David Bruce: “William Shakespeare’s ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’: A Retelling in Prose” — Act 5, Scene 3-Epilogue

— 5.3 —

The King of France, the Countess, Lafeu, the two French lords, and some attendants were in a room in the Count of Rousillon’s palace.

Using the royal plural, the King said to the Countess, “We lost a jewel when we lost Helena and our own worth and value were made much poorer by it, but your son, as if he were insane in his foolishness, lacked the sense to fully know her worth and value.”

“That is in the past, my liege,” the Countess said, “and I beg your majesty to consider that it was done because of natural rebellion. It was done in the blaze of youth, when oil and fire, too strong for reason’s force, overbears it and burns on.”

“Oil” means “semen,” while “fire” is sexual desire. The Countess wanted the King to believe that her son’s passions had opposed his reason, and to not believe that her son had opposed the King. Actually, it was Bertram’s pride that had caused him to reject Helena because of her low birth. If he had been ruled by passion, he would have slept with her. However, it should be noted that the Countess meant that her son had felt passion for a woman other than Helena.

“My honored lady,” the King replied, “I have forgiven and forgotten all; although my revenges were high bent like an arrow in a fully bent bow, and I watched for the best time to shoot him.”

“This I must say,” Lafeu said, “but first I beg for pardon. The young lord did to his majesty, his mother, and his lady offence of mighty note, but he did to himself the greatest wrong of all. He lost a wife whose beauty astonished the survey of the most experienced eyes, whose words took all ears captive, whose dear perfection made hearts that scorned to serve others humbly serve her.”

“Praising what is lost makes the remembrance dear,” the King said. “Well, call Bertram to come here. We and he are reconciled, and the first view of him shall kill all reopening of old wounds. Let him not ask for our pardon. The nature of his great offence is dead, and deeper than oblivion we bury its relics that would incense anger. We will not entertain any thoughts that arouse anger toward him. Let him approach me as if he were a stranger who had never offended me, and inform him that it is our will he should do this.”

An attendant said, “I shall, my liege.” He exited to carry out his errand.

The King asked Lafeu, “What does he say about your daughter? Have you spoken to him?”

“All that he is, is at the disposal of your highness,” Lafeu replied.

“Then we shall have a match,” the King said. “Bertram and your daughter will be married. I have letters that were sent to me that set him high in fame and reputation. He served well in war.”

Bertram entered the room.

“He looks well after his experience in Italy,” Lafeu said.

The King said, “I am not a day of a single season, for you may see a sunshine and a hail in me simultaneously, but to the brightest beams divided clouds give way, so come forward, Bertram. The time is fair again.”

“For my faults, which I highly repent, dear sovereign, give pardon to me,” Bertram said.

The King replied, “All is well and good. Say not one word more about the time that has passed by. Let’s take the instant by the forelock, the way that we should seize Lady Fortune and opportunity, for we are old, and on our quickest decrees the inaudible and noiseless foot of Time steals before we can effect them. Do you remember the daughter of this lord: Lafeu?”

“Admiringly, my liege,” Bertram said. “At first I struck my choice upon her, before my heart dared to make too bold a herald of my tongue.”

Bertram was saying that he loved Lafeu’s daughter first and wanted to marry her, but he was too shy to make his desire to marry her known.

He continued, this time speaking about Helena without mentioning her name, “The sight of Lafeu’s daughter became implanted in my eyes, and contempt lent me a scornful perspective, which warped the line of every face other than the face of Lafeu’s daughter and which scorned a fair color, or expressed that the fair color was stolen, and which extended or contracted all proportions to a most hideous object.”

Bertram was saying that his love for Lafeu’s daughter warped his perception of every other woman, including Helena, making him see Helena in a false light. The implication was that this caused him to reject marriage to Helena.

He continued talking about Helena: “Thence it came that she whom all men praised and whom I myself, since I have lost her, have loved, was in my eye the speck of dust that offended it.”

In other words, before Helena died, the sight of her offended Bertram. But since Helena had died, he had come to love her.

“Well excused,” the King said. “That you loved Helena strikes some bad deeds away from the great account of your good and bad deeds, but love that comes too late, like a remorseful pardon slowly carried, to the great sender becomes a sour offence, and love cries, ‘She who is gone is good.’”

A pardon too slowly carried arrives too late to help the pardoned person, thus giving the pardoner a bad feeling. Love that comes too late is like that; Bertram said that he loved Helena, but he said that only after she had died, when he could only mourn her.

The King continued, “Our rash faults make a trivial valuation of important, serious things we have, not knowing them until we know their grave. Often our displeasures, which are to ourselves unjust, destroy our friends and afterward weep over their ashes and dust. Our own love waking cries to see what’s done, while shame very late sleeps out the afternoon. Love comes to its senses too late, only after our displeasures have destroyed our friends.

“Let this be this sweet Helen’s knell, and now forget her. Send forth your amorous token for fair Madeleine, Lafeu’s daughter. The main consents are had, and here we’ll stay to see our widower’s second marriage-day.”

The Countess said, “Make this marriage better than the first, dear Heaven. Bless it! Or, before my son and Lafeu’s daughter meet, Nature, cease my existence!”

Lafeu said to Bertram, who was supposed to soon be his son-in-law, “Come on, my son, in whom my house’s name must be digested — my daughter will take your name, while my house’s name will be swallowed up — give a favor from you to sparkle in the spirits of my daughter, so that she may quickly come.”

Bertram gave him a ring.

Lafeu looked at the ring and said, “By my old beard, and every hair that’s on it, Helen, who is dead, was a sweet creature. Such a ring as this, the last time that I took her leave at court, I saw upon her finger.”

He had kissed Helena’s hand when he took leave of her, and so he had closely observed her ring.

“This ring was not hers,” Bertram said. It was the ring that he thought that Diana had given to him.

“Now, please, let me see it,” the King said. “My eye, while I was speaking, often was fastened on it.”

He looked at the ring and said, “This ring was mine, and when I gave it to Helen, I told her that if her fortunes ever stood in necessity of help, if she sent this token to me I would relieve her. Do you have the craftiness to rob and deprive her of what should help her most?”

“My gracious sovereign,” Bertram said, “however it pleases you to take it so, the ring was never hers.”

The Countess said, “Son, I swear on my life, I have seen her wear it, and she valued it as much as she valued her life.”

“I am sure I saw her wear it,” Lafeu said.

“You are deceived, my lord; Helena never saw this ring,” Bertram said. “While I was in Florence, this ring was thrown to me from a window. It was wrapped in a paper, which contained the name of the woman who threw it. She was a noblewoman, and she thought I was single, but when I had acknowledged that I was married and had informed her fully that I could not answer in that course of honor as she had made the overture, she was sad because of this knowledge and ceased pursuing me, although she would never take the ring back again.”

The King said, “Plutus, the god of wealth himself, who knows the tincture and elixir that will turn base metals into gold, thus multiplying the precious metal, has not more knowledge of the mystery of Nature than I have knowledge of this ring. It was mine, and then it was Helen’s. These things are true no matter who gave the ring to you. So then, if you have self-knowledge, confess that it was hers, and then confess by what rough enforcement you got this ring from her. She called on the saints to be her guarantors that she would never take this ring off her finger, unless she gave it to you yourself in bed, where you have never come to be with her, or if she sent it to us after she had suffered a great disaster.”

“She never saw this ring,” Bertram repeated.

“You lie,” the King said. “As I love my honor, I swear that you lie. You make misgiving fears come to me that I would gladly shut out of my mind.”

The King was afraid that Bertram had murdered Helena.

He continued, “If it should prove that you are so inhuman … it will not prove to be true … and yet I don’t know that … you hated her with a deadly hatred, and she is dead. Nothing, except to close her eyes myself, could make me believe that she is dead more than to see this ring. Take him away.”

Guards seized Bertram.

The King said, “The evidence that was already in my possession before I acquired the evidence of this ring, however this matter turns out, shall accuse my fears of little foolishness and vanity, since I foolishly and vainly feared too little.”

In other words, the evidence the King had previously acquired would show that the King’s fears were not foolish and were not in vain, aka devoid of value; instead, the King had foolishly and vainly not feared enough.

He put the ring on his finger and ordered, “Take Bertram away! We’ll examine this matter further.”

Bertram said, “If you shall prove that this ring was ever hers, you shall as easily prove that I, as her husband, shared her bed in Florence, a city that Helena has never been in.”

The guards took Bertram away.

The King said, “My thoughts are dismal.”

The gentleman whom Helena had asked to deliver a paper to the King (see 5.1) entered the room and said, “Gracious sovereign, whether I have been to blame or not, I don’t know. Here’s a petition from a Florentine, who has for four or five of your stopping places on your journey arrived too late to deliver it to you yourself. I undertook to deliver this petition to you, vanquished by the fair grace and speech of the poor suppliant, who by this time I know is here in Rousillon waiting to talk to you. Her importuning appearance showed that her business is important, and she told me, in a sweet verbal summary, that her business did concern your highness with herself.”

The King took the petition, which soon became apparent was from Diana and was about Bertram, and read it out loud:

Upon his many protestations to marry me when his wife was dead, I blush to say it, he won me. I slept with him. Now that the Count Rousillon is a widower, his vows are legally due to me, and my honor is paid to him. He is legally obliged to marry me, but he stole away from Florence, taking no leave of me, and I have followed him to his country in order to get justice: Grant me justice, King! In you justice best lies; otherwise a seducer flourishes, and a poor maiden is ruined.


Hearing this, Lafeu immediately decided that he did not want Bertram to marry his daughter.

Lafeu said, “I will buy myself a son-in-law at a fair and pay the toll for this one. I’ll have nothing to do with him.”

Fairs were notorious for selling stolen goods, but Lafeu was saying that he could buy a better son-in-law than Bertram at a fair. He was also saying that he would pay the toll that was required to sell something — in this case, Bertram — at a fair.

The King said, “The Heavens have thought well of you, Lafeu, and so they have brought forth this discovery.”

In this culture, a respectable woman would not travel alone, and the King knew that other people must have traveled with her.

He ordered, “Seek these petitioners. Go speedily and bring the Count back again.”

Attendants exited to carry out the orders.

He said to the Countess, “I am afraid that the life of Helen, lady, was foully snatched.”

The King thought that Helena had been murdered on Bertram’s orders.

The Countess said, “Now may justice be done on the doers!”

Bertram, guarded, returned.

The King said to him, “I wonder that you still desire to marry, sir, since wives are monsters to you, and since you flee from them as soon as you swear to marry them.”

The widow and Diana entered the room.

The King asked, “What woman is that?”

Diana replied, “I am, my lord, a wretched Florentine, descended from the ancient Capilet. I understand that you know my petition to you, and therefore you know to what extent I may be pitied.”

The widow said, “I am her mother, sir, whose age and honor both suffer under this complaint we bring, and both shall cease without your remedy. Unless you make the Count of Rousillon marry my daughter, my aged self and my honor will die.”

“Come here, Count,” the King said. “Do you know these women?”

“My lord, I neither can nor will deny that I know them,” Bertram said. “Do they charge me with anything else?”

“Why do you look so strangely upon your wife?” Diana asked.

“She’s no wife of mine, my lord,” Bertram said.

“If you shall marry, you give away this hand,” she said, pointing to his hand, “and that is mine because it was pledged to me as part of the betrothal ceremony. You give away Heaven’s vows, and those are mine. You give away myself, which is known to be mine. For I by vow am so embodied yours and so united to you that she who marries you must marry me. She will either marry both of us or marry neither of us.”

Lafeu said to Bertram, “Your reputation comes up too short for my daughter. Your reputation is deficient, and you are no husband for her.”

Bertram said, “My lord, this is a foolish, doting, and desperate creature, whom I have laughed with sometime. Let your highness lay a more noble thought upon my honor than to think that I would sink it here. You should think more highly of my honor than to think I would lower myself by marrying this woman.”

“Sir, as concerns my thoughts, you will find them ill friends to you until your deeds make them your friends. I hope that your honor proves to be fairer than I think it is.”

“My good lord,” Diana said, “ask him upon his oath, if he thinks he did not take my virginity.”

“What do you say to her?” the King asked Bertram.

“She’s impudent, my lord, and she was a common gamester — prostitute — to soldiers in the military camp,” Bertram replied.

“He does me wrong, my lord,” Diana said. “If I were a common prostitute, he might have bought me at a common price. Do not believe him. Oh, behold this ring, whose high sentimental value as an heirloom and great material value as a ring lack an equal, yet for all that he gave it to a common prostitute of the camp, if I am one.”

“He blushes, and he is hit,” the Countess said. “Of six preceding ancestors, that ring, conferred by will and testament to the succeeding heir, has been owned and worn. This woman is his wife. That ring’s a thousand proofs.”

The King said, “I thought you said that you saw someone here in court who could be your witness.”

“I did, my lord, but I am loath to produce so bad a witness. His name’s Parolles.”

“I saw the man today, if he is a man,” Lafeu said.

“Find him, and bring him here,” the King ordered.

An attendant exited to carry out the order.

“What about him?” Bertram asked. “He’s considered to be a most perfidious slave, with all the stains and blemishes of the world censured and disparaged, whose disposition sickens when it speaks a truth. Am I either to be considered that or this on the basis of what is uttered by this man who will say anything?”

The King said, “She has your ring.”

“I suppose so,” Bertram said, reluctantly. “It is certain I liked her, and mounted her and had sex with her in the wanton way of youth. She knew to keep her distance and played hard to get and angled for me, maddening my sexual eagerness with her restraint, as all impediments in the course of sexual desire create more sexual desire, and in the end, her infinite cunning, with her commonplace charm, subdued me to the point I met her price. She got the ring, and I had that which any inferior man might have haggled for at a market.”

Diana said, “I must be patient and calm. You, who have dismissed and turned away a very noble first wife, may justly give me less than you gave her. I yet say to you — since you lack virtue, I will lose a husband — ask for your ring, I will return it to you, and you give my ring to me again.”

“I don’t have it,” Bertram said.

“What ring was yours, I ask you?” the King asked Diana.

“Sir, my ring was much like the ring on your finger,” Diana replied.

“Do you know this ring?” the King asked. “This ring was his recently.”

“And this is the ring ‘I’ gave to him in bed,” Diana said.

The King asked, “The story that you threw the ring to him out of a window is false then?”

“I have spoken the truth,” Diana said.

Parolles entered the room.

Bertram said, “My lord, I confess that the ring was hers.”

The King replied, “You boggle — become alarmed — shrewdly. Every feather startles you.”

By “shrewdly,” the King meant “severely,” but Bertram boggled shrewdly in another sense: He knew that Parolles could provide evidence to corroborate Diana’s testimony and so he had admitted that the ring was hers.

The King asked Diana about Parolles, “Is this the man you spoke of?”

“Yes, my lord.”

The King said to Parolles, “Tell me, sirrah, but tell me the truth, I order you. Don’t fear the displeasure of your master, whom I’ll keep from harming you if you tell the truth. What do you know about him and this woman here?”

Parolles replied, “So please your majesty, my master has been an honorable gentleman. He has had tricks in him, which gentlemen have.’

Parolles did not want to offend either Bertram or the King, so he wanted his comments to be understood in more ways than one.

“Honorable gentleman” could be understood positively, but given Bertram’s actions we would not call him an honorable gentleman in a positive sense. However, he is honorable in that he is touchy and proud about his honor, and he is a gentleman in that he engages in the tricks that many men of his position in society engage in.

The King said, “Come, come, get to the point: Did he love this woman?”

“Truly, sir, he did love her, but how?” Parolles said.

“Please tell us how,” the King said.

“He did love her, sir, as a gentleman loves a woman,” Parolles said.

“A woman” is “a female commoner” as opposed to “a gentlewoman.”

“How is that?” the King asked.

“He loved her, sir, and he loved her not,” Parolles said.

Bertram had sex with a woman, but he did not want to marry the woman. His “love” for her was sexual, not romantic.

The King said, “You are a knave, and you are no knave. What an equivocal companion is this man! This fellow is evasive and quibbling and equivocating!”

“I am a poor man, and at your majesty’s command,” Parolles said.

Lafeu said, “He’s a good drummer, my lord, but a bad orator. He makes a lot of noise, but little sense.”

“Do you know that he promised to marry me?” Diana asked Parolles.

“Truly, I know more than I’ll speak,” Parolles said.

“Won’t you speak all that you know?” the King asked.

“Yes, so please your majesty,” Parolles said. “I did go between them, as I said, but more than that, he loved her. Indeed he was mad for her, and talked of Satan and of Limbo and of Furies and I don’t know what. He was in torment because he loved her. Yet I had so much credit and such a good reputation with them at that time that I knew of their going to bed, and of other proposals, such as him promising her marriage, and things that would bring down bad things on me if I were to speak about them; therefore, I will not speak what I know.”

“You have spoken all already, unless you can say that they are married,” the King said, “but you are too subtle and devious in giving your evidence; therefore, stand aside.”

The King then said to Diana, “This ring I have, you say, was yours?”

“Yes, my good lord.”

“Where did you buy it? Or who gave it to you?”

“It was not given to me, nor did I buy it.”

“Who lent it to you?”

“It was not lent to me either.”

“Where did you find it, then?”

“I did not find it.”

“If it were yours by none of all these ways,” the King asked, “how could you give it to him?”

“I never gave it to him,” Diana said.

Lafeu said, “This woman’s an easy glove, my lord; she goes off and on at pleasure. She is easily changeable.”

“This ring was mine,” the King said. “I gave it to his first wife.”

“It might be yours or hers, for anything I know,” Diana said.

“Take her away,” the irritated King said. “I do not like her now. Take her to prison, and take Bertram away.”

He said to Diana, “Unless you tell me where you got this ring, you die within this hour.”

“I’ll never tell you,” Diana said.

“Take her away,” the King ordered.

“I’ll make good on my story, my liege,” Diana said. “I can bring forward a witness.”

“I think now that you are some common prostitute,” the King said.

“By Jove, I swear that if I ever sexually knew a man, it was you,” Diana said.

In other words, she swore that she was a virgin.

“Why have you accused him all this while?” the King said.

“Because he is guilty, and he is not guilty,” Diana said. “He ‘knows’ I am no maiden, and he’ll swear to it; I’ll swear I am a maiden, and he does not know it. Great King, I am no strumpet, I swear by my life. I am either a virgin maiden, or else I am this old man’s wife.”

She was referring to Lafeu.

“She abuses our ears with her words,” the King said. “Take her to prison.”

Diana said to the widow, her mother, “Good mother, fetch my witness.”

She added, “Wait, royal sir.”

The widow exited.

Diana continued, “The jeweler who owns the ring is sent for, and ‘he’ shall be a witness for me. But as for this lord, who has abused me, as he ‘knows’ himself, although yet he never harmed me, here I quit — acquit and leave — him. He himself ‘knows’ he has defiled my bed. At that time he got his wife with child. Although she is ‘dead,’ she feels her young one kick. So there’s my riddle: One who is ‘dead’ is quick — she is alive and she feels her unborn baby kicking.”

The widow returned with Helena.

Diana continued, “And now behold the answer of the riddle.”

The King asked, “Isn’t there a magician present who beguiles the accurate function of my eyes and makes me see something that is not there? Is what I see real?”

Magicians were reputed to be able to raise the spirits of the dead.

“No, what you see is not real, my good lord,” Helena said. “It is but the shadow of a wife you see, the name and not the thing.”

Helena meant she had the title of “wife,” but she was not a real wife because her husband had rejected her. But Bertram, seeing her and realizing from what had been said that he had slept with her and that she was pregnant with his child, immediately repented and immediately considered her to be his wife both in name and in deed.

He said to Helena, “You are both, both. I beg you to pardon and forgive me!”

“Oh, my good lord,” Helena replied, “when you thought I was this maiden Diana, I found you wondrously kind. There is your ring, and look, here’s your letter, which says this: ‘When from my finger you can get this ring and are by me with child,’ et cetera. What the letter states as conditions have been done. Will you be mine, now you are doubly won?”

Bertram said to the King, “If she, my liege, can make me know clearly all that has happened, I’ll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly.”

Helena said, “If it does not appear plain and if it proves to be untrue, then may divorcing death step between me and you!”

She then said to the Countess, “Oh, my dear mother, do I see you living?”

Lafeu said, “My eyes smell onions; I shall weep soon.”

He said to Parolles, “Good Tom Drum, lend me a handkerchief. So, I thank you. You shall go home with me and wait on me as a servant. I’ll be entertained by you.”

Parolles bowed obsequiously.

Lafeu said, “Let your courtesies alone, for they are scurvy ones. Stop bowing.”

The King said, “Let us from point to point every particular point of this story know, to make the exact truth in pleasure flow.”

He said to Diana, “If you are yet a fresh uncropped flower, choose for yourself a husband, and I’ll pay your dower. For I can guess that by your honest aid, you kept a wife a wife, and you kept yourself a virgin maiden. Of that and all the progression of events, more or less, the resolution of loose ends more leisure shall express. All yet seems well, and if it ends the bitter past so fittingly and meet, then more welcome is the sweet.”


The King now says to you, the reader:

“The King’s a beggar, now the play is done.

“All is well ended, if this suit is won,

“That you express content, which we will repay,

“With striving to please you, day exceeding day.

“Ours be your patience then, and yours our parts;

“Your gentle hands lend us, and take our hearts.”

In other words, the King and all the other characters in this book are actors, and they have been playing roles and striving more and more each day in order to entertain you, the readers, who are their audience. Now the “King” is a beggar who begs you for applause (and good reviews online). The “King” wants the audience and the actors to exchange roles. The audience can act by applauding while the actors make no more sounds, but the actors and playwright and book author will repay the applause (and good online reviews) with gratitude.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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