Summary and Analysis
Act II: Scenes 4-5
Parolles interrupts Helena and the clown with a message from Bertram: Helena is to beg leave of the king, "strength'ned with what apology you think / May make it probable need," and then to report back to Bertram. She "wait[s] upon his will."
In Scene 5, Lafeu tries to disillusion Bertram with regard to his false friend Parolles, but to little avail. Bertram: "I do assure you, my lord, he is very great in knowledge and accordingly valiant." Lafeu then openly insults Parolles to expose him: "There can be no kernel in this light nut; the soul of this man is his clothes." After Helena dutifully takes the letter which Bertram had planned to write in Scene 3 and is ready to go as commanded back to Rousillon, Bertram brushes her off, refusing to give her even a polite kiss in parting.
Even the clown mocks Parolles in this part of the play — "much fool may you find in you" — and Shakespeare makes it abundantly clear that either Bertram lacks all good judgment or else he is willfully behaving against the better advice of those around him in continuing his association with Parolles. Lafeu's departing words to Parolles, and Bertram's comment, perhaps indicate a slight second thought on the young man's part:
Lafeu: Farewell, monsieur! I have spoken better of you
Than you have or will to deserve at my hand,
But we must do good against evil. [Exit]
Parolles: An idle [stupid] lord, I swear.
Bertram: I think so.
Parolles: Why, do you not know him?
Bertram: Yes, I do know him well, and common speech
Gives him a worthy pass [reputation]. (50-57)
Helena's arrival prevents this line of talk from going any further, however. Imagine the circumstances: Bertram, forced to take Helena's hand in marriage in full view of the assembled courtiers whose respect he craves, must now pretend at least a passing courtesy toward his "wife," even when in relative privacy. We know that he holds her in some contempt, and that the letter which he commands her to deliver viciously denounces her. She seems pathetic here, begging for Bertram's attention.
Bertram: What would you have?
Helena: Something, and scarce so much: nothing, indeed.
I would not tell you what I would, my lord.
Strangers and foes do sunder and not kiss.
Bertram: I pray you, stay not, but in haste to horse. (87-92)
Shakespeare doesn't say what Bertram does when Helena asks for a departing kiss, and one wonders what would be most effective: a halfhearted kiss, equivalent to a pat on the head, or a silence of two beats and an abruptly turned back?