All's Well that Ends Well Act 1, Scene 3 Summary & Analysis
New! Understand every line of All's Well that Ends Well.Read our modern English translation of this scene.
Back at Rossillion, the countess asks a steward about Helen. She sees that a fool (a servant whose job is to entertain the court) is listening in, and tells him to leave. The fool says that he wants to get married to a woman because his “poor body . . . requires it,” and he has to satisfy his sexual drives. The countess asks if this is his only reason for wanting to marry, and he says that he also wants to marry to repent for his wicked ways.
The fool’s coarse jokes paint marriage less as a romantic ideal and more as a necessary hurdle on the way to satisfying sexual urges. The countess asks the steward about Helen in order to form a more accurate understanding of her character.
The fool talks at length about how he wants to have friends for his wife’s sake, and how he would not mind if his wife cheated on him with his friends. He reasons that his wife is his flesh and blood, and so whoever loves his wife loves him, and is his friend. Tired of the fool’s coarse jokes, the countess tells him to leave and tell Helen that she wants to speak to her. On his way out, the fool sings a song about Helen of Troy and hints that most women are unfaithful to their men. Frustrated, the countess again orders him to leave, and he finally does.
The fool’s remarks differ greatly from societal ideals about marriage, faithfulness, and sex, suggesting that they are just that—ideals, which don’t always match up to everyday realities. The fool is able to get a small form of revenge against his social superiors such as the countess by cleverly teasing and joking with them.
The steward and the countess discuss Helen, and the steward reveals that he has overheard Helen talking of her love for Bertram, and her sadness at there being “such difference betwixt their two estates.” The countess says that she had often suspected Helen loved Bertram, and thanks the steward for sharing this information. She tells him to leave, and he departs just as Helen arrives. Speaking to herself, the countess says that she was similarly taken with “love’s strong passion” when she was young, and says that she can tell Helen is in love by looking at her.
The countess is fond of Helen and still it is somewhat remarkable that she is not upset that Helen, of a significantly lower social class, is in love with her son. She sees “love’s strong passion” as a natural part of youth and knows that it cannot always be fit into the strict structures of social propriety.
Helen greets the countess, and the countess tells her that she is like a mother to her. Helen is troubled at this (since this would make Bertram like her brother), and the countess asks why she looked so uncomfortable when she heard the word “mother.” Helen says that she wishes the countess were her mother, but that it cannot be, since she is from such a humble background. The countess notes again that Helen goes pale at the mention of her being the countess’ daughter, and says that she thinks Helen loves Bertram. She asks if this is true.
The countess now plays a bit of a deceptive trick on Helen, acting as if she doesn’t already know about Helen’s love for Bertram. Helen is very conscious of the gap between her social class and that of the countess, using it as a (very plausible) explanation of why she seems uncomfortable at the countess calling Helen her daughter.
Helen begs the countess’ pardon, and finally admits that she does love Bertram. She asks the countess not to be offended, and says that she would not pursue Bertram until she is deserving of his high social status, though she does not know how she could possibly rise to his social level. She again asks the countess not to be upset that she loves Bertram.
Differences in social class are of such importance that Helen apologizes for even being in love with Bertram, and not even acting on this feeling. She sees the social hierarchy as something rigidly entrenched and unchangeable.
The countess asks Helen if she has lately been planning to go to Paris, to the royal court. Helen admits she has been planning this, and says that her father has left her “some prescriptions / Of rare and proved effects,” which she thinks may be able to help cure the king. She admits, though, that her real motive in going to Paris would be to see Bertram. The countess wonders if the king would even try Helen’s medicines, as she is only “a poor unlearned virgin.”
Helen’s medicines can be seen as representing the easy cures and remedies that come to solve many of the play’s problems. The countess knows that the king will probably underestimate Helen and make a judgment of her based solely on her gender, reflecting widespread assumptions about gender roles.
Helen says that the medicines were made by her father, the famous doctor, and she is confident they could help the king, if she were given the chance to go to Paris. She asks the countess’ permission to go, and the countess give her permission. She tells Helen that she will pray for God’s blessing on Helen’s attempt to cure the king, and will help Helen as much as she can.
Helen defies traditional female roles, deciding to take an active role in settling her issues and attempting to cure the king when all his (male) doctors have failed. The countess supports Helen and does not seem to look down on her because of her lower social standing.