David Bruce: “William Shakespeare’s ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’: A Retelling in Prose” — Cast of Characters and Act 1, Scene 1


Male Characters

King of France

Duke of Florence

Bertram, Count of Rousillon

Lafeu, an old Lord

Parolles, a follower of Bertram

Rinaldo, a Steward

Lavache, a Professional Fool

Female Characters

Countess of Rousillon, Mother to Bertram

Helena, daughter to Gerard de Narbon, a famous physician, some time since dead

An old Widow of Florence

Diana, daughter to the Widow

Mariana, neighbor and friend to the Widow

Minor Characters

Several young French Lords, serving with Bertram in the Florentine wars

Lords attending on the King, Officers, Soldiers, etc.


Partly in France and partly in Tuscany

Rousillon is in the south of France

— 1.1 —

A number of people spoke together in the palace of Bertram, the Count of Rousillon: Bertram; his mother, the Countess of Rousillon; Helena, her ward; and Lafeu, an elderly lord.

The Countess said, “In delivering my son from me, I bury a second husband.”

She was delivering her son to the King of France. Her husband, who was her son’s father, had died, and her son had become the King of France’s ward. Now her son, Bertram, was going to the court of the King of France. The Countess was saying that by allowing her son to go to the King’s court, her grief at being separated from her son was such that it was like she was burying a second husband.

Bertram said to her, “And I in going, madam, weep anew over my father’s death, but I must pay heed to his majesty’s command, whose ward I am now and to whom I am evermore in subjection.”

Lafeu said, “You shall find of the King a husband, aka a protector, madam; you, Bertram, sir, shall find of the King a father. This King who is to all men and at all times good must of necessity maintain his virtue in his dealings with you. Your worthiness is such that it would stir virtue up where it was lacking rather than lack virtue where there is such abundance.”

“What hope is there of his majesty’s health being restored?” the Countess asked.

“He has abandoned his physicians, madam,” Lafeu said. “Under their medical practices he has made his life miserable with hope; he has stayed alive and suffered pain in the hope of finding a cure, but now he finds no advantage in the process except only the losing of hope by time. Time passed, and now he has lost all hope of recovering his health.”

The Countess said, “This young gentlewoman, Helena, had a father — oh, that word ‘had’! How sad a passage, both a turn of phrase and a way to the next life, it is! — whose skill as a physician was almost as great as his honesty. Had his skill stretched as far as his honesty, it would have made nature immortal, and the god of death would have lots of time for play because of lack of work. I wish, for the King’s sake, her father the physician was still living! I think it would be the death of the King’s disease.”

“What is the name of the man you speak of, madam?” Lafeu asked.

“He was famous, sir, in his profession, and it was his great right to be so: Gerard de Narbon,” the Countess replied.

“He was excellent indeed, madam,” Lafeu said. “The King very recently spoke of him admiringly and mournfully. Her father the physician was skillful enough to be alive forever, if knowledge could be set up against human mortality.”

“What is it, my good lord, the King languishes of?” Bertram asked.

“A fistula, my lord,” Lafeu replied.

A fistula is an ulcerous sore.

“I had not heard about it before,” Bertram said.

“I wish that it were not widely known,” Lafeu replied.

He then asked the Countess, “Was this gentlewoman here — Helena — the daughter of Gerard de Narbon?”

The Countess replied, “She was his sole child, my lord, and she is bequeathed to my guardianship — she is now my ward. I have high hopes for her. Her education and upbringing promise good things, as do the mental qualities she inherited. These things make fair gifts fairer; for where an unclean character carries virtuous qualities, there commendations go with pity. They are virtues and traitors, too.”

Think of thieves. We prefer that thieves be stupid so that they are easily caught. We do not want thieves to have good qualities such as bravery and intelligence because the good qualities make the thieves more competent and successful at committing evil. Instead, we prefer that people of good character have good qualities.

The Countess continued, “Helena’s good qualities are the better for their innocence; she was born with a clean mind and she works hard to achieve a good character.”

“Your commendations of her, madam, have caused her to cry tears,” Lafeu said.

“Salty tears are the best brine a maiden can preserve her praise in,” the Countess said. “The memory of her father never approaches her heart without the cruelty of her sorrows taking all vivacity from her cheeks.

“No more of this, Helena; please, no more, lest it be thought you affect — display — a sorrow rather than have ….”

The Countess’ own grief rose in her and she did not finish her sentence.

Helena thought, I do affect a sorrow indeed, but I have it, too. I show my sorrow in my face, but I feel my sorrow in my mind, too.

Lafeu said, “Moderate lamentation is the right of the dead; excessive grief is the enemy to the living.”

The Countess said, “If the living is an enemy to the grief, the excess makes it soon mortal.”

The Countess agreed with Lafeu; the living must handle grief the correct way. In the Iliad, Achilles does not handle his grief at the death of his friend Patroclus the right way; his grief is excessive. Odysseus explains the right way to mourn for the dead: A loved one dies, we mourn for a while, and then we return to living our life. Mourning a dead person excessively can destroy a living person.

Bertram changed the subject by saying, “Madam, I desire your holy wishes.”

Lafeu said, “How are we to understand that?”

He was pointing out that Bertram was rude to change the subject so abruptly. They were giving advice to Helena about how to handle grief, advice that would also help the Countess, and Bertram ought not to change the subject so abruptly.

The Countess, however, blessed her son: “Be you blest, Bertram, and may you succeed your father in manners and other acquired characteristics, as you do in his shape and appearance! May your nobility and virtue contend for empire in you, and may your acquired goodness share with your inherited qualities!

“Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none. Be capable and prepared to deal with your enemy rather in power than in use — if you are powerful enough to resist your enemy, your enemy will refrain from attacking you.

“Protect and value your friend’s life as you protect and value your own life.

“Be rebuked for silence, but never be criticized for speech. Accept whatever other gifts Heaven is willing to give you as a result of your own efforts and my prayers — may these Heavenly gifts descend upon your head!


She then said to Lafeu, “My lord, my son is an unseasoned and inexperienced courtier. My good lord, advise him.”

Lafeu replied, “Bertram cannot lack the best advice — the best people shall accompany his love.”

Lafeu was aware that good companions would advise their friend well.

“May Heaven bless him!” the Countess said. “Farewell, Bertram.”

She exited.

Bertram said to Helena, “May the best wishes that can be forged in your thoughts be servants to you! Be comforting to my mother, your mistress, and make much of her. Serve her well.”

“Farewell, pretty lady,” Lafeu said to Helena. “You must live up to the good reputation of your father.”

Bertram and Lafeu exited.

Alone, Helena said to herself, “Oh, I wish that were all I had to do! I don’t think about my father; and these great tears on my face now would grace his memory more than those I shed for him when he died. What was he like? I have forgotten him. My imagination carries no one’s face in it but Bertram’s.

“I am undone and ruined. There is no life for me, none, if Bertram is away from me. It is the same as if I were to love a bright particular star and think to wed it — Bertram is so above me in social rank. I must be comforted in his bright radiance and parallel light, not in his sphere. The sphere I am in is lower than the sphere that Bertram is in. I can see the light that comes from his sphere, but I can never reach the sphere that he is in.”

Helena was referring to the astronomical beliefs of her society. The Earth was thought to be the center of the universe, and the planets and stars were located in spheres above and surrounding the Earth. The planets and stars stayed in their own spheres and did not travel in between spheres.

Helena continued speaking to herself, “The ambition in my love thus plagues itself: I want to marry above my station. The hind — the female deer — that would be mated by the lion must die for love.

“It was pretty pleasure, although it was also a plague, to see Bertram every hour, to sit and draw his arched brows, his hawk-like eye, his curls, on the canvas of my heart — a heart too capable of taking in and perceiving every line and trick of his sweet appearance.

“But now he’s gone, and my idolatrous fancy must sanctify his relics.”

She heard a noise, looked up, and said, “Who is coming here?”

Parolles entered the room. His name suggested the French word “paroles,” which means “words.” Parolles was boastful and full of words and exaggerated his courage, of which he had little or none.

Helena recognized him and said to herself, “He is one who goes with and accompanies Bertram. I treat this man as a friend for Bertram’s sake, and yet I know that he is a notorious liar. I think that he is in a great way a fool, and entirely a coward; yet these fixed evils of foolishness and cowardice are so suitably lodged in him that they find acceptance and take precedence when virtue’s steely bones look bleak in the cold wind.”

This man, Parolles, was a bad man, but he was so well suited to be a bad man and so ill suited to be a good man that people accepted his badness. Some scoundrels are accepted by others who know that they are scoundrels. Parolles, however, attempted to keep his badness secret, although in time people often found out about his true character.

Helena continued talking to herself, “It is true that very often we see cold wisdom waiting on superfluous folly.”

A wise servant can serve a foolish master. An ill-dressed, and therefore cold, servant, can serve an extravagant and overdressed master.

Parolles greeted Helena, “May God save you, fair Queen!”

“And may God save you, King!” Helena replied.

“I am no King,” Parolles said.

“And I am no Queen,” Helen replied.

“Are you meditating on virginity?”

“Yes,” Helena replied.

She was in fact a virgin, and she wanted to be married to Bertram, something that was very unlikely to happen. How could she, a virgin, pursue marriage with a man while still retaining her modesty?

She said to Parolles, “You have some tinge of a soldier in you. Let me ask you a question. Man is the enemy to female virginity; how may we women barricado — defend with barricades — our virginity against him?”

“Keep him out,” Parolles replied.

“But he assails our virginity; and our virginity, although valiant, is yet weak in its defense. Unfold to us women some warlike resistance we can use to defend our virginity,” Helena said.

“There is none,” Parolles said. “Man, sitting down before you, will undermine you and dig deep and blow you up.”

Parolles was using military terminology. “To sit down before” meant “to besiege.” “To undermine” meant “to dig deep and lay a mine” and “to blow you up” meant “to cause an explosion that will blow you up.”

He was also punning. The man’s penis would dig deep in a metaphorical mine and plant a seed that would cause the woman’s belly to blow up with pregnancy.

“Bless our poor virginity from underminers and blowers up!” Helena said. “Is there no military policy or trick in which virgins might blow up men?”

Parolles replied, “Virginity being blown down, man will all the more quickly be blown up.”

Once a virgin is successfully blown down, perhaps on a bed, the man’s penis will quickly be blown up — it will become erect.

He continued, “By Mother Mary, in blowing him down again, with the breach yourselves made, you lose your city.”

The way to blow a man down again is to cause him to orgasm. This is something that a woman can do by making use of the breach — opening — in her. Once the man orgasms, his penis will stop being erect. But by that time, what is being defended — virginity — has been lost.

He continued, “It is not politic in the commonwealth of nature to preserve virginity. Loss of virginity is rational increase and there was never a virgin begotten until virginity was first lost.”

Loss of virginity leads to rational increase — a woman loses her virginity and then gives birth to a rational creature. The only way for a virgin to be born is for a virgin — the future mother — to lose her virginity.

He continued, “That substance which you are made of is metal and mettle — stuff and disposition — used to make new virgins. You are a woman, and you were born to make new virgins. Virginity by being once lost may be ten times found; once you lose your virginity, you can give birth to ten virgin children. If you keep forever your virginity, you lose forever the ability to make new virgins. Virginity is too cold a companion; away with it!”

“I will stand for it a little, although therefore I die a virgin,” Helena said.

Her words were ambiguous. The first and most obvious meaning was that she would continue to be a virgin for a while even though it might mean that she would die while she was still a virgin. In this society, however, “a stand” is “an erection,” and “to die” means “to have an orgasm.” Therefore, another meaning of what she had said was this: “I will stand, aka submit to, an erection for a while, although by doing that I will have an orgasm and my virginity will come to an end.”

Parolles said, “There’s little that can be said in the defense of virginity; virginity is against the rule of nature. To speak in favor of virginity is to accuse your mother, who ceased to be a virgin, and that is most indubitably disrespect to your mother.

“He who hangs himself is a virgin in this respect: virginity murders itself.”

A person who commits suicide and a virgin are similar in that a suicide and a virgin are denying life to any future progeny. Therefore, their genes will not be continued in their progeny who are never born.

He continued, “The suicides and the virgins should be buried in highways in unsanctified ground, as desperate offenders and offendresses against nature. Virginity breeds mites, much like a cheese does. Both breed their own destruction. The virgin leaves behind no progeny and so ensures the death of the virgin’s line. The cheese becomes a breeding place for insects that will eat it. Virginity and cheese consume themselves to the very rind, and so die with feeding their own stomach.

“Besides, virginity is peevish, proud, idle, and made of self-love, which is the most prohibited sin in the canon law. Don’t keep your virginity; you cannot choose but lose by it, and so out with it! Within ten years a loss of virginity will make itself ten virgins, which is a goodly increase; and the principal itself — the former virgin — is not much the worse for the loss of her virginity, so away with virginity!”

Helena asked, “How might one do, sir, to lose it to her own liking?”

In other words, by what means could a woman lose her virginity to a man she loves in such a way that would be pleasing to her? What means could she use to do this? Her situation, of course, was that she would have to marry above her social station in order to lose her virginity to the man she loved. What means could be used to make that possible?

Parolles replied, “Let me see. How would she do? Indeed, she would do badly because she would like a man who never liked virginity.”

According to Parolles, if a man takes away a woman’s virginity, that man must dislike virginity.

He continued, “Virginity is a commodity that will lose the gloss with lying unused and untouched; the longer virginity is kept, the less virginity is worth. Off with it while it is sellable; answer the time of request and sell while there is a demand.

“Virginity, like an old courtier, wears her cap out of fashion. She is richly suited, but unsuitable, just like the brooch and the toothpick, which wear not now.”

In other words, virginity is out of fashion, just like an old courtier who wears old fashions such as wearing a brooch or a toothpick in his cap. In this society, toothpicks were newfangled devices that came from Italy, and people used to wear them in their cap to show that they had traveled. At this time, doing that was out of fashion.

Parolles continued, “Your date is better in your pie and your porridge than in your cheek.”

Dates are eighty percent sugar, and date sugar is simply ground-up dates. In this society, dates were often used instead of sugar to sweeten pies and porridge. Parolles’ words, however, contained sexual innuendo. A date is phallic-shaped fruit, and “pie” is slang for “vagina.” In addition, he was punning on the word “date,” one meaning of which refers to age. It is better to have your date (fruit or penis) in your pie (food or vagina) than to have your date (age) appear in your cheeks in the form of wrinkles.

He continued, “And your virginity, your old virginity, is like one of our French withered pears. It looks ill, and it tastes dry; indeed, it is a withered pear; it was formerly better. Indeed, yet it is a withered pear.”

He used the word “pear” to refer to the vulva.

Parolles then asked, “Will you do anything with your virginity?”

Helena replied, “I will not give up my virginity yet.”

She thought, I will not give up my virginity yet, yet there shall your master have a thousand loves.

She was willing to give up her virginity to Bertram if she could marry him. Once she was married to him, he could enjoy her a thousand times. And since she was using the word “thousand” to refer to a large number rather than a specific number, she meant that he could enjoy her a thousand — and more — times.

She thought over what she would say next, and she decided to use the word “there” to mean two things: “in my vagina” and “in the court.” In the court Bertram could meet many kinds of women with whom to have an affair. But if he were to marry Helena, she could play many loving roles for him. And if he were to enjoy her a thousand times, it would not be one experience repeated a thousand times but would instead be many kinds of loving experiences. She could fulfill the roles of the French lovers in the court.

Helena said out loud, “There shall your master have a thousand loves.”

Helena wanted to keep her virginity until she was married, but at least some ladies in the French court would not be like her in that respect. Bertram would be tempted, and he could — and possibly would — fall.

She began to list the loves Bertram could enjoy: “A mother and a mistress and a friend, a phoenix, a Captain and an enemy, a guide, a goddess, and a sovereign, a counselor, a traitress, and a dear.”

A phoenix is metaphorically a marvel; literally, the phoenix is a mythological bird, only one of which exists at a time. When the phoenix dies, it burns, and a new phoenix is born from the ashes.

Many of these terms came from the love poetry of the time and culture, as did these, including some oxymora she then mentioned: “His humble ambition, his proud humility, his jarring concord, and his discord dulcet, his faith, his sweet disaster.”

A “sweet disaster” is “an unlucky star or an unfavorable planet.” This society believed in astrology and the belief that planets and stars can have a good or a bad effect on us.

There were more names for the lovers whom Bertram could enjoy in the court of the French King. In addition to the names Helena had already mentioned, she now mentioned “a world of pretty, foolish, adopted Christian names, that blind Cupid, god of love, gives when he acts as a gossip — a godparent — and gives out names for infants at the baptismal font.”

She hesitated and said, “Now shall he — I don’t know what he shall. God send him good fortune! The court’s a learning place, and he is one —”

Helena had not mentioned Bertram’s name, so Parolles, confused, interrupted and asked, “Which one, in faith? Who are you talking about?”

“One whom I wish well,” Helena said. “It is a pity ….”

She stopped and sighed.

“What’s a pity?” Parolles asked.

Helena replied, “It’s a pity that wishing well does not have something tangible in it, which might be perceived, so that we, the poorer and lower born, whose baser and lower stars confine us to making wishes, might have real effects of our good wishes — that is, real and true and actually existing good fortune — follow our friends, and show what we can only think (rather than do), which never return us thanks.”

In other words, she wished Bertram well, and wished that her good wishes for him would come true. Unfortunately, wishing someone well often did not result in a wish come true, and simply wishing someone good fortune rather than being able to actually give someone good fortune was ungratifying.

A page entered the room and said, “Monsieur Parolles, my lord is calling for you. He wants to see you.”

The page exited.

“Little Helen, farewell,” Parolles said. “If I can remember you, I will think of you at court.”

This was not very polite: If I can remember you!

Helena politely said, “Monsieur Parolles, you were born under a charitable star.”

This society believed in astrology. On the surface, Helena was saying that Parolles was born under a star that governed kindness, and therefore Parolles shared in that characteristic and was kind. However, the charitable star could have been predominant or retrograde.

“I was born under Mars, I was,” Parolles, who regarded himself as a military man, said.

“I especially think,” Helena said, “that you were born under Mars.”

“Why under Mars?” Parolles asked.

“The wars have so kept you under that you must necessarily have been born under Mars,” Helena said.

“Kept you under” means “kept you in a lowly position.” Parolles was a parasite, a hanger-on. He followed Bertram, who paid his expenses, around.

“When he was predominant,” Parolles said.

“Predominant” means “in the ascendant” or “dominate.”

“When he was retrograde, I think, rather.”

“Retrograde” means “declining” or “moving in a contrary direction.” A military man would prefer being born when the planet Mars is predominant. A person who wanted to be kind would prefer to be born when a charitable star is predominant.

“Why do you think so?”

“You go so much backward when you fight,” Helena said.

In other words, he spent a lot of time retreating.

“That’s for advantage,” Parolles said.

In other words, those were tactical retreats.

In her reply, Helena used “advantage” as meaning “personal advantage.”

“So is running away, when fear proposes one runs to reach safety; but the mixture that your valor and fear makes in you is a virtue of a good wing, and I like the wear — the fashion — well.”

“A good wing” is “fast flight.” Parolles retreated quickly.

Parolles replied, “I am so busy with business that I must attend to that I cannot answer you aptly. I will return from the court of the French King as a complete and perfect courtier.

“As a complete and perfect courtier, I will denaturize — educate — you so that you will be capable of hearing a courtier’s counsel and understand what advice shall thrust upon you; otherwise, you will die in your unthankfulness, and your ignorance will do away with and destroy you.”

Parolles’ advice to Helena had been for her to give up her virginity. When he returned as a complete and perfect courtier, his advice would be the same. He would denaturize her; that is, he would change her nature so that she would no longer be a virgin. This kind of advice and denaturing would involve thrusting. Parolles equated virginity as being a kind of death, and his advice to her was to avoid that kind of death.

Parolles’ words about being a complete and perfect courtier inspired him, and he gave good advice to Helena: “Farewell. When you have leisure, say your prayers; when you have no prayers left to say, remember your friends. Get yourself a good husband, and treat him as he treats you; since he is a good husband, he will treat you well. And so, I say farewell.”

He exited.

Alone, Helena said to herself, “Our remedies often in ourselves lie, although we ascribe those remedies to Heaven. The fateful sky, aka Heaven, gives us free scope. It gives us free will, and it pulls backward our slow designs only when we ourselves are dull and sluggish.

“What power is it that raises my love so high — to one of Bertram’s rank? What power is it that makes me see, and cannot feed my eye? In my mind I see what I want, but I am separated from it.

“The mightiest space in fortune nature, including human nature, brings to join like likes and kiss like native things. Two people may be greatly different in personal fortune yet be so like likes — so compatible — that nature, including human nature, will bring them together so that they can kiss.

“Impossible be strange attempts to those who weigh their pains in sense and believe that what has been cannot be. People who sensibly count the costs of unusual courses of action think that such action is impossible, and they think that things that have actually happened cannot be real.

“Whoever strove to show her merit who did fail to achieve her love?”

Helena believed in taking action. By taking meritable action, she believed that she could win her love.

She formulated a plan: “The King’s disease — my plan may deceive me, but my goals are set and will not leave me. I have made up my mind, and I will put my plan into action.”

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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