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Bertram is young, awkward, and inexperienced. He is impressionable and primarily influenced, unfortunately, by Parolles. He desperately wants to find honor for himself, but he has no idea what true honor is. At Parolles' urging, he goes off to be a soldier in Florence, even though he is too young by the King's decree. He deserts his wife Helena, who has been given to him by the King, because he believes she is not his social equal. Throughout the course of the play, Bertram displays a despicable nature as he lies, deceives, and attempts to seduce a young virgin. Even his mother, the Countess, is disgusted with his immature behavior.
Throughout the early scenes, both she and the King, however, express their hopes that Bertram will turn into a responsible and honorable adult. He does have the potential to become a good person, for he has the right background and upbringing, but he is not one yet Unfortunately, the character of Bertram is one of the most questionable aspects of the play. It is difficult to believe that Bertram has truly become a good person by the end of the play; in fact, it is difficult to believe that this immature and despicable young man is even on his way toward becoming a good person. Even in the very last scene of the play, he still lies and connives. The only redeeming thing about Bertram is the fact that Helena loves him passionately.
In the end, this is his only saving grace--the only thing that allows one to believe that all is well with Bertram. Helena is a true heroine in the play, and she has succeeded in overcoming Bertram, by beating him at his own games of deception. There is little, if any, evidence that Bertram has truly gotten his due.
Helena is the protagonist and true heroine of the play. She is a truly ambitious and dedicated character who, it could be argued, does not deserve what she gets when she finally wins Bertram. She begins her role as the "clever wench," a girl who is able to fulfill the impossible conditions imposed on her by an alienated husband. At the onset of the action, she appears as the typical fairy-tale heroine in love with a handsome courtier. She is so much in love with Bertram that she has even forgotten her father: "What was he like? / I have forgot him; my imagination / Carries no favor in't but Bertram's". The tears that she sheds are not for her late father, but for her true love, who is leaving for Paris. She knows the vanity of her love for Bertram and remarks that "he is so above me / In his bright radiance and collateral light / Must be comforted, not in his sphere".
At this stage, it is possible to say that Helena's love is selfless and she does not aspire to possess Bertram. She secretly adores Bertram and remarks "Religious in mine error, I adore / The sun, that looks upon his worshipper, / But knows of him no more." Her absolute love drives her to Paris, where she hopes to cure the King and elevate herself in the eyes of the world. It could be argued that Helena's curing of the King is part of an elaborate plan to gain Bertram. The lines "Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, / Which we ascribe to heaven" could be taken as an indication of her intentions. She lays her plan quite well and executes it perfectly. Unlike Bertram, Helena knows what she wants and needs advice from no one in order to gain it. She is self-fulfilling in every sense.
Helena presents herself to the King, a young female, and convinces him she can cure him of an illness that he is sure will soon kill him. If she fails, she confidently promises her own life; if she wins, she will be allowed to choose a husband from the court. Amazingly, her arguments and confidence are strong enough that the King accepts her offer. When she is successful in the cure, thanks to the medicines of her late father, she, of course, picks Bertram as her husband.
Bertram is horrified that he has to marry Helena, for he thinks she is way below him on the social scale. He is too young and immature to realize her true worth. As a result, he quickly deserts her and says he will never return to her until she is able to obtain his family ring, which he always wears, and carries his child. Both conditions seem like total impossibilities. The clever and doggedly determined Helena, however, is not discouraged. She dresses herself as a pilgrim and journeys to Florence, the city to where Bertram has fled to become a soldier. In Florence, Helena comes up with a fantastic scheme to meet Bertram's conditions. She convinces Diana to pretend to accept Bertram's advances and plan a tryst. Helena, however, takes Diana's place at the meeting and obtains the ring and becomes pregnant with his child.
Helena defeats incredible odds in her fight to win Bertram's fidelity and heart. In this way, she attracts the complete sympathy of the audience. She is a feminist heroine who upsets the patriarchal order by asserting her right to choose her own husband. She is the most liberated of Shakespeare's heroines. Her role combines hard nosed determination to achieve her desires with a poignant fear that she may fail in her endeavors and a vulnerable heart that is truly injured by Bertram's coldness toward her. But Helena never gives up. On the whole, Helena is an extraordinary character who finally manages to transcend the constraints imposed upon her by the men of society, especially Bertram. Her "victory", in the end, is sweet simply because she gets what she has wanted, regardless of what the audience thinks she, or Bertram, deserves.