Study Guide

All's Well That Ends Well Act 1, Scene 1

By William Shakespeare

Act 1, Scene 1

Read the full text of All's Well That Ends Well Act 1 Scene 1 with a side-by-side translation HERE.

  • Bertram's bags are all packed and he's ready to leave his childhood home in Roussillon to travel to the king of France's court in Paris.
  • It's a sad day for Bertram's mom, the countess of Roussillon, who is completely bummed out that her baby is leaving the nest.
  • She says she hasn't been this sad since the day Bertram's dad died.
  • Bertram is bummed, too, and tells his mom that leaving home reminds him of how much he misses his father.
  • But there's nothing he can do about it since the king of France is now his legal guardian.
  • (Get your highlighters out because this is important: since Bertram was a minor when his dad died, he became the king's ward, which basically means the king is in charge of all of the property and wealth Bertram inherited from his dad until Bertram becomes a legal adult. Also, as Bertram's guardian, the king can decide who Bertram should marry.)
  • An old guy named Lafeu (who's visiting from the royal court) chimes in, saying that maybe the king can be Bertram's substitute daddy.
  • The countess then randomly asks about the king's health.
  • It's not great, according to Lafeu. Apparently, he's been pretty sick. Plus, he just fired all his doctors and has pretty much given up hope of recovery.
  • The countess says it's too bad that Helen's dad (Gérard de Narbonne) is dead, because he was a brilliant doctor and he probably could have cured the king.
  • Lafeu says he's heard of him because the king talks about him all the time.
  • Finally, Bertram asks the question we're all wondering – what kind of illness does the king have?
  • Lafeu answers: a fistula.
  • Bertram has never heard of this disease.
  • Yeah, says Lafeu, that's probably a good thing.
  • Brain Snack: a fistula is a nasty, pus-filled boil. Some literary critics (like Nicholas Ray) think the king has a fistula on his, um, butt (and if you're as curious as we are, we talk about this more in our “Character Analysis” of the king.) By the way, Shakespeare had an ancestor, Doctor John Arderne, who invented a surgery to treat anal fistulas. We're not kidding. (Source)
  • The conversation turns from painful and unpleasant skin conditions to Helen, who's been standing in the corner bawling her eyes out.
  • The countess informs everyone that, since Helen's dad is dead, the countess is her legal guardian. It's the countess's job to make sure Helen gets a good upbringing and doesn't develop an unclean mind. (Translation: The countess hopes Helen doesn't lose her virginity and/or get a bad rep before she's married.)
  • The countess then politely tells Helen to quit her blubbering because it makes the skin on her face look puffy and all washed out. Plus, people are going to think she's a drama queen if she keeps it up.
  • Helen finally opens her mouth and says she's not a faker; she really is sad about her dad.
  • Lafeu advises Helen not to grieve too much. Her sadness needs to be kept under control.
  • (Dang. We thought Hamlet had it bad when his step-dad/uncle told him to stop being a crybaby about his father's death in Act 1, Scene 2 of Hamlet.)
  • Bertram interrupts and tells his mom that he really does need to hit the road. Can he please have her blessing so he can be on his way to the king's court already?
  • "Be thou blessed," says the Countess (1.1.54). Then she rattles off a bunch of advice about how Bertram should act when he's away from home:
  1. Don't forget to have good manners (like your dad).
  2. Always act like a nobleman (like your dad) and not a lowly commoner.
  3. Be nice to everyone (like your dad), but don't trust everyone you meet.
  4. Be super-loyal to your friends, (like your dad was to his pals). (Notice a trend?)
  5. And finally, nobody likes a loud mouth, especially at the royal court.
  • (Hmm. We think the countess forgot to say "To thine own self be true." Oh, wait, that's Polonius' advice to Laertes in Hamlet.)
  • Bertram says adios to everyone and asks Helen to take good care of his mom while he's away.
  • Everyone exits except Helen, who sniffles her way through a big soliloquy (a speech that reveals a character's innermost thoughts).
  • Helen confesses that she's not actually crying for her dead father, even though she is sad that he's dead. In fact, she hasn't really thought about him lately because she can't stop obsessing about Bertram, the dreamiest boy she's ever set her eyes on.
  • Unfortunately, Bertram is richer than she is, which means he's totally out of her league.
  • Brain Snack: Helen's not exactly a peasant, but she's not exactly the daughter of a rich count, either, which is why she's always telling us she's not good enough for Bertram. Also, it was sort of a big no-no to hook up with people outside your social class.
  • Helen gushes, comparing Bertram to a star and saying that she's not even in the same galaxy.
  • No, wait, she says. Bertram is more like a lion and she's just a hind (female deer), which could be a big problem since lions don't hook up with deer – they kill them and eat them. Shoot.
  • Oh well, she thinks. She might as well die for love.
  • Helen tells us how agonizing it's been for her to live under the same roof as Bertram. Now that he's gone, she'll have to worship him from afar. (Cue the dramatic sighs.)
  • Helen's big, gushing speech is interrupted when a guy named Paroles enters.
  • Helen mutters under her breath that Paroles is the biggest liar/coward she's ever met, but she has to be nice to him because he's Bertram's BFF.
  • (By the way, when a character mutters something under his/her breath that only the audience can hear, we call it an "aside.")
  • After Paroles greets Helen, he asks, "Are you meditating on your virginity?" (1.1.105) (Seriously. That's exactly what he says.)
  • This is when the dirty talk begins.
  • Instead of calling Paroles a perv like most other Shakespearean heroines would have (especially Ophelia), Helen plays along.
  • She points out that it's really hard to remain a virgin these days when there are so many guys out there trying to take away her V-card.
  • Helen and Paroles proceed to use the language of warfare to talk about having sex, as if a girl who loses her virginity is like a city that gets penetrated (yep) and then blown up (impregnated) by enemy soldiers.
  • Brain Snack: This metaphor is pretty typical in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literature. Shakespeare uses it in Henry V and even the poet/priest John Donne does something similar in his famous poem, "Batter My Heart" (a.k.a. Holy Sonnet 14).
  • Paroles says that men can get blown up, too (meaning they can get erections), which is the whole reason why women get blown up (pregnant). This is getting interesting.
  • Then Paroles lists all the reasons why he thinks it's not natural for girls to remain virgins.
  • First, he says, if girls refuse to have sex, then mankind would go extinct.
  • Second, when girls insist on being virgins, it's as if they're dissing their mothers' lifestyle choices (since, obviously, all moms have had sex). This, says Paroles, is disobedient since everyone should honor their mothers.
  • Paroles goes on and on about this, but you get the idea. The guy has a way with words. Not a good way, but a way.
  • Helen asks what the best way is for a girl to go about losing her virginity.
  • Paroles answers that a girl should lose her virginity sooner rather than later since old virginity is like an old, withered pear that's unattractive, dry, and not as sweet. (Ugh. Paroles is worse than Stifler in American Pie.)
  • Helen says she's not ready to lose her V-Card... not yet anyway.
  • Then she changes the topic to her favorite subject in the world: Bertram. Helen spends the next twelve lines gushing about how amazing he is.
  • A page (a.k.a. errand boy) shows up and says that Paroles is being called away. With that, Paroles heads off to the king's court with Bertram.
  • Alone on stage, Helen delivers another big soliloquy. She complains about how unfair it is that she loves Bertram but can't ever have him because she comes from a lower social class.
  • Helen wonders aloud what she can possibly do to prove that she's worthy of Bertram's love.
  • Ah ha!
  • She tells us she's got a brilliant plan that involves the king's disease. (Remember that nasty fistula we heard about earlier? Yeah. This ought to be good.)