Two French noblemen discuss a letter they have just delivered to Bertram from his mother. They say that Bertram “has much worthy blame laid upon him,” and has “incurred the everlasting displeasure of the King.” One of the noblemen tells the other that Bertram has just successfully wooed a local woman. They talk about the recent war, which has just concluded with “an overture of peace.”
Even the other French noblemen are forced to revise their understanding of Bertram, and think that he has shown bad character in dishonoring Helen. Meanwhile, the war has found a rather quick resolution, and has not seriously gotten in the way of Bertram’s romantic pursuits.
The noblemen discuss Helen, who they say has died during her pilgrimage. They say that Bertram will be “glad” at the death of his wife, and remark on how life often mixes good and bad fortune, as “a mingled yarn, good and ill together.” A servant enters and asks about Bertram. The noblemen tell him that Bertram is leaving to return to France the next morning.
Bertram’s problematic marriage to Helen also seems (to him and others) to have found a quick, easy resolution with Helen’s apparent death. Her death, however, will later be revealed to be merely another of the play’s deceptions.
Bertram enters and says that he has accomplished a remarkable number of things in one day: he has met with the duke, mourned his newly deceased wife, made preparations for leaving Florence, and wooed Diana. He asks about Parolles, and one of the noblemen informs him that Parolles has confessed information to those he believes to be the enemy. Parolles is brought in, blindfolded, with the soldier pretending to be an enemy interpreter.
At this point, Bertram is pleased to think that all the issues he has been juggling have been easily fixed and resolved. (Little does he know, his relationships with Helen and Diana are far from resolved.) Meanwhile, he is set to learn the truth about Parolles’ character.
The French soldiers and noblemen speak in gibberish around Parolles, and the “interpreter” tells him that he will be tortured unless he gives some information. Parolles divulges how many troops the Florentines have. As he is questioned further, he says exactly how many soldiers each Florentine commander has.
Parolles displays his real, cowardly character in betraying his allies, who, ironically, have betrayed him first by pretending to be enemy forces and kidnapping him.
The noblemen ask Parolles about one of them, Captain Dumaine. Parolles, not realizing that Dumaine is one of his kidnappers, says that he is a “lousy” commander. The soldiers search Parolles’ pockets and find a letter to Diana, in which Parolles tells her that Bertram is “a fool and full of gold.” Parolles says that he wanted to warn the girl, because Bertram is “a dangerous and lascivious boy, who is a whale to virginity and devours up all the fry it finds.” A soldier reads the rest of Parolles’ letter out loud, wherein Parolles calls Bertram a fool and continues to warn Diana against him.
The noblemen’s trick with the fake kidnapping both exposes Parolles as a fraud and inserts some comedy into the play based on dramatic irony, since the audience, unlike Parolles, knows the real identities of his kidnappers. In line with stereotypes about gender roles, Parolles’ letter paints virginity as something to be taken and “devoured” by aggressive, dominant men like Bertram.
The “interpreter” tells Parolles that he will die, and Parolles begs to be spared. The soldier asks him again about Dumaine, and Parolles says that Dumaine is a liar, a thief, and a thoroughly dishonest man who is unskilled in war. Bertram now sees what Parolles is really like, and shouts, “a pox on him!” The soldiers ask Parolles about Dumaine’s brother, and Parolles says that he is the same as Dumaine, maybe more evil. Parolles promises to betray the Florentine forces if his life is spared.
This scene is riddled with layers of deception and trickery: Parolles accuses Dumaine of being dishonest, when he is himself an untrustworthy trickster. But, ironically, he is being tricked and lied to by Dumaine and other noblemen. No one is wholly trustworthy, which makes evaluating someone’s character (like that of Parolles or Dumaine) difficult.
The “interpreter” tells Parolles that he must die, and Parolles begs for his life, or at least for his blindfold to be taken off. The soldiers remove his blindfold, and Bertram and the others say goodbye to him, then leave for France without him. Alone on-stage, Parolles says that realizes he is a “braggart,” and will now live as “simply the thing I am.” He plans to live in “fool’ry” and shame, and leaves to go follow Bertram and the other French noblemen.
At last, the deceptions are laid bare: Bertram discovers Parolles’ true identity, and Parolles discovers the true identities of his kidnappers. Parolles decides to embrace his identity as a braggart and a fool. In paradoxical, ironic terms he decides to be true to his identity as a liar.