When we left the All’s Well That Ends Well plot summary at the end of Act Three, Helena had come up with a plan to use Bertram’s attempted seduction of the virgin Diana against him: the capturing of his ring, and replacing Diana in her bed with herself. Act Four begins with the French lords preparing their ambush of Parolles in hopes of proving his cowardice.
They don’t need to do much: after they hide, Parolles enters and admits aloud to himself that he “must give (him)self some hurts and say(s he) got them in exploit” (IV.i.36-7). They then pounce, binding and blindfolding him, making him believe they are the “Muskos” (IV.i.69) or Muscovites. Parolles, immediately ready to reveal “that which shall undo the Florentine” (IV.i.73), is taken away in custody.
In Act Four, Scene Two, Bertram continues his seduction of Diana, using a sonnet-like argument: “You are no maiden, but a monument… you should be as your mother was // When your sweet self was got” (IV.ii.9-10). Don’t be a cold virgin; have sex like your mama. When she tries to bring up Bertram’s wife, “No more o’ that” (IV.ii.13) is his only response.
When Diana asks for Bertram’s ring, he first offers only to “lend it” (IV.ii.40) to her, but she is not willing to give her honor (as she cannot merely lend it). It’s only when Bertram relents that Diana tells him to come to her chamber window that night. She sets very specific rules for their assignation:
Remain there but an hour, nor speak to me.
And on your finger in the night I’ll put
Another ring, that what in time proceeds
May token to the future our past deeds.
Adieu till then; then, fail not. You have won
A wife of me, though there my hope be done.
- IV.ii.57-8, 61-5
Bertram seems to have no problem with a hour of silent, in-the-dark sex, with a ring in return and a seeming promise to marry in the future, and so he leaves. Diana marvels, “My mother told me just how he would woo, // As if she sat in’s heart” (IV.ii.69-70). Men are so transparent, so “braid” (IV.ii.73) or deceitful, that Diana “think(s)’t no sin // To cozen him that would unjustly win” (IV.ii.75-6).
The hate-fest on Bertram continues in Act Four, Scene Three, as a couple of French captains (let’s call them Captain Exposition and Captain Previously-on-All’s-Well) discuss his “nature … worthy (of) blame” (IV.iii.4, 6). It is a pretty damning list of sins:
- “shaking off so good a wife and so sweet a lady” (IV.iii.7),
- “incurr(ing) the everlasting displeasure of the king” (IV.iii.8-9),
- “pervert(ing) a young gentlewoman here in Florence” (IV.iii.14-5),
- and “flesh(ing) his will in the spoil of her honor” (IV.iii.16).
We also learn that “peace (has been) concluded” (IV.iii.40)… and Helena is dead (“made groan of her last breath, and now she sings in heaven” [IV.iii.52-3]). The captains’ opinion of Bertram is so low that they are sure “he’ll be glad of this (news of Helena’s death)” (IV.iii.63).
When Bertram arrives, he seems pretty satisfied with himself, and how he’s “tonight dispatched sixteen businesses” (IV.iii.84), including some “nicer needs” (IV.iii.89), seemingly referring to his hour with Diana. While he’s concerned that this last business may not be over, “fearing to hear of it hereafter” (IV.iii.95-6)–and could this be a fear of (who he thinks is) Diana becoming pregnant?–he is now more interested in the Parolles scheme.
The captains bring Parolles forward, and he says, “I will confess what I know without constraint” (IV.iii.121). What follows is a verbal working-over, filled with disparaging remarks made about his comrades (as he thinks this is what his captors want to hear), and it’s pretty funny to see how the captors’ humor changes from good to ill when Parolles begins to drop dime on them. Bertram’s turn comes when they find a note on Parolles that he had written to one of the Florentine women saying that “the count’s a fool, I know it” (IV.iii.225). When he has savaged all, leaving his own reputation in ruins, they unbind him and reveal themselves to him. His response is true enough: “Who cannot be crushed with a plot?” (IV.iii.315). And alone, he accepts his fate easily.
Act Four, Scene Four takes us back to the widow, Helena, and Diana. Helena reveals her cover story–that she is dead–and that Bertram has headed home. She, too, will return to court, taking the other women with her. She can feel a resolution coming or as she puts it, “All’s well that ends well; still the fine’s the crown. // Whate’er the course, the end is the renown” (IV.iv.35-6).
The fifth and final scene of the fourth act takes us back to Rossillion, where the old lord Lafew is telling the Countess that her “son was misled with a snipped-taffeta fellow” (IV.v.1-2), Parolles. Lafew believes Helena would be alive, and Bertram at home, if it hadn’t been for the braggart. The Countess responds, “I would I had not known him” (IV.v.8), lamenting Helena’s death. (Of course, this begs a question or two: did she know Parolles?… or is she talking about her own son?). There’s some more bawdy banter with the clown Lavatch, followed by a seemingly weird offer: Lafew is willing to marry his (heretofore unmentioned and unseen) daughter to Bertram upon his return, and the Countess agrees.
Isn’t marrying him off without his consent what got us here in the first place?
And the scene and act end with news that Bertram has arrived home.