Summary and Analysis
The Countess begs the king to forgive her son, which he does at once, and he also confirms a match between Lafeu's daughter (Maudlin) and Bertram. Bertram is quick to accept the king's suggestion of a bride this time:
King: You remember the daughter of this lord?
Bertram: Admiringly, my liege. At first
I stuck my choice upon her, ere my heart
Durst make too bold a herald of my tongue. (43-46)
He gives Lafeu a ring as token of his pledge, and the old gentleman recognizes it immediately:
Helen, that's dead, was a sweet creature;
Such a ring as this,
The last that e'er I took her leave at court,
I saw upon her finger. (74-77)
To make matters worse for Bertram, the king now recognizes the ring as the one which he gave to Helena as a "token" by which she could summon help if she ever needed it. Furthermore, the king says,
She [Helena] called the saints to surety
That she would never put it from her finger,
Unless she gave it to yourself in bed. (108-10)
Bertram is taken away. Helena's messenger then enters with a letter claiming to be from Diana, which sues for her right to be Bertram's wife: "Otherwise a seducer flourishes and a poor maid is undone."
Diana confronts Bertram, then Parolles is brought in to testify as to the details of Bertram's behavior. The king nearly reaches the point of exasperation with Diana's cryptic half-explanations of what actually went on: "She does abuse our ears. To prison with her!" Then Helena reveals herself, at which sight the king says:
Is there no exorcist
Beguiles the truer office of mine eyes?
Is't real that I see? (305-07)
The play quickly resolves itself, with Helena and Bertram together and Diana promised a dowry. "All yet seems well, and if it end so meet," says the king, "The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet."
So much transpires so quickly in this scene that it threatens to "run away with the play," turning it into a romp and a farce. Consider the hero, who has apparently returned home as a respected (penitent) nobleman, fresh from the Florentine wars. The king forgives him, as does his mother, for his disobedience and his disgraceful behavior toward Helena, whom they describe in hushed tones fitting for a saint. Ready to accept the king's second offer of a bride (Lafeu's daughter) and thus secure his position in Rousillon, the world suddenly turns upside down for him. The king recognizes his ring, and all accuse Bertram of foul play in Helena's demise: "I am wrapped in dismal thinkings," comments the king. Furthermore, Diana appears, demanding her rights as Bertram's "lawful bride." Before Helena appears to clarify the situation, Bertram undergoes a painful series of embarrassments, all the more troubling to him because he had opened the scene in full command of his new life. Now, he is forced into a situation in which his lies are openly revealed, even before the weasel Parolles — his "equivocal companion."
In the language of riddles, Diana prepares the way for the sudden re-reversal:
He knows himself my bed he hath defiled,
And at that time, he got his wife with child.
Dead though she be, she feels her young one kick.
So, there's my riddle: one that's dead is quick
[both alive and pregnant]. (301-04)
When Helena walks onstage, resurrected from the "dead" and pregnant with a new "life," the king (and presumably everyone else present except Diana) stands aghast. Thus it is that he calls for an exorcist. The comedy has run its course from opening gloom to "miraculous" joy. Between here and the end of the play, barely thirty-five lines transpire, hardly time for reflection. There is also something tentative (and comical) in this love-pledge by Count Bertram of Rousillon:
If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly
[that is, all that has transpired],
I'll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly. (316-17)
Ironically, one wonders, finally, just how "well" all this has really ended.