In Paris, the king wishes his young warriors well as they leave for the Italian wars: ” . . . be you the sons! Of worthy Frenchmen . . . see that you come / Not to woo honor, but to wed it.” He adds a sly note to “beware the Italian women!” Bertram, who is unhappy that he must linger behind — and be told that he is “too young” and that he must wait until “the next year” — succumbs to Parolles’ and the other lords’ urging to steal away on his own, for “there’s honour in the theft.”
Lafeu and the king now exchange formal greetings, and the Rousillon elder statesman politely urges the king to shake off despair:
. . . O, will you eat no grapes, my royal fox?
Yes, but you will my noble grapes . . . if my royal fox
Could reach them. I have seen a medicine
That’s able to breathe life into a stone. (72-75)
Soon, Lafeu introduces Helena, “Doctor She,” who explains her presence and describes her deceased father’s special cure:
And, hearing your high majesty is touched
With that malignant cause wherein the honor
Of my dear father’s gift stands chief in power,
I come to tender it and my appliance
With all bound humbleness. (113-17)
After a short debate between himself and Helena, the king decides to give her a chance to cure him. She offers her life as the penalty should she fail; and as the reward for success:
Then shalt thou give me with thy kingly hand
With husband in thy power I will command. (198-99)
(Out of modesty, she of course excludes the royal bloodline of France.) The sickly king, amazed by this bold young woman, agrees, and then he asks to be helped from the stage:
Unquestioned, welcome and undoubted blest.
Give me some help here, ho! If thou proceed
As high as word, my deed shall match thy deed. (211-13)
The framework of this scene provides insights into the two central characters, although Bertram and Helena are not seen together. There is something puppyish about Bertram; his feelings are hurt deeply because the rest of the young noblemen are riding off to battle while he must remain behind. Shakespeare paints a picture of youthful petulance and malleability in this part of the scene, as Parolles acts as a tempter and as a bad influence to Bertram. His advice is to ignore the king’s command and, furthermore, to study the ways of the courtly gentlemen and soldiers in order to become a perfectly fashionable man of the world — presumably like Parolles himself. Of course, the audience (and virtually everyone else on stage besides Bertram) can see right through Parolles’ bombast. One imagines the other noblemen urging Bertram and Parolles into their company with their tongues tucked firmly into their cheeks. Parolles typically stresses fashion (one wonders how outlandishly he is dressed) when talking to his companion: “Be more expressive to them, for they wear themselves in the cap of time; there do muster true gait, eat, speak, and move under the influence of the most received [up-to-date] star; and though the devil lead the measure, such are to be followed. After them, and take a more dilated [extended] farewell.” The reference here to “devil” is Shakespeare’s way of underlining a similarity in this situation to the “prodigal son” stories in the Bible and other traditional sources.
Consider Helena’s behavior in the latter section of the scene. As a woman, she is conventionally conceived of as being frail; the thought of her being a professional (a doctor) is absurd; and the notion that she — a mere woman — could cure a king would normally be beyond imagining. Nevertheless, she overcomes the king’s doubts, which are, given his time, reasonable enough. He fears that people will think that he’s downright dotty if it were known that a “maiden” is attending him as a physician:
I say we must not so stain our judgment or corrupt our hope,
To prostitute our past-cure malady to empirics [quacks],
Or to dissever so our great self and our credit,
To esteem a senseless help, when help past sense we deem. (122-25)
Using her skill of rhetoric, larded with aphoristic remarks like,
Oft expectation fails, and most oft there
Where most it promises, and oft it hits
Where hope is coldest and despair most fits. (145-47)
Helena finally sways the king to give her a chance. Perhaps she nudges him over the edge by hinting that she is a divine emissary:
But most it is presumption in us when
The help of Heaven we count the act of men. (154-55)
Some critics have observed a trace of the fairy tale formula in this section of the play, in which the young virgin “magically” cures an ailing king. This may be so, but one cannot fail to be impressed by the sheer doggedness of Shakespeare’s heroine. Her effort of will commands the end of the scene, contrasting with Bertram’s jellyfish compliance at its opening.