[Scene I. -- Marseilles.]
Helena, Diana, and the widow have arrived in Marseilles, only to be informed by the gentleman they encounter, whom Helena recognizes from the Parisian court, that the king has already left and is on his way to Rossillion. When the widow expresses disappointment, the ever-patient Helena assures her once again that "All's well that ends well yet." When she learns that the gentleman is also on his way to Rossillion, she gives him the letter they plan to deliver to the king and says that they will follow him as swiftly as they can.
[Scene II. -- Rossillion. The Count's palace.]
A bedraggled Parolles asks Lavatch (who is named here for the first time) to give Lafew a letter. When Parolles says he smells of Fortune's displeasure, Lavatch takes the metaphor literally and begins joking about the way Parolles smells. Lafew enters, and Parolles directs his appeal to him when Lavatch leaves. Parolles credits Lafew with being the first person to see him as he really is, but their conversation is interrupted by the trumpets announcing the king's arrival. Lafew tells Parolles that he has already heard about his unmasking and downfall: "though you are a fool and a knave you shall eat."
[Scene III. -- The same.]
The king enters, accompanied by the countess, Lafew, the Dumaine brothers, and the retinue. The king tells the countess of his sorrow for Helena's death and blames Bertram's "folly." The countess pleads for him to recognize it as "Natural rebellion done i' the blade of youth," and the king assures her that he has "forgiven and forgotten all." Lafew opines that Bertram did the most harm to himself:
He lost a wifeThe king sends for Bertram, and asks Lafew if Bertram has accepted the offer to marry Lafew's daughter. Lafew says that Bertram will do whatever the king wishes. The king says, "Then shall we have a match," and notes that he has received letters, presumably from the duke of Florence, about Bertram's valor.
Whose beauty did astonish the surveyOf richest eyes; whose words all ears took captive;Whose dear perfection hearts that scorn'd to serveHumbly called mistress.
Bertram enters and begs the king's pardon, which the king grants, saying they should look forward and not backward. He asks if Bertram knows Lafew's daughter, whose name is Maudlin. (Perhaps a variant spelling of Magdalen -- the Oxford college of that name is pronounced "Maudlin.") Bertram says that he does, and expresses his admiration of her, admitting that he has previously been too blind to see the virtues of women "whom all men prais'd" -- i.e., Helena. The king urges him to forget about Helena and to "Send forth your amorous token for fair Maudlin."
Bertram gives Lafew a ring to deliver to Maudlin, but Lafew recognizes it as one he had seen Helena wearing. Bertram denies that it was Helena's, but when the king sees it he recognizes it as one he had given her, telling Helena that if she ever needed his help she should send it to him. Bertram persists in his denial: "The ring was never hers." But the countess also recognizes it: "Son, on my life, / I have seen her wear it, and she reckon'd it / At her life's rate."
Bertram then claims that it had been thrown to him from a window in Florence by a noblewoman who thought that they would marry, but when he explained that he couldn't wed her she refused to take back the ring. The king doesn't believe this lie: Helena "call'd the saints to surety / That she would never put it from her finger / Unless she gave it to yourself in bed, / Where you have never come" or if she needed the king's help in some "great disaster."
Bertram insists, "She never saw it," and even when the king orders him arrested says
If you shall proveHe is led away by guards.
This ring was ever hers, you shall as easyProve that I husbanded her bed in Florence,Where yet she never was.
The gentleman whom Helena met in Marseilles now enters, and delivers the letter she asked him to give the king. It is from Diana, and tells the king that Bertram left Florence without marrying her, as he promised. When Lafew hears this, he vows to "buy me a son-in-law in a fair, ... I'll none of him." The king agrees that the discovery is well-timed as far as the marriage between Bertram and Lafew's daughter is concerned. He orders that Bertram be brought back and Diana allowed to enter.
Accompanied by the widow, Diana enters, and Bertram is forced to admit that he knows them. But when she claims the right to call him her husband he calls her "a fond and desp'rate creature / Whom sometime I have laugh'd with" and "a common gamester to the camp." Whereupon Diana produces his ring. The countess observes her son's blushes and attests to the ring's significance: "This is his wife; / That ring's a thousand proofs." Diana also asserts that she can produce a witness, "but loath am to produce / So bad an instrument; his name's Parolles."
Bertram scoffs at the value of any testimony of a man like Parolles, "Whose nature sickens but to speak a truth." And he admits that he "boarded her i' th' wanton way of youth" and that she persuaded him to give her the ring:
she got the ring,Diana tells Bertram that she'll return his ring if he returns hers. "I have it not," Bertram says. And when the king asks about hers, she says it was like the one the king has on his finger: Helena's ring. "This ring was his of late," the king says, and Diana replies, "And this was it I gave him, being abed." Bertram is forced to confess that the story about the ring's being tossed to him from a window is a lie.
And I had that which any inferior mightAt market-price have bought.
Parolles enters, and in his usual wordy way testifies that he acted as a go-between for Bertram and Diana. The king grows impatient with Parolles' testimony, but when he questions Diana about the ring she says is hers, her answers are so evasive that he says, "Unless thou tell'st me where thou hadst this ring / Thou diest within the hour." Diana stands her ground, and when the king orders her to prison, she sends her mother to fetch Helena. She says of Bertram,
He knows himself my bed he hath defil'd;The widow enters with Helena, and everyone is duly thunderstruck.
And at that time he got his wife with child.
Dead though she be she feels her young one kick.
So there's my riddle: one that's dead is quick,
And now behold the meaning.
When Helena proclaims, "'Tis but the shadow of a wife you see; / The name and not the thing," Bertram insists, "Both, both. O pardon!" She tells him, "when I was like this maid I found you wondrous kind," perhaps referring to a time anterior to the action of the play, because we have never seen Bertram being any kind of kind. She points out his ring, and shows him the letter in which he promises to call her his wife when she can get the ring and carry his child. "This is done; / Will you be mine now you are doubly won?" And in response Bertram vows to "love her dearly, ever, ever dearly."
Lafew is so overcome with emotion that he asks Parolles to lend him a handkerchief. The king promises to pay Diana's dowry when she chooses a husband, and utters the tag line of the play:
All yet seems well, and if it end so meet,
The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet.
We are not supposed to think past the end of the play, of course. Bertram has been an insufferable git through the whole thing, and his "redemption" consists of a few lines after having lied for the better part of even the last act. Realistically, we can't expect much of a marriage to come out of this mess of contrivances. But that's the point: All's Well That Ends Well is in no way realistic. It's a concoction designed to point a moral about patience and virtue overcoming selfishness and deception. A fairy tale. Only because we expect more sophistication from Shakespeare do we have any right to be dissatisfied with what he has given us.
An excerpt from the final scene of the play in the 1981 BBC TV production. Celia Johnson as the countess, Ian Charleson as Bertram, Michael Hordern as Lafew, Angela Down as Helena, Peter Jeffrey as Parolles, Donald Sinden as the king, Rosemary Leach as the widow, Pippa Guard as Diana, and Valentine Dyall as the gentleman met in Marseilles: