In twenty-three lines, Shakespeare introduces the city of Florence, Italy, to the play while that city’s duke puzzles aloud to a French nobleman about the king of France’s neutrality in the Italian wars. The French lord concurs: “Holy seems the quarrel / Upon your Grace’s part; black and fearful / On the opposer.”
In Scene 2, the clown has returned to Rousillon, where he delivers a letter from Bertram to his mother advising her that he has run away from his marriage; in the letter, he says: “If there be breadth enough in the world, I will hold a long distance.” This upsets the Countess: “This is not well, rash and unbridled boy, / To fly the favours of so good a King.” Helena’s distress, when she reads Bertram’s letter to her, compounds the feeling. She labels his note a “passport” — that is, a license to beg on the open road — and says that it is a “dreadful sentence.”
When thou canst get the ring upon my finger,
Which never shall come off, and show me a child
Begotten of thy body that I am father to, then call
Me husband; but in such a “then” I write a “Never.” (59-62)
The Countess disavows Bertram as her son and then asks whether or not he is still traveling in the company of Parolles, the “very tainted fellow, and full of wickedness.” The scene ends with a monologue by Helena, who vows to leave France to clear the way for Bertram to return home from the dangerous wars:
No; come thou home, Rousillon,
Whence honor but of danger wins a scar,
As oft it loses all. I will be gone, — My being here it is that holds thee hence.
Shall I stay here to do it? No, no. (123-27)
No doubt the clown has altered his appearance, somewhat, to be like the fashionable set that he mingled with in Paris. His attitude toward “mere provincials” has taken a radical turn too. Isbel was the wench whom he begged permission to marry in Act I, but now,
I have no mind to Isbel since I was at court.
Our old lings [salt cod, slang for lechers] and our
Isbels o’th’ country are nothing like your
Old lings, and your Isbels o’ th’ court. (13-16)
The Countess, for her part, responds to her “altered” son, young Bertram. Note the number of times that he is referred to by her and others as a “boy,” implying immaturity. She cannot understand his disobedience to the king in refusing to honor Helena, especially since Helena is such a fine person. The Countess’ words are meant to assuage poor Helena’s grief, but they seem harsh to her son:
I prithee, lady, have a better cheer.
If thou engrossest [take] all the griefs are thine,
Thou robb’st me of a moiety [share]. He was my son,
But I do wash his name out of my blood
And thou art all my child. (67-71)
The “dreadful sentence” which Helena reads conjures up further associations with fairy tales and stories of legend. Here, one should remember the reference to the archetypal “curing of the king” story earlier in the play. Shakespeare uses a tradition in which a beleaguered bride must accomplish several “impossible” tasks, or overcome a number of severe trials in order to prove herself, and (usually) win the love of the man whom she loves. The plot elements in the rest of the play hinge on this “sentence,” as Helena sets out to solve the riddle and overcome the obstacles which Bertram has set. She must get the ring from his finger (symbolic of family tradition and honor), and she must also become pregnant — despite Bertram’s avowed dislike of her.
In a play which has far fewer passages of sheer poetic beauty than we have come to expect from Shakespeare, Helena’s soliloquy here, expressing her torment, stands out even if it does use fairly commonplace metaphors:
And is it I that drive thee from the sportive court,
Where thou wast shot at with fair eyes,
To be the mark of smoky muskets?
O you leaden messengers,
That ride upon the violent speed of fire,
Fly with false aim, move the still-peering [self-repairing] air
That sings with piercing; do not touch my lord! (111-17)