When we left the All’s Well That Ends Well plot summary at the end of Act Four, Helena had put out a story that she was dead, but was able to stand in (or is that “lie down”?) for Diana as she was bedded by Bertram, who was now returning home. As the fifth and final act begins, Helena, the widow, and virgin Diana, arrive in Marseilles, where they had hoped to meet with the king.
The only problem is they arrive to find him gone; the gentleman with whom they speak informs them that the king has gone “to Rossillion” (V.i.28). As the gentleman is going there himself, Helena gives him a letter to pass on to the king. She then tells the widow and Diana that their trip isn’t over yet.
In the short Act Five, Scene Two, Lafew and Parolles meet in Rossillion. Parolles, now “muddied in Fortune’s mood” (V.ii.4), attempts to have Lafew show some mercy to him since the old lord was the “first that found (him out)” (V.ii.42-3). While Lafew still disrespects Parolles, he’s not cruel: “Though your are a fool and a knave,” he says, “you shall eat” (V.ii.52-3).
The third scene of the act and the last of the play takes us into the Countess’ palace, where we will be witness to much wackiness followed by just about the most abrupt ending I can think of. First, the king and the countess commiserate over the death of Helena. While the king feels all of this is Bertram’s fault, he has “forgiven and forgotten all” (V.iii.9) and is ready to be “reconciled” (V.iii.20) with the count. Bertram enters and asks for pardon; the king accepts and moves on to ask if Bertram knows Lafew’s daughter (remember, he has offered her as a new bride for Bertram). He does and readily accepts the offer of marriage.
It all seems great until Lafew asks for a love token from Betram to give to his daughter, and Bertram gives him a ring. Lafew says that he saw the same ring on the finger of “Helen that’s dead” (V.iii.77) when she left the court. If that sounds bad for Bertram, what comes next is worse: the king says,
I bade her if her fortunes ever stood
Necessitied to help, that by this token
I would relieve her.
When Bertram claims that the ring was never Helen’s, even his mother has to admit that she had “seen (Helen) wear it” (V.iii.90). Bertram continues to deny it, claiming that
Wrapped in a paper which contained the name
Of her that threw it.
He even goes so far as to say that when he told the woman who tossed it to him that he was married, she told him to keep the ring.
Of course, this is a lie. We know this (the ring is the one “Diana” gave Bertram during their silent hour of sex… of course, we also know that though Bertram thinks this is the case… it was actually Helen who slipped the ring on his finger after he slipped his… well, you know.). The king, without evidence–save for his “conjectural fears” (V.iii.114) and the ring he’s now holding–accuses Bertram of “speak(ing) falsely” (V.iii.113), and has him arrested. Bertram, more than a little cocky, says,
This ring was ever hers, you shall as easy
Prove that I husbanded her bed in Florence,
Where yet she never was.
They take Bertram away, and the “gentleman” from Act Five, Scene One, enters with the letter Helena gave him. The king reads it aloud, and its contents are enough to have Lafew rescind the offer of his daughter’s hand:
As Scooby-Doo might say, “Ruh-Roh.”
This is so bad that the king actually fears “the life of Helen…was foully snatched” (V.iii.152, 153). Diana and the widow are brought in, and so is Bertram to face his accuser. Bertram admits knowing Diana; Diana asks why he “look(s) so strange upon your wife?” (V.iii.167). He first calls her a “fond and desp’rate creature” (V.iii.177), then a “common gamester to the camp” (V.iii.187). From someone he happens to know, to a desperate stalker, to a camp-following whore, his changing story sounds like a lie, and one that sounds all the worse when Diana reveals that she has Bertram’s ring. Even Bertram’s own mother fails to believe him: “This is his wife” (V.iii.197).
When Diana says that Parolles can corroborate her story, Bertram jumps on this, saying that no one can believe the word of a “most perfidious slave” (V.iii.204), but he has no choice but to admit that he had bedded Diana in exchange for the ring. Diana says that, since Bertram is such a scumbag (my words, not hers), she’s willing to “lose a husband” (V.iii.221) and return his ring, as long as he returns hers. Bertram doesn’t have it, though… it’s the one on the king’s finger.
Now Bertram has to “confess the ring was (Diana’s)” (V.iii.230). Parolles is brought forth, and while he can corroborate some of Diana’s statements, the rest of what he has to say is so garbled and rambling that the king has him stand aside. But when the king begins to re-question Diana about the ring, her answers become as double-meaning-ed as any politician’s: “It was not given me, nor I did not buy it…it was not lent me neither…I found it not…I never gave it him…it might be yours or hers for aught I know… I’ll never tell you” (V.iii.269, 270, 271,273,277, 281). Frustrated, the king calls her a “common customer” (V.iii.283) or prostitute, and demands that she be taken away.
Before she can be taken away, though, she calls for her mother to “fetch (her) bail” (V.iii.292), and the widow does, and that bail is… Helena. The king questions if “is’t real that (he) see(s)” (V.iii.303). Helena calls herself but “the shadow of a wife… the name and not the thing” (V.iii.304-5). Bertram’s first words to her are a call for pardon. Helena reads from his letter to her, which said he would never take her as wife until she had his ring and a child by him. “This is done,” she says, “Will you be mine, now you are doubly won?” (V.iii.310-1).
Bertram’s next and final words of the play are “If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly, // I’ll love her dearly — ever, ever dearly” (V.iii.312-3). Helen’s response?
Deadly divorce step between me and you.—
O my dear mother, do I see you living?
These are her last words of the play: a threat of “deadly divorce” for Bertram, and calling out to her mother. Who doesn’t answer. Instead, we get Lafew crying and the king promising to give Diana any husband she wants and pay her dowry, with his final couplet (and the last lines of the play) being, “All yet seems well, and if it end so meet, // The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet” (V.iii.329-30).
And the play is done, save for a six-line epilogue by the king (or his actor) in three rhyming couplets, bringing the play to an end and asking for applause (thing Puck and the actress playing Rosaline), including the phrase, “All is well ended.”
All’s well that ends well (or abruptly), I guess.