Hello Friends! I’m still awake, so I’m considering this Sunday. I might have gotten this posted sooner but I decided to watch the presidential debate. There’s nothing agreeable I could possibly say about that topic, so onward.
I’m not certain I enjoyed this play. I loved aspects of it, but I had major problems with other parts. I think it will take a day or two for me to decide. But enough of that, let’s get onto the play so we can discuss things further.
The Countess of Rousillon’s husband has just passed away and her son, Bertram, is heading to Paris to attend the King at court. The King, we find out, is dying and none of his doctors or advisors can cure him. The Countess has a ward, Helena, whose father is recently deceased and was a renowned doctor; Helena is secretly in love with Bertram. As Bertram prepares to depart for Paris Helena has a conversation with Parolles, a liar and coward who will be traveling with Bertram. The two have a nearly-lewd conversation about virginity which culminated with Parolles suggesting Helena get married and lose her virginity quickly. Helena then comes up with a plan that may help her win Bertram’s heart.
When Bertram arrives in Paris the King is just recounting his decision to stay out of a conflict between Austria and the Duke of Florence, though French nobles are free to take part if they wish. In greeting Bertram the King grieves for the young man’s father. The King also mentions that he wishes Helena’s father were still alive to help treat him.
Meanwhile, the Countess is speaking with the Fool who used to work for her husband. They are interrupted by the Steward, who informs the Countess (when they’re alone) that he overheard Helena confess her love for Bertram. The Countess sends for Helena and gets her to admit her feelings. Helena does the Countess one better and tells her of the plan she has to go to Paris and offer her services (with the knowledge and notes her father left to her) to the King. The Countess, while not convinced Helena will succeed, supports the plan and sends Helena to Paris with her blessings.
In Paris, the King has commanded that Bertram stay at court and attend him rather than go to war in Florence with all the other young lords. Bertram isn’t too happy about this and Parolles suggests he (Bertram) sneak away to join the war. The King, meanwhile, doesn’t think he’ll live to see the lords’ return to Paris. When the King’s alone an old lord named Lafew approaches and tells him there’s a young woman who would like to speak with him and says she can cure the King’s disease. The King agrees to see her and Lafew fetches Helena.
Helena tells the King that she’s the daughter of Gerard de Narbon and that, when he was dying, he gave her a powerful medicine to keep safe and she’s brought it to save the King. The King thanks her but tells her his doctors say there’s nothing that can cure him. Helena insists that it won’t hurt to try and then swears the medicine will work within two days and that if it doesn’t work and the King dies her life will be forfeit. In exchange she asks the King to allow her to choose a husband from among his lords at court. The King agrees to the bargain.
Meanwhile, the Countess sends the Fool to court with a letter for Helena. At court, Parolles and Lafew are speaking together and we learn that the King has been cured. First the King gives Helena his ring and swears that, should she ever need aid, she can use the ring to call in his help; she swears to never part with it. To fulfill his part of the bargain, the King assembles five young lords (including Bertram) for Helena to choose from; Helena passes over everyone and selects Bertram. Bertram (who’s apparently both an idiot and a jerk, in my humble opinion) is aghast and says he could never marry someone so beneath his rank. The King tears into him, telling that all of Helena’s virtues and qualities are far more important than something as ephemeral as a title, which he also promises to bestow upon her. Bertram continues to protest (to the KING, because, like I said, he’s an idiot) and the King threatens to exile him from court.
Faced with the threat of falling out of favor Bertram reluctantly agrees to the marriage and everyone immediately goes to see them wed. Lafew and Parolles stay behind and argue over the match. Lafew takes the stance that Bertram was insolent and Parolles defends him, trying to start a fight. Parolles eventually backs down and states that Lafew is too old to fight with and Lafew calls the other man out as a coward. Lafew leaves and Bertram enters, now married to Helena. He tells Parolles that he has no intent of consummating the marriage and plans to send Helena back to live with his mother while he goes to war. (Like I said, he’s a jerk.)
The Fool has arrived at court and gives the Countess’s letter to Helena. Parolles then enters and tells Helena that Bertram needs to go away on pressing matters and they’ll need to postpone their wedding night. What’s more, Bertram wishes Helena to prepare to return home and then come say goodbye. Meanwhile, Lafew is speaking to Bertram and warns him that Parolles isn’t the great soldier he purports himself to be, but Bertram basically ignores him. Helena then comes to say goodbye to Bertram, who apologizes for leaving so soon. Helena asks for a kiss but he refuses and then rides off with Parolles.
In Florence, two young French lords are in council with the Duke of Florence. The Duke is disappointed that the King of France refuses to get involved in his dispute and the young lords share his displeasure. They comfort each other with the fact that many French nobles have come to fight on the Duke’s behalf. Meanwhile, Helena returns home to the Countess with two gentlemen bearing a letters. One is to the Countess from Bertram and tells her that he has no intention to ever return to France and resume his marriage to Helena. The other letter is to Helena from Bertram, and he explains that he won’t be her husband in truth until she wears his ring (which he never removes) and carries his child (though he refuses to sleep with her). Basically, he’ll never be her husband. The Countess is extremely disappointed with her (idiotic) son and Helena decides to leave Rousillon so Bertram can return home to France and leave the dangers of war.
While in Florence, the Duke declares Bertram a general in charge of his cavalry, In France, the Countess receives a letter from Helena informing her that she’s making a pilgrimage to a monastery. The Countess once more laments the idiocy of her son and sends letters to Bertram hoping he’ll return home and that Helena will follow suit so she can reconcile them. (Honestly, why anyone wants anything to do with Bertram and his toddler-temper-tantrum ways is beyond me.)
Helena ends up in Florence (though we’re not certain if this is by chance or design) and runs into a widow, her daughter Diana, and another woman named Mariana. They explain that Bertram, who happens to be riding by shortly, has been trying to woo Diana to bed her. The Widow tells Diana that she should keep denying Bertram. (In my opinion, everyone should be denying Bertram everything.) They also tell Helena that they’ve heard Bertram ran away from France to join the war because he has a wife he hates whom he was forced to marry. The women then inquire where Helena is going and the Widow invites her to stay with her.
In the camp, two lords are telling Bertram that Parolles is not to be trusted and is a coward. The two men devise a plan: they’ll shame Parolles into retrieving the regiment’s drum, which was lost in battle that day. Then a group of them will disguise themselves as the enemy and capture Parolles, blindfold him, and interrogate him. Bertram will be there to watch the interrogation so he can see first-hand just how loyal Parolles is. Bertram agrees. When Parolles enters soon after the three men begin to discuss the drum and how it’s loss is of no real consequence. Parolles blusters and insists that the drum needs to be retrieved and that he’ll do it himself, or at least try his best (or rather, say he tried his best when he didn’t really try at all). Parolles then leaves and the first lord goes to set the “capture”. Bertram, meanwhile, invites the second lord to come with him to see Diana.
We then see Helena, who’s told the Widow who she is. She sets a scheme to trick Bertram, preserve Diana’s chastity, and fulfill the conditions Bertram set in his letter. Diana is to lead Bertram on and then, when she “agrees” to sleep with him, request his ring. Once she has it she’ll give the ring to Helena. After Bertram gets to Diana’s bedchamber she and Helena will change places in the dark and Bertram will end up sleeping with his own wife. The Widow agrees to the plan (after Helena gives her a purse of gold).
The party that set out to capture Parolles succeeds. They blindfold Parolles, speak nonsense to each other, and have one man who acts as an “interpreter”. Meanwhile, Helena’s plan is in motion. Bertram begs Diana to sleep with him and professes his love. She finally agrees but asks him for his ring in return. Bertram at first refuses, but then Diana likens his ring to her virginity and she convinces him to give it up. She tells him shell give him a ring in exchange (the ring the King gave to Helena after she healed him) and to come to her chamber at midnight and knock on the window.
In the camp we learn from the two lords that Bertram has finally received his mother’s letters (I assume they tell him he’s being a whiney, sniveling, disgraceful snot) as well as a letter informing him of Helena’s death in a monastery (obviously a move by Helena). When Bertram returns from his assignation with Diana (actually Helena), the men begin their “interrogation” of Parolles. The man is terrified and spilling military secrets left and right. He then goes on to give insulting descriptions of both the lords and Bertram. In addition, the “interpreter” discovers a letter in Parolles pocket addressed to Diana that urges her to sleep with Bertram only after she’s gotten him to pay for the privilege. The group then convinces Parolles he’s about to be killed and pull off his blindfold. Parolles then sees all the men he’s betrayed and insulted. After he’s left alone Parolles consoles himself and decides to move on with life.
With Helena presumed dead and a truce in the war, Bertram decides to return home. Helena thanks the Widow and Diana for their help and asks them to join her to visit the King’s court in Marseilles, where she assumes Bertram will head. The Countess grieves for Helena’s “death” and Lafew, who’s visiting, says that he’s proposed a betrothal to the King between his own (Lafew’s) daughter and Bertram. The King has agreed to this and to let Bertram back into favor; the Countess assents. The Fool then enters and informs them that Bertram is home.
When she arrives in Marseilles Helena discovers that the King has moved his court to Rousillon. She, the Widow, and Diana make haste and Helena gives a letter for the King to a gentleman who’s heading that way and will likely arrive before they do. Parolles also heads to Rousillon, but this time as a begger. Lafew shows charity and gives Parolles a meal.
Inside, the King is about to officially approve the engagement of Bertram to Lafew’s daughter when Lafew notices the ring on Bertram’s finger. It’s the one the King gave to Helena, which she then gave to Bertram while he thought she was Diana. Bertram has just announced that he learned to love Helena after he found out she died so he’s at a bit of a loss on how to explain the ring, He decides to say that a woman in Florence threw it out of her window with a note to him; Bertram, being loyal, turned down her advances but she refused to take the ring back. No one believes him, though, and they think the worst; that he removed it from Helena’s dead body, or perhaps even caused her death. The King has his guards cease Bertram to throw him in prison.
Just then, Diana and her mother enter the room. She tells the story of Bertram’s seduction and has Parolles called in as a witness; he confirms it. When asked about the ring, Diana claims that she gave it to Bertram but refuses to say where she got the ring. At this point no one believes her and the King is getting angry again. She asks her mother to bring in her “bail”, which she also claims is the jeweler who provided the ring. The Widow returns with Helena and everyone is shocked. Helena explains everything and claims that all the conditions of Bertram’s letter to her have been met: she has his ring and is pregnant by him. Bertram vows to be a good husband, the King vows that Diana can have her choice of husband, and everyone is (relatively) happy (though Bertram remains an idiot and a jerk).
This was…an interesting play. In theory, I liked the plot a lot and truly enjoyed it. But…Bertram. Helena keeps fighting for Bertram and he’s horrible! I couldn’t figure out one positive trait he possesses. And yes, I know, my delicate modern sensibilities, but the thing remains: he wasn’t a likeable character. I could handle and understand a flawed character, but he didn’t have a single redeeming quality. He threw a temper-tantrum like a toddler, ran away from all his responsibilities, refused to consummate his marriage, cheated on his wife by seducing a virgin… so many bad qualities. Why did he argue with the King about his marriage? It’s not like people in Elizabethan England married for love, especially nobility. I just can’t understand why he was so desirable.
The play takes a very negative view of romantic love and marriage. Diana doesn’t like Bertram’s advances and I’ve already gone into Bertram. But let’s talk about the bedroom switch, in which Helena slips in for Diana and gets pregnant by Bertram. This event (which, understandably, isn’t actually enacted in the play; this isn’t 50 Shades of Shakespeare) suggests that all women are the same when the lights are off. I’m not mentioning this from a modern perspective, merely that in a romantic play this shouldn’t be the case. The romance should be special, the partners should have eyes only for each other. Even the beginning where Helena and Parolles discuss virginity (her virginity, to be exact) takes a very negative view of male sexuality. And I think that’s the crux; the romance here isn’t lofty, it’s base. It’s the type of relationship we expect from Falstaff, not noble, high-brow main characters.
Honestly, the redeeming characters in this play are all women. Helena is resourceful and intelligent (though I question her judgment in whom she chooses to love), Diana is plucky and quick-witted, and the Countess is the bees knees. I like the King as well, but most of the other male characters are flat and unappealing.
OK, I need to leave you with some happy. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Upstart Crow, a comedy about Shakespeare that a friend alerted me to. You can watch it on YouTube. Enjoy!