Scene I. -- [Rossillion. The Count's Palace.]
Bertram, the young count of Rossillion, bids his mother goodbye as he leaves for the court of the king of France. Because of his father's death, and because he is still a minor, he is a ward of the king. Lafew, a French lord who is to accompany Bertram to Paris, assures the countess that the king will treat Bertram as if he were his own son.
The countess asks Lafew about the king's health, and is told that the physicians have abandoned their attempts to find a cure for the king's illness, an abscess. The countess observes that her own ward, Helena, has lost her father, a noted physician named Gerard de Narbon, who might well have been able to find a cure for the king. Helena begins to cry, and the countess consoles her. Bertram interrupts to take his leave, and his mother gives him some parting words of advice, then leaves. Bertram tells Helena to look after his mother and departs with Lafew.
Left alone, Helena reveals that her tears are as much for her distress at Bertram's leaving as for her father, though she is conscious that her lower status prevents her from marrying Bertram. Parolles, who is to accompany Bertram to Paris, now enters. Helena knows Parolles is a fool and a coward, but talking with him lightens her mood. He brings up the topic of virginity, and she asks his advice as a soldier on defending hers. He argues that without the loss of virginity, no more virgins would be born, so she might as well surrender. She rejects his counsel, but turns the topic to Bertram, whom she imagines as flirting with the women at court in terms drawn from love poetry. She almost reveals her love for Bertram to Parolles, but catches herself in the nick of time.
A page comes to tell Parolles that Bertram is waiting for him. She jokes about Parolles' martial bravado, and he urges her to get a good husband and departs. She remains, ponders the difficulty of being in love with someone not her social equal, hints at her plan to follow Bertram to Paris and use one of her father's remedies to treat the king's illness, and exits.
This scene is a good reminder that Shakespeare wrote for the stage and not for the page. The reader does have an advantage in having a few stage directions (usually supplied by an editor) and character identifications that the viewer of the play lacks, for example: "Enter young BERTRAM, Count of Rossillion, his mother [the COUNTESS], and HELENA, LORD LAFEW, all in black." The viewer would have to listen attentively to pick up the names of Bertram and Helena, but Lafew is not named in the dialogue. The suspicion that the characters are in mourning, since they are dressed in black, is a clue supplied in both the interpolated stage direction and the actual costuming, and confirmed in the dialogue.
But what sort of characters are these? That's left up to the actor and the director to determine from the dialogue, and sometimes this is where the reader is let down. We will learn over the course of the play that Bertram is callow and petulant, but there's nothing in this scene to suggest that. Here's where the viewer gets an advantage over the reader. Actor and director will suggest this in staging, for example, line 55:
Ber. Madam, I desire your holy wishes.Bertram interrupts the Countess's and Lafew's attempts to console the tearful Helena. On the stage, he may do this rudely and impatiently, though there's nothing in the text itself to indicate that. While Helena is weeping, Bertram may have been tapping his foot impatiently. As for his attitude toward Helena, who loves him, that's left entirely up to the actors to convey. For example, lines 70-76:
Count. Heaven bless him! Farewell, Bertram. [Exit.]G.K. Hunter, the editor, observes that earlier editors took the entirety of Bertram's lines here to be addressed to Helena, but that he follows the lead of another editor in dividing the two lines, having Bertram speak the first to the departing countess, and the second to Helena. The line addressed to Helena would be delivered with the cool formality of a superior in rank -- notice, too, that Bertram, unlike Lafew, doesn't say farewell to Helena, but turns and departs, whereas Lafew even dresses his farewell with a complimentary "pretty lady." Helena's subsequent speech does indicate to the reader where things stand between her and Bertram, but most of these relationships that would be clear to the viewer are lost on the first-time reader.
Ber. The best wishes that can be forg'd in your thoughts be servants to you!
[To Helena] Be comfortable to my mother, your mistress, and make much of her.
Laf. Farewell, pretty lady; you must hold the credit of your father. [Exeunt Bertram and Lafew.]
Similarly, how are we to read Parolles' speeches? Helena tells us he is "a notorious liar, ... a great way fool, solely a coward," but the degree and nature of these characteristics is largely up to the actor -- and perhaps the costumer, who has the opportunity to make Parolles foppish or macho or ridiculous in some other way. Again, there are many ways to interpret lines 104-107. I imagine them something like this:
Par. (Swaggeringly) Save you, fair queen!But there are many other ways those lines can be read. The point here is that one reason for the comparative inertness and obscurity of All's Well on the page is that, unlike the Shakespeare plays we are more familiar with, its unfamiliarity presents a problem for the reader trying to stage it in his or her head.
Hel. (Amused) And you, (pauses to come up with an appropriate response) monarch!
Par. (He is flattered, but affects humility, shaking his head and drawing out the demurral) No.
Hel. (Off-handedly, with a smile and a shrug) And no.
_____Scene II. -- Paris. The King's palace.
The king of France enters to report to his attendant lords that Florence and Siena (the "Senoys") are still at war, and that the Austrian monarch has written to tell him that Florence is going to ask him for aid and that he should deny it. He is inclined to agree as far as any official French alliance is concerned, but he won't stand in the way of any Frenchmen who want to join up on either side.
Bertram arrives, accompanied by Lafew and Parolles. The king observes how much Bertram looks like his father, and adds, "Thy father's moral parts / Mayest thou inherit too!" -- in other words, he can't tell whether the young count has achieved that kind of maturity yet. Speaking of Bertram's father, enumerating his many virtues, makes the king aware of his age and illness and the fact that he is standing in the way of ambitious younger men who seek action and advancement. He asks Bertram how long it has been since the death of Helena's father, "the physician at your father's," and Bertram says it has been six months. The king regrets his death because he thought Helena's father might have a cure for him. He takes Bertram's arm and they exit.
Scene III. -- Rossillion. The Count's palace.
The countess enters with her steward, followed by the clown (i.e., Lavatch). The steward has something he wants to tell her about Helena, but is perhaps hesitant to talk about it in front of Lavatch, whom the countess now tries to get rid of. Lavatch persists, however, saying that he wants her permission to marry a woman named Isbel. The countess asks why he wants to get married -- she is obviously intrigued to hear what he has to say on the subject -- so he tells her that he wants to have children because he has heard that children are blessings. He also wants to sanctify his lusts: "I have been, madam, a wicked creature, as you and all flesh and blood are, and indeed I do marry that I may repent." The countess replies that he will repent his marriage rather than his wickedness. He also says he has no friends, and that his wife will attract some. When the countess suggests, "Such friends are thine enemies, knave," he replies that he doesn't mind being cuckolded: "for the knaves come to do that for me which I am aweary of" -- i.e., sleeping with his wife.
He that ears [plows] my land spares my team, and gives me leave to in the crop [i.e., reap what someone else has cultivated]; if I be his cuckold, he's my drudge. He that comforts my wife is the cherisher of my flesh and blood; he that cherishes my flesh and blood loves my flesh and blood; he that loves my flesh and blood is my friend; ergo, he that kisses my wife is my friend.The countess calls him "foul-mouth'd and calumnious," but he says he's a prophet who speaks the truth, which is, after all, the task of the licensed fool.
The steward, no doubt getting impatient with all of this, asks the countess to send the fool for Helena, but it only provokes Lavatch to a ballad about Helen of Troy, suggesting that out of ten women only one is good, which which the countess protests is a reversal of proportions of good to bad in the original ballad. But finally she gets him to leave to fetch Helena.
The steward then reveals that he overheard Helena talking to herself, and that she revealed her love for Bertram. The countess isn't surprised; she had suspected as much, but lacked confirmation. She thanks him and tells him to keep it a secret. As Helena enters, the countess admits to herself that she understands what Helena is experiencing: "Even so it was with me when I was young." But when she says to Helena, "I am a mother to you," she notices that Helena reacts badly: "Methought you saw a serpent," she tells her. Helena protests that she can't be the countess' daughter. There are two things at work here: As Hunter tells us in the footnote, "mother" could also mean "mother-in-law," which Helena believes can never happen because of the disparity in her birth and Bertram's. But if Helena is the countess' daughter and Bertram the countess' son, that also implies that they are sister and brother -- an impediment to marriage. In any case, she points out the disparity of birth: "The Count Rossillion cannot be my brother, / I am from humble, he from honoured name."
But the countess makes light of this argument, and reveals that she knows the truth: "You love my son." Helena evades confirming the countess' statement, but finally she breaks down and admits it. She assures the countess, however, that she has no intention of pursuing him with an aim to marriage: "I follow him not / By any token of presumptuous suit."
Thus, Indian-like,The countess, however, reveals something else she knows: that Helena had made plans to go to Paris. Helena tells the countess that her father had left her some information about medicines that she thinks might be capable of curing the king's illness. The fact that Bertram had recently left for Paris, Helena says, is what put her in mind of going there to see if she can cure the king. The countess warns that it's unlikely that the king's physicians would be willing to try a remedy offered by "A poor unlearned virgin" when they have failed to cure the king themselves. But Helena's faith in her father's abilities makes her willing to propose it, even on pain of death if she should fail:
Religious in mine error, I adore
The sun that looks upon his worshipper
But knows of him no more.
But give me leave to try success, I'd ventureMoved by Helena's courage, the countess gives her leave to go to Paris and supplies her with "Means and attendants, and my loving greetings / To those of mine at court."
The well-lost life of mine on his grace's cure
By such a day, an hour.