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SCENE SUMMARY WITH NOTES
ACT I, SCENE 1
The play begins in the Countess' palace at Rousillon, where all the characters are in mourning. Bertram, his mother (the Countess), and Lafeu (her confidante), all mourn for the recently deceased Count of Rousillon, and young Helena mourns for her recently deceased father. Bertram announces that he must leave for Paris and present himself to the King for service. His mother expresses sorrow over his eminent departure, especially in her period of mourning, but is encouraged by Lafeu, who reminds her of the King's good will toward them all.
Lafeu's words comfort the Countess, who then inquires about the King's ailing health. She is told that the King has abandoned all hope of getting well. The Countess remarks that Helena's late father, the famous Gerard de Narbon, was a greatly skilled and honest physician who would surely have been able to cure the King. She speaks with maternal affection about young Helena, who is genuinely touched by the tenderness and begins to weep.
In the meantime, Bertram asks his mother for permission to leave for France. The Countess lets him go, expressing her hope that he will someday be as great a man as his father. She gives him a lot of advice and asks Lafeu to watch over Bertram since he is young and inexperienced. Her son and the lord depart, and the Countess retires.
When Helena is alone, she speaks to herself about her present feelings. She sighs that she no longer thinks about her father and admits that she has quite forgotten him and that her imagination is transfixed by Bertram. Her tears are, in fact, due to Bertram's departure, for she cannot imagine life without him. She is in love with him, deeply in love, but thinks they are too far apart in social status for her love to ever be recognized.
Helena notices Parolles, Bertram's friend, approaching. Though she feels a fondness for Parolles because Bertram has chosen him as friend, she believes he is a "notorious liar," a "fool," and "a coward". She believes evil is an inborn part of his character. Still, she greets him. Parolles mockingly prompts a discussion with Helena on virginity, trying to shock her; but Helena, not shrinking from the conversation, tells Parolles that a woman need not always protect her virginity. She might lose it to her own liking. A page interrupts, carrying a message that Bertram is waiting for Parolles.
As Parolles takes his leave of Helena, she reminds him that she has had the last word in their verbal exchange. Unable to compete with her in a battle of wits, Parolles retreats, promising that he would have outdone her had he more time.
Alone again, Helena reflects that the current situation is bleak, but that remedies lie within human beings themselves and not in the stars under which they were born. She believes that she is the architect of her own fate, that she can win Bertram by her own efforts.
This expository scene serves to introduce many of the main characters and thematic concerns of the play. The opening of the play reveals the mourning at Rousillon, the eminent departure of Bertram, the Countess' affection for Helena, and the significance of her late father the doctor. The revelation of Helena's feelings for Bertram is also introduced and provides a springboard for the entire action of the play. The idea that virtue is something one possesses independent of social rank is a theme that will often resound. It is this battle, between personal virtue and inherited rank, that will define the relationship between the protagonist and the antagonist of the play.
In terms of mood, the scene opens with the Countess expressing sadness at the loss of her husband and Bertram's imminent departure. The mood of mourning is furthered when the Countess mentions that Helena, too, has lost a loved one and has been left all alone. These feelings of sadness are directly contrasted with Bertram's own impatient and eager plans to go away to Paris and further his own desires. Oblivious to the sadness of the two women, he can only think of how quickly he can depart. Of course, he expresses his deep feelings for his dead father, but quickly insists that he must leave for Paris at once since he is bound by his duty to the King. His espousal of loyalty sounds false when viewed in the context of the entire play, since Bertram's actions show no deference to the King's authority and mostly preference for his own personal advancement.
A very important plot construct is also introduced in the opening scene; the King is very ill and has given up hope of ever being better. The King's doctors have been unable to cure him with all their treatments and medicines. Then the Countess reveals that Helena might be the only hope of curing the King, if only she possesses some of her father's skill.
The thematic relationship of parent to child is not limited to Helena and her late father; it also includes Bertram's legacy, or lack thereof, from his father. When the Countess bids farewell to Bertram, she expresses hope that he will be like his father and says "succeed thy father/In manners as in shape!" The Countess' anxious hopes and constant advice reveal that she is not certain of Bertram's character and only hopes he will prove himself worthy of his rank. When she asks Lafeu to guide Bertram, she seems acutely aware that Bertram is stepping out into the real world for the first time and may not be able to handle it or himself.
When Bertram departs for Paris, Helena is terribly grieved, but not by the loss of her father. Her love for Bertram is absolute and all consuming. Her own revelation of the depths of her feelings, even while she ought to be grieving for her father, alerts the audience that she is consumed by this love. She cannot bear the thought of living away from him. At the same time she confesses her ideal love of Bertram, she also expresses her awareness of the impossibility of their union since he belongs to a higher class. She herself says, "`twere all one / That I should love a bright particular star / And think to wed it, he is so above me". Helena, however, is not simply thwarted by social differences. Bertram seems to be unaware and indifferent to her feelings. His parting comment to her is coldly distant, as he says, "Be comfortable to my mother, your mistress, and make much of her". He has no thoughts for the young girl, other than perfunctory social niceties. As a result, Helena's love for Bertram has two obstacles: class and his total indifference to her.
In the loud and bawdy conversation with Parolles regarding the subject of virginity, which seems an abrupt change in tone to the early part of the scene, Helena shows excellent argumentative powers, proving herself to be more than a naive, lovesick girl. Even before the discussion, when Helena recognizes Parolles as a liar, she shows perceptive insight that Bertram seems to lack. Helena swiftly defeats Parolles in their verbal battle and proves herself to be a competent conversationalist, both quick and witty.
After Parolles is called away by Bertram, Helena is once again left to her thoughts and decides her love must not be wasted. If she is to save it, she must act. She states that "our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, / Which we ascribe to heaven." This philosophy of self-reliance underlines all of Helena's actions to come. She observes that the unlikeliest things can be achieved if a person only works toward them. Helena resolves to go to Paris and cure the King of his ailment. She feels that she can win Bertram if she tries hard enough and sees this act as her best chance of determining her fate.