When we left the All’s Well That Ends Well plot summary at the end of Act One, Helena had decided–with the Countess’ blessing–to venture to Paris to attempt to cure the King of France with medicines left to her by her late father. The second (and longest) act of the play begins in the court of France where some of the younger lords have decided to leave to fight in Italy against the army of Savoy. The King is more concerned with these young men becoming “captives” (II.i.21) to “those girls of Italy” (II.i.19), rather than with their deaths.
When the king leaves the stage, Bertram and his companion Parolles discuss “steal(ing) away” (II.i.34), and joining the unnamed lords in the war. The king reenters, Bertram and Parolles exit, and an older lord (Lafew) tells the king that he has a visitor, a “Doctor She!” (II.i.80), who has “amazed” (II.i.85) Lafew. The king allows Helena to enter, and she explains,
With that malignant cause wherein the honor
Of my dear father’s gift stands chief in power,
I come to tender it and my appliance
With all bound humbleness.
At first, the king is neither convinced nor tempted; it takes some work (and not a little “certainty and confidence” [II.i.170]) from Helena to convince him. When he does relent, it’s not without risk to Helena: “Sweet practicer, thy physic I will try, // That ministers thine own death if I die” (II.i.186-7). She in nonplussed, however, saying,
Of what I spoke, unpitied let me die,
And well deserved. Not helping, death’s my fee.
But if I help, what do you promise me?
If she fails, she dies; if she succeeds, then… the king wants to know what she wants. And what does she want? “Then shalt thou give me with thy kingly hand // What husband in thy power I will command” (II.i.195-6). The king agrees… can you see where this is headed?
Act Two, Scene Two takes us back to Rossillion and the Countess, as she again exchanges quips with her clown Lavatch, and as before, the clown brings the bawdy. In this scene, however, I’m not sure if the Countess is playing the straight woman, or if she’s goading him on… I’ll need to take a closer look later in our discussions of the ol’ nudge-nudge wink-wink. Beyond the dirty jokes, the scene exists to inform the audience of a letter being sent to Helena from the Countess.
Act Two, Scene Three and we’re back to the court of France. Bertram, Parolles, and Lafew comment on what has happened in the interim of the last scene: “the rarest argument of wonder that hath shot out in our latter times” (II.iii.7-8). In other words, “the recovery of the king” (II.iii.36). When the king enters the scene, Parolles (and we can assume Bertram) is surprised to see Helena in his company. Of course, not as surprised as when the king announces that Helena has the “power to choose (a husband), and they none to forsake” (II.iii.55). As king, he can make this happen.
It makes you think back to Bertram lamenting his “subjection” (I.i.5) back in the opening scene.
Guess who she picks?
After some perfunctory motions of considering other men, she picks Bertram. The king commands Bertram to take Helena as his wife. Bertram refuses, saying,
In such a business give me leave to use
The help of mine own eyes.
It sounds reasonable–a man wanting to choose his own wife–but when the king continues to push the point, we hear the real reason Bertram doesn’t want Helena: “A poor physician’s daughter my wife?” (II.iii.114). One has to wonder if in Shakespeare’s day, such a statement would seem as jarring (and well, douche-y) as it does in our day. The king says that “virtue and she (herself) // Is her own dower” (II.iii.142-3), but that he will grant her “honor and wealth” (II.iii.143). Bertram says, “I cannot love her, nor will strive to do’t” (II.iii.144), to which the king replies, “Thou wrong’st thyself if you shouldst strive to choose” (II.iii.145). This is a great statement: Bertram would be wrong in trying to choose another because Helena is so good, but he’d also be wrong (and open to punishment) if he disobeys his king.
But Helena has heard enough. “Let the rest go” (II.iii.147), she says (and I don’t think it comes out like a song from Frozen). The king will have none of it, though, now claiming it’s “(his) honor at stake” (II.iii.148). The king makes one last argument, ending it with the threat that if Bertram doesn’t follow along, both the king’s “revenge and hate” (II.iii.163) will be loosed upon Bertram.
Bertram relents. And the king takes them away to be married immediately, leaving Parolles and Lafew. Lafew tries to make conversation by telling Parolles, “Your lord and master did well to make his recantation” (II.iii.185-6). Maybe it’s not conversation, as Parolles immediate bristles at being the count’s servant. What follows is an absolutely brutal evisceration of Parolles by the aged Lafew. Nearly 80 lines worth. I’m sure there’s a way to play this comically, but it’s harsh, focusing on Parolles’ cowardice and fashion.
Lafew leaves Parolles to lick his wounds and Bertram re-enters, in a state. He says that though he has married, he will not consummate the marriage (“bed her” [II.iii.268]). Instead, he says he will go to “the Tuscan wars” (II.iii.271), and Parolles, still smarting over his tongue-lashing, calls France a “doghole” (II.iii.272), and will accompany Bertram. While Bertram goes to war, he will send Helena back to his mother, with a letter outlining his “hate for (Helena), // And wherefore (he is) fled” (II.iii.285-6). He is resigned to go “to the wars, she to her single sorrow” (II.iii.293-4).
The fourth scene of Act Two begins with Helena greeting Lavatch who has come from the Countess. If some of the Countess/Lavatch exchanges had an Olivia/Feste vibe to them, then this scene beginning has a Viola-Cesario/Feste vibe. But this is interrupted by the arrival of Parolles who delivers to Helena news and commands from her new husband: Bertram “will go away tonight” (II.iv.39), not allowing for “rite of love” (II.iv.41)–the consummation of the marriage; and she is to leave the court, return home, and wait for his “further pleasure” (II.iv.53). Helena has no choice but to acquiesce.
The fifth and final scene of the second act opens with Bertram and Lafew, with the older questioning the younger about the “valor” (II.v.11) of Parolles. With the entrance of Parolles, Lafew’s questioning becomes more pointed, less subtle and unmistakably directed at the swaggerer, until upon his exit he says to Parolles,
At this point, Helena arrives (referred to by Bertram as his “clog” [II.v.52], or a chain to keep a horse from running), saying she has received leave from the king to return home (and that the king wants some “private speech” [II.v.56] with the count). He tells her to neither think about nor ask why he is leaving, and only deliver a note to his mother. It’s a brush-off, and a cold one, even denying Helena a kiss, something for which she takes over eight halting lines to ask. He sends her off, vowing “never” (II.v.89) to return home to her.
Thus ends Act Two.