[Scene I. -- Outside the Florentine camp.]
One of the French lords plots the prank on Parolles with some soldiers. The plan is for one of the soldiers to act as "interpreter" while the others speak gibberish, convincing Parolles that he has been captured by the enemy. They hide as Parolles enters, trying to come up with an excuse for his failure not to return with the recaptured drum. He decides that he has to inflict some wounds on himself, and reminds himself to hold his tongue in the future and not "prattle me into these perils."
Listening to him, the French lord marvels that Parolles knows himself to be a fool and yet continues to be one: "Is it possible he should know what he is, and be that he is?" They launch the plot with the sound of a drum and a gabble of voices, then seize Parolles and blindfold him. Parolles takes the gibberish to be Russian, and asks for a translator so he can save himself by divulging the Florentines' secrets.
The soldier who plays the interpreter steps forth and tells Parolles that his life will be spared if he gives them the information. The French lord dispatches a soldier to fetch his brother (the "Second Lord") and Bertram so they can hear what Parolles has to say.
[Scene II. -- Florence. The Widow's house.]
Meanwhile, Bertram is wooing Diana, telling her that he was "compell'd" to marry Helena, "but I love thee." Diana expresses skepticism about his "oaths" that he loves her, and requests his ring as a token of his sincerity. Bertram protests
So is her virtue, Diana retorts:Ber. It is an honour 'longing to our house,Bequeathed down from many ancestors,Which were the greatest obloquy i' th' worldIn me to lose.
Dia. Mine honour's such a ring;Hoist on his own petard, Bertram gives her the ring. She then tells him to knock on the window of her room at midnight, and after he has "conquer'd my yet maiden bed" to stay there an hour and not speak to her. She'll tell him why when she returns the ring to him. She'll also put another ring on his finger while he's there. He leaves, and she remarks on how her mother had warned her that men are like that. She vows to remain a virgin, and assures herself that it's no sin to cheat a cheater: "I think't no sin / To cozen him that would unjustly win."
My chastity's the jewel of our house,
Bequeathed down from many ancestors,
Which were the greatest obloquy i' th' world
In me to lose.
[Scene III. -- The Florentine camp.]
The second French lord tells his brother that he has given Bertram the letter from his mother, and that "there is something in't that stings his nature, for on the reading it he chang'd almost into another man." (The change doesn't seem to have been profound: Bertram remains his petulant self until almost the very end.) The two lords note that Bertram deserves to be blamed for his treatment of Helena and that "he hath incurred the everlasting displeasure of the king." And the second lord tells his brother that Bertram has now seduced "a young gentlewoman here in Florence" and given her his ring.
Bertram will not be there to witness the trick played on Parolles until after midnight, the second lord tells his brother. (Would it have been too much trouble for Shakespeare to give these guys some names, especially since they deliver so much of the exposition? We find out that their family name is Dumaine, but that's not much help. Of course, their names don't matter on stage, where we can more easily identify them.)
The second lord asks what Bertram is going to do now that peace seems to be achieved, and the first lord observes that his brother must not be very close to Bertram if he doesn't know. The second lord says that he's glad he isn't, because he might be drawn into Bertram's misdeeds. The first lord tells him, incorrectly, that Helena left Rossillion two months ago on her pilgrimage to Compostela and that she died there, a fact "confirm'd by the rector of the place." (Helena has apparently arranged to have this deception spread about, which also helps conceal the fact that she has gone to Florence, so far off the route between Rossillion and Compostela.) Bertram, he says, knows of her death -- presumably from the letter that has just been delivered to him, after he met with Diana to arrange their assignation. The second lord delivers yet another bitter shot at Bertram: "I am heartily sorry that he'll be glad of this.... The great dignity that his valour hath here acquir'd for him shall at home be encount'red with a shame as ample."
A messenger enters to tell them that Bertram is returning to France with letters of commendation from the duke of Florence to the king. Bertram himself enters and recounts "an abstract of success": meeting with the duke, burying and mourning for (or at least learning of the death of) Helena, writing his mother that he's returning, and "effect[ing] many nicer needs" -- i.e., sleeping with (he thinks) Diana. Though he's worried about hearing more from her -- a claim for his hand in marriage -- later.
The second lord orders Parolles, who has been sitting in the stocks all night, brought in. Parolles, still blindfolded, enters with the soldier acting as his interpreter. The first lord says, "Portotararossa," and the interpreter tells Parolles that means he is to be tortured. Parolles assures him he'll talk without even being pinched, and the interpreter reads questions out of a list prepared for Parolles. The first is about the strength of the duke's cavalry, which Parolles allows to be "Five or six thousand; but very weak and unserviceable: the troops are all scattered and the commanders very poor rogues." He answers similarly to a question about the infantry.
The first lord then instructs the "interpreter" to have Parolles talk about himself, Captain Dumaine, and is badmouthed so severely that Bertram has to restrain him: "Nay, by your leave, hold your hands." Dumaine cautions Bertram, who is evidently amused by what Parolles says, that his turn is coming: "Nay, look not so upon me; we shall hear of your lordship anon." Parolles claims that he has a letter from the duke denouncing Dumaine as a "poor officer" who should be dismissed, but when the interpreter offers to search his pocket for the letter he backs off. The interpreter, however, pulls another paper from Parolles' pocket that says, "Dian, the count's a fool, and full of gold." Parolles explains that this is his own letter to Diana "to take heed of the allurement of one Count Rossillion, a foolish idle boy, but for all that very ruttish."
Bertram's turn to be slandered by Parolles has arrived. Parolles calls him "a dangerous and lascivious boy," and Bertram swears, "Damnable both-sides rogue!" The soldier pretending to be the interpreter then reads the verse letter from Parolles to Diana which reveals that not only is he badmouthing Bertram but also hopes to put his own moves on her. Bertram says that he hates cats "and now he's a cat to me."
The interpreter then tells Parolles that the general is inclined to put him to death, which spurs Parolles to further denunciations, first of Captain Dumaine, and then, when prompted by the interpreter, of his brother. The second lord is startled to be brought into this: "Why does he ask him of me?" This probably elicits a laugh from the first lord, who must have put the interpreter up to the question. The interpreter now asks, "If your life be saved will you undertake to betray the Florentine?" Parolles vows, "Ay, and the captain of his horse, Count Rossillion." When the interpreter withdraws so he can "whisper with the general" and find out whether he still wants Parolles put to death, Parolles bemoans the fact that he went after the drum "to seem to deserve well, and to beguile the supposition of that lascivious young boy, the count." Since this speech is addressed to himself and not to the interpreter, it presumably reveals Parolles' true opinion of Bertram.
The interpreter returns with the verdict: "There is no remedy, sir, but you must die." He calls for the executioner: "Come, headsman, off with his head." Parolles cries out, "O Lord, sir, let me live, or let me see my death!" -- i.e., at least take the blindfold off. The soldier-interpreter takes off the blindfold and reveals Bertram and the Dumaines, who greet him:
Ber. Good morrow, noble captain.They exit, leaving Parolles and the soldier who played the intepreter, who bids him farewell: "I am for France too; we shall speak of you there." Parolles resigns himself to the mockery: "If my heart were great / 'Twould burst at this." But his heart is anything but great, so he gives up pretending to be a soldier and vows that, since he has been fooled, he will thrive on being a fool and follow them back to France.
Second Lord. God bless you, Captain Parolles.
First Lord. God save you, noble captain.
Second Lord. Captain, what greeting will you to my Lord Lafew? I am for France.
First Lord. Good captain, will you give me a copy of the sonnet you writ to Diana in behalf of the Count Rossillion.
[Scene IV. -- Florence. The Widow's house.]
Helena now proposes to Diana and the widow that they go to the court of the king of France who, she has been told, is now at Marseilles. She also tells them that she is thought to be dead. They agree to accompany her to play out the end of her stratagem, and she assures them, "All's well that ends well; still the fine's [i.e., "end's," from French fin] the crown. / Whate'er the course, the end is the renown."
[Scene V. -- Rossillion. The Count's palace.]
Lafew tells the countess that Bertram's misbehavior is all the result of his association with Parolles. The countess grieves for Helena, and even Lavatch speaks in her praise, though his expression of praise swiftly devolves into a game of wits with Lafew. After the clown exits, Lafew commends his wit to the countess, who says that he was a favorite of her late husband's, and that it is partly to honor his memory that she keeps Lavatch around, though his "sauciness" is unrestrained. "I like him well," Lafew replies; "'tis not amiss."
Lafew then tells the countess that he has spoken with the king about Bertram's marrying Lafew's daughter, and arrangement that would "stop up the displeasure he hath conceived against your son." The countess expresses her approval of the match. Lafew tells her that the king is on his way from Marseilles and will arrive tomorrow. She tells Lafew that Bertram is arriving tonight, and invites Lafew to stay. Lavatch enters to tell them that Bertram and his retinue have just arrived.
Act 4, scene 2, from the 1981 BBC TV production, with Ian Charleson as Bertram and Pippa Guard as Diana: