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SCENE SUMMARY WITH NOTES
ACT II, SCENE 2
This brief scene moves back to Rousillon. The Countess jests with the clown, then commands him to deliver a letter to Helena and bring back her reply.
This short scene provides a lull in the action and a humorous entertainment before the events unravel that lead to the central climactic moment of the play. It is frequent in Shakespeare's drama for the lowly characters to make the most perceptive comments. In this scene, the clown's silliness is almost entirely directed at the affectations of the court. He mocks the way in which members of the court speak and act. His clowning is a stab at the high-class world, which is so elevated and all-important to many in the world of the play, especially Bertram.
ACT II, SCENE 3
The setting once again returns to Paris. Bertram, Lafeu, and Parolles enter in amazement that Helena has cured the King. The King enters along with Helena and his attendants, one of whom he instructs to assemble all his noblemen. Gently addressing Helena as his "preserver," he renews his commitment to fulfill his part of the bargain. As several lords enter, the King tells Helena to freely choose a husband from among them, telling her no one may turn her down.
Helena claims Bertram, who protests that he should be allowed to choose his own wife and that he considers a match with Helena degrading to his noble birth. The King sternly admonishes Bertram for his arrogant defiance. He says that he can elevate Helena's title. In a long speech, the King states that it is astounding that social differences are so important to Bertram when human blood is quite indistinguishable from one class to another and is the same color. The King argues that Bertram should not compare social status but actions. Helena's lowly status is dignified by her virtuous deeds. The King exhorts Bertram to accept Helena, but Bertram is adamant. He insists he cannot love her, nor will he even try. The King admonishes Bertram for his reply and warns Bertram that if he refuses to accept Helena, he will be disowned by the King. Fearful of such a public dishonor, Bertram finally agrees to marry Helena.
Out of earshot of Bertram, Lafeu reminds Parolles that he now has a new mistress. Parolles denies Bertram's authority; he tells Lafeu that Bertram is his lord, but his master is God. Lafeu ridicules Parolles by saying that his master is the devil. He rebukes Parolles for his airs and declares that if he were but two hours younger, he would beat Parolles. He denounces Parolles as a "general offense," who is a liar and a coward. Parolles protests that Lafeu's censure is hard and undeserved. Before leaving, Lafeu impatiently states that he has no more words to waste on Parolles.
In the meantime, Bertram laments his misfortune. He tells Parolles that although he has married Helena, he will never consummate their union. Instead he will go away to Florence. Parolles encourages him, saying it is unmanly to stay behind in the arms of his wife when he should be proving his valor on the battlefield. In essence, Parolles feeds the impressionable Bertram with nonsense.
Bertram decides that he will send Helena to his house with a letter to his mother stating how he detests his forced bride. In addition, he will sneak off to Florence without even telling the King. Parolles approves of Bertram's decision and encourages him to execute it, subtly insinuating that the King has wronged Bertram by forcing him to marry Helena.
The scene opens with the idea of divine agency--that is, individuals empowered by God to do great things. Lafeu sees young Helena as aided by the grace of heaven which has enabled her to cure the King. He is convinced of the possibility of divine intervention in the state of human affairs. Helena's curing of the King is seen by all as a miracle and a wonder. Helena herself reinforces the divine theme of the play when she acknowledges that "heaven hath through me restored the King to health". She sees herself as the agent of great things. She, with the help of God, has gotten what she wanted. Once again, she asserts her control of her own fate.
One note of historical significance involves the authority of the King to arrange marriages. From the modern standpoint, the King's imperial dominance over his subjects might seem more like tyranny, but one must remember that this play is written in the context of the Renaissance age when the King enjoyed absolute power over his subjects. It was very common for a King to arrange marriages without possibility of dispute. Understandably, the people are horrified at Bertram's insolent and immature response to the King's command.
As far as character development is concerned, this scene reiterates Helena's complete and utter submission to Bertram, whom she loves unquestioningly. When Helena selects Bertram as her husband, she reveals her own sense of modesty and unworthiness with her choice of words. She does not say that she takes Bertram as her reward; rather, she surrenders herself to him, saying, " I give/ Me and my service, ever whilst I live,/ Into your guiding power." Bertram's rejection of Helena because she is "a poor physician's daughter" is in extreme bad taste and reinforces the picture already painted of his weak character. When Bertram complains about marrying Helena, the King asks him, "Know'st thou not, Bertram,/What she has done for me ?". Bertram's reply is rude and insolent, "Yes, my good lord, /But never hope to know why I should marry her." Bertram quite explicitly states that to marry Helena would be to endure dishonor because of her inferior social status. This is a clear expression of one of the dominant thematic concerns of the play: the contrast between inherited rank and intrinsic virtue. Clearly Bertram holds that personal virtues are worthless and social status is all important.
It is also important to notice that this scene also contains the unmasking of Parolles by Lafeu. Lafeu sees through Parolles' disguise and recognizes him as a tempter and an inconstant friend to Bertram. This is significant, since Bertram is unable to see the true nature of Parolles. He will continue to confide in him and follow his advice. Bertram's lack of perception and his faulty judgment are all the more evident when Parolles encourages him to steal away to Florence. Rather than see through Parolles, Bertram allows himself to be led astray by the poor advice of an unfaithful "friend".