Helena The daughter of a very famous, recently deceased court physician, Helena has the physical and mental attributes which could command the attention of virtually any eligible bachelor, but unfortunately, she does not have the correct social pedigree to entice the man whom she loves, Bertram, a Count’s son. Through the use of her native wit and the body of knowledge which she inherits from her father, as well as because of her sheer strength of will, she overcomes all obstacles and wins Bertram. To some commentators on this play, Helena’s tactics seem questionable, although no one underestimates her strength of character.
Bertram For several reasons, Bertram seems significantly inferior to Helena. He is under the influence of the patently superficial Parolles, and he lies outright on more than one occasion. Furthermore, he blatantly disregards the king’s wishes. To a modern audience, he might seem to have every right to refuse a forced marriage, but to the world which the play inhabits, that is not the case. Besides, Helena is clearly (in everyone else’s opinion) a splendid person. The play ends, however, in such an abrupt manner that Shakespeare leaves us wondering just how “well” all has “ended” for Bertram and his “rightful” bride.
King of France In his prime, the king was a valiant warrior and a staunch friend of Bertram’s father. He is utterly charmed by Helena, and he is grateful for the cure which she administers to him. All of this makes his outrage even greater when Bertram refuses to accept Helena as a bride. He exerts his royal authority to force the marriage, and in Shakespeare’s scheme of things in the play, he seems to be right in doing so.
Countess of Rousillon Bertram’s mother fully sympathizes with Helena in her state of lovelorn agony, and she goes so far as to say that she will disown her son as a result of his rejection of her adopted “daughter.” She does what she can to make things “end well.”
Lafeu Lafeu is an elderly friend of the Countess and her family. His role is that of adviser and mollifier. He is the first to see through Parolles’ schemes, and it is his daughter whose planned marriage to Bertram (before Helena is “resurrected” at the end of the play) will signal a return to good order.
Parolles Lafeu sums up the character of Parolles when he says: “The soul of this man is his clothes.” Parolles is the tempter of Bertram as a “prodigal son,” and in the end, Parolles is seen as such and rejected.
Clown (Lavache) The Countess’ servant offers comic reflections about several characters in the play, most pointedly about Parolles. His mouth is lewd, and his manner is absurd.
A Widow of Florence For a fee, the widow helps Helena arrange and execute the old “bed trick”; here, Bertram is trapped into sleeping with his own wife in the belief that she is another woman.
Diana Diana is the widow’s daughter and Helena’s ally in her pursuit of Bertram. She is the bait used to trap Bertram. Diana displays a good deal of wit and a composed bearing under the pressure of the courtly observers during the final “revelation scene.”
Mariana A neighbor of the widow.
Two French Lords, the Brothers Dumain The two noblemen who mastermind the plot to expose Parolles. They are friends to Bertram.