Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Helena (HEHL-eh-nuh), the orphaned daughter of Gerard de Narbon, a distinguished physician, and the ward of the countess of Rousillon. She at first regards her love for Bertram, the countess’ son, as hopeless; then, with the independence characteristic of the heroines of William Shakespeare’s comedies, she resolves to try to win him with her father’s one legacy to her, a cure for the ailing king’s mysterious malady. Her charm and sincerity win the love and admiration of all who see her except Bertram himself. Hurt but undaunted by his flight from her on their wedding day, she mourns chiefly that she has sent him into danger in the Florentine war and deprived his mother of his presence. She leaves the countess without farewell, hoping at least to free her husband to return to his home if she is not successful in fulfilling his seemingly impossible conditions for a reconciliation. She contrives through an ingenious trick, substituting herself for the Florentine girl he is trying to seduce, to obtain his ring and conceive his child. She thus wins for herself a loving and repentant husband.
Bertram, Count Rousillon, a rather arrogant, self-satisfied, and impulsive young man. Proud of his noble blood, he feels degraded by the king’s command that he marry Helena, and after the ceremony he flees with his dissolute companion Parolles to the army of the duke of Florence to...
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King of France
Represents a dying breed of nobility, one in which honor and virtue are tantamount. He is suffering from a debilitating illness and is nostalgic for the past. He is persuaded by Helena to let her try to cure him, she succeeds, and in return the King makes good on his promise that she may marry any of his noblemen.
Young Count of Rousillon, son of the Countess of Rousillon and the recently deceased Count of Rousillon. Finding himself trapped in a marriage to Helena, whom he does not love, he flees to Italy to join the wars. While there, he attempts to seduce the virgin Diana but instead beds his wife Helena, unbeknownst to him. After the wars are over, he returns home and discovers his wife is pregnant with his child and possesses his family ring. (See Bertram in the CHARACTER ANALYSIS section.)
An old lord, friend of the Countess. Perceives the true character of Parolles and warns Bertram against him, although he saves Parolles at the end of the play by offering him a position. Lafeu is one of Helena's defenders.
Mentor and confidant to Bertram, social climber and would-be gentleman. Accompanies Bertram to the wars in Italy, where his boasting and deceit finally bring about his unmasking, at last enlightening Bertram as to Parolles' true character. (See Parolles in...
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Bertram (Character Analysis)
Bertram is the hero of the play. Forced to marry Helena against his will, he flees from her but is tricked into sleeping with her unknowingly; and in the last moments of the play accepts her as his wife.
When the play opens, Bertram is off to join the king's court at Paris, where he will presumably put the finishing touches on his education as a courtly gentleman. Bertram is hardly an ideal gentleman: he is at best, as his mother says, "an unseason'd courtier" (I.i.71). The first indication of Bertram's character comes when we encounter the company he keeps: the lewd and parasitic courtier Parolles, who banters with Helena on the topic of her sexual experience (I.i.99). Then, soon after his arrival in France Bertram grows petulant because the other lords are running off to the Italian war, while the king makes him stay home. Even before he enters the play's central action, then, Bertram emerges as something other than a decorous gentleman—in fact, according to Lafew, he is "an ass" (II.iii.100).
Then, when Helena cures the king's illness and he rewards her by allowing her to choose a husband from among his lords, she chooses Bertram. Bertram rejects Helena because she is low-born—and because of the king's high-handedness in giving away his young lord.
My wife, my liege? I shall beseech your Highness,
In such a business, give me leave to use
The help of mine own eyes.
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Diana (Character Analysis)
Diana is the Florentine woman who helps Helena fulfill the impossible tasks that Bertram sets for her. She first appears in Act III, as Helena herself arrives in Florence. Diana is a chaste young woman herself and sympathetic to Helena's cause even before Helena reveals her identity (III.v.63-65). When Bertram tries to seduce her, Diana uses language with enough double meanings so that she seems to encourage him, while at the same time she points out his immoral behavior. She says that his "oaths / Are words and poor conditions" (IV.ii.29-30); she doesn't believe him even when he swears to love her. She is aware of the behavior typical of high-born men toward low-born women; she has no reason to trust that he would actually marry well below his station.
Nonetheless, when he gives her his ring, she makes arrangements to meet him that night. Diana and Helena have plotted together, so that it will actually be Helena who sleeps with him. Diana thinks twice about lying at all, but concludes that "I think't no sin / To cozen him that would unjustly win" (IV.ii.75-76).
Diana then travels with her mother (the widow) and Helena to the court of Paris and then to Rossillion to help Helena win Bertram and also in the hope that the king will reward her. In the final scene of the play, Diana confronts Bertram with the ring he gave to her and the promises he swore to her; she tells the assembled court that he vowed to marry her when his wife died. Helena is...
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King of France (Character Analysis)
The king of France is the highest authority in the play. The scenes in which he presides are the most dramatic and ritualistic, as well. In his first appearance, he is ill, old, and fretful. But then Helena arrives with her promise of a cure. At first the king seems almost to want to stay ill; he says he will not "prostitute" his malady to anyone, when there is no cure (II.i.121). But Helena, in a long, clever, and modest set of speeches, seduces him into trying her cure. Unexpectedly, the cure works, setting in motion the central conflict of the play.
The king has welcomed Bertram to his court nostalgically, praising Bertram's dead father because "his tongue obey'd his hand" (I.ii.41)—that is, his words matched his deeds. The king's words should match his deeds as well, as it is his duty to uphold the truth and honor of his court. After his cure, the king upholds his promise to Helena to reward her for her cure: in a pageant-like scene, he allows her to choose a husband from among his lords. When she chooses the reluctant Bertram, the king insists on his own absolute authority. But there is a limit to that authority, of course. Even though Bertram has been sent to his court to become a polished courtier, the king cannot make an ignoble man noble. When he threatens to "throw [Bertram] from my care forever" (II.iii.163), the count responds by accepting Helena in marriage, but only superficially. And Bertram soon throws himself free of the care of the...
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Helena (Character Analysis)
Helena is the main character in the play. The daughter of a recently deceased physician and therefore both low-born and poor, she is under the protection of the countess of Rossillion. That is, as a member of the countess's court, she has her material needs taken care of and has probably received some courtly education. Helena's character thus draws much from the countess's courtly values. But Helena also contributes to the play a miraculous cure and demands a fairy-tale marriage as her reward. Moreover, she persists until she is accepted as Bertram's wife; as Helena says of herself from the beginning, "my intents are fix'd, and will not leave me" (I.i.229). This persistence has sometimes been read as controlling and hard-headed. But Helena also represents a stubborn attachment to a set of ideals that no other character in the play exhibits.
Helena makes most of the play's action happen. After Bertram leaves in the first scene, she declares her love for him in a soliloquy (which is accidentally overheard by Rinaldo, the countess's steward), then holds her own when Parolles baits her about her virginity. She resolves to follow Bertram to the king's court to "show her merit" (I.i.227) by curing the king. When the countess discovers her intentions, Helena expresses proper embarrassment and says she knows her birth is too lowly for her to expect Bertram for a husband. But though she is quick to be frank with the countess about her intention to go to Paris,...
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Lafew (Character Analysis)
Lafew is an old lord in the countess of Rossillion's court. Like the countess herself, Lafew supports Helena in her desire to marry Bertram, in spite of Helena's low birth. Lafew accompanies Bertram to the king's court, as his advisor. He acts as a moral guide, but his judgments go largely unheeded by the callow Bertram.
Lafew's role first comes to the fore when, at the king's court in Paris, he convinces the king to listen to Helena's offer of a cure. Lafew and the king seem to share a past, or at least a set of social conventions, that enable them to behave familiarly with each other—Lafew even teases the king a bit (II.i.64-65). Furthermore, the old lord's support for Helena becomes clear at this point in the play. He has thus been established as a character whose judgment and integrity can be trusted. He comments on the scene as Helena chooses her husband from among the king's lords (II.iii). The lords respond with apparent acceptance of her, but Lafew seems to think they disdain her, either because, critics explain, he is out of earshot or because the lords are responding ironically. But Lafew is on the side of Helena.
Lafew is also an index to the outrageousness of Parolles's behavior. When Lafew and Parolles discuss the king's recovery, Parolles says nothing of substance while Lafew fills in meaningful and gracious responses (II.iii.1-37). After Bertram has been forced to marry Helena, Lafew refers to Bertram as Parolles's "master"...
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Lavatch (Character Analysis)
Lavatch, the countess's clown, is a so-called "allowed fool": that is, he can get away with making jokes about all kinds of sensitive topics because he is always only joking. His main function in the play is to entertain and bear messages for the countess, but he also comments indirectly on much of the action—especially the conflicts about sexuality and class that the play struggles to come to terms with.
Lavatch first appears in I.iii, where he makes a mock request to marry one "Isbel." His main reason for marrying is that he is "driven on by the flesh" (I.iii.29). But soon after this request, he goes on to argue that the fear of being cuckolded, or betrayed, makes men reluctant to marry (I.iii.49-51). In raising these issues, the clown highlights the concerns of both Helena and Bertram: desire to marry, and fear of marriage. The clown's image of marriage as sexual play makes Helena's fairy-tale image of marriage look idealistic and even innocent.
Later in the play, Lavatch makes light of the values that define court behavior when he says to the countess, "Ask me if I am a courtier" (II.ii.36). When she does, he answers with complete evasion, parodying a courtier desperate not to offend his lord. The countess is so entertained that she doesn't notice time passing. But Lavatch has highlighted the class conflicts in the play—the degree to which the lower-born characters like Helena are dependent upon the nobility; and also the potential...
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Parolles (Character Analysis)
Parolles is Bertram's friend and a hanger-on at court who insults Helena, offends Lafew, encourages the count to flee from his marriage, and is finally tricked into revealing his true colors when Bertram and two French lords capture him and pretend to be enemy soldiers. He is thus a kind of scapegoat and suffers exclusion from the court, but only temporarily; by the end of the play, Lafew has promised not to let him starve.
Even before his downfall, many of the other characters in the play recognize Parolles as a threat to the moral order of society. Helena says that she speaks to Parolles only for the sake of Bertram, whose friend he is, and that he is "a notorious liar, / … soly a coward" (I.i.100-01). The clown Lavatch calls him a fool (II.iv.35). The countess calls him "A very tainted fellow, and full of wickedness" (III.ii.87). One of the French lords tells Bertram, "he's a most notable coward, an infinite and endless liar, an hourly promise-breaker, the owner of no one good quality worthy your lordship's entertainment" (III.vi.9-12).
In fact, many of the other characters call attention to the influence of Parolles on Bertram. The countess blames Parolles for Bertram's rejection of Helena (III.ii.88). Diana says that Parolles leads him astray—"Yond's that same knave / That leads him to these places" (III.v.82-83). And the French lords urge Bertram to plot against his friend in order to avert danger to himself: "It were fit you knew...
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Countess of Rossillion (Character Analysis)
The countess of Rossillion is the mother of Bertram, the count of Rossillion. The countess also protects Helena, the daughter of a physician who recently passed away. When Helena marries Bertram, the countess supports her against her son. But when Helena is rumored to be dead, the countess agrees quickly to marry off Bertram to someone else. The countess represents established courtly conventions and morals in the play; she is, like Lafew and the king, of the older, more powerful generation. Yet throughout the play, she watches as events unfold before her, without her control.
As the play opens, the countess bids goodbye to Bertram, who is on his way to the king of France's court. Here she praises her son, but calls him an "unseason'd courtier" (I.i.71). Later, the countess banters with the clown, Lavatch, who makes jokes about marriage and cuckoldry and sings her a song about the end of Troy. Then the countess's steward confirms her suspicion that Helena is in love with Bertram, and the countess confronts Helena with her knowledge. To Helena's surprise, the countess offers her blessing, in spite of the fact that Helena is low-born, and sends her on her way to the king of France's court. The countess's generosity and open-minded acceptance of Helena as her potential daughter-in-law flies in the face of comic conventions. Usually, in comedy, the older generation blocks the love of the younger generation, and the younger characters find ways to trick or...
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Other Characters (Descriptions)
Citizens of Florence
These citizens appear in III.v, when Helena meets the widow and Diana on the street, as the soldiers go by in a procession. Helena mingles among the citizens, while Bertram parades past in a parade, accentuating their class difference.
Count of Rossillion
Duke of Florence
Florence (Duke of Florence)
The duke of Florence makes only brief appearances (III.i, III.iii) to welcome the aid of the French lords and of Bertram and Parolles.
The two French lords become more active in the play as it progresses. They are two of the king's courtiers who join the Florentine army, and unlike the king they express a genuine support for Florence in the war (II.i). They act as witnesses to Bertram's departure and later urge Bertram to test Parolles; they are therefore, in a small way, responsible for upholding the moral values of Helena, the countess, and Lafew. They are not named until the scapegoating of Parolles, when they refer to themselves as the Dumaines (IV.iii.248). In that scene, they are the principal interrogators of Parolles.
A gentleman helps Helena by carrying a letter from her to the king (V.i, V.iii). It is worth noting that he is one of the many bourgeois, non-courtly people whose allegiance Helena wins...
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