The soldiers plan their ruse against Parolles. They need to compose their gibberish well: "Now he hath a smack of all neighboring languages; therefore we must every one be a man of his own fancy, not to know what we speak one to another; so we seem to know, is to know straight our purpose: choughs' language, gabble enough, and good enough. As for you, interpreter, you must seem very politic" (IV.i.15-21).
Not realizing that he's being overheard, Parolles acknowledges that his report of his accomplishments must be a "plausive invention" since "They begin to smoke me" (IV.i.26-27). He also notes that his mouth gets him in trouble: "I find my tongue is too foolhardy" (IV.i.28-29). One of the lords remarks in amazed disgust, "Is it possible he should know what he is, and be that he is?" (IV.i.44-45). Parolles may be a representation of Henry Howard, "the most arrant villain that lived" according to Oxford himself (qtd. in Farina 80).
The ambush succeeds and Parolles is blindfolded by what he assumes are Russian soldiers: "I shall lose my life for want of language" (IV.i.70). He immediately begs for his life and agrees to spill all he knows. So the lords, anticipating that "'A will betray us all unto ourselves" (IV.i.92), send for Bertram to witness this cowardice.
Bertram proves vacuous and sleazy in his cheesy cliché wooing
of Diana, "Titled goddess" -- of chastity! (IV.ii.2). Some carpe diem
rhetoric doesn't work, and Bertram is perturbed by mention of his having
a wife. But Diana insists that he give her his ring. He balks, but she
notes, "Mine honor's such a ring" (IV.ii.45). She will meet him for an
hour in the dark, she'll give him another ring, and he is not to speak
to her. When he leaves, she notes to herself that his rhetorical
strategies were anticipated by her mother.
"The only authentic element in Bertram is his desire for military glory, since even his womanizing seems more an adjunct of his soldiering than a quest in itself" (Bloom 350). But this scene may also be Oxford's declaration of love for Elizabeth/Diana despite the compulsory marriage (Ogburn and Ogburn 166).
Two French lords discuss Bertram having received a distressing letter from his mother and his plan with Diana: "this night he fleshes his will in the spoil of her honor" (IV.iii.16-17). Peace has been declared, and Helena is said to have died at Saint Jaques le Grand. They lament that Bertram will be glad of this (IV.iii.63f).
Bertram arrives and says, "I have tonight despatch'd sixteen businesses, a month's length apiece" (IV.iii) -- a reference to Oxford's sixteen months (1575-1576) abroad (Clark 118).
The blindfolded Parolles is brought before Bertram. He proves to be a snivelling coward, willing to sell everyone down the river to save his own hide. He names names (IV.iii.161ff), and "the caps of the eleven Company Commanders named by Parolles under cross-examination fit the heads of eleven real persons connected with the French military" and involved in campaigns in the Lowlands (Clark 122; cf. Anderson 205). Discovery of a letter on him reveals that he was also actually undermining Bertram's wooing of Diana and trying to insinuate himself in her graces.
At one point, Parolles responds, "O Lord, sir" (IV.iii.309) -- the phrase Lavatch had mocked a couple acts ago. Just as the soldiers say they are about to decapitate him, they take off the blindfold and make snide comments. "Who cannot be crush'd with a plot?" (IV.iii.325), he murmurs to himself.
Yet am I thankful. If my heart were great,"'Simply the thing I am / Shall make me live' [IV.iii.333-334] is a bleak maxim" (Garber 632), and critics are reminded of Pistol's grim last lines in Henry V.
'Twould burst at this. Captain I'll be no more,
But I will eat and drink, and sleep as soft
As Captain shall. Simply the thing I am
Shall make me live. Who knows himself a braggart,
Let him fear this; for it will come to pass
That every braggart shall be found an ass.
Rust sword, cool blushes, and, Parolles, live
Safest in shame! Being fool'd, by fool'ry thrive!
There's place and means for every man alive.
Parolles, parasite and coward, embodies the discrepancy between words and deeds. But in the dynamics of this scene, he seems a nastier version of Falstaff. Or is it inappropriate to connect the two (Bloom 349)? Indeed, his final speech in this scene, in which he seems to embrace his new identity as lower parasite than before, doesn't exactly give him the last word but does point towards his ability to carry on. "But we might take Parolles' complaint about being crushed with a plot as a key phrase for the whole of All's Well" (Garber 617). "Bertram seems completely oblivious of the fact that words like 'counterfeit,' 'deceived,' and, indeed, 'double-meaning prophesier' might be applicable to himself in his dealings with Diana" (Garber 630).
Diana pronounces her loyalty to Helena, and Helena tells the widow and Diana that all will be well presently.
But with the word the time will bring on summer,"This deliberate mishmash of proverbs is properly bittersweet, and is intended to justify Helena's audacity, itself a sauciness we need not underestimate" (Bloom 355).
When briers shall have leaves as well as thorns,
And be as sweet as sharp. We must away:
Our wagon is prepar'd, and time revives us.
All's well that ends well! still the fine's the crown;
What e'er the course, the end is the renown.
The Countess laments Helena's reported death while the clown Lavatch's bawdy jesting gets on Lafew's nerves. The reference to "the black prince," the nickname of William of Orange, may be a topical allusion before his death in 1584 (Clark 124). The Countess mentions that "My lord that's gone made himself much sport out of him. By his authority he remains here" (IV.v. 64-65); the situation reminds one of Feste's in Twelfth Night.
The Countess and Lafew discuss the return of Bertram, who will be matched with Lafew's daughter now, and the visit of the King. Lavatch returns with news of Bertram's arrival; supposedly he has a patch -- covering a scar of honor?