All's Well that Ends Well Act 2, Scene 1 Summary & Analysis
New! Understand every line of All's Well that Ends Well.Read our modern English translation of this scene.
Back at the royal court, the king of France bids farewell to some noblemen who are leaving to fight in the war in Italy. He tells them that he will likely be dead by the time they return, and encourages them to be honorable Frenchmen. He also warns them not to fall in love with any Italian women while they are fighting there. Parolles and Bertram enter and speak to the departing noblemen. Bertram is upset that the king is not allowing him to go to Italy and fight, because he is too young.
The king of France urges his noblemen to uphold especially masculine ideals of bravery and honor. Ironically, he simultaneously treats noble character as something natural (in urging his men to show their noble French heritage) and as something changeable, since his advice relies upon the possibility that his men can be encouraged to act more nobly and honorably.
Bertram and Parolles say goodbye to the noblemen, and Parolles tells them to give his greetings to an Italian soldier he wounded in battle, bragging about his feats in battle. The noblemen leave, and then Parolles encourages Bertram to go give them “a more dilated farewell.” They both leave, and Lafew comes to speak to the king.
Parolles tries to project an image of himself as a brave, masculine soldier. This is a lie, though, as his true character is that of a coward. Bertram will only discover Parolles’ real character later, and currently trusts Parolles as a noble friend.
Lafew asks the king if he will try any remedies for his illness, and the king refuses. Lafew tells him that a “Doctor She” has arrived at the court with medicines that could “breathe life into a stone.” He asks the king to see the young female doctor, and he agrees, if only to marvel at the boldness of the young girl. Helen enters and Lafew leaves the king and her alone.
The king is stubborn in his belief that there is no cure for his illness. He and Lafew see Helen as merely an object of curiosity and amazement, and don’t take her seriously as a doctor, underestimating her because of their sexist assumptions about women.
Helen tells the king who her father was, and the king says that he knew of her father, the famous doctor. Helen says that her father left her some powerful medicines and she thinks that one of them may help heal the king. The king thanks for her good intentions, but tells Helen that he is doubtful she can heal him, when all the “most learned doctors” of the court have failed.
The king continues to underestimate Helen based mostly on her gender. He still thinks that his illness is beyond cure, in the same way that all the play’s various problems (like Helen’s love for Bertram) are at this point not only unresolved but seem irresolvable.
Helen says she will not force the medicine on the king, and the king again thanks her for her thoughts of helping him, but tells her that he knows he is too ill, and she knows “no art” of medicine to help him. Helen says that it won’t hurt the king to try her medicine, and tells him that God often works miracles through “the weakest minister.” The king still refuses her treatment, and Helen assures him of her skill with her father’s medicine. She tells him to “make an experiment” and see if God will heal him through her.
The king arrogantly claims to know that Helen has no medical knowledge, based on the fact that she is a woman. Helen tries to persuade the king by appealing to the idea of a divine miracle, the ultimate remedy that could solve any problem.
The king asks Helen how quickly she thinks she can heal him, and she answers that he will be healed within two days. He is surprised at her confidence, and asks what she is willing to wage on her promise to cure him. Helen tells him, if her medicines fail, “let my life be ended.” The king is impressed with Helen and agrees to try her medicine. She asks what she will get as a reward if she cures him, and he asks what she wants. She suggests that if she is successful, she should have her choice of any man of the king’s court to marry. The king agrees, and they both leave to begin treating his illness.
The king is surprised at Helen’s confidence and boldness, which defy the typically submissive, demure role that Renaissance society assigned to women. Helen cleverly uses this opportunity to give her a chance at marrying Bertram. In reality, marriage can be just as much a matter of strategy and scheming as of love.