The bed-switch has succeeded--Helena has taken Diana's place in Bertram's arms without him being aware of the deception. Meanwhile, a truce has ended the war, and Bertram, believing his wife to be dead, plans to return to France. Helena thanks the Widow and her daughter profusely for their assistance, and then invites them to accompany her to Marseilles, where the King of France's court is now located, and where she plans to find her husband and reveal how she has fulfilled his conditions. Meanwhile, in Rousillon, the Countess laments her daughter-in-law's death to Lafew, who proposes that Bertram be betrothed to his daughter. The Countess assents, and the Clown comes in to announce that Bertram has returned home.
In Marseilles, Helena finds that the King has removed his court to Rousillon, and hurries after him, accompanied by the Widow and Diana. Parolles has also come to the Countess' home, as a beggar, and Lafew takes pity on him and gives him a meal. Meanwhile, the King is preparing to announce Bertram's new engagement to Lafew's daughter, when he notices a ring on the young Count's finger that belonged to Helena. Bertram is at a loss to explain how he came by it (not wanting to tell the story of his dalliance with Diana), and falls back on a weak story of having it thrown to him while he was in Florence. No one believes him, and since he gave the ring to Helena himself, the King is furious- -he believes that Bertram stole it from her, and threatens to throw him in prison. Just then, however, Diana is ushered in, and with her mother beside her, tells the story of how Bertram seduced her. Parolles, called as a witness, confirms it. Diana declares that she gave the ring to Bertram, and refuses to say how she came to have it. The King's anger is now turned on her, but only briefly, since the Widow goes out and returns with Helena, who explains the entire deception, and tells her husband that the conditions have been met--she has his ring, and is pregnant with his child. Bertram, repentant, agrees to be a good husband and love Helena. The King promises Diana her choice of husband. Lafew weeps, everyone rejoices, and all ends happily.
Like the bedchamber switch with Diana, Helena's decision to fake her own death is eminently practical and necessary--only with her out of the way will Bertram return to France. But like her exploitation of male lust in Florence, the falsified reports of her demise leave an unpleasant taste in the audience's collective mouth: her willingness to plunge the people who love her the most (the Countess, the King) into deep mourning makes her seem almost ruthless, willing to hurt anyone and do anything in order to gain her prized, unwilling Bertram. Still, she does get the job done, and the characters all converge, somewhat fortuitously, on Rousillon for the happy ending.
Or is it a happy ending? Many critics remain unable to reconcile themselves to a finale that asks us to rejoice at a marriage between the worthy Helena and the unpleasant, mediocre Bertram. Certainly, many Shakespearean heroines (choose men who are unworthy of them, but no husband seems as perfectly unsuitable as Bertram. The audience may share the sentiments of Samuel Johnson, who wrote in the 18th century that "I cannot reconcile my heart to Bertram, a man noble without generosity, and young without truth, who marries Helena as a coward and leaves her as a profligate; when she is dead by his unkindness, sneaks home to a second marriage, is accused by a woman he has wronged, defends himself by falsehood, and is dismissed to happiness."
There is an attempt by the play to rehabilitate Bertram, beginning with the work of the two lords Dumaine, who separate him from Parolles, and continuing with Bertram's professions of contrition to the King and Countess. He claims to remember Helena "admiringly," and calls her "she whom all men praised and whom myself / Since I have lost, have loved"(V.iii.53-54), which seems to suggest a growing maturity and a realization of Helena's worth. It may be, as some critics have argued, that Bertram has "grown up," and will make a decent husband. Still, his expressions of regret come when he is convinced that Helena is dead, and it does not take an overly skeptical reader to doubt his sincerity a little, and to interpret his words as attempts to curry favor with the King and make up for his previous bad behavior. Certainly, the argument that he is "growing up" is undermined by his dissembling and denials when the ring and the episode with Diana is revealed--he remains the selfish, scrambling young lord of the early part of the play. And his reconciliation with Helena is hardly the most loving moment--she comments snidely that "when I was like this maid (when she was pretending to be Diana, that is, and making love to him), I found you wondrous kind" (V.iii.309-310), and he seems more flabbergasted than glad to see her. He does promise to "love her dearly, ever, ever, dearly"(V.iii.316), but as Harold Bloom dryly notes, this is one "ever" too many for sincerity.
The play ends hastily after Helena's appearance, and the last lines are revealing: "All yet seems well," the King declares, "and if it end so meet, / The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet"(V.iii.333-34). "All yet seems well, and if it end so meet"--these are not confident words, and it seems that the King shares the audience's reservations. Helena holds our sympathy to the end, but her ruthlessness has diminished her appeal, and she shares her happiness with the distasteful Bertram. The most appealing characters remain the King, the Countess, and Lafew, and they are all nearing death: if this is a dark play, then it is dark because it promises a future belonging to manipulative women and mediocre men.
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