One of Shakespeare
's more ambiguous plays. Sometimes considered a comedy
, but usually a romance
, grouped with Pericles
and The Tempest
Plot: The King of France is dying from a burrowing fistula, an ignominious death for a great man. The only person who can help him is Helena, daughter of a deceased physician of great skill. She is secretly in love with Bertram, her sort-of adoptive brother.
When Helena cures the King of his illness, he tells her to choose any man in his court to marry. She wishes to marry Bertram, who rejects her but is forced by the King to marry her.
Bertram immediately leaves the country to fight with the army in Florence, in the company of his friend Parolles. He leaves Helena a letter telling her that if she can get the ring from his finger and show him she carries his child, he'll consider her his wife. Helena follows him to Florence in secret and concocts a complex scheme to get him to sleep with her thinking she is Diana, a woman he has been attempting to seduce.
Parolles, a craven coward, is tricked by his fellow soldiers into believing he has been captured and, during a mock interrogation, shows his true colors, as well as spouting some of the most colorful insults in Shakespeare without realizing he is talking about people who are right there with him.
Bertram receives a ring from Helena which she was given by the King and believes it to be Diana who gives it to him. He also receives (false) word that Helena is dead and returns to France.
The King spots the ring on Bertram's finger which he had originally given to Helena and thinks that Bertram has murdered her. Various embrarassments and threats of death harry Bertram, including the appearance of Diana claiming that he promised to marry her when "his wife was dead," until he is saved by the reappearance of Helena, who has his ring and is pregnant with his child, thus fulfilling his stated requirements to be his wife in more than simple legal terms.
Bertram then pledges his love to her, and Diana is declared a pristine maid and promised a husband by the King.
The play ends on this rather strange note. It's a happy ending, but there are a lot of questions about the true feelings of the characters. The King even states that "all yet seems well," underscoring the questions the audience will inevitably have about Bertram's sincerity and the rightness of the conclusion.
There are also the quesions about forced marriage. It's led to a lot of problems in this play, yet it ends with the King essentially promising to force someone to marry Diana.