Bertram, the young count of Rossillion, is preparing to leave to go to the king of France, whose ward he will be because his own father has recently passed away. His mother, the countess of Rossillion, is sad to see her son leave. A nobleman named Lafew says that the king will be like a father to Bertram and a husband to the Countess. However, the king is very ill, and has given up all hope of recovering.
The play opens with a set of problems that seem difficult to resolve: Bertram has no father and must leave his mother, while the king is so ill that he has no hope of recovery. By the end of the play, though, all these issues will be fixed—or, at least, will seem to be fixed.
The countess mentions that a young woman under her care had a father who was such a skilled doctor that he “would have made nature immortal,” and likely could have cured the king. Sadly, this doctor is dead. Lafew says that the king has mentioned this doctor before, and tells the countess that the king is suffering from a kind of ulcer called a fistula. He asks about the doctor’s daughter, who the Countess says is now under her care and is both honest and good.
The doctor’s medicines are a literal version of the “remedies” that are needed for other problems in the play. Both kinds of remedy seem to be out of the characters’ reach. The countess considers the doctor’s daughter to be a good, honest person, considering her virtue and character and disregarding her class.
The doctor’s daughter, named Helen, is crying while the countess and Lafew talk, and the countess tells Helen to restrain her sorrow over her father’s death, so that she does not appear to be affecting more grief than she really feels. Lafew agrees, suggesting the importance of “moderate lamentation.”
Helen’s crying contributes to the overwhelming sense of sadness and pessimism with which the play begins, and which will be in great contrast to its happy ending.
The countess bids farewell to her son, and gives Bertram some motherly advice to be virtuous, careful, and honest. She leaves, and after Lafew says goodbye to Helen, he leaves with Bertram. All alone, Helen reveals that her tears are not over her father, but over Bertram, with whom she is hopelessly in love. She compares Bertram to a star so far above her that she cannot reach, and laments that she is in love with someone so far above her social class.
While Helen did not necessarily lie to the countess, she has hidden the real reason for her tears. Social class is such an important matter in this world, that Helen thinks her love for Bertram is not merely difficult but impossible to pursue.
Bertram’s friend Parolles enters. Helen says to herself that she knows Parolles to be “a great way fool, solely a coward,” but she must be nice to him because he is close to Bertram. Parolles asks if Helen is “meditating on virginity.” Helen answers that she is, and says that “man is enemy to virginity.” She asks how women may preserve their virginity against men, and she and Parolles tease each other with some sexual wordplay, comparing wooing men to soldiers laying siege to a city.
Helen already has a good idea of what Parolles’ character precisely is. Helen begins the conversation by adhering to traditional notions of virginity, suggesting the importance of women maintaining their chastity. The wordplay comparing love to war mixes up traditionally male (war) and female (love) spheres.
Parolles opines that virginity is “too cold a companion,” and says that women should try to lose it. Helen disagrees, and Parolles speaks further against virginity. He says that to uphold virginity is to disrespect one’s mother (since a mother has necessarily had sex). He also says that the longer virginity is kept, the less precious it is, and compares “old virginity” to “one of our French withered pears: / it looks ill, it eats dryly.”
Parolles argues against traditional ideas about virginity, seeing sex as a natural bodily function, and chastity and prolonged virginity as a bad, even unnatural thing. Of course, his views may also simply be self-serving.
Helen remains insistent that she will maintain her virginity, and then speaks of Bertram. She compliments him and hopes that he will do well in the royal court. She laments that all she can do is wish Bertram well. A page enters and tells Parolles that Bertram is calling for him. Before Parolles leaves, he and Helen trade some quips about what astrological sign he was born under.
Helen remains firm in her devotion to her own virginity, and thereby upholds a traditional female role of thwarting male sexual advances.
Helen jokes that Parolles must have been born when Mars was in retrograde (moving in reverse), because he flees and runs away in war. Parolles tells her to find herself a husband, and then leaves. Alone again, Helen thinks of her hopeless situation with Bertram. But then she comes up with an idea: she says that the king’s sickness may offer her a possible strategy.
Helen pokes fun at Parolles’ cowardice, which contradicts the stereotypically male bravery Parolles tries to display. Parolles thinks the only worthwhile thing Helen can do as a woman is finding a husband. Helen begins to form a strategy for resolving her seemingly impossible problem.