At Rossillion, the fool delivers a letter from Bertram to the countess. He says that Bertram appeared melancholy, and the countess opens the letter to see what is going on with him. The fool says that while he earlier wanted to marry a woman in the country, he has changed his mind because the women of the court were much more beautiful. The fool leaves, and the countess reads the letter, in which Bertram tells her that he has resolved never to sleep with Helen, and has run away from Rossillion for good. The countess says that his behavior is “not well” and that Bertram is a “rash and unbridled boy.”
The fool continues to deflate lofty ideals of marriage, as he suggests that all he cares about in marriage is finding the most physically attractive woman he can. The countess does not share Bertram’s dislike of Helen’s low social class, and ends up being upset with her own son. His behavior causes her to reevaluate his character and conclude that he is a “rash and unbridled boy.”
The fool returns and tells the countess that Bertram has run away. He says that Helen can tell her more, and leaves as Helen enters with a nobleman. The countess asks her what has happened, and the nobleman informs her that Bertram has gone to Florence. Helen shows the countess a letter from Bertram, in which he says that he will never consider himself her husband until she has gotten a ring of his off his finger and is bearing his child. He says that this will never happen.
Bertram’s two conditions for Helen highlight two important aspects of marriage that, for him, would seal his union with her: first, the sharing of his ancestral wealth and social status, represented by the ring. And second, the consummation of sex, which Helen can prove by becoming pregnant.
The countess says that she is saddened by all this, and says she no longer considers Bertram to be her son. Helen reads more of Bertram’s letter, in which he says, “Till I have no wife I have nothing in France.” The countess asks who has gone to Italy with Bertram and upon learning that Parolles is with him, says that Parolles is “a very tainted fellow, and full of wickedness.” Everyone but Helen leaves.
The countess knows what Parolles is really like, and worries that his bad character can negatively affect that of Bertram. Again, she is not bothered by Helen’s low social status, and takes her side in the dispute with Bertram.
Alone, Helen decides that she will leave France. She worries that it is her fault that Bertram has been driven to go to war, where he is in danger. She thinks that if she leaves, he will be able to come home, where he will be safe. She plans to leave Rossillion as soon as she can.
Here, for a moment, Helen behaves like a traditional, submissive woman, as she prioritizes Bertram’s happiness over her own and blames herself for his going to Italy.