When we left the All’s Well That Ends Well plot summary at the end of Act Two, Helena had married (by kingly force) to the man she loves, only to be abandoned by this Bertram, who vowed never to consummate the marriage and had left for the Tuscan wars. When Act Three, Scene One begins, we find ourselves in a new location: Florence, Italy, where its duke discusses the current war with some of his lords.
While Florence feels that his cause is “holy” (III.i.4), he wonders why the French king has not sent soldiers. On the other hand, “the younger of (Florence’s) nature” (III.i.17) are travelling there to help (think of “all the youth of England are on fire” in Henry V). I wonder who’s part of that band of soldiers? </sarcasm>
The second scene takes us back to Rossillion where Lavatch the clown delivers to the Countess the letter from Bertram. And what a letter it is:
Your unfortunate son,
If you’re thinking, “What a douche!” you’re not alone; mom’s thinking the same thing, albeit in nicer words (“rude and unbridled boy” [III.ii.27]). Within moments, Helena arrives with her own letter from Bertram, this one goes from douche-y to outright cruel:
The Countess attempts to comfort her new daughter(-in-law):
But I do wash his name out of my blood,
And thou art all my child.
The rest of the scene has the Countess fuming over her son’s decisions, praising Helena, and insulting Parolles in absentia (though her insults of him lessen her damnation of Bertram, as she fears her son has fallen under Parolles’ “inducement” [III.ii.87]). When she leaves the stage, Helena in soliloquy bemoans not just Bertram’s flight but her guilt over causing it. She even goes so far as to imploring Bertram to return “home” (III.ii.118), and to make that happen she will “steal away” (III.ii.127) herself.
The short Act Three, Scene Three, takes us back to Florence, where we see that Bertram is part of that young group of foreign fighters to enter the fray. Bertram is about to head into a “charge too heavy for (his) strength” (III.iii.4), but he puts himself in the ranks of “Great Mars” (III.iii.9).
With the fourth scene of the act, we’re back to Rossillion where the Countess receives the goodbye letter from Helena, in which she tells her mother-in-law that she will be going on a pilgrimage to Saint Jaques. She apologizes for what she sees as her responsibility sending Bertram into “the bloody course of war” (III.iv.8), and hopes that the Countess will be able to bring home her son. She ends with “He is too good and fair for death and me; // Whom I myself embrace to set him free” (III.iv.16-7). Helena is willing to die, if it means bringing Bertram to safety. The Countess calls for a courier to deliver the message to Bertram, whom she hopes will return home, but only so that Helena, “hearing so much, will speed her foot again, // Led hither by pure love” (III.iv.37-8).
In Act Three, Scene Five, we hear some women of Florence (led by a widow) speaking of what they’ve heard from the battle, including the “most honorable service” (III.v.3-4) done by Bertram–capturing the opposing commander and slaying the duke’s brother. One of the women, Mariana, has been solicited by Parolles, “a filthy officer” (III.v.17) as she puts it, and because of it, she warns another of the women, young Diana, to “beware” (III.v.18) of the men since “the honor of a maid is her name, and no legacy is so rich as honesty” (III.v.12-3).
Helena enters, dressed like a pilgrim. The widow promises to show this pilgrim lodging if she’ll wait until after the troops come by. When the widow learns that Helena has come from France, she tells Helena that her countryman, the Count Rossillion, has won honors in the war. Diana shares some gossip that she’s heard, that Rossillion has fled France because “the king married him // Against his liking” (III.v.52-3). She also says that Bertram’s companion “reports but coarsely of (the wife)” (III.v.56).
Both Diana and the widow sympathize with the “wife // Of a detesting lord” (III.V.63-4), and the widow goes further saying that Diana “might do (the wife) // A shrewd turn, if she pleased” (III.v.66-7). How could Diana do the wife a favor? Helena jumps to a jealous wife’s conclusion: “May be the amourous count solicits her // In the unlawful purpose” (III.v.68-9) of sex?
He does indeed. As he and the other soldiers enter the town (and we’ve learned that Parolles has lost his drum), the widow takes home Helena, who promises to “bestow some precepts” (III.v.98) on Diana.
Act Three, Scene Six begins with a couple of the lords trying to convince Bertram of Parolles’ cowardice, finally getting him to agree to a “some sport” (III.vi.98), wherein they’ll use the drum to reveal Parolles’ true nature. As the scene ends, they go off to see the “lass” (III.vi.107) Bertram told them about. Her honesty is “the fault” (III.vi.108) or problem for Bertram to solve.
The seventh and final scene of the act takes us to the home of the Florentine widow, where we see Helena reveal herself to the widow that she is the count’s wife. She gives the widow a “purse of gold” (III.vii.16) to pay for the hospitality they’ve shown her thus far… and to buy their cooperation in a plot of her own, to use Bertram’s “wanton siege” (III.vii.18) against him. They will have Diana agree to an assignation in exchange for Bertram’s ring, then “deliver (Helena) to fill the time, // (Diana) most chastely absent” (III.vii.33-4). For “this deceit most lawful” (III.vii.38), Helena will pay them an additional 3000 crowns.
And with the two plots readied to reveal two bad boys, the third act ends.