Helena, the Widow, and Diana learn that the King is going to Rossillion. "All's well that ends well yet, / Though time seem so adverse and means unfit" (V.i.25-26).
Parolles tries to get Lavatch to deliver a letter to Lafew, and Lavatch delights in jesting on the topic of stink, calling Parolles "Fortune's close-stool" (V.ii.17). Lafew himself enters and further rubs in Parolles' fall from grace, but he relents enough to allow him basic care: "though you are a fool and a knave, you shall eat" (V.ii.53-54).
The King, Countess, and all eulogize Helena. The King assures the Countess he has forgiven Bertram. Lafew is compelled to add,
This I must say --"Praising what is lost / Makes the remembrance dear" (V.iii.19-20), remarks the King, perhaps speaking for de Vere concerning the revision of this play after the death of Anne Cecil.
But first I beg my pardon -- the young lord
Did to his Majesty, his mother, and his lady
Offense of mighty note; but to himself
The greatest wrong of all. He lost a wife
Whose beauty did astonish the survey
Of richest eyes, whose words all ears took captive,
Whose dear perfection hearts that scorn'd to serve
Humbly call'd mistress.
Bertram mourns the loss of Helena too, though the King points out that he has come to appreciate her too late. Bertram will marry, this time Lafew's daughter Maudlin. "Like Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing, but more ironically given the circumstances of his previous marriage, Bertram is willing to show penitence by marrying at command" (Wells 242). It seems as if the play is to end in his romantic conversion, but soon this momentum will be redirected and Bertram will be telling more cheesy lies. First, Lafew recognizes a ring of Bertram's as Helena's (the one Bertram thought he had from Diana). The King recognizes it too as one he gave Helena. Bertram claims it was thrown out a window at him by someone pursuing him romantically. The King has Bertram seized by guards.
In comes the gentleman letter-bearer, "four or five removes" (V.iii.131), "which of course was nonsense if Roussillon was by the Pyranees, but correct as from Marseilles to the Castle of the Dowager Countess of Rousillon. For the latter the trip would be in four stages, or removes: Lançon, Avignon, Montelimar, and Valence" (Clark 121; cf. Anderson 108-109, Farina 78). The letter is from Diana Capilet, complaining about the "seducer" Count who, since he is "a widower, his vows are forfeited to me" (V.iii.142). A disgusted Lafew forsakes Bertram. The King is now even wondering if Helena was murdered.
And right into the midst of a scene that contains things of this high order comes Diana, bursting with explosive secrets, so bent apparently on bewildering the King with her riddling answers and squeezing the last drops of suspense and irony out of a complicated situation, that we scarcely blame the King for ordering her put in prison. With her the play sags to a level of mere ingenuity and theatricalism that might tempt us to date it as early as The Comedy of Errors. (Goddard, II 49)Diana tells part of the story of Bertram's philandering. She recognizes the ring she gave Bertram that is now on the King's finger. "Almost the sole thing in Bertram's favor in this final scene is his blush when confronted by Diana with the ring. That blush seems to indicate that his soul is still alive.... But the text is against him. The conclusion is too swift and huddled" (Goddard, II 40). Bertram still denies her accusations and claims that she was the aggressor. Diana calls Parolles as witness, who confirms her story in a roundabout, shuffling way. When grilled by the King, Diana equivocates about the ring, so the King gets fed up: "Take her away; I do not like her now" (V.iii.281). He has her arrested and says she'll be executed within the hour unless she explains. Diana is taken away, still insisting,
He knows himself my bed he hath defil'd,Helena comes forth with the Widow. It's now the very last minutes of the play, and all are astonished. (The scene is again similar to the reappearance or "resurrection" of Hero in Much Ado). "The theme of reclamation from the dead itself appears twice, first with the dying King and then with the supposedly dead Helena" (Garber 625). Helena's remark that "when I was like this maid / I found you wondrous kind" (V.iii.309-310) is "an innuendo so distasteful, in context, that something in our spirits abandons Helena" (Bloom 356). But she has Bertram's ring and we are to believe she is pregnant with his child. She quotes his letter: "'When from my finger you can get this ring, / And are by me with child, etc.' This is done. / Will you be mine now you are doubly won?" (V.iii.312-314).
In a word, just as his soul was about to be born, his bad angel, Parolles, took possession of him. With the penetration of love, his good angel, Helena, alone sees through from the first to what this perverted youth is under what he has become. By keeping her faith in that vision, in spite of the evidence against it, she brings about a resurrection of himself within himself through the miracle of what seems to him her own literal resurrection. Her sudden appearance in the flesh after being reported dead shocks him back into what he has really been all along. (Goddard, II 39)The supposed moral cure of Bertram is liable to be unconvincing. The remainder of the scene is rife with conditional "if"s and Bertram, with a "ludicrous insincerity," goes out on "at least one 'ever' too many" (Bloom 356): "If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly, / I'll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly" (V.iii.315-316). But "the light couplet seems utterly out of keeping with the momentousness of the supposed conversion" (Goddard, II 40). Nevertheless, "Helena triumphs, even if we are dismayed by her choice of reward" (Bloom 355). The ending has romance winning a pyrrhic victory, perhaps.
Lafew borrows a handkerchief from Parolles, though still considering him "scurvy" (V.iii.324). The King calls for a thorough recounting of the entire narrative: "Let us from point to point this story know, / To make the even truth in pleasure flow" (V.iii.325-326). "The King then effectively takes steps to begin the play all over again, by promising to the virginal Diana, if she can prove her story, a dowry and her choice of a husband -- just as he had done for Helena" (Garber 622)!
The last words belie the assurance implicit in the play's title, a proverbial adage or bit of lore in a world grown too complex for such simplifications. The King's final couplet expresses reservations: "All yet seems well, and if it end so meet, / The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet" (V.iii.333-334, my emphasis; see Goddard, II 49). The title itself, it turns out, carries sophisticated bitterness: "no other Shakespeare play dallies with its name in the insistent way that All's Well does" (Garber 618). "It is unusual for a play by Shakespeare to contain so many internal references to its own title, suggesting a certain self-consciousness about its identity as a fiction" (Garber 619). This play implicitly questions its own subject matter. In any event, the popular saying first appeared in print in 1579 in a book dedicated to Oxford's mother-in-law (Farina 78).
The Epilogue brings forth the King, referring to his beggary -- now that he's returned to being merely an actor. The play "thus ends with a topsy-turvy reversal in which kingly condescension, a willing descent to the level of the audience, mirrors the multiple comic options of the close: a living, healthy, and joyful King and Countess; a husband and wife united and expecting an heir; and a poor virgin (Diana) rewarded with a rich dowry and her choice of a husband" (Garber 632). Like Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the actor who played the King solicits applause, but with another conditional "if" (Epi. 2): "our applause becomes an ironic celebration" (Bloom 356) of this disturbing "problem play."
The play strikes even the uber-orthodox Stanley Wells "as a deeply personal play, one in which Shakespeare was wrestling with moral concepts that concerned him closely, as he does in many of his sonnets" (Wells 244). "If The Rape of the Second Helene was in fact an early draft for All's Well That Ends Well, then perhaps the play reflects de Vere coming to grips with his own bad behavior toward his wife, in which case Bertram would represent Shakespeare's own unvarnished and unflattering self-portrait of the artist as a young man" (Farina 81).