The “old Widow of Florence,” her daughter Diana, and a girl named Mariana, a “neighbor to the Widow,” talk about the brave exploits of the “French Count” (Bertram), and about his wooing of Diana (through his intermediary, the “filthy officer” Parolles). Mariana warns Diana of Bertram’s and Parolles’ trickery (“engines of lust”), and at that moment, Helena arrives, “disguised as a [religious] pilgrim.” After exchanging pleasantries and establishing that Helena will stay overnight in the widow’s house, the women turn their attention to the triumphantly returning Count Bertram. Diana says,
He stole from France, as ’tis reported,
For the King had married him against his liking. (55-56)
Helena further learns that the Count’s follower Parolles “reports coarsely” of Bertram’s wife, and with irony, she sadly says of the “wife” (herself): “She is too mean [common] to have her name repeated.” The Count arrives, and he briefly luxuriates in his glorious return, and then the women go to the widow’s, where Helena has invited all of them to dinner at her expense.
Shakespeare was no geographer. He has Helena on her way to a shrine in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, by way of Florence, although Helena started out in southern France. But no matter. The dramatic point is that Helena, who has humbled herself for the sake of her love, further associates herself with “heaven” by adopting the guise of a pilgrim, and is now about to reach a low point in her personal anguish before reversing the order of things. She stresses her own unworthiness while learning of the Count’s lascivious pursuit of other women. When she asks about Bertram’s interest in Diana, one wonders whether a plan to ensnare him is hatching itself in her brain:
Widow: This young maid might do her a shrewd turn[help her out].
Helena: How do you mean? Maybe the amorous Count
Solicits her in the unlawful purpose.
Widow: He does indeed, and brokes [deals]With all that can in such a suit
Corrupt the tender honour of a maid. (69-74)
When Bertram actually appears with “drum and colors,” Helena pretends not to know who he is. “Which is the Frenchman?” she asks. Perhaps she wants to give Diana the opportunity to betray any secret romantic longing which she might have for him. Diana’s tone of voice, if not her words, would be sure to give her away. Apparently, Helena is satisfied that no such attraction exists, for she soon solicits Diana’s aid in trapping Bertram.