Helena, the daughter of a famous doctor, has been the ward of the Countess of Rousillon, a wise and kindly old noblewoman, since her father's death. The Countess' husband has also recently died, and her son Count Bertram, a brave, handsome, but callow young man, is sent to serve the King of France, his liege lord. (The King, we learn, is dying). Helena is in love with Bertram, but hopelessly, since he is a nobleman and she a commoner. As he departs for the King's Court, she banters with Parolles, an unsavory character who has managed to gain Bertram's ear despite being a liar and a coward. They discuss chastity in coarse terms, with Parolles recommending that she find a husband and lose her virginity quickly. As they speak Helena conceives a plan that she hopes will gain her the hand of Bertram.
Bertram arrives at the King's court, where the cautious monarch has recently decided to stay out of a war involving Austria and the Duke of Florence--with the caveat that any French noblemen who wish to involve themselves in the conflict are free to go. Greeting Bertram, the King laments the loss of the young man's father, and then remarks that he wishes Helena's father were still living, because only such a great doctor could now save his life. Meanwhile, in Rousillon, the Countess walks about and chats with the coarse, bawdy Clown who once served her husband. Her Steward joins them and informs the Countess that he overheard Helena declaring her love for Bertram; the noblewoman sends for her ward immediately. After much dissembling, Helena admits to loving the Countess' son, and then immediately declares her plan to go to the King's palace and offer her services as a doctor, using the medical knowledge that her father taught her. The Countess, while expressing her doubts that the King and the royal doctors will accept the help of a young woman, gives her blessing, and sends Helena on her way.
The play opens on a dark, somber note: as Bertram departs, his mother recalls her husband's passing, and Bertram comments that "I in going, madam, weep o'er my father's death anew." (I.i.3-4) Lafew, the wise old nobleman, makes an attempt at comforting them by saying that the King will act as a husband and father to the family, but this only leads into a discussion of the King's illness, and how he has abandoned all hope of a cure--which, in turn, leads them to speak of the recent death of Helena's father. This conversation is useful to the audience, since it fills in the background details before the action of the play begins, but its heavy emphasis on illness and death casts a pall over the scene. Indeed, the entire older generation in All's Well That Ends Well is nearing death--the King, the Countess, and Lafew are all figures of wisdom, offering sage advice to the headstrong young, but they are also figures of decay and decrepitude. The Countess and Lafew speak repeatedly of their own feebleness and impending deaths; the King's life will be saved by Helena, but it is clearly only a reprieve, and he seems to lack energy, especially in his refusal to take part in the war that so many of his young nobles flock to join. In sum, the play presents a "generation gap"--a stark contrast between the weakness of the older generation and the vitality of the younger characters (Helena, Bertram, Diana, etc.).
The shadow that mortality casts on the action is one reason why this play has often been termed a "problem comedy," or "dark comedy." Another reason is the nature of the younger generation, who are poised to inherit from their wiser, aging elders. Bertram, the supposed romantic hero, possesses most of the appropriate attributes--everyone admits that he is handsome, dashing, and brave, and certainly, Helena speaks highly of him, describing his "bright radiance and collateral light / . . . His arched brows, his hawking eye, his curls" (I.i.94- 100) in the glowing terms of a would-be lover. But, significantly, she only mentions, and we only observe, the superficial qualities of the man. When he shows his true colors later, his image will be tarnished significantly.
Helena, meanwhile, is more appealing--her worth is evident despite her low birth--and already her resourcefulness is on display as she assumes the male role of physician (a common burden for Shakespeare's heroines, who either end up wearing men's clothes, like Viola in Twelfth Night, or doing men's work, like the lawyerly Portia in The Merchant of Venice) and plans a journey to Paris. But her fixation on Bertram, while determined, will come to seem almost monomaniacal--it is her defining character trait, in the end. Her love, she admits, is a kind of "idolatrous fancy," (I.i.103) but she will not release her hold on it. There is a bitter edge to her humor, too, a coarseness that other Shakespearean heroines lack; her conversation with Parolles, filled with sexual innuendo, displays a cynicism about relations between the sexes that is seems jarring coming from a romantic heroine.
The cynicism is appropriate to Parolles, of course, who seems cast as the villain in the early going. Eventually, his essential harmlessness will be revealed--he is a minor rogue, whose boasts and lies are dangerous, but not deadly.