Enter Parolles One that goes with him. I love him for his sake, And yet I know him a notorious liar, Think him a great way fool, solely a coward. Yet these fixed evils sit so fit in him That they take place when virtue's steely bones Look bleak i' th' cold wind. Withal, full oft we see Cold wisdom waiting on superfluous folly. (1.1.9103-110)
Helen knows that Paroles is a "notorious liar" and a "coward," but she pretends to love him; she knows that Paroles is a good friend of Bertram, who seems to be the only one in the play who doesn't see Paroles for who he really is.
BERTRAM You must not marvel, Helen, at my course, Which holds not color with the time, nor does The ministration and requirèd office On my particular. Prepared I was not For such a business; therefore am I found So much unsettled. This drives me to entreat you That presently you take our way for home, And rather muse than ask why I entreat you; For my respects are better than they seem, And my appointments have in them a need Greater than shows itself at the first view To you that know them not. Giving her a paper. This to my mother:'Twill be two days ere I shall see you, soI leave you to your wisdom. (2.5.62-76)
Why can't Helen see that Bertram is a jerk? Here, he tricks her into returning home to Roussillon without him, promising to follow in a couple days. Helen is caught completely off guard when she later learns that Bertram has run off to Italy. Clearly, Helen can't see Bertram for who he really is. Does this suggest some deep flaw in <em>her </em>character?
FIRST LORD I, with a troop of Florentines, will suddenly surprise him. Such I will have, whom I am sure he knows not from the enemy. We will bind and hoodwink him so, that he shall suppose no other but that he is carried into the leaguer of the adversarey's when we bring him to our own tents. Be but your Lordship present at his examination. If he do not for the promise of his life, and in the highest compulsion of base fear, offer to betray you and deliver all the intelligence in his power against you, and that with the divine forfeit of his soul upon oath, never trust my judgment in anything. (3.6.22-32)
The elaborate prank that's played on Paroles parallels the bed trick that Helen and Diana play on Bertram. Both tricks occur on the same night and both involve victims that are essentially blind. Paroles is literally blindfolded at one point and Bertram can't see because it's dark.
SECOND LORD We'll make you some sport with the fox ere we case him. He was first smoked by the old Lord Lafew. When his disguise and he is parted, tell me what a sprat you shall find him, which you shall see this very night. (3.6.91-94)
The first lord Dumaine uses the language of fox hunting to describe the prank he and the other men are about to play on Paroles: he suggests that Paroles is like a fox who's been "smoked" out of his hole. This casts Paroles in the role of victim or prey; the French lords see this trick as an elaborate game or some kind of sport.
HELEN You see it lawful, then. It is no more, But that your daughter, ere she seems as won, Desires this ring, appoints him an encounter, In fine, delivers me to fill the time, Herself most chastely absent. (3.7.34-38)
In many Shakespearean comedies (like <em>Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice, </em>and <em>As You Like It</em>), female characters wear elaborate disguises and/or cross-dress as young men. In <em>All's Well,</em> things are slightly different. Helen's big disguise occurs during the bed trick, when she pretends to be another woman in order to consummate her marriage with her own husband. Way to switch it up, Shakespeare.
BERTRAM No more o' that. I prithee, do not strive against my vows. I was compelled to her, but I love thee By love's own sweet constraint, and will forever Do thee all rights of service. (4.2.17-21)
When Diana points out that Bertram is a married man, he insists that he loves her and promises to be faithful forever. Of course, by the end of the play, Bertram completely denies his relationship with Diana and accuses her of being a common prostitute. If Bertram is willing to lie, cheat, beg, borrow, and steal to get what he wants, is he any different than Paroles?
DIANA Therefore your oaths Are words, and poor conditions, but unsealed, At least in my opinion. (4.2.36-38)
When Bertram tries to seduce Diana with empty promises, she sees right through him. (Once Bertram thinks he's slept with Diana, he drops her and even lies about it later.) Still, does this mean Bertram deserves to be played by Helen and Diana when the women pull off a bed trick? You decide.
DIANA When midnight comes, knock at my chamber window: I'll order take my mother shall not hear. Now will I charge you in the band of truth, When you have conquered my yet maiden bed, Remain there but an hour, nor speak to me. My reasons are most strong, and you shall know them When back again this ring shall be delivered. And on your finger in the night I'll put Another ring, that what in time proceeds May token to the future our past deeds. Adieu till then; then, fail not.You have won A wife of me, though there my hope be done. (4.2.65-77)
With Diana's help, Helen is able to pull off a bed trick, where one sexual partner is secretly substituted for another. This plot device was pretty common back in Shakespeare's day. Do we see anything like this in modern literature?
BERTRAM Come, bring forth this counterfeit module; he has deceived me like a double-meaning prophesier. (4.3.101-103)
Finally, Bertram sees Paroles for what he really is: a fraud, a liar, and a back-stabbing coward.
HELEN But O, strange men, That can such sweet use make of what they hate When saucy trusting of the cozen'd thoughts Defiles the pitchy night! So lust doth play With what it loathes for that which is away. (4.4.23-27)
When Helen thinks about her steamy hookup with Bertram, she wonders how it's possible that Bertram could have made such sweet love to a person that he hates (Helen). In the end, Helen chalks it up to plain old lust. This seems about right to us; Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom agrees. He says that the bed trick is Shakespeare's way of making fun of men who don't really discriminate between sexual partners (source).