Speaking to the countess, the king laments the death of Helen and says that Bertram didn’t realize how good of a wife she was. The countess asks the king to forgive her son for his youthful rashness, and the king says, “I have forgiven and forgotten all.” Lafew says that Bertram offended the king, the countess, and Helen with his behavior, and lost “a wife / Whose beauty did astonish the survey / Of richest eyes.” The king calls for Bertram to come forward but not to ask pardon, as the king has forgiven him entirely.
The king laments Bertram’s misjudgment of Helen’s character, but is quick to forgive him. Again, it is as if the characters are forcing the play’s movement toward a happy ending prematurely.
The king tells Lafew that Bertram will marry Lafew’s daughter. Bertram enters and apologizes to the king. The king tells Bertram not to waste any time apologizing, as he is old, and asks if Bertram knows of Lafew’s daughter. Bertram says that he used to wish to marry her, before he was married to Helen. He says that he loved Helen, and the king says that it reflects well on Bertram that he at least loved his wife.
The marriage between Lafew’s daughter and Bertram has been arranged without his knowledge, more a matter of positioning and uniting noble families than of two people in love. It seems likely that Bertram is lying when he says that he loved Helen as part of an effort to gain the king’s favor and goodwill.
The king says that there is no use in talking about Helen’s virtues now that she is dead, and asks Bertram to “now forget her,” and marry Lafew’s daughter. Lafew asks Bertram to give him a token or gift to pass along to his daughter, and Bertram gives him the ring that he thought Diana had given him in Florence (really it was Helen who gave it to him the night they slept together). Lafew and the king both recognize the ring as Helen’s, and ask how Bertram got it.
The king—who early in the play was extremely pessimistic and dwelled on his sad, inevitable death—is now a force of optimism in the play, trying to persuade everyone to forget about Helen’s death and move towards a happy resolution. The ring Bertram gives Lafew, though, ensures that matters are not yet resolved.
Bertram says that a woman in Florence threw it out a window to him, as she was courting him and didn’t realize he was already married. He says that he rejected the woman’s advances and told her he was married, but she wouldn’t take the ring back. The king is sure the ring is Helen’s and demands that Bertram “confess ‘twas hers and by what rough enforcement / You got it from her.” Bertram denies that the ring was Helen’s, and the king calls him a liar. He has guards take Bertram away.
Bertram continues his habit of deception and plainly lies to the king. The king, who has just forgiven Bertram, must again change his opinion of the young count’s character.
The king says that he is “wrapped in dismal thinkings,” and suspects that Bertram may have had something to do with Helen’s death. Just then, the gentleman whom Helen encountered at Marseilles enters and delivers her letter to the king. The letter is written by Diana and claims that Bertram seduced her and promised to marry her, before fleeing from Florence. She demands that the king make Bertram follow through on his promise. Lafew says that he won’t let his daughter marry Bertram now. The king sends for Diana to be brought into the court.
Bertram is brought back in, and the king asks him why he wanted to marry Lafew’s daughter, when apparently “wives are monsters” to him and he flees them as soon as he commits to them. Diana and the widow enter, and they both plead their case to the king. Diana calls herself Bertram’s wife, but Bertram denies this. Lafew tells Bertram he will not get to marry his daughter anymore. Bertram says that Diana is a “fond and desp’rate creature,” who is not telling the truth.
As the king’s comment hints, Bertram seems to abhor marriage while desiring sex—not exactly the traditional, ideal relationship between sex and marriage upheld in society. The king must decide who is telling the truth, though both Bertram and Diana are lying to some degree. Again, practically no one in the play is always completely honest.
Diana asks the king to ask Bertram if he took her virginity. Bertram calls Diana “a common gamester to the camp,” (i.e. someone who slept with many soldiers), and Diana says that he is lying. She produces his ancestral ring as proof of their union. The countess recognizes the ring and, seeing it as definitive proof, exclaims, “this is his wife.”
Showing the limited roles available to women in this society, Diana can be either a chaste maiden or a shameful “common gamester.” The ring seems like definitive proof of Diana’s honesty, though it is really just more trickery, as Bertram gave it to Helen, not Diana.
Diana says that Parolles can testify to her case, and the king orders for Parolles to be brought to court. Bertram says that Parolles cannot be trusted to give truthful testimony, as he is “a most perfidious slave . . . whose nature sickens but to speak a truth.” The king asks Bertram to explain how Diana has his ring, and Bertram says he used it to seduce her, but did not marry her.
Now that Bertram knows Parolles’ real character, he claims that he can’t be trusted as a witness. But, then again, neither he nor Diana are telling the full truth to the king, either. The king must try to discern the truth from among a group of tricksters and liars.
Diana says that Bertram lacks virtue, and says she will give him his ring back in exchange for hers (the ring that is actually Helen’s). The king asks if Bertram’s story about Helen’s ring being thrown to him out a window is false, and Bertram confesses that this was a lie. Parolles enters and the king asks him about Diana and Bertram.
Diana tries to attack Bertram’s credibility by denigrating his character. The king tries to sort through Bertram’s lies to find the truth, but Diana is also not being entirely truthful.
Parolles says that Bertram had “tricks . . . which gentlemen have,” and “did love her . . . as a gentleman loves a woman.” The king asks Parolles to speak clearly about what Bertram did or didn’t do, and Parolles says that Bertram was madly infatuated with Diana, slept with her, and may have promised her marriage. The king asks Diana how she got Helen’s ring, and Diana says she never bought it, nor was given it, nor borrowed it from anyone. The king tells her the ring was given by him to Helen and demands that she say how she got the ring, threatening to kill her unless she tell the truth.
Parolles’ comments suggest that romantic affairs like that between Bertram and Diana are actually common for gentlemen, in contrast to societal ideals. While he is generally untrustworthy, Parolles actually speaks the truth here, or at least what he thinks is the truth. The king is frustrated with what seem like lies from Diana, even though she is speaking the truth about the ring.
Diana says that Bertram is “guilty and he is not guilty.” She says that he will claim she is not a virgin, but she is. The king is frustrated with her confusing talk and is about to have her dragged to jail, when she says that she will leave Bertram, who she says “hath abused me” but “never harmed me.” She says that Bertram “got his wife with child,” and says that “one that’s dead is quick,” as Helen enters.
The web of lies and deceit that has been growing throughout the play comes to a head, and the king doesn’t know what to believe. Finally, Helen enters to reveal the truth about what has happened and to usher in the play’s final resolution.
Bertram and the king are shocked to see Helen alive. Helen shows Bertram the letter he wrote her long ago in which he said that he would only be her husband if she got his ring and was pregnant with his child. She says that both of these conditions have been fulfilled and asks what he will do. Bertram says, “If she . . . can make me know this clearly, / I’ll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly.”
Lafew starts to cry at seeing that Helen is not dead. The king asks Helen to explain what has happened, and then turns to Diana. He tells her that she can choose any husband she wants, and he will pay for her dowry, so long as she is “yet a fresh uncropped flower.” He concludes the play by saying, “All yet seems well, and if it end so meet, / The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet.”
Now that Helen and Bertram’s marriage has been fixed (though again, has it really?), the king makes the play’s happy ending complete by rewarding Diana. Her reward is only given to her, though, because she is still a virgin, emphasizing the traditional importance of virginity until marriage.