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SCENE SUMMARY WITH NOTES
ACT V, SCENE 3
In this scene, the Countess asks the King to forgive Bertram and see his disobedient actions as the rash ignorance of youth. The King says he has forgiven him already, and only wishes Bertram had not been so foolish about recognizing what a treasure he had in his wife. A gentleman leaves to bring Bertram in, and the King and the Countess discuss with Lafeu the marriage of Lafeu's daughter to Bertram
At that moment, Bertram enters. The King informs Bertram he has forgiven him and does not want to speak about the past matter, since Helena is dead. He then tells Bertram he has found him a second wife in Lafeu's daughter, and Bertram obediently accepts this marriage offer. The King then instructs Bertram to send some token of his affection to Lafeu's daughter. Bertram presents the ring he recently acquired during his tryst with the supposed Diana (though it was actually Helena). Lafeu remarks that this ring looks like the one worn by Helena. The King immediately recognizes the ring as one he had given the "late" Helena, instructing her that if she ever needed his help, she should send this ring to him. Bertram denies that the ring came from Helena, but is afraid to tell the King from where the ring did come. The King begins to suspect that Bertram, who hated his young wife, had something to do with her untimely death. He orders Bertram to be arrested.
At this point, a gentleman enters and delivers a letter to the King. The King reads the petition from Diana Capilet. It states that Bertram had recently seduced her after convincing her that he would marry her after his wife's death. Now that he is a widower, he is bound by his oath to marry her. The petition also states that Bertram stole away from Florence without her, and she is compelled to find him since he took her virginity. After listening to the petition, Lafeu declares that he would rather buy a son-in-law from a circus than let his daughter marry the likes of Bertram. The King orders that Bertram be brought forth.
In the meantime, Diana arrives along with her mother. She accuses Bertram of seducing her and then reneging on his promise to marry. The widow also appeals to the King to see that justice is done on behalf of her daughter. Bertram denies knowing either woman and goes so far as to cast doubt on Diana's reputation. Diana argues that if she were a common whore, Bertram would have bought her at a common price and would never have given her his family ring, which she then displays.
The uproar reaches its peak when Diana produces a witness on her behalf. The witness is Helena. The court receives the dead woman in astonishment. The confident Helena explains the events that have transpired, announcing to Bertram that she has fulfilled both obligations he set out for her; she possesses his ring and is pregnant with his child. Helena says that she is but the shadow of a wife, merely "the name and not the thing". She asks Bertram whether he will be hers now that he has been "doubly won". Bertram replies that he is prepared to "love her dearly, ever, ever dearly". Everybody is touched by their reunion, and Lafeu remarks, "Mine eyes smell onions; I shall weep anon". He asks Parolles to lend him a handkerchief and bids him to wait on him at home. The King rewards Diana with a large dowry and closes the play with the oft uttered theme that all is truly well if it ends well. Shakespeare seems to say that the more bitter the past, the sweeter the rewards.
The final trial scene resolves the action with a rapid succession of events that is almost overwhelming and certainly leaves many lingering questions. The scene opens with the forgiveness of Bertram. His foolish actions are attributed to the ignorance and folly of youth. Bertram, however, finds himself trapped again in the scene. When he is confronted with the truth, he lies and connives to get out of trouble.
In contrast to him, the confident and noble Helena appears. She has taken matters in her own hands to make her wishes come true. She has successfully schemed and fought for what is rightfully hers; she has won her husband back on his terms. She has managed to possess his ring and carry his child. Helena does get her husband back, but as a true and noble heroine, does she deserve what she is getting? There is little doubt, even in this last scene that Bertram is a changed man. Yes, he takes her for a wife at last, but what choice does he have, and what does such a decision say about him since he has fought and connived all along to not be her husband.
Historically, this play has been called a problem play because there are so many unanswered questions. Why does Helena want Bertram for a husband when he is such a rogue? Doesn't she deserve better? Will Bertram become a changed man and value the treasure that he has in Helena? Can a few obediently spoken lines by him undo the character development of the entire play? Can Helena's marriage to Bertram possibly be as blissful as she seems to think? None of these questions seem to be answered within the play.
It seems Shakespeare gives the only answer that he can in the title words, "All's well that ends well". It seems not to matter what transpired throughout the play; the important thing is that Helena wins in the end and gets what she wants, causing the play to be a comedy, ending on a happy note.