[Scene I. -- Florence. The Duke's palace.]
The duke of Florence and two French lords discuss the course of the war, which the duke thinks is going well. One of the lords observes that justice seems to be on the side of the Florentines, which provokes the duke to wonder why the king of France is so reluctant to commit all of his troops to the cause. The other lord says that speculating on policy matters is above his pay grade. The first lord assures him that young Frenchmen who are getting tired of peace will soon come to his aid.
[Scene II. -- Rossillion. The Count's palace.]
Lavatch brings the countess a letter from Bertram informing his mother that he has married Helena but not consummated the union. Moreover, he has no intention of doing so, and has "run away." The countess calls him a "rash and unbridled boy," and is upset that Bertram should have angered the king by his actions.
Helena enters with the two French lords who are on their way back to Paris after the meeting with the duke of Florence. The lords tell the countess that they met Bertram on his way to join the duke's armies. Helena shows the countess the letter Bertram has sent her: He tells Helena that he will never call himself her husband unless she can get the ring from his finger -- "which never shall come off" -- and present him with a child that he has fathered and she has given birth to. He's pretty sure that neither will ever happen.
The countess disowns him: "He was my son, / But I do wash his name out of my blood / And thou art all my child," she tells Helena. This would seem to be okay with Bertram according to the next sentence that Helena reads from the letter: "Till I have no wife I have nothing in France." The countess asks who was with Bertram, and is told that he was accompanied by a servant and Parolles, whom she calls "A very tainted fellow, and full of wickedness." She leaves with the lords to give them a letter to deliver to Bertram.
Helena regrets that she is the cause of Bertram's departure from France, and hopes that she won't also be the cause of his death in battle. She decides that the only way to bring him home safely is for her to leave France: "My being here it is that holds thee hence." So she plans to "steal away" once it gets dark.
[Scene III. -- Florence.]
The duke welcomes Bertram as "general of our horse" and expresses his faith in Bertram's "promising fortune." Bertram expresses modesty but asserts that he'll do his best. He calls on Mars to "Make me but like my thoughts and I shall prove / A lover of thy drum, hater of love." (The reference to Mars's drum is a bit of foreshadowing.)
[Scene IV. -- Rossillion. The Count's palace.]
Helena has given the countess's steward a letter before she left. She has him re-read the letter, which says that Helena has gone on a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. James at Compostela, and urges the countess to write to Bertram that he can come home now that she has gone: "He is too good and fair for death and me; / Whom I myself embrace to set him free." The countess scolds the steward for letting Helena go, and tells him to write to Bertram about how upset she is about what Helena has done. Perhaps, she thinks, he'll come home and his return will bring Helena back too.
[Scene V. -- Outside Florence.]
A Florentine widow, her daughter Diana, and their friend Mariana are waiting for the parade of soldiers returning from battle. They talk about how valiant Bertram has been in the battle, but Mariana warns Diana not to let herself be seduced by him: Parolles has been trying to set up a meeting between Diana and Bertram.
The widow provides lodgings for pilgrims to Compostela, and when she sees Helena approaching she greets her. (The fact that Florence is a long way in the wrong direction for a pilgrimage from Roussillon to Compostela didn't bother Shakespeare and shouldn't bother us.) The widow maintains lodgings for the pilgrims, and offers to show Helena to them once the troops have passed. On learning that Helena is French, she tells her that the troops were led by a countryman of hers. Diana identifies him as the Count Rossillion, and tells her the rumor is that he left France because "the king had married him / Against his liking." Helena confirms the rumor: "I know his lady." Diana says that "a gentleman that serves the count / Reports but coarsely of her." She identifies the gentleman as Parolles. Helena admits that the lady in question is "too mean" for "the great count," but that she possesses "a reserved honesty" -- i.e., she is chaste. Diana expresses her sympathy for "the wife / Of a detesting lord," and the widow hints that Diana has it in her power to do some mischief to him "if she pleas'd." Helena realizes that Diana has been the object of Bertram's attentions, but the widow assures her that "she is arm'd for him and keeps her guard / In honestest defence."
The troops enter, and the widow points out various notable figures. Helena asks
Which is the Frenchman?
Dia. He --
That with the plume; 'tis a most gallant fellow.
I would that he lov'd his wife; if he were honester
He were much goodlier. Is't not a handsome gentleman?
Hel. I like him well.
Dia. 'Tis pity he is not honest.She then points out Parolles -- "That jackanapes with the scarfs" -- who seems to be upset about something. Apparently Parolles has lost the regimental drum, but then he spots Diana, the widow, and Mariana in the crowd, and they utter their contempt for him.
The widow then offers to take Helena to her lodgings, and Helena invites Mariana and Diana to dine with her.
[Scene VI. -- The Florentine camp.]
Bertram enters with the French lords, who are trying to persuade him that Parolles is "a most notable coward, an infinite and endless liar." They propose a trick: They will capture Parolles, making him think that they are the enemy, and show Bertram that to save his life Parolles is willing to "betray you and deliver all the intelligence in his power against you."
Parolles enters, still vexed at the loss of the regimental drum, which he proposes to recover. Bertram gives him leave to go recapture the drum, and Parolles leaves on the line "I love not many words," to which the first lord says, out of his earshot, "No more than a fish loves water." The lords assure Bertram that Parolles will return with "two or three probable lies" about his failure to retake the drum.
The first lord leaves to set the trap for Parolles, and Bertram takes the second lord to show him Diana. He admits that she is virtuous -- "I spoke with her but once / And found her wondrous cold" and that she returned the "Tokens and letters" that he had Parolles deliver to her -- but he holds out hope.
[Scene VII. -- Florence. The Widow's house.]
Helena has revealed her identity to the widow, and is enlisting her in a plan to entrap Bertram: Diana will encourage Bertram's attentions and ask him for the ring "That downward hath succeeded in his house / From son to son some four or five descents / Since the first father wore it." She will pretend to submit to his lust, but Helena will secretly take her place. Helena sweetens the deal with gold, and the widow agrees, and tells Helena to instruct Diana how to proceed with "this deceit so lawful." Helena agrees that the deception is lawful -- she is, after all, Bertram's legal wife, even if he thinks he's going to be sleeping with someone else -- but she also recognizes that the plot
Is wicked meaning in a lawful deed,
And lawful meaning in a lawful act,
Where both not sin, and yet a sinful fact.
But let's about it.In other words, Bertram's adulterous intentions are "wicked" and "sinful," but the act itself, a husband having sexual relations with his wife, is wholly legal.