The Play’s the Thing: The Countess of Rousillon, who has recently lost her husband, is seeing off her son, Bertram, who has been called to the court of the slowly dying King of France. The Countess’ ward, Helena, whom she took in after Helena’s father died, is grief-stricken that Bertram is leaving as she’s in love with him, even though she knows that socially speaking he’s far above her. Also going with Bertram is his friend, Parolles, who is a total ass. The King is pleased at Bertram’s arrival as he resembles his father greatly and the King hopes that he will also be similar in character (spoiler alert: not so much). The Countess finds out from her servants that Helena is in love with Bertram and confronts her about it. Helena’s a little evasive and then she and the Countess discuss Helena’s plans to go to the King’s court as she’s remembered that her father left her a recipe for a medicine that will cure the King’s ailment. The Countess sends Helena off to Paris with her blessing.
The King is seeing off some of his lords who are headed to Florence to provide aid in the wars there. He is then told by Lafeu that a young woman has come offering a medicine that will cure the King. The King agrees to see her. There’s a bit of discussion between the King and Helena how no medicines have worked before and that the best medical minds have all given up. Helena makes a deal with the King that if the medicine doesn’t work, he can have her tortured to death. If it does work, she can have her pick of any of the single lords in the King’s court (it’s a high-risk version of The Bachelorette essentially). The King agrees. Unsurprisingly the medicine works, everyone’s thrilled, and the King is more than happy to honour the bargain he made with Helena. Helena, of course, picks Bertram as her husband. However, Bertram does his best to refuse her as he thinks she’s below him, even when the King tells him that he’s bestowing Helena with titles and money. To keep the King happy, Bertram finally agrees but he then refuses to take Helena to bed and runs off to join the war in Florence, sending her back home to the Countess.
The Countess is disappointed in Bertram and tells Helena she wishes she were her actual daughter and that Bertram didn’t belong to her. Bertram has written Helena a letter in which he tells her that until she has put a ring on his finger and is pregnant with his child, he refuses to be her husband. He also tells her “Till I have no wife in France, I have nothing in France.” Worried that he’ll die in the war, Helena decides to leave France so that he’ll go back home. She leaves a note for the Countess telling her she’s gone on a pilgrimage to St. Jacques. On her pilgrimage, Helena happens to stop in Florence where she meets a widow and her daughter, Diana. Turns out that Bertram has been courting Diana, who has refused all his advances as everyone in Florence knows that he ditched his perfectly wonderful wife back in Florence. Helena stays with the widow, as she’s one of the regular pit-stops on the pilgrims’ journeys. In the army camp, Bertram is being told by several other lords and soldiers that Parolles is a total coward and they reveal their plan to send him off on a mission, capture him while they pretend to be Italians, and then prove he would be a turncoat. Bertram is interested to see how it turns out. Helena reveals herself to the widow as Bertram’s wife and they cook up a plan to have Diana pretend to accept Bertram’s advances, get him to give her his family ring, and set up an appointment for them to sleep together, which Helena will fulfill.
The lords capture Parolles, and after putting a hood over his head, bring him back to their own camp. Diana executes Helena and the widow’s plans and sets up a midnight rendez-vous with Bertram. She also tells him that she’ll give him a ring of her own when they’re in bed that night. In the camp, the lords discuss that Bertram received a letter which told him that Helena has died, and gossip about his dalliance with Diana, and discuss that peace has been declared. Then Bertram arrives, they pretend to be Italians interrogating Parolles, who of course turns out to be a traitor. They reveal themselves and then they all head back to France, leaving Parolles behind, who decides to head back to France as well. Helena asks the widow and Diana to accompany her back to France in order to complete the last of their plot concerning Bertram. Back in France, the Countess is upset to hear about Helena’s reported death. She discusses with Lafeu that the King has forgiven Bertram for ditching Helena and will have Bertram marry Lafeu’s daughter.
Helena and the girls arrive in Marseilles, discover that the King isn’t there, and head off to Rousillon where he’s set to marry Bertram off to Lafeu’s daughter. Parolles arrives in France and gets Lafeu to take pity on him. The King and the Countess are commiserating over the loss of Helena until Bertram arrives. The King then tells Bertram he’s arrange for him to marry Lafeu’s daughter. Bertram is fine with that and hands over a ring to be given to the daughter. The King is appalled because it’s the ring he gave to Helena after she healed him and which she told him she’d only give it away if it was to her husband in bed. Bertram swears it’s just some trinket an Italian hussy tossed at him out of a window (great engagement present for Lafeu’s daughter, that). The King is positive it’s Helena’s ring, begins to suspect that maybe Bertram murdered Helena, and has him taken away by guards. Diana suddenly arrives, telling the King that she’s claiming Bertram as her husband. Lafeu is disgusted and tells the King he’s definitely not marrying his daughter to Bertram. The King has Bertram brought back where he admits he slept with Diana but says she’s just a common whore that hung around the camp. Diana then produces his family ring and the Countess knows her claims are true. Parolles is then brought in as a witness to testify that Bertram did his best to seduce Diana. The King then has a discussion with Diana about the ring she gave Bertram and wants to know where she got it. She runs verbal circles around the issue and he has her arrested. Helena then comes in, who is now conveniently pregnant and has got her own ring around Bertram’s finger. Bertram is suddenly pleased to be married to her. The King is thrilled that Helena is alive and promises Diana she can marry any man she wants to and he’ll provide her dowry (because that worked so well for Helena).
Heroes and Villains: I didn’t particularly love any of the characters in this play, but Helena wins the prize of being my favourite character this time around, as she has some of the most beautifully articulate speeches in the play. However, she loses major points for being such a doormat.
- Love all, trust few,/ Do wrong to none (I.i)
- hoodwink’d (IV.i)
- a heaven on earth (IV.ii)
- Mine eyes smell onions; I shall weep anon. (V.iii)
Speech to Know: Helena’s first speech that outlines her unrequited love for Bertram is quite beautiful.
“I am undone: there is no living, none,
If Bertram be away. It were all one
That I should love a bright particular star,
And think to wed it, he is so above me:
In his bright radiance and collateral light
Must I be comforted, not in his sphere.
The ambition in my love thus plagues itself:
The hind that would be mated by the lion
Must die for love. ‘Twas pretty, though a plague,
To see him every hour; to sit and draw
His arched brows, his hawking eye, his curls,
In our heart’s table, – heart too capable
Of every line and trick of his sweet favour:
But now he’s gone, and my idolatrous fancy
Must sanctify his relics.” (I.i)
View from the Pit: Oh man, so much of this play drives me crazy. While I get Helena’s inferiority complex given the social strata that exist between her and Bertram, that she continues to let the man walk all over her for the rest of the play and still wants him after he’s ditched her in France, told her he’d rather be in an entirely different country from where she is, and is attempting to seduce another woman, just boggles my mind. She’s an intelligent woman, as evidenced by her plot to swap herself out for Diana, and fulfill all the requirements Bertram told her she needed to have in order to be able to call him husband, I just don’t understand why she would WANT to. Bertram is an ass and he’s never redeemed. At best, he’s mildly sad when he receives word of Helena’s “death” but doesn’t regret the fact that he played such a role in killing a woman that everyone else respects greatly. Even when he’s confronted by Diana about his supposed seduction of her, he’s still lying (TO THE KING, which is such a no-no) and not even mildly repentant. The fact that I’m supposed to rejoice that Diana ends up with such a prick sits poorly. Despite its title, this play definitely didn’t end well for me.