, and get him to betray everyone he knows to the enemy. As we shall see, Paroles will go them one better, insulting his comrades with abandon. But for the moment, all we have is the plan. The two lords are very good at predicting exactly what the rascal will do: he’s the sort of person who might escape condemnation for a week because he’s a good talker, but as the first Lord Dumaine says, “when / you find him out, you have him ever after” (1008, 3.6.83-84).

Act 3, Scene 7 (1009-10, Helen enlists Widow Capilet’s Diana into her Bertram-scheme: the bed trick.)

Helen now draws the widow and her daughter into her device to win back Bertram: first she admits that she is his wife, and then instructs the daughter to consent to Bertram’s advances (1009, 3.7.14-36). She is to demand from him the ancestral ring he wears, and then get out of the way so that Helen may occupy her place in bed with Bertram. Helen describes the virtue of this trick as “… wicked meaning in a lawful deed / And lawful meaning in a wicked act, / Where both not sin, and yet a sinful fact” (1010, 3.7.45-47). She admits, in other words, that she is practicing deception and that he is attempting adultery, but what they do will be legitimate. Thwarting Bertram’s will is entirely acceptable in this play.

Act 4, Scene 1 (1010-12, Self-aware Paroles is trapped, baited by “barbarians” Dumaine & Co.; he offers to betray his own side.)

Paroles opens up the gap between words and action, and (in his case, anyway) the infinite space between those realms terrifies him. He’s quite self-aware, which makes him interesting, knave though he is. In him we can hear the strains of self-disgust, and a proof, if one were needed, that Oscar Wilde’s quip about action making us puppets and slaves of mere necessity needs some glossing: certain kinds of talk is more likely than others to lead us into that trap, isn’t it? Here we catch Paroles narrating the story of himself to himself, so to speak. He doesn’t make sense to himself—why, oh why do I do it? he asks, and there’s no reason given why he’s pledged himself to a thing impossible: “What the devil should move me to undertake the / recovery of this drum …?” (1010, 4.1.32-33) Shakespeare is interested in the power of the lie, the seeming groundlessness of human dishonesty at times. Queen Elizabeth’s sometime Lord Chancellor Sir Francis Bacon muses in his 1601 essay “Of Truth” the following, which is very relevant to us in trying to understand Paroles and other such rogues, and perhaps ourselves: “it is not only the difficulty and labor, which men take in finding out of truth, nor again, that when it is found, it imposeth upon men’s thoughts, that doth bring lies in favor; but a natural, though corrupt love, of the lie itself.”

Lies, in Bacon’s further estimation, knit people together in a web of pleasurable, optimistic deceit, and they bolster those same people’s self-estimation. The truth makes us feel common and limited, but the dim light of falsity shows us to ourselves and others as things precious. But Bacon’s essays never try to exhaust their subject matter, so there is more to it than this, we can be sure. And that “more to it” seems to be what troubles Paroles: the “corrupt love of the lie” to which Bacon alludes is something of a mystery, and perhaps all one can do to cover up the abyss of the thing is to point towards some concept like original sin or the inherent depravity of mankind. The Second Lord Dumaine suggests as much with his incredulous question, “Is it possible he should know / what he is and be that he is?” (1011, 4.1.41-42)

Shakespeare has some linguistic fun in this scene, with those nonsense fake-Russian phonemes or whatever they are—good old polyglot Europe! Their purpose, as the Second Lord Dumaine has already explained at the outset of Act 4, Scene 1, is not to be comprehensible, but instead to be ferocious and put up a wall between Paroles and his hopes for deliverance. They are the sauce to his plate of fear, and underlying that fear is Paroles’ own insight into his nature. Well, language is a surprisingly varied and effective means of miscommunication: “Oscorbidulchos volivorco!” (1011, 4.1.75) Paroles, of course, offers his captors nothing less than total knowledge: “all the secrets of our camp I’ll show” (1011, 4.1.80).

Act 4, Scene 2 (1012-14, Diana procures Bertram’s ring as he tries to seduce her.)

Bertram employs the rhetoric of youthful dalliance and passion, which we know as carpe diem talk. “If the quick fire of youth light not your mind,” he says to Diana, “You are no maiden but a monument” (1012, 4.2.5-6). But Diana, whose very name reminds us of the most chaste goddess among the Greeks, is more than a match for Bertram’s seductive words. Thanks to Helen’s assistance, Diana easily procures the ring from Bertram, and does her part in Helen’s scheme. She promises Bertram that she will give him a ring in turn along with her chastity (1013, 4.2.53-65). Diana is very much a believer in the logic of the play’s title “all’s well that ends well”: she has no plans to marry, but doesn’t mind helping Helen: “Only in this disguise I think’t no sin / To cozen him that would unjustly win” (1014, 4.2.75-76).

Act 4, Scene 3 (1014-20, Bertram’s conscience awakens at false news of Helen’s death; Paroles is completely humiliated, unmasked as a liar and coward, but he’s resilient in knavery.)

Does shallow Bertram now feel the sting of conscience? That seems to be what the second Lord Dumaine thinks at the beginning of the scene. Upon reading his mother’s letter, Bertram, we are told, “changed almost into another man” (1014, 4.3.5). The first Lord Dumaine reports, and apparently believes, that Helen has passed away at the end of her pilgrimage to St. Jacques. The grand Bertram, as he tells us himself, has been extremely busy taking his leave of the Duke, burying his supposedly deceased wife, writing to his mother and planning to go home and visit her, and other things. He is still looking forward to Paroles’s unmasking. This trick parallels the trick that is being played upon Bertram himself, though he does not know it: a good example of dramatic irony since we, the audience, know something Bertram doesn’t.

Paroles is utterly humiliated in this scene, and infers the lesson from this experience for himself. He is drawn into insulting just about everyone he knows, including the brothers Dumaine, the Duke of Florence, and Bertram. He assails their virtue in every possible way, military and otherwise. His response to this humiliating episode is priceless: “Who cannot be crushed with a plot?” (1020, 4.3.308) The two key things he says to conclude the scene are as follows: “Simply the thing I am / Shall make me live” (1020, 4.3.316-17). And again, “There’s place and means for every man alive” (1020, 4.3.322). He has been found out as a liar, a coward, and a knave, but there’s still a place for him in the saucy world—it’s big enough to accommodate a rascal like Paroles.

But as the Norton editors imply (966-67), he is not the kind of mover and shaker that Helen is. She puts her body behind her words, and Paroles is all talk and no action, no body, and ultimately nobody important. The editors describe Paroles’ method well when they suggest that he keeps introducing himself in ever-diminished ways into an environment that obviously has no love for him (967). The world is by no means perfect, but at least it can be patient. There is opportunity for many talents, not all of them honorable and Paroles, we might add, is useful as a touchstone against which to measure one’s own honor. Honor, we should remember from what the King has said about it in praising Bertram’s departed father (977, 1.2.30-48), has much to do with the willingness to speak chastely and modestly and to back up one’s words with actions.

Act 4, Scene 4 (1020-21, Helen informs Diana of plan’s next step: to the French court.)

Helen fills in Diana and her mother about the next part of her plan—Diana must go to the French court—and tells her that “All’s well that ends well; still the fine’s the crown. / Whate’er the course, the end is the renown” (1021, 4.4.35-36). We forget the hazy details that shape and conduce towards an action: what matters is the virtuous result. The chaos of youthful desire must give way to the order of responsible maturity. I believe that’s what Helen is implying here, at least indirectly.

Act 4, Scene 5 (1021-23, the Countess and Lafeu praise the Clown; Lafeu’s daughter Maudlin is set to marry the “widower” Bertram.)

Lafeu and the Countess are still mourning the loss of Helen, or so they think. The Clown lays claim to a kind of virtue we know he doesn’t possess: “I am for the house with the narrow gate” (1022, 4.5.43). Both the Countess and Lafeu consider the Clown’s bitter foolishness appropriate (1022, 4.5.53-57). It seems appropriate to the time Lafeu plans to have his own daughter marry Bertram now that the young man is supposedly a widower, and the Countess finds the plan unobjectionable.

Act 5, Scene 1 (1023-24, the King’s at Roussillon, so Helen gives her petition to a gentleman.)

Helen proposes to petition the King in Marseille, but he is not there and has gone to Roussillon. She asks a traveling gentleman to convey her petition to that place (1024, 5.1.29-34).

Act 5, Scene 2 (1024-25, Paroles will have a place at Lafeu’s table: he is diminished, but resilient.)

Paroles enters and must ingratiate himself at Roussillon, and finds that Lafeu is more than tolerant: “Though you are a / fool and a knave, you shall eat” (1025, 5.2.46-47).

Act 5, Scene 3 (1025-33, Ring device explains all thanks to Diana and then Helen; Bertram professes love for Helen; “all’s well”: accommodation and/or true love?)

The King grieves for Helen, and informs the Countess that he has “forgiven and forgotten all” with regard to Bertram (1026, 5.3.9). The young man will be only “a stranger, not an offender” (1026, 5.3.26). Should we believe Bertram when he says that now that Helen is gone, he sincerely loves her? (1026-27, 5.3.44-54) The King holds it a decent thing to say, but it obviously does not altogether excuse Bertram’s conduct: “That thou didst love her strikes some scores away / From the great count” (1027, 5.3.56-57).

In any case, it’s time for Bertram to get married to Lafeu’s daughter Maudlin. Now we are on to “the ring device” (1027-end, 5.3.74ff) by which the play’s contradictions will be resolved. Bertram gives Lafeu the ring that Diana, at the behest of Helen, had given him at their supposed tryst. Lafeu recognizes the very same ring as the one he saw on Helen’s finger before she left court (1027, 5.3.77-79). The King, to make matters worse, takes a look at the ring and realizes it is the one he had given Helen as a token if she ever needed his help. He now suspects that Bertram has done away with Helen by foul play since she told him before she left the court that she would never part with the ring “Unless she gave it to yourself [Bertram] in bed or sent it us / Upon her great disaster” (1028, 5.3.110-12). Bertram is promptly arrested.

Now the Florentine gentleman shows up with Diana’s petition, and when the King reads it aloud (1029, 5.3.139-45), it accuses Bertram of seducing her. She follows him to the court, she says, to obtain justice. Diana soon walks onto the scene (1029, 5.3.159-60), and Bertram tries to dismiss the entire affair as the invention of “a fond and desp’rate creature” (1029, 5.3.177). The Countess is certain that Bertram has married Diana: the ring proves it (1030, 5.3.194-98). Paroles is called in by Diana to witness the truth of her claims, and before he comes forward, Bertram is at least forced to admit that he knows Diana, but he insists that it is she who seduced him, not the other way around (1030, 5.3.209-18). Paroles gives his turgid testimony: “He loved her, sir, and loved her not” (1031, 5.3.245), and then Diana perplexes and enrages the King by refusing to clear up for him how she came by the ring in the first place. She states the central riddle of the recent action: Bertram is “guilty and he is not guilty,” and she is both a maiden and not a maiden (1032, 5.3.263, 284-85).

Helen enters and clears up everything at long last, pointing out to Bertram that his conditions have been fulfilled (1032, 5.3.303-08). The astonished Bertram says only, “If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly / I’ll love her dearly, ever, ever, dearly” (1032, 5.3.309-10). We may gather that “ever, ever” means “always and very” rather than “very, very” (a phony double asseveration). Either way, is it sincere emotion, or a hollow declamation to suit the King’s will, now that Bertram has learned what a bad move it is to run against that will?

The King pronounces the final variation on the play’s title: “All yet seems well, and if it end so meet, / The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet” (1033, 5.3.326-27). The question of ethics is addressed in the sense that deception has been turned to good ends. What Bertram thought he was doing was not in fact what he ends up having done. This forgotten, or at least forgiven, the result is a livable accommodation between Bertram and Helen, and a rich dower for whomever Diana may choose to marry. Seldom (outside of Nietzsche’s needling prose) has the work of civilization been so sorely in need of that ruthless “forgetting” necessary to its perpetuation. The sweet puts us out of mind of the bitter, like a mellow glass of red wine at the end of a difficult day.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93861-6.

Copyright © 2012 / 2024 (Revised) Alfred J. Drake