At the opening of this play, the main figures of the plot are weighed down with thoughts of two recent deaths. “Young Bertram,” the Count of Rousillon (in France), has lost his father, as has Helena, the beautiful daughter of a famed physician, Gerard de Narbon, “whose skill was almost as great as his honesty.” Bertram’s mother is further distressed that she must say farewell to her son, now a ward of the ailing king of France. Opening the play, she exclaims: “In delivering my son from me [to the king’s court], I bury a second husband.” As an older lord and a close family friend, Lafeu assures the Countess that in the king she shall find someone as good as a second husband for herself and a second father for Bertram.
Once mother and son have said their goodbyes and he has departed, Helena delivers a soliloquy in which she reveals a double reason for her sadness. “I am undone; there is no living, none, if Bertram be away.” A “follower” of Bertram, named Parolles, interrupts her and engages her in an extended dialogue on the subject of virginity. He pledges that he will “return a perfect courtier” from Paris, where he is about to go with Bertram. A second soliloquy, this time by Helena, reveals her to be resolute in her pledge to pursue her unlikely attempt at capturing Bertram’s heart: ” . . . my project may deceive me, but my intents are fixed, and will not leave me.”
A gloomy mood at the opening of the play is often customary for a Shakespearean comedy. But amidst the general lamentation over departures and deaths, there is some emotional ambiguity which sets a tone for this “problem play,” as All’s Well has been called by some critics. Lafeu remarks on Helena’s tears at the Countess’ praise, whereupon the older woman kindly says that Helena must not cry lest people think that she is “affecting” or putting on her sad demeanor. Helena’s answer — “I do affect a sorrow indeed, but I have it too” — seems puzzling, until we learn in her soliloquy that she is crying for the sake of her unacknowledged lover, and not (or not entirely) for her deceased father. Helena keeps to herself much of the time, partly because she may be embarrassed at the feelings she has for a person beyond her station, socially. In the first moments of the play, she is uneasy, aware that Bertram is “so far above me.”
One wonders what Bertram’s feelings in this first scene may be. Though some editors have disputed the placement of Lafeu’s second line in the following exchange, it seems possible that the wise, older gentleman is reacting to Bertram’s abruptness in cutting off his mother’s speech.
Lafeu: Moderate lamentation is the right of the dead,
Excessive grief the enemy to the living.
Countess: If the living be enemy to the grief,
The excess makes it soon mortal.
Bertram: Madam, I desire your holy wishes.
Lafeu: How understand we that? (64-69)
There is something of a gentle hand slap in the tone of Lafeu’s last line. Bertram may be speaking rudely, overstepping the quite normal impatience of a young man about to leave home (and to leave off mourning) for a more adventuresome life in Paris. Consider for yourself if this line — “How understand we that?” — makes sense here, or if it might better fit in just before the words “moderate lamentation,” where some editors place it.
There is an abrupt shift in tone at Parolles’ entrance. Helena confides that he is a “notorious liar” whom she tolerates only because of his association with Bertram. The conversation between the two, saturated in polite obscenity, gives the audience a clear view of the play’s heroine as someone who is not so romantic and frail that she cannot survive in the gritty world of court sexuality. Parolles argues conventionally that virginity is nonsensical since it goes against nature and since it condemns, as it were, its own mother, and furthermore, he says that it loses its value proportionately with age. Helena can bandy easily enough with this affected man of the world and can ask in her own private interest, “How might one do, sir, to lose it [one’s virginity] to her own liking?” But her mind is fixed on Bertram, for he will soon appear at court in Paris. Notice the way that her lines are broken to indicate breathlessness and distraction as she imagines Bertram there amidst pretty mistresses:
. . . with a world of pretty, fond, adoptious christendoms [young women with adopted names] that
blinking Cupid gossips [i.e., that the god of love godfathers]. Now shall he — I know not what he
shall. God send him well! The court’s a learning place, and he is one — (187-92)
Helena insults Parolles, calling him a coward and an overdressed fool, and he beats a hasty retreat. Her feistiness is evident.
Helena’s second soliloquy differs from the first in its view of fate. Now the focus is on individual determination.
Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie,
Which we ascribe to heaven. The fated sky
[influence of the stars]
Gives us free scope; only doth backward pull
Our slow designs when we ourselves are dull. (231-34)
The exchange between Helena and Parolles seems to have had the effect of bolstering her courage.