If All's Well That Ends Well is Shakespeare's sick twist on the classic fairy tale, then Bertram is Shakespeare's twist on Prince Charming. Sure, he's the man of Helen's dreams (he's rich, handsome, has lots of friends, and he's obviously a great soldier). Still, most audiences and literary critics think he's also kind of a jerk.
Here's why. When the king of France announces Bertram's engagement to Helen, snobby Bertram objects to being married to the daughter of a "poor physician" because he thinks she'll only "bring [him] down" (2.3.126, 123). Then he tricks his new wife into going back to Roussillon so he can run away to Italy where he acts like a total player and tries to "corrupt the tender honor of a maid" (3.5.84). (Translation: Bertram tries to seduce a young virgin named Diana.) Oh, and did we mention that Bertram also lies about it later when he's confronted by the king of France? We can definitely see why Bertram doesn't win any popularity contests with audiences and literary critics.
Wait a minute, though. We may have left out just a few minor details about Bertram and his circumstances in this play. Let's not forget that this guy is forced to marry Helen when the king of France allows her to choose a husband as a reward for curing his illness (2.3). We can't blame Bertram for not wanting to be some kind of trophy husband, can we? Actually, we admire his honesty when he says he doesn't love Helen and doesn't think he should have to marry her just because she did the king a favor:
Know'st thou not,
What she has done for me?
Yes, my good lord,
But never hope to know why I should marry her. (2.3.117-121)
While we're defending Bertram, we should also point out that Helen has been raised by his parents. At one point, Bertram says, "I know her well; / She had her breeding at my father's charge" (2.3.124-125). Could it be that Bertram doesn't want to be married to Helen because she's like a sibling to him? Even though Bertram and Helen aren't biologically related, he seems to think that being hitched to his sort-of-sister is a little creepy.
Like we said, Bertram is not happy about being forced to marry Helen. His solution is to never sleep with her, which is actually a pretty interesting response:
O my Parolles, they have married me!
I'll to the Tuscan wars and never bed her. (2.3.287-288)
In the play, most of the other characters criticize Bertram for rejecting Helen. Still, as literary critic Jonathan Bate points out, "if a woman were forced to marry in this way, we would rather admire her for withholding sexual favors from her husband?" (Source.) Hmm. Bate has a pretty good point, don't you think?
If we think of Bertram as a regular teenager (or in his early twenties), then we could argue that he's just like a lot of other young guys: he wants to fit in with his friends, he's not ready to be tied down to just one girl, and he's looking for a little adventure away from home. In other words, he's in the process of growing up and he wants to live his own life, but the older generation is always telling him what to do. (The king is his legal guardian, which is why he can make Bertram marry Helen. Also, he's the king, so we guess he can do whatever he wants.)
Did we also mention that Bertram is always being compared to his dead father? Check out what Bertram's mom says when he leaves home for the first time:
Be thou blessed, Bertram, and succeed thy father
In manners, as in shape. Thy blood and virtue
Contend for empire in thee, and thy goodness
Share with thy birthright. (1.1.63-66)
Dang. There's a lot of pressure on Bertram to live up to his dead father's reputation. It seems like every time we turn around, someone is comparing Bertram to his old man. Even the King of France does it. It also seems like poor Bertram is always coming up short. Come to think of it, this is a lot like what goes on in Hamlet – the play about the kid who is literally haunted by his dad, and who makes all kinds of terrible mistakes.
So, it seems to us that Shakespeare is really interested in exploring what it's like for a young man to grow up in the shadow of a ghost. In fact, Shakespeare is always telling us that growing up is hard work. Just ask Romeo and Juliet.