At first, Parolles, Bertram, and Lafeu are alone on stage, responding in awe to the healing of the king. Lafeu reads a report: “A showing of a heavenly effect in an earthly actor.”
The king is quick to fulfill his promise, as he commands his noblemen to assemble before the triumphant healer, Helena:
Thy frank election [choice] make;
Thou hast power to choose, and they none to forsake . . .
Who shuns thy love shuns all his love in me. (61-62/79)
Helena tells all present that she has already made up her mind which man shell have, but she nonetheless playfully approaches, and rejects, four others before coming to Bertram and saying,
I dare not say I take you, but I give
Me and my service, ever whilst I live,
Into your guiding power. This is the man. (109-11)
Bertram’s shock at her choice prompts not only a feeling of rejection within Helena, but what amounts to an insult — “A poor physician’s daughter my wife! Disdain / Rather corrupt me ever!” The king will have none of this, and he immediately lectures Bertram on the foolishness of social snobbery; then he exerts his power to command, forcing Bertram to take Helena’s hand. Bertram submits, and the company disperses.
Parolles denies his master to Lafeu,
Parolles: Recantation! My lord! My master!
Lafeu: Ay; is it not a language I speak?
Parolles: A most harsh one, and not to be understood
without bloody succeeding. My master! (196-99)
And Lafeu, who admits having been impressed by the hanger-on, says,
I did think thee, for two ordinaries [meals],
To be a pretty wise fellow, (211-12)
and then bids him good-riddance:
Parolles: My lord, you give me most egregious indignity.
Lafeu: Ay, with all my heart, and thou art worthy of it. (228-29)
At Lafeu’s exit, Bertram returns to Parolles with the words
O my Parolles, they have married me!
I’ll to the Tuscan wars and never bed her. (289-90)
Only too eager to escape a further confrontation with Lafeu and possible exposure as a false friend to Bertram, Parolles urges the younger man on “to other regions!”
The exposure of Parolles and the disgrace of Bertram accentuate this scene, one which otherwise would have depicted Helena’s triumph. There is something unsettling in the atmosphere from the start, and even the curing of the king leaves little room overall for celebration, ending as it does in an outburst of anger by the healed party.
Shakespeare’s dramaturgy works by continuously using contrasting scenes. Parolles’ inane stuttering in Scene 3 — “So I say, so I say, So would I have said” — echoes the clown’s mockery of “court” speech in Scene 2.
Contrast Helena’s eloquence and wit in dealing with the assembled noblemen after, as she puts it, “Heaven hath through me restored the King to health.” She typically snubs the first lord with a quick rhyme: suit/mute.
Helena: Now, Dian, from thy altar do I fly,
And to Imperial love, that god most high,
Do my sighs stream. [To First Lord:]Sir, will you hear my suit?
First Lord: And grant it.
Helena: Thanks, sir, all the rest is mute. (80-85)
Since Bertram has himself been mute through most of this scene, one wonders if it gradually dawns on him that Helena is preparing to choose him as her husband. In an earlier scene, she did say that “‘Twas pretty, though a plague, / To see him every hour, to sit and draw / His arched brows, his hawking eye, his curls, / In our heart’s table” (I.1.103-04). She apparently has spent hours watching him, perhaps not unnoticed. Still, there is a shock when the “sentence,” as it seems to him, is pronounced:
King: Why then, young Bertram, take her; she’s thy wife.
Bertram: My wife, my liege! I shall beseech your Highness,
In such business give me leave to use
The help of mine own eyes.
King: Know’st thou not, Bertram,
What she has done for me?
Bertram: Yes, my good lord;
But never hope to know why I should marry her. (112-19)
Note that the king and the people in attendance on him were, according to the conventional pattern of social behavior in Shakespeare’s day, undoubtedly shocked, and correctly so, at Bertram’s refusal. Marriage was not considered primarily a romantic matter, though that of course played a part. The idea was that one could easily enough learn to love one’s partner, and as the king clearly states, Helena’s wealth and social station can be adjusted by his edict:
If thou canst like this creature as a maid,
I can create the rest. Virtue and she
Is her own dower; honor and wealth from me. (149-51)
Bertram’s outburst is, to say the least, not very tactful in the presence of an old king and the lady who has restored the old king’s life. Helena is embarrassed into saying, “Let the rest go [forget it],” when Bertram persists. There is a tremendous emotional awkwardness when the angry king insists on the marriage, saying that he “must produce [his] power” to secure his honor. Bertram’s quick turnabout (a lie) and his exit with his “bride to be” must leave both the stage audience and the one in the theater feeling uneasy:
I find that she, which late
Was in my nobler thoughts most base, is now
The praised of the King; who, so ennobled,
Is as ’twere born so. (177-80)
This is especially so since Bertram and the doubly disgraced Parolles (who denied his master, then acted the coward toward old Lafeu) soon conspire to leave France and their obligations there for the wars in Italy where, ironically, Bertram expects to attain his “honour.” As a final, sordid touch, Shakespeare has Bertram plan to send Helena back to Rousillon in possession of a sealed envelope addressed to the Countess, which will “acquaint my mother with my hate to her [Helena].”