David Bruce: “William Shakespeare’s ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’: A Retelling in Prose” — Act 2, Scene 1

— 2.1 —

The King of France and many young lords who were leaving to go to Italy and fight on the side of the Florentines or on the side of the Sienese were in a room in the King’s palace. Bertram and Parolles were also present.

The King of France said, “Farewell, young lords. Do not throw away from you these warlike principles I have told you. And you, the other group of my young lords, farewell. Share my advice between you; if both groups of young lords gain by my advice, then my gift stretches itself as it is received, and the gift is enough for both groups.”

The first lord said, “It is our hope, sir, after we have well entered the lists of soldiers, to return to Paris and find your grace in health.”

“No, no, that cannot be,” the King said, “and yet my heart will not confess that it has the malady that is besieging my life.

“Farewell, young lords; whether I live or die, may you be the sons of worthy Frenchmen. Let the upper class of Italy, excepting some men, see that you come not to woo honor, but to wed it. Those men I except are those who inherit only the fall from a high place of the last monarchy, that of the Holy Roman Empire; such men are bated, aka lowered or lessened in position, because they do not live up to the ideals of their ancestors. They inherit only the physical part of their ancestors but not their morals or virtues. When the bravest quester shrinks, find what you seek, so that the goddess Fame may cry your name out loud. I say, farewell.”

The second lord said, “May health serve your majesty and do your bidding!”

The King said, “Those girls of Italy, take heed of them: They say that our Frenchmen lack language to deny them, if they make demands. Beware of becoming captives to love, before you serve in war.”

Both groups of lords said, “Our hearts receive your warnings.”

“Farewell,” the King said.

He then said to some lords, “Come over here to me.”

The King and some of the lords talked together quietly.

Bertram, Parolles, and two lords also talked together.

The first lord said to Bertram, “Oh, my sweet lord, it’s a pity that you will stay behind and not go with us to the war!”

Parolles interrupted, “It is not his fault, the spark.”

A “spark” is a “young dude” or “young man about town.”

The second lord said, “Oh, it will be a brave and splendid war!”

“It will be very admirable,” Parolles said. “I have seen those wars.”

Bertram said, “The King has commanded me to stay here, and he has made a fuss about me being ‘too young’ and telling me ‘next year’ and ‘it is too early for you to go to war.’”

Parolles said, “If your mind is resolved to go to the war, boy, steal away bravely and go to the war in Tuscany anyway.”

Bertram replied, “I shall stay here and be the foremost horse in a team of horses led by a woman. I will squeak my shoes as I dance on the flat masonry, until all honor has been entirely purchased by the soldiers in Italy, and I will wear no sword except the decorative sword that gentlemen wear at dances! By Heaven, I’ll steal away.”

“There’s honor in that kind of theft,” the first lord said.

“Commit the theft, Count,” Parolles said.

“I am your accessary and assistant; and so, farewell,” the second lord said.

Bertram replied, “I am growing deeply attached to you, and our parting is like a body being torn in half.”

“Farewell, Captain,” the first lord said.

“Sweet Monsieur Parolles!” the second lord said.

Parolles replied, “Noble heroes, my sword and yours are kin. Good and lustrous sparks, a word. You are good metals with good mettle.

“You shall find in the regiment of the Spinii one Captain Spurio, with his scar, an emblem of war, here on his sinister — left — cheek; it was this very sword I am holding that entrenched it on that cheek. Say to him that I live, and observe his reaction for me.”

“We shall, noble Captain,” the first lord said.

The lords exited.

“May Mars be fond of you as his apprentices!” Parolles said to the departing lords.

He then asked Bertram about his plans: “What will you do?”

An excited Bertram had thought about stealing away and going to the Tuscan war, but a calmer Bertram said now, “I will stay here and serve the King.”

Parolles said, “Show a more ample courtesy to the noble lords; you have restrained yourself within the bounds of too cold an adieu. Be more expressive to and unrestrained with them, for they are the ornaments on the cap of the times. They are walking on the right — the popular and fashionable — path, and they eat, speak, and move under the influence of the most popular and fashionable star. Even if the Devil should lead the dance, such leaders are to be followed. Go after them, and make a more prolonged farewell.”

“I will be sure to do so,” Bertram replied.

“They are worthy fellows,” Parolles said, “and they are likely to prove to be most muscular swordsmen.”

Bertram and Parolles exited.

Lafeu entered the room, knelt, and said, “I ask pardon, my lord, for myself and for my tidings.”

“I’ll fee you to stand up,” the King replied.

This meant that the King would pay him to stand up.

“Then here’s a man who is standing, who has bought his pardon,” Lafeu replied.

He was like a man who had taken money from the King and bought his pardon.

Lafeu added, “I wish you had kneeled, my lord, to ask me mercy, and that at my bidding you could stand up.”

The King, who was so ill that he could not kneel and then stand up again without assistance, replied, “I wish I had so that I could have broken your head, and asked your mercy for breaking it.”

“Indeed, across,” Lafeu said.

They were friendly enough that they could joust verbally. By saying “across,” Lafeu was saying that the King had not jousted well — his joking was not all that funny. When a jouster’s lance hits his opponent across, it is not well aimed and is not straight.

Lafeu continued, “But, my good lord, this is what I came here for: Do you want to be cured of your infirmity?”

“No,” the King said bluntly. He had given up hope that he could be cured.

“Will you eat no grapes, my royal fox?” Lafeu said.

He was referring to one of Aesop’s fables: A fox wanted to eat grapes that were hanging from a vine, but he could not reach them, and so he said, “I bet those grapes were sour, anyway.”

Lafeu added, “Yes, but you will eat my noble grapes, if my royal fox could reach them. I have good news: The grapes are within your reach. I have seen a medicine that’s able to breathe life into a stone, make a rock come alive, and make you dance a lively canary dance with spritely fire and motion. This medicine’s simple touch is powerful enough to raise King Pepin from the dead, and to give his son, great Charlemagne, a pen in his hand, and write to her a love letter.”

“What ‘her’ is this?” the King asked.

“Why, Doctor She,” Lafeu replied. “My lord, there’s a woman arrived, if you will see her. Now, by my faith and honor, if I may seriously convey my thoughts in this my light speech, I have spoken with one who in her sex, years, profession of what she is able to accomplish, wisdom, and constancy has amazed me more than I dare blame my weakness due to old age. The amazement I feel because of her I cannot lay to my old age. Will you see her? That is her request. Will you know her business?”

The King was smiling because Lafeu’s praise of Doctor She was so enthusiastic.

Lafeu said, “Once you have done that, then feel free to laugh well at me.”

“Now, good Lafeu, bring in the Doctor She who has so filled you with admiration. We with you will utter our wonder, too, or take away your wonder by wondering how you came to have it.”

“I’ll satisfy you that my wonder is deserved, and I won’t be all day about it either.”

He went to the door, just outside of which Helena — Doctor She — was waiting.

The King said, “Thus he always introduces his special trifles.”

Lafeu returned with Helena, who was shy and apprehensive in the presence of the King.

Lafeu said to Helena, “Come along.”

“This haste has wings indeed,” the King said sarcastically.

“Come along,” Lafeu repeated. “This is his majesty; say what you have to say to him. You are so apprehensive that you look like a traitor, but such traitors his majesty seldom fears. I am Cressida’s uncle, and I dare to leave you two alone together; fare you well.”

Cressida’s uncle was Pandarus. During the Trojan War, he was the go-between for Cressida and her lover, Troilus. From Pandarus’ name we get the word “pander.”

Lafeu exited.

Using the royal plural, the King said, “Now, fair one, does your business pertain to us?”

“Yes, my good lord,” Helena replied. “Gerard de Narbon was my father; he had an established reputation as a physician.”

“I knew him,” the King said.

“Then I will omit my praises about my father,” Helena said. “You knew him, and so you know his good qualities. When he was on his deathbed, he gave me many written instructions for making various medicines. One medicine in particular was the dearest outcome of his medical practice, and of his old experience the only darling. This medicine he bade me store up, as if it were a third eye — as if it were as valuable as eyesight that brought special knowledge. He wanted me to keep this medicine safer than my own two eyes; he regarded this medicine as dearer than my own two eyes.

“I did as my father asked, and hearing that your high majesty is infected with that malignant disease which the honor of my dear father’s gift stands chief in power to cure, I come to offer this medicine and my medical care with all dutiful humbleness.”

“We thank you, maiden,” the King said, using the royal plural. “But we may not be so believing in a cure, when our most learned doctors leave us, saying that they cannot help us, and when the physicians of the congregated college have concluded that the laboring medical art can never ransom life when the ill body that contains it is not aidable.

“I say we must not so stain our judgment, or hope foolishly, to prostitute our past-cure malady to medical quacks, or to divorce our great self and our reputation by behaving in an unroyal fashion and esteeming and valuing a senseless help when such help we deem to be past sense and irrational.”

“My duty then shall pay me for my pains,” Helena said. “I will no longer try to force my services on you, but I humbly entreat from your royal thoughts a modest one that I can bear with me when I go back home again.”

As a young, single woman, Helena was modest. She was worried about appearing to be immodest by appearing before and talking to the King, and she wanted an acknowledgement from him that she had acted with good motives.

“I cannot give you less,” the King said. “I am grateful. You thought to help me; and such thanks I give as one near death gives to those who wish him to live. But what I know fully, you know no part; I know all my peril, and you know no medical art.”

Helena replied, “What I can do can do you no harm to try, since you fully believe there is no cure and that you will die.

“He who of greatest works is finisher often does them by the weakest minister. So Holy Scripture in babes has judgment shown, when judges have been babes; great floods have flowed from simple sources, and great seas have dried when miracles have by the greatest been denied.”

1 Corinthians 1:27 states, “But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty” (King James Version).

Psalm 8:2 states, “Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies, that thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger” (King James Version).

Matthew 11:25 states, “At that time Jesus answered and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes” (King James Version).

Exodus 17:6 states, “Behold, I will stand before thee there upon the rock in Horeb; and thou shalt smite the rock, and there shall come water out of it, that the people may drink. And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel” (King James Version).

Exodus 14:16, 21-22 states, “But lift thou up thy rod, and stretch out thine hand over the sea, and divide it: and the children of Israel shall go on dry ground through the midst of the sea. […] And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. / And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground: and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left” (King James Bible).

In Exodus, the great Pharaoh of Egypt was unable to perform miracles, but God gave Moses the power to perform miracles.

Helena continued, “Often expectation fails and most often it fails there where most it promises, and often it hits where hope is coldest and despair most fits. Sometimes we get what we want after we have given up hope of getting it.”

The King replied, “I must not listen to you. Fare you well, kind maiden. You must pay yourself when your pains are not accepted and used. Offers not taken reap only thanks for their reward.”

Helena said, “Divinely inspired good deeds thus by speech are barred. It is not so with Him Who knows all things as it is with us who shape our guesses about reality by superficial appearances. But we are most presumptuous when we mistake the help of Heaven for the act of men.”

Helena was implicitly comparing herself to an Old Testament prophet who was being turned away from a King.

She continued, “Dear sir, to my endeavors give consent. Of Heaven, not me, make an experiment. I am not an impostor who proclaims that I will do something that I cannot do. You should know that I think and you should think that I know most certainly that my medical knowledge is not lacking in power nor are you past cure. I am confident that my medicine will cure you.”

“Are you so confident?” the King asked. “Within what space of time do you hope I will be cured?”

Helena replied, “With the greatest Grace — God — lending grace, aka mercy, you shall be cured before twice the horses of the sun shall bring their fiery torchbearer his daily ring. You shall be cured before twice in murk and western damp moist Hesperus — Venus, the evening star — has quenched her sleepy lamp by sinking into the western sea. Or you shall be cured before four and twenty times the pilot’s hourglass has told how the thievish minutes pass. Within one day, or two days, what is infirm shall fly away from your sound parts, health shall live free and sickness shall freely — readily — die.”

“What do you dare venture upon your certainty and confidence that I will be cured?” the King asked.

Helena replied, “If I fail to cure you, then accuse me of impudence, of having the boldness of a strumpet. Let my shame be publicly proclaimed. Let my maiden’s name be calumniated by odious ballads sung about me. In addition, let my reputation be seared and branded in other ways. And, worse, if it is in fact worse than losing my maidenly reputation, let my life be ended with vilest torture by prolonged and extended stretching of my body on the rack.”

The King said, “I think that some blessed spirit speaks his powerful sound within you, who are a weak organ. And what impossibility would slay in common sense, sense saves another way — what common sense says is impossible, a different sense believes to be true.

“Your life is dear; for all that life can rate as worthy of life has in you estimate. You have everything that we consider valuable in life: youth, beauty, wisdom, courage, all that happiness and the prime of youth can happy call.

“Your risking these things in your bet that you can cure me intimates to me that either you have infinite medical skill or you are monstrously desperate.

“Sweet practitioner of the medical art, your medicine I will try — your medicine that administers your own death if I die.”

Helena said, “If you are not cured in one or two days, or if I come up short in giving you the healthful properties of which I spoke, unpitied let me die a well-deserved death. If I don’t help you, death’s my fee, but if I do help you, what do you promise me?”

“Make your demand,” the King said. “Tell me what you want.”

“But will you give me what I ask?” Helena asked.

“Yes, I swear by my scepter and my hopes of Heaven,” the King replied.

Helena said, “Then you shall give me with your Kingly hand what husband in your power I will command. You will give me whatever man to marry I chose from among those men you have the power to marry off. Exempted be from me the arrogance to choose from forth the royal blood of France — I will not choose to marry French royalty. I will not insist that my low and humble name be allowed to propagate with any branch or image of your state. But such a one, your vassal, whom I know it is allowed for me to ask for, I want you to bestow on me.”

Bertram was the King’s ward. As Bertram’s guardian, the King had the right to arrange a marriage for him to anyone of equal rank; however, Helena was not of equal rank to Bertram. Still, Bertram was not so high ranking that he was French royalty.

“Here is my hand,” the King said. “The promises observed — that is, once you have done what you have promised — your will by my performance shall be served: You will get what you ask for. So make the choice in your own time, for I, who am now resolved to be your patient, on you continually rely.

“More should I question you, and more I must, although more to know could not be more to trust. I trust you completely without knowing more about you.

“I would like to know from whence you came and how you were escorted here, but go now and rest with an unquestioned welcome and undoubted blessing.”

He shouted for an attendant, “Give me some help here, ho!”

Then he said to Helena, “If you proceed as high as was promised by your word, my deed shall match your deed.”

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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