At the king’s court, Parolles, Bertram, and Lafew discuss the miracle of the king’s recovery. Lafew remarks on how all the “learned and authentic fellows” had given up any hope of the king getting better. They agree that the miraculous healing is the work of the “very hand of heaven,” acting through the weak “minister” of Helen. The king then enters with Helen, and he tells her that he is ready to give her the reward she was promised.
The king’s seemingly incurable illness has found a rather quick remedy. Helen has proven the king’s assumptions about her capabilities as a woman to be ill-founded. The male characters, though, refuse to give Helen credit for her behavior, seeing the cure as God acting through Helen.
The king has all his noblemen line up and tells Helen to make her choice. Helen speaks to the noblemen and tells them all that she is “a simple maid,” and worries that they will refuse her love. The king tells her to choose whomever she wants, and tells her that whoever “shuns thy love shuns all his love in me.” Helen speaks to several lords and then finally settles on Bertram, saying “this is the man.”
Helen flips gender roles by choosing her husband, instead of a man choosing a wife. She knows that her social status makes her a somewhat undesirable wife, but the king uses his powerful position at the top of the social ladder to give her the ability to choose a husband above her class.
Bertram is immediately upset, and does not want to marry Helen. The king tells him that Helen has “raised” him from his “sickly bed,” and demands that he marry her. Bertram protests that this is unfair, and the king says that he only detests Helen’s “title.” The king tells Bertram that “from lowest place whence virtuous things proceed, / The place is dignified by th’ doer’s deed.” In other words, Helen’s good deeds have raised and dignified her low social status.
Bertram reflects social norms in not wanting to marry beneath his social class. The king, on the other hand, argues that Helen’s natural virtues outweigh her low social class and suggests that Bertram has formed an incorrect judgment of Helen’s character.
The king even promises Bertram to supply Helen’s dowry from his own wealth, but Bertram is stubborn, and says that he “cannot love her.” The king gets angry and says that his “honor’s at the stake,” if he cannot follow through on his promise to Helen. He tells Bertram, “check thy contempt; / Obey our will,” and says that Bertram misjudges Helen. Bertram finally relents and takes Helen’s hand. The king says that they will be married this very night. Everyone but Parolles and Lafew leaves.
Bertram’s situation turns normal gender dynamics around. Usually it is a woman in such a society who can be forced into marrying someone she doesn’t love. The king again tells Bertram that he has wrongly judged Helen’s character (something he himself was guilty of earlier). Bertram says that he has changed his mind, but we will soon see that this was a lie.
Lafew tells Parolles, “Your lord and master did well to make his recantation,” and Parolles takes offense at Bertram being referred to as his master. Parolles says he’d challenge Lafew to a duel, but Lafew is too old. Lafew says that Parolles is “good for nothing” and makes fun of him for his elaborate scarves. Lafew leaves and Parolles speaks angrily about how he will beat the old man. Lafew returns and announces that Bertram and Helen have been married.
While Bertram is of a higher class than Parolles, Parolles takes offense at the notion that he is like a servant with Bertram as his master. Lafew immediately sees through Parolles’ posturing to his real character. The marriage between Bertram and Helen—which earlier seemed an impossibility—has been carried out with relatively little difficulty.
Lafew and Parolles continue to trade angry quips, and Lafew again makes fun of Parolles’ flamboyant appearance. He calls him a knave and leaves. A very distraught Bertram enters and tells Parolles that he will not sleep with Helen, even though he was forced to marry her. He plans to go to the wars in Italy so that he doesn’t have to “bed her.” Parolles agrees with this plan and speaks excitedly of going off “to th’ war!”
Lafew makes fun of Parolles’ outward appearance, which—like his bragging—covers up his real character. Having lied about changing his mind and agreeing to the marriage with Helen, Bertram actually has no plans of consummating the marriage with her. Parolles acts excited to go off to war, a place where he can display his supposed bravery.
Bertram says that he will send Helen to Rossillion to wait for him, but plans never to return there. Parolles asks if he is sure of this plan, and Bertram says he is. He plans to head to Italy tomorrow, and send Helen to Rossillion immediately. Parolles says that the king has wronged Bertram by forcing him into this marriage, and the two leave to make preparations for their journey to Italy.
Bertram plans to lie to Helen and trick her into going back to Rossillion to wait for him. But it is possible to see his deception as a response to Helen’s own trickery, as she has to some degree tricked and forced him into marrying her.