As we do with all plays, let’s begin our discussion with an overview of the narrative. As we begin our All’s Well That Ends Well plot summary, it is in time of mourning (“all (characters) in black” [opening stage direction]), and its opening line carries more death tidings: “In delivering my son from me, I bury a second husband” (I.i.1-2). The speaker is the otherwise nameless Countess of Rossillion. And we immediately hear from her son:
Bertram, the son in question, is upset not only by the death of his father but it seems by the impending servitude to the king. Of course, this king doesn’t seem long for the world, either: he has “abandoned his physicians” (I.i.13) and is now “losing hope by time” (I.i.16).
If the loss of Bertram’s father and the impending loss of the king weren’t enough, we also learn there is also a “young gentlewoman (who) had a father” (I.i.17) as well. Yet another dying or dead father-figure. A pretty relentlessly downer of an opening, especially when we hear that this last dead man, a physician, could have been “the death of the king’s disease” (I.i.22-3). The girl had been “bequeathed to (the Countess’) overlooking” (I.i.37-8) and the older woman knows well the younger woman’s “honesty and … goodness” (I.i.44).
It seems that the Countess’ words have affected the girl, Helena, “get(ting) from her tears” (I.i.45-6), and when the older woman advises her to temper her sadness, we hear Helena’s first words in the play, a response in aside: “I do affect a sorrow indeed, but I have it, too” (I.i.53-4). It’s an interesting line. She’s showing a sadness, but she has a sadness, too. A different sadness. But we don’t know the cause. Yet.
We move from this fatherless child back to the first one and learn that Bertram has “succeed(ed his) father // In manners, as in shape” (I.i.61-2). The Countess then proceeds to give her son some life advice before leaving him so he can go to the the king. But before he does, however, he too has advice, for Helena: “Be comfortable to my mother, your mistress, and make much of her” (I.i.76-8). Not exactly warm, especially from a quasi-brother.
When he leaves her alone on stage, we find how ironic his feelings or lack thereof, are in relationship to Helena. She feels sadness, but it’s “not on (her) father” (I.i.81), but rather for Bertram: “I am undone; there is no living, none, // If Bertram be away” (I.i.86-7). She’s in love with Bertram, and she’s got it bad.
When “one that goes with (Bertram)” (I.i.101) enters the scene, what follows is a mixture innocence and bawdiness. Helena brings the innocence and Parolles, a swaggering soldier companion of the new count, brings the bawdy. It’s a nice break from the relentless death-talk of the first half of the scene.
When Parolles advises Helena to get “a good husband” (I.i.213), her response in soliloquy is that she has a plan: “The king’s disease — my project may deceive me, // But my intents are fixed, and will not leave me” (I.i.226-7). She’s got a plan. It has something to do with the king (and her father’s legacy, perhaps?). And you would think it would have something to do with her love as well, but we don’t know what exactly.
Act One, Scene Two, takes us to the court of the King of France, with a discussion dealing with some military matters of state, when Bertram, the swaggering Parolles, and another older lord (Lafew) enter. The king sees Bertram’s “father’s face” (I.ii.19) in the young man. We learn that the King and the old Count of Rossillion shared both “friendship (and) soldiership” (I.ii.25, 26), as the king recounts their relationship. Bertram says that the King’s “remembrance” (I.ii.48) is better than his father’s epitaph.
With this mention of death, the king says, “Would I were with him!” (I.ii.52), recalling how Bertram’s father had wished to die before losing his power (his “flame lacks oil” [I.ii.59]), a wish the King of France now harbors. Having lost hope, he asks Bertram, “How long is’t, count, // Since the physician at your father’s died?” (I.ii.69-70). When the king learns that it has only been six months, he laments, “If he were living, I would try him yet” (I.ii.72). He has given up hope, but if this healer (Helena’s father, we can assume) was alive, the King feels that might have made a difference.
Act One, Scene Three, returns us to the Countess of Rossillion, who exchanges a little banter with her fool, the clown Lavatch. The exchange has a real Olivia-Feste vibe to it, though this one has a little more bawdy coming from the fool. Interrupting this humorous back-and-forth is the Countess’s steward, who brings news that Helena “did communicate to herself her own words to her own ears… she loved your son” (I.iii.104-5, 107). A vital piece of news made even more fun by one of the rare instances where one character describes another speaking in soliloquy.
When Helena returns, her surrogate mother questions her… on the matter of family. It’s a subtle roundabout to the subject of love. The Countess discusses how she is a mother to Helena, but when she asks the young woman if she is her daughter, Helen responds, “I am not” (I.iii.149), continuing that Bertram “cannot be (her) brother: // (She is) humble, he from honored name” (I.iii.152-3) and wishing the Countess “were … both (their) mothers… so (she) were not (Bertram’s) sister” (I.iii.159, 161). The Countess then floats an idea: “you might be my daughter-in-law” (I.iii.163), and the comment reveals Helena’s mind as she turns “pale” (I.iii.165).
She may have turned pale in fear of the old Countess’ reaction, but she needn’t have been afraid, as her surrogate mother explains “heaven shall work in (the Countess) for (Helena’s) avail” (I.iii.180). Helena admits her chaste and dear love for Bertram. The Countess immediately asks if Helena plans to go to Paris, Helena admits this, too, but not for the reason the Countess suspects:
There is a remedy, approved, set down,
To cure the desperate languishings whereof
The king is rendered lost.
- I.iii.217, 224-6
Helena admits as well that she would have never thought of the cure for the king if Bertram hadn’t left to meet the king in Paris. The Countess sends off Helena with her blessing and a promise; “What I can help thee to, thou shalt not miss” (I.iii.252). And with that, the scene and first act is done.