In Paris, the King of France bids farewell to a party of lords bound for the war in Florence, declaring that he may well be dead by the time they return. Two brothers, the First Lord and Second Lord Dumaine, urge Bertram to come with them to the war, but he says regretfully that the King has commanded him to remain at court. Parolles, boasting of his own prowess in battle, suggests that Bertram sneak away, and then wishes the two Lords good luck and the blessings of Mars, the god of war.
The King, meanwhile, is in conversation with Lafew, an old lord who was recently visiting Rousillon, and who tells his sovereign that a female doctor (Helena, of course) has recently arrived promising a cure for his ailment. Helena is ushered in, and tells the King that on his deathbed her father gave her a powerful medicine, ordering her to keep it safe--and that she has brought the medicine to save the royal life. The King thanks her for her offer, but says that there is no point in trying, since his doctors insist that the disease is incurable. Helena responds that there is no harm in making an attempt, and then boldly promises that the medicine will restore his health within just two days. She goes further, saying that if the cure fails, her life should be forfeit. If it succeeds, however, she asks permission to choose whomever she desires as a husband. The King agrees to the bargain, and promises to try the medicine immediately.
The Countess, after letting her Clown jest with her for a time, sends him to court with a message for Helena. In Paris, meanwhile, Parolles and Lafew remark on the amazing success of Helena's cure, which has restored the King to good health. True to his word, the King assembles five stalwart young noblemen as potential mates, but Helena passes over them all and selects Bertram. The young Count is taken aback, and declares that she is too far beneath him for the marriage to work. The King rebukes him, saying that inner worth is more important that noble birth, and promises to raise Helena to a higher rank; when Bertram still refuses to agree to the match, his monarch threatens to throw him out of royal favor. Faced with that threat, Bertram unhappily agrees, and the couple is immediately led to the altar. Left behind, Lafew and Parolles argue over the relative worth of the new husband and wife, with Lafew criticizing Bertram's conduct, and Parolles taking offense and trying to pick a fight--only to back away, saying that Lafew is too old for a duel. The old lord sees through the other man's bluster, and calls Parolles a coward. Meanwhile, Bertram returns, newly married, and tells Parolles that he will never consummate the wedding: he plans to send Helena home to his mother, and then run away to war.
The central problem of All's Well That Ends Well is illustrated by Bertram's behavior in these scenes. Given that he acts like a cad, treats her terribly, and essentially humiliates her, why does Helena continue to love him and pursue him? Why is she so smitten with a man who is obviously unworthy of her?
In a way, one can almost pity Bertram, who finds himself forced to marry against his will by what is, essentially, a fairy-tale sequence of events--a fair maid saves a dying King and receives her true love's hand as a reward. (The cure effects a change in the King's character, too, as he moves from a resigned passivity to fierce anger when Bertram attempts to refuse Helena's hand.) But the young Count quickly forfeits our pity when he whines "but follows it, my lord, to bring me down / Must answer for your raising? I know her well; / She had her breeding at my father's charge: / A poor physician's daughter my wife!" (II.iii.113-16). The arranged marriage--which a nobleman of the era would have been brought up to expect--bothers him less than the fact that Helena is not of noble birth, but only "a poor physician's daughter." In short, he is a snob, and a foolish one at that, since he cannot perceive what all the wiser characters know at once, namely, that Helena is a better woman than he deserves. The King's words put it aptly: "If she be / All that is virtuous, save what thou dislik'st-- / A poor physician's daughter--thou dislik'st / Of virtue for the name" (II.iii.122-25). But a noble name, more than virtue, is what matters to the callow Bertram.
Indeed, we should not be surprised that he fails to recognize Helena's worth, given his ridiculously high estimation of Parolles's character. His boastful companion is not a master of deceit, like the great Shakespearean villains (Iago in "Othello," Edmund in "King Lear"); rather, Parolles is easily seen through, and every wise character in the play does so, beginning with Helena in the first act, and continuing here with the able Lafew. Some critics have argued that Parolles leads Bertram astray, but this is putting the cart before the horse--the fact that Bertram is taken in by Parolles is indicative of the weakness and folly that exists, independent of any outside influence, at the heart of his character. And Bertram's foolishness, too, is hardly a secret: just as all the wise characters see through Parolles, so do all of them, beginning with Lafew, perceive that Bertram is committing a great wrong in his treatment of Helena. Shakespeare is not interested in shades of gray here--Bertram is condemned and Helena favored by everyone.