Two French lords, the brothers Dumain, discuss Bertram’s situation briefly before he enters to witness their exposure of Parolles. They are aware of Bertram’s improprieties, including the deception of Helena (whom they presume to be dead, as rumor has it) and the “perversion” of Diana, “a young gentlewoman here in Florence, of a most chaste renown.” They are certain that his current glory will do no good when he returns to France: “The great dignity that his valour hath here acquired for him shall at home be encount’red with a shame as ample.”
Bertram swaggers before his countrymen as he enters: “I have congied with [taken leave of] the Duke, done my adieu with his nearest, buried a wife, mourned for her, writ to my lady mother I am returning, entertained my convoy, and between these main parcels of dispatch effected many nicer needs; the last was the greatest, but that I have not ended yet.”
The bulk of the scene is taken up with Parolles’ exposure and disgrace. Brought in blindfolded and pricked on with the merest hint of physical torture, he reveals military secrets (probably made-up), slanders Bertram and the brothers Dumain, and shows himself to be an utterly craven liar and a cheat. Bertram had thought of him as a confidant, yet the letter which Parolles planned to give Diana reads:
Men are to mell with, boys are not to kiss:
For count of this, the Count’s a fool, I know it,
Who pays before, but not when he does owe it. (257-59)
When his life seems threatened, Parolles’ hypocrisy is at its greatest:
My life, sir, in any case! Not that I
Am afraid to die, but that my offenses
Being many I would repent out the remainder of nature.
Let me live, sir, in a dungeon, i’ th’ stocks,
Or anywhere, so I may live. (270-74)
Bertram and the others squeeze as much villainy from him as they can before removing his hood, whereupon speechless he must face them. When they leave, he shrugs a remark to one of the soldiers, “Who cannot be crushed with a plot?”
Parolles is what he is! Small consolation when the subject is so mean-spirited, yet Shakespeare in this scene almost seems to place the “gallant knave” in positive contrast against his master, Bertram. Dumain marvels at the extent of Parolles’ corruption. It is clear to the French lord that this man is embroidering falsehoods in order to save his skin, and it becomes enjoyable to witness.
Parolles [of the French Lord]: I have but little more to say,
Sir, of his honesty — he has everything that an
Honest man should not have; what an honest man
Should have, he has nothing.
First Lord [aside]: I begin to love him for this.
Bertram [aside]: For this description of thine honesty?
A pox upon him for me, he’s more and more a
The First Lord, enjoying the exposure of Parolles, seems to confirm the feeling that the culprit expresses at the very end of the scene: “There’s place and means for every man alive.”