Notes for All's Well that Ends Well Act One Scene One

Notes ©2016 by Deloss Brown  NB: If you are using Internet Explorer, you may have to use the back arrow to get back to the play's text. If you click on a link that takes you away from these notes, click on any note number in the text to restore the Notes in the bottom frame. IE also may not display the entire note, and you'll have to scroll.

1. This comedy has death hanging over it throughout: we will all come to the end of human life and face our own particular judgments after death. To establish this setting, Shakespeare began the play immediately after the funeral and burial of Bertram's father, Count Rossillion. And Bertram is now the Count Rossillion, a fact that is going to be of great importance to Helena.
Incidntally, all the act and scene divisions in this and all other editions were put in by editors. There are no such divisions in the Folio. A scene ends when all the characters leave the stage, and different characters enter.
2. The second word out of the Countess' mouth is "delivering," which means, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, "giving birth." Every time the Countess looks at her son, mixed with her natural maternal feelings is the memory of what a difficult birth Bertram was, how it nearly killed her, and how she could have no more children afterwards (and she had wanted a daughter--see BACKSTORY). She talks about Bertram's painful delivery at least twice more in the play. She loves Bertram, but somewhere in her soul she has a certain resentment about the difficult time he gave her. And she has other reasons, too, for resenting his existence--but let us move on.

3. I have been tedious elsewhere about the fact that Shakespeare gave this play the structure of a morality (q.v.). In a morality play, a Good Angel and a Bad Angel struggle for the Human Soul at the center of the play (the structure is made clear at the beginning of The Castle of Perseverance). Shakespeare embedded the structure of the struggle into the very text itself. You will notice that each of these first three speeches of the play contains an antithesis:

COUNTESS In delivering my son I bury a husband
BERTRAM I in going [I] weep o'er my father's death
now in ward evermore in subjection
LAFEW You shall find of the king a husband you, a father

And there are many, many more antitheses scattered throughout this scene and the play. Be alert for them. I can't point them all out--life isn't long enough, and knowledge can't be set up against mortality.

Incidentally, Bertram will only be the King's ward ("now in ward") until he reaches his majority which in Shakespeare's England is probably around the age of 18 (although I cannot confirm this, but the point is that he is a very young man). Upon reaching the age of his majority, Bertram will be the King's vassal and subject ("evermore in subjection"), but no longer his ward.

I seem to hear a shreik from the actors: what are we supposed to do about these "antitheses"? Is this not useless "scholarship," if you can even dignify it with such a name?

Actors: you are not to run the thoughts (or the words) together, but to make sure, please, that the audience knows you're talking about two different things. "Deliver" is not the same thing as "bury." "Son" is not the same thing as "husband." "Now" is not the same thing as "evermore." "Knowledge" is not the same thing as "mortality," etc.
4. A fistula, sayeth the Oxford English Dictionary (hereinafter OED), is a long, narrow, suppurating (= pus discharging) canal, the result of a disease in some part of the body. It can't be cured on the surface, at its discharge point: its origin lies deep in the body. For the King, it is a wasting disease which is gradually killing him. If the fistula and its discharging orifice could be miraculously healed, it would probably leave a scar.

5. Why had Bertram not heard of it before? Because nobody had bothered to tell him. Despite the fact that he's noble, and he's now Count Rossillion, almost everyone ignores him (except, of course, Helena and not incidentally Parolles). Part of the problem of the play is that Bertram has no self-esteem, and nothing in his life to be proud of, except his title: he is Count Rossillion.

6. affect = "to show ostentatiously." The others mistake grief for her father as the cause of Helen's tears; Helen is about to tell us that the real cause of her grief is her loss of Bertram.

I think this line is an aside, but the Arden editor doesn't agree with me. Perhaps we are to understand that Helen's thoughts, which only we can hear, are dramatically more important than the Countess' speech. I am very sure that Helena would never interrupt the Countess; see her behavior in I.3.
Note that the Countess continues to fit the prototype of Unredeemed Man (see the morality); she has the Cardinal (Natural) Virtues of Prudence (or Wisdom), Justice, Temperance and Fortitude (or Courage), but she lacks the Theological Virtues: Faith, Hope and Charity. She has just told Helena: "Stop sniveling, Helen; people might think you're faking."

No, Shakespeare is not writing a play to fit the Christian template I designed ex post facto. He is concerned with the condition of human beings. If the Countess seems insensitive to Helen--as she is to her own son, as we will see in fewer than ten lines--it is because the Countess has had terrible disappointments in her life. She has faced them with the Roman courage of a Regulus, but the thick skin she has been forced to grow has made her less than totally sensitive to the feelings of others.

But, just as in Pericles, where the birth of Marina transforms the world from a pagan to a saved one, the actions of Helena (who in the morality stands in for Jesus) are going to have a transformative effect on many of the play's characters.

Note that Helen, although defined as "common," is in her character and behavior noble, in the best sense of the word. "She derives her honesty, and achieves her goodness."

"What, teacher, are the Countess' great disappointments?" We will talk about this in the backstory. We will see in about ten lines that the Countess has never forgiven Bertram for the childbed that nearly killed her. And Bertram is not the child of the great love of the Countess' life, but of a marriage she was forced into.
7. "If the living do not indulge grief, grief destroys itself by its own excess." I quote Hunter, who is quoting Samuel Johnson, for this explanation. The Johnson quote may be found at (retrieved May 10, 2016).

8. Bertram in the line above has interrupted the conversation about Helena's grief--a subject which doesn't interest him, because Helena doesn't interest him--to ask for his mother's blessing. Lafew, typically, doesn't notice that Bertram has said anything; he is replying to the Countess' line.

9. Some blessing this is! I already mentioned that the Countess, though she loves Bertram, also resents him, because of his difficult birth, and for other reasons to be explained. The Countess cannot bring herself to say "I bless thee," nor even "God bless thee."
"Succeed thy father / In manners as in shape." The Countess hammers into Bertram what Bertram already believes: that he has no good qualities except for those he acquired by being the son of an illustrious man.

The Countess has a dangerous line, "Thy blood and virtue contend for empire in thee"; dangerous because his "blood," that his, his noble descent, is the only good quality Bertram has been encouraged to believe he has. But "blood" to the religious in the Middle Ages meant "passion, temper, mood, disposition" (OED) none of which is a good spiritual quality, nor a quality which should govern our behavior--such behavior would lead to the hellfire which burns at the back of the play.
Some have complained that Bertram is not a very satisfactory romantic hero, because he doesn't have much to say. Even Parolles is going to complain about Bertram's reticence as a sign of his lack of enthusiasm (at II.1.50). Now we know why: his mother has just said to him, "Be checked for silence, but never taxed for speech" (that is, given a choice, keep your mouth shut), and we can bet that Bertram heard this instruction many, many times while he was growing up.
The Countess goes on to wish that anything further that heaven deigns to grant Bertram should fall on his head. We can only hope these projected blessings aren't made of lead.
After a pause the Countess turns to Lafew and humiliates Bertram by discussing his shortcomings in public. Lafew, who though sometimes indiscreet, as we will see, is so appalled by the Countess' words that his speech goes right out of blank verse. Bertram himself doesn't apparently react to this contumelious "blessing"; it stings him, but it's nothing new to him.
10. This is as close as the Countess can come to a blessing. She probably doesn't say "God bless him" because of the 1606 blasphemy law (retrieved May 10, 2016).
Note that there is no indication that the Countess kisses Bertram goodbye, a fact which will be important to our understanding of II.5.
11. Shakespeare has Lafew remind the director (and us) that Helena is beautiful.

12. "What is that little | line for?" When I taught at Juilliard, the Shakespeare wonk-in-chief, Michael Langham, maintained that when Shakespeare ended a word with the consonant that begins the next word, as in this case

great | tears

it creates a problem for the actor: how do you say it? You don't want it to come out as either "gray tears" or "great ears." Michael Langham's solution was: take a brief PAUSE between the two consonants (which is why I put the little line in). But then you have to come up with an ACTING reason for pausing. And it's a different reason every time: it's based on the character, the situation and the play. I learnt this from Michael Langham at Juilliard. No extra charge.
"Wow! Helen has a lot of those pauses or hiccups or whatever they are! Why?"
Helena tells us why in this very line: "And these great | tears grace his remembrance more . . . " Helena is weeping throughout the speech--discreetly, I assume--and the weeping causes her to pause her breath more often than if she were in full control of her emotions. I had better warn you right here that you don't have to believe me about the little lines, or the reason for them, or anything. But as an actor or director, you probably ought to pay attention to Helen's statement that she is weeping.
13. This is Helena's first statement that death is preferable to life without Bertram. Please bear in mind that in the morality play structure, Helena stands in for Jesus, who was born for the sole purpose of dying to rescue sinful man (represented here by Bertram):
"Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven . . . And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate." --Nicene Creed, 1789 American Book of Common Prayer
Helena is not Jesus. She is a young woman with human emotions and impulses. All's Well is not a morality play, though it has the structure of one. But there are no evil people in it, and every character in it his a human who strives constantly to do what is right, honorable and good--with occasional lapses.
14. Helena explains to us that the difference between her station--a poor physician's daughter, as Bertram will call her in II.3--and his--he is nobility, the Count Rossillion--makes a satisfactory solution to her love problems impossible.

15. I suspect that the meaning of Helen's antithesis, light / sphere, is that she may look at Bertram but never expect to have him put his arms around her. The very idea of Bertram putting his arms around her, bringing her into his "sphere," causes her another gasp.
Note that we are in a Ptolemaic universe, where the earth is the center and all the planets inhabit spheres that revolve around the earth. Shakespeare probably knew about the Copernican universe, in which the earth goes around the sun--Copernicus' De revolutionibus was published in 1543, 21 years before Shakespeare was born--but All's Well has a medieval structure, and a medieval cosmology suits it best. The Ptolemaic universe is brought up again in II.1. (The Copernican universe is just a liberal scam, of course, probably designed to make feckless scientists and Al Gore rich. As my MIT Philosophy Professor Giorgio de Santillana pointed out, "Any fool can go out in his back yard and watch the sun go around the earth.")
16his hawking eye: this is the first mention of the hawks / hawking / birds theme. Hunter suggests that it means that Bertram has a hawk-like eye. I think the adjective also indicates that Bertram practices hawking.
But these are mere quibbles, so here's the point: in the Middle Ages, using hawks and other raptors for hunting was the traditional privilege of the nobility and clergy. Bertram, the new Count Rossillion, is here identified with hawks and hawking to differentiate him from the commoner, Helena, who has no hawklike qualities nor any noble attributes. Bertram is about to soar off to Paris, leaving Helena grounded in Rossillion or, if she follows him, to plod along on foot, as she will when she starts on her pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Jacques le Grand in III.4.
17draw . . . in our heart's table: Table is Elizabethan for "notebook," the equivalent of our "tablet." Helena means that Bertram's handsome countenance is engraved on her heart.
But Bertram and Helena were brought up together, and had their lessons together, and this statement of hers brings to mind their art classes, where Helena, after competently whipping off her landscapes and still-lifes, went on to draw careful and accurate portraits of Bertram, secretly of course. Bertram, a boy, with the usual male lack of small-motor skills, was still laboring over his drawing of an apple.
18Virtue's | steely bones: the upright and honest life which Helena tries constantly to follow here appears to her as a skeleton of steel, the image of the death which will overtake her if she cannot have Bertram.
And Helena is virtuous! She has normal human impulses, but she has never said to Bertram, "Hey, Bertram, come around behind the barn with me a second, I want to show you something." And she feels that her virtue is killing her. In the morality play, remember, Helena's character stands in for Jesus, who was so virtuous that he died for us sinners, and his sinless death redeemed us. Helen herself, we will learn, has practically supernatural powers--but she would never use them to make, for example, a love potion or to cast a spell on Bertram. But she could probably do that--if she weren't virtuous.
19 withal = "with all"; it usually means "along with the rest," but here it means "notwithstanding." (OED)
I had better point out (again!) that Parolles' character in the made-up morality is that of the Evil Angel. Helen just told us what she thinks about him, and why she's friendly with him.
20i' th' cold wind = in the cold wind. The consonant n and the vowel e were left out by Shakespeare, or maybe the printer, to make the phrase scan.
I suggest you put them back in and say "in the cold wind." It doesn't quite scan, but if you say what's written--"ith cold wind"--nobody will know what you've said. Do not be fooled by the fact that the text is by SHAKESPEARE! Your objective is to talk like a human being, in Tim Monich's felicitous phrase.
21. A jocular insult: queen is a homonym with quean, which latter means "prostitute."

22. Helena can dish it out as well as take: Monarcho was an insane Italian who believed himself emperor of the world. He was kept at Elizabeth's court--and humored--for an entertainment for the courtiers.

23. Shakespeare has just introduced another cluster of images.

24barricado = barricade

25. I need hardly point out that Helen's conversation with Parolles, ostensibly about siege warfare, is full of bawdy and anatomical references, but I like pointing out the obvious.
"How can the virtuous Helena have this bawdy conversation with Parolles?"

They are good friends, and can discuss anything, and Helena has Bertram on her mind and wants to talk about him. Besides, as we will see, Parolles doesn't care for girls at all, and Helena knows it. He's not interested in assailing her virginity. In the morality play they are the Good Angel and the Bad Angel, contenders for Bertram's soul; in Shakespeare's play, they contend for Bertram's affections, as we will see.
26. Helen continues to prefer death to a life without Bertram. See note 13.

27. Oy. Helen's mood goes right down into the Valley of the Shadow of Death during this speech of Parolles, and he observes it and tries to counteract it.
Parolles heard Helena say "though I die a virgin," and seizes on that for his topic. He says, "He that hangs himself is a virgin; virginity murders itself, and should be buried in highways, out of all sanctified limit, as a desperate offendress against nature." This is exactly the wrong thing to say to our Helen, who has been contemplating her own suicide ever since Bertram said goodbye. So when Parolles talks about hanging one's self, Helena becomes fixated on the idea. It is her fate, and her way out. It's not what she wants, but we already heard her say, "There is no living, none, if Bertram be away." To Parolles, she appears horribly depressed (which she is), loses all interest in her miserable life, and probably lets her gaze fall to the ground, where she imagines herself going soon.

But Parolles is her friend, and when he sees Helena's reactions, he doesn't know what he's said, but he's terrified, and he begins wildly flailing about, trying desperately to make amends. First he makes the joke about virginity being like a cheese, which affects Helena not at all. Then--because he is her friend and knows that Helena is virtuous and religious--he begins describing virginity as a cause of sin, which shocks Helena back to her senses. Suicide is a sin, too. She looks up at Parolles, and returns to this world, and to the conversation.

Note that we have just had the astonishing spectacle, in terms of the morality play, of the Bad Angel trying to talk the Good Angel out of suicide.
28. This is a very serious question, woman to man, and Parolles is going to take it seriously. It has to do with Helena's unspoken desire to lose her virginity to Bertram, and both the characters know that fact, and neither mentions it.

29. Parolles, like everybody else around, has watched Helena trailing along after Bertram through the grounds around the chateau, ignoring the chickens who have to scatter indignantly out of her unseeing way. Parolles knows (he thinks he knows) that hers is a hopeless love (since Bertram doesn't care for her and hardly notices her existence), and this is his first suggestion to her that she overcome it.
It's possible that Parolles, who has his own desires for Bertram, is merely trying to eliminate a competitor. But I don't think so. Everybody in the play is good, and Parolles is only advising Helena about what she should do for her own happiness. He will repeat his advice shortly.
30. "There": Helena rhapsodizes about the life Bertram will lead at the Court of France. It's an indication of her character--and of the play and its author--that Helen shows no bitterness about the life Bertram is going to lead without her, no rancor, no jealousy. Shakespeare knew that human beings can have good qualities.

31. Hunter says that Helena is listing all the trite, conventional love-names of Elizabethan poetry, and that the oxymorons that follow are also typical of the genre (Hunter, p. 13, notes to ll. 163-6).
"Sweet disaster": a disaster is an unlucky star, here probably interfering in a love-affair, the adventures of Romeo and Juliet being a well-known example. Even Bertram's heartbreaks will have a sweetness to them.
32. These two lines are Helena's dreamy, poetic way of saying that people at court will baptize Bertram with loving nicknames, and that the godfather at these baptisms will be blinking (= "blind") Cupid. Wait'll she learns what happens (in II.3, for example)!

33. The actor playing Parolles will please remember to pause and wait until he sees that Helen isn't going to continue, before he prompts her.

34. Same note as 33.
Notice how kind and gentle Parolles is being towards Helena! If he had his psychiatric degree, he could easily charge $500 for a session. But his kindness here is personal and unselfish, not professional.
35. Parolles has almost completely talked Helen out of suicide. She has this one remaining impulse to throw herself down a well.
But at the same time, and with the same words, she says how much she'd like to get pregnant by Bertram, and have a new body growing inside herself, instead of hers going down the well. We hear her at the instant when the scales are tipping.

As Shakespeare wrote, "The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together."
36What we alone must think means "What we may only think about, not act upon." But Hellen is also reiterating her feeling that, whatever she does, she must do it all herself; she has nobody to guide or help her. Indeed, even Parolles is about to depart for Paris.

37. Parolles returns to the kidding tone with which they began the conversation, before it turned into a discussion of life and death. Helena, however, is not quite ready to drop the subject. She knows what Parolles has done for her. Of course she can make jokes, too.

38. Helen concludes this little canter of antitheses (predominant / retrograde, backward / advantage) with a heartfelt compliment to Parolles which combines his valor and his fear and expresses the combination as a wing, another bird image. Parolles is so outgunned and overwhelmed that he doesn't know what to say. But he manages to give Helen some good advice before he departs.

39. He's finally managed to get it out, making the situation as clear as he dares to Helen. Bertram is not the good husband he means. Bertram doesn't care for her. He already told her she was wasting her time running after him. See note [29], above.

40. In the first four lines of this soliloquy, Helena reconciles the concept of predestination (the "fated sky") with the concept of free will (which she refers to as "free scope").

41. Hunter points out that mounts is probably a hawking term.

42. Parolles' conversation with Helen has had an effect on her--perhaps not the one he expected. But she is, for the moment, pulled out of her suicidal depression and has already begun to assemble the plan that will ultimately win her Bertram. Helena is a really fast thinker! She already told us her project has to do with the King's disease; for the rest, it will develop.
This is also an example of one of this play's themes: No Turns to Yes. Helena, who had No hope of winning Bertram, has decided, Yes, perhaps there is some hope.

Finally: why is this speech in rhymed couplets? Hunter suggests that "the couplets seem designed to raise the sense of inevitability and supernatural confidence" (footnote p. 15). I agree, and would take the explanation even farther. I blather in the Introduction about my unprovable theory that by the time Shakespeare wrote All's Well (and probably before) he had himself become an atheist. But he always believed that human beings were capable of good actions and Christian behavior. When he wrote a passage in rhyming blank verse, he is indicating that the characters speaking the rhymed verse are behaving as if they were in a state of grace. You do not have to believe this, or anything else I say. But you might want a reason as to why the characters in the play sometimes speak in rhymed couplets.

While I was patting myself on the back at having made this "state of grace" discovery, I ran across an old inquiry on the (retrieved November 26, 2016) which says that the New Cambridge editors had figured out pretty much the same thing. However I think I have a few other things to say, so I will press doggedly on, "trumbling in the dismal joust," as Dorothy Sayers characterized scholarly disputations. The image comes from her translation of the Inferno, which is very suitable.

Notes for All's Well that Ends WellAct One Scene Two

43. "With letters" has to do with the themes of the play, and Shakespeare knew of its importance to the structure, and I doubt if any stage manager ("Prompter," the Elizabethans called him) would have noticed or cared to put this in.
Therefore I suspect--and, as usual, cannot prove--that the text of All's Well is very close to Shakespeare's original manuscipt.
44. Florence is at war with Sienna. Wars between the city-states of Italy were common from the Middle Ages right up to the First World War. Outside powers--France, Austria, the Holy Roman Empire and Spain, among others--were frequently invited in to fight for one side or another. Dante (the poet) was a cavalry soldier for Florence.
"By the ears" is a collquial term meaning "in a fight." Shakespeare has taken pains to draw the King as a normal human being, who talks like a human being, not like a cut-out or pasteboard king.
45. The King says "No" to France's participation in the war.

46. The King says "Yes" to Frenchmen's participation in the war. One of the themes of the play is that No Turns to Yes.

47. The King is kind and means kindly towards Bertram, but his first speech probably ruffles Bertram's feathers. The first word is "youth," which reminds Bertram of the fact that everyone regards him as callow, and the speech goes on to discuss Bertram's father, which empasizes what Bertram has been told all his life: that any good qualities he has come only from his being the son of Count Rossillion.

48. Bertram has yet again heard his father praised. He isn't really being compared to his father, because he himself isn't mentioned.

49. "With him" as opposed to "with you, Bertram"--at least that's what Bertram hears.

50.  "After my flame lacks oil"--Shakespeare has introduced another of the many little flames that burn throughout the text, so that we will keep in mind the great fire that waits for us if we make too many wrong choices.

51.  This is beyond mere politeness; it's a wonderful, loving comment from the King and (as we will see) significant to the play's construction. Bertram is used to being ignored and abused, and I doubt if the King's remark has much effect on him.

Notes for All's Well that Ends Well Act One Scene Three

52.  You can probably tell from this speech why, in the made-up morality play, I assumed this character's name was Humility. The actor, Ward Nixon, persuaded me that his name in the morality would in fact be Discretion, and so I changed it.
Discretion shall preserve thee, understanding shall keep thee: --Proverbs 2:11
53.  In the first part of his sentence Lavatch mentions the probable damnation of the rich--a frequent Biblical theme--see Lazarus and the Rich Man--and in the second part of his sentence, Lavatch introduces the subject of his proposed immoral partnership with "Isbel" (whom we never meet). The Countess has to define this partnership as a marriage.
Shakespeare says elsewhere in the play that human beings are woven of strands of good and evil. In Lavatch the contrasting strands are very apparent--although his "evil" is mostly silliness.
54barnes = bairnes = children

55.  The World, the Flesh and the Devil are traditionally the three instigators to evil. In The Castle of Perseverance each has his own high scaffold from which he descends to make trouble for Mankind.

56.  Obviously Lavatch is not of a rank to be addressed as "your worship," but the Countess enjoys her banter with him. "Your worship" was a title given to anybody worthy of veneration but especially to magistrates.
In elevating his station, the Countess may be imitating the way Elizabeth's courtiers behaved toward Monarcho (see note 22. above).
57ears = ploughs

58Charbon: from the French chair bonne = "good meat," labeling the puritan as a meat-eater

59Poysam: from the French poisson = fish, labelling the Catholic (papist) as a fish-eater.
Lavatch cheerily points out that all men, of whatever religion, are united by their ability to be cuckolded.
60.  The prophet Lavatch most resembles is Jeremiah; Jeremiah regularly predicted bad things, including the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians. Our King Zedekiah tired of his depressing harangues and had him imprisoned in a cistern, hoping Jeremiah would drown in the mud. The Countess has a much kindlier attitude towards Lavatch, as we can see in this scene and shall see again in IV.5.

61next way = nearest way, quickest way

62.  The cuckoo of the British Islands lays its egg in the nest of smaller birds, and then flies off to leave the foster parents to raise the brood parasite fledgling. The cuckoo's larger size and appetite frequently causes the death of the other baby birds in the nest--the parents spend all their time feeding the voracious cuckoo and their own young starve. Shakespeare wrote in King Lear:
For, you trow, nuncle,
          The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long,
          That it's had it head bit off by it young.     (Lr. I.4.205-7)

The word cuckold, the demeaning term for the husband of an unfaithful wife, which is the meaning Lavatch refers to, derives from the word cuckoo. I think the meaning of Lavatch's little song is, "You may or may not get married, but if you marry, you're certain to be made a cuckold," and he apparently believes that cuckoldry will be his own fate.
63.  Hunter thinks that this is a corrupt and truncated stanza of a ballad "The Lamentations of Hecuba and the Ladies of Troye," which was registered for publication in the Stationers Register on August 1, 1586. The ballad itself has disappeared.
All I can deduce is that in the first four lines Lavatch is reminding us that Helena is beautiful, as was her namesake, Helen of Troy, and in the rest of the stanza is making the point that, in a world which is mostly evil (one of Lavatch's favorite themes), Helena is the rare good woman.
64Tithe is a form of "tenth," the portion of agricultural or other produce due to the priests under Mosaic law (Leviticus 27:30: "And all the tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land, or of the fruit of the tree, is the Lord's: it is holy unto the Lord"), a custom ultimately adopted into Christian tradition.
Lavatch seems to be saying that if Helena were presented as the tithe, the "one good in ten," she would certainly be satisfactory. Lavatch also seems to be saying that the birth of a good woman is as rare as an earthquake or the appearance of a comet.
65.  I presume this is a very gentle gibe at the Countess, who is Lavatch's boss.

66.  Lavatch is further describing Helena. She is no puritan--we know that from her conversation with Parolles. And she has concealed her "big heart," her love for Bertram, with her humility. She's common, not noble, and she is obsessed with the idea that she is therefore not worthy of Bertram.

67sithence = "seeing that"; OED says this was a very common usage between 1550 and 1650, and the date of this play is about 1603-4, and can't be later than 1608 (Hunter).

68.  I don't think the Steward's news is any surprise for the Countess. Parolles knows of Helena's love for Bertram. The entire population of the chateau has probably watched Helena trailing after Bertram from the time they were both old enough to walk. But it does give the Countess an excuse to act.

69.  "What a charmingly poetic line! But what does it mean?" There are several possibilities:
A. I looked like Helena when I was her age, or I wore the same dress, or I wore my hair like that;

B. I had a turbulent youth, as Helena seems to be having;

C. I was exactly like her, "even so," because like her I was in love with somebody I couldn't marry because of the difference in our stations.
The correct answer, as we shall see, is C. See the next note. But it is hard to figure out the sense of this entire speech. The Countess' thoughts are in a turmoil. See the next.

70.  The shock of the thought in the Countess' first line so distracts her that her iambic pentameter falls apart. This line has six complete feet.

1 2 3   4   5   6  
 if EV-  er WE are NA- ture's THESE are OURS this THORN

71on't = on it = from it

72. The Countess is not, so far as we know, Helena's mother. This is her way of opening the conversation. It has a violent effect on Helena--this line has only three feet. I assume that the pause comes before Helen speaks, since it takes her a moment to recover her senses and answer. The Countess may have anticipated Helen's reaction, since she immediately takes advantage of it to continue the conversation.
I once had a graduate student in class (Hi, there, Wendy!) who, whenever I asked the class for their first impression of a Shakespeare play, replied, "Aw, it's just another play about girls with no mothers." This characterization seems to apply to Helena.
73. This line is one of the reasons that I assume Bertram's birth was difficult.

74Iris, the messenger of the gods in Greek mythology, was the personification of the rainbow. Helen's tears are apparently breaking up the light into colors as would a prism.

75.  Shaw called the Countess "the most beautiful old woman's part ever written" (Shaw on Shakespeare, p. 10). He seems to have left a few components of her character out. The Countess is very, very rough in her efforts to get Helen to admit that she is in love with Bertram, at one point scalding her with the accusation "Only sin and hellish obstinacy tie thy tongue!" Yet she says early on that she intends to help Helen to her goal, and ultimately does so. Why, then, is she so hard on Helen?
I nagged above (69) that the Countess had gone through Helen's experience: she fell in love with somebody who was above her station. In the Countess' case, it didn't turn out happily. Somebody--probably her father--discovered that the Countess was planning to elope with her higher-ranking love. The Countess' life was probably made miserable by repoaches and recriminations and in addition she was instantly married off to a perfectly nice man of her own station whom she didn't love. So the Countess is determined that Helen's story will have a happy ending, but it reminds her of her own escapade, how she was violently reprimanded and severely punished. While the Countess is trying to help Helen, she is also consumed with the fear she feels at defying remembered authority, even by proxy. Her roughness to Helen arises from her own absolute terror. I can confirm most of this from the text, and so can you.

And Helen is terrified, too! She feels that she has sinned by falling in love with Bertram, her superior, and that she's going to be heavily punished for her presumption and implied ambition, maybe even by death (see Helen's first soliloquy). Ambition, to the Elizabethans, was a vice--at least in theory. In practice scholars have shown that Elizabethans were as ambitious in their daily lives as people were in any other age. See Tillyard. I'll put in the page number as soon as I find my own copy.
76. I think the doubled M (Charles Tuthill elegantly calls these "abutting consonants") indicates a stammer on Helen's part: she is so flustered that she forgets to address the Countess respectfully ("madam") and has to add the word on.

77. This line is only two feet long. I suspect Helen takes a long pause after speaking it, waiting to see if her horrid confession is going to enrage the Countess to the point of having her flogged, run out of the province, or merely drowned in the duck-pond.

77A. I learned something about the play's structure as I went along, and it is humiliating to have to admit it, and to put in a footnote with a LETTER in its number, but it's better to confess my ignorance and try to correct things. Here goes:
At footnote [3] I pointed out, with a table even, that Shakespeare had embedded the "good vs. evil" structure into the very dialogue. But I was not considering the fact that in this play, the good and the evil (or at least, "not so good") strands of human life are woven together to produce a result. And Shakespeare built this structure into the dialogue, and it is particularly prominent in this scene.

Here are three of Helena's lines that contain the synthesis; my table will not completely satisfy the adherents of Hegel and Fichte, but I hope you get my point:

"My friends were poor, but honest; so's my love."

"I follow him not / By any token of presumptuous suit / Nor would I have him till I do deserve him; / Yet never know how that desert should be." (Desert means "deserving," not a sandy wasteland.)

"I know I love in vain, strive against hope; / Yet in this captious and intenible sieve / I still pour in the waters of my love"
Thesis Antithesis Synthesis
My friends were poor But honest So's my love
I follow him not by presumptuous suit Nor would I have him till I do deserve him Yet never know how that desert should be
I know I love in vain strive against hope I still pour in the waters of my love

78. "that your Dian / Was both herself and Love"; Hunter intelligently paraphrases this as "You remained true to your chastity even under the influence of love." Diana was the virgin Roman goddess of childbirth and women. Bertram's going to fall in love with a chaste girl named Diana when he gets to Florence.

79. The voluble Countess, you will note, has been silent for a long time--Helen's speech is 27 lines long. Helen's fearful speech further aggravates her own fears as Helen aggravates the Countess' memories of her own adventure, and her subsequent punishment. But the Countess is tough: she pulls herself together and continues her inquisition of Helen.
Shakespeare is generally considered the originator of the phrase "poor but honest," but the same sentiment is expressed in Proverbs 19: "Better is the poor that walketh in his integrity, than he that is perverse in his lips, and is a fool." This monologue of Helen's is so famous that it appears on what I call Karen's Dreaded List (Karen Kohlhaas is a wonderful monologue and audition coach). Do not despair. Helen has even better monologues than this one.
80. Following Hunter, I put these three speeches together to make one line of iambic pentameter. In fact the result is a six-footed monster. The Countess, unconsciously but scrupulously reproducing the severity of the interrogation she herself underwent some 18 (or more) years previously, sticks in the warning to Helen not to lie, even though there's no room for it in the verse.
"How, prithee, do you presume to know that the Countess underwent her interrogation 18 years previously?" I surmise that shortly after the Countess' transgression was discovered, she was married off to a proper match--then Count Rossillion--and that shortly after that--nine months or so--she gave birth to Bertram. Bertram, as noted above, is not yet 18.
81. The line is only three feet long. I assume that when Helen says nothing after the question mark, after a pause the Countess prods her roughly with "Speak!" And even then there's probably another pause before poor Helen can continue her shamefaced confession.

82. There is a theory among Shakespeare nuts--of whom I am a flagrant example--that lines made entirely of one-syllable words are meant to be said slowly. That theory could certainly apply to this line, where the truth is being dragged out of the reluctant Helena.
Much of the dialogue between the Countess and Helen in this speech supports my theory that one of the play's themes is "The Dumb Are Made to Speak."
83Receipt = a formula or prescription (OED)

84. This line is only three feet long. The implied pause has nothing to do with Helen. The Countess pauses before finally making up her mind to send Helen into the maelstrom through which she herself passed, an experience which broke the Countess' heart and made her whole life a disappointment. But this time not only are the luckiest stars in heaven on Helen's side, the greatest earthly authorities are, too.

Helen's ready and polite response is a sign that she has heard the change in the Countess' tone: the Countess is no longer accusing her of being a scoundrelly liar, but merely asking--perhaps hopefully--if Helen's plan will actually work. This is a slight variant on one of the play's themes: "No Turns into Yes."
85Exeunt is Latin for "they go out." In Shakespeare if it's unqualified by listing the exiting characters, it means, "they all go out," clearing the stage and marking the end of a scene.
The Countess probably marches out immediately, preparing to write letters and checks on Helen's behalf. Helen may take a second to close her jaw and follow her, since I assume she's stunned by Wwhat appears to be a complete reversal of the Countess' attitude.

Notes for All's Well that Ends WellAct Two Scene One

86Hunter has a note that discusses whether the sick King should be carried in a chair. At line 64 Lafew's remark seems to indicate that the King cannot stand up. Wilford Leach, whose work I admired very much, in his New York Shakespeare Festival Central Park production had the King brought in in a wheelchair.

87. The King's double farewell indicates that there are two groups of volunteer soldiers, one group leaving to fight for Siena, the other for Florence. This makes perfect sense for the structure of a morality play, which is based on the structure of good against evil. Florence is the side of goodness and right and Siena the side of evil, as we shall see in III.1. In a traditional morality, one of the Brothers Dumain would be on each side; but in Shakespeare's adaptation, where all the characters are good, both Brothers Dumain are on the side of Florence, the just.

88. This line is only three feet long. I assume this implies a pause while the King considers, and rejects, with a very definite "No," the idea that he might ever be cured.
In the Folio, in the line above this, that phrase is spelled "well entred," which may be the way it was pronounced in Shakespeare's time. I strongly recommend you use the contemporary pronunciation, "well-entered" if you don't want to give your audience an unpleasant shock. I assume that "after well-entered soldiers" means "having successfully completed our apprenticeship as soldiers."
89. "Those bated that inherit but the fall / Of the last monarchy": Hunter has a long note that includes a discussion of what Shakespeare meant by "bated," and concludes that the passage is a reference to Daniel 2:31-33 (below). McEachern silently assumes "bated" means "excepted" and defines "inherit" as "responsible for." In the context I don't think either explanation is entirely satisfactory, though I'm incapable of coming up with anything better. The actor in rehearsal will probably come up with his own interpretation.
31 Thou, O king, sawest, and behold a great image. This great image, whose brightness was excellent, stood before thee; and the form thereof was terrible.
32 This image's head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass,
33 His legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay. (Daniel 2:31-33 KJV)
90. And what would the King do if he had his health back? Why, he'd go out and seek the company of pretty girls. That, at least, is the first thought that comes into his mind. I imagine that daily he has his attendants wheel him over to the window, where he hopes to spy a pretty girl strolling through the Cours du Carrousel. This predilection of the King's will prove of vital importance in exactly 51 lines.
No, I do not mean that the King is a predator, as will be seen in his treatment of Helen. Measure for Measure and this play, because of their similarities in structure, are generally regarded as twins, or at least siblings. But the Duke in Measure for Measure is a real predator, who stage-manages Isabel's relationship with Angelo and the rescue of her brother with the sole purpose of forcing the very, very unwilling Isabel into his bed.

Hunter points out that when Bertram lusts after Diana, he is falling into exactly the trap the King is warning the departing troops about.
91. There is no stage direction in the Folio, and according to Hunter editors are kept a coil whether the King retires or not, and who, if anybody, goes with him. It's clear that he takes himself out of the scene, even if he only goes upstage.

92Spark: probably Parolles means, "smart young man." The word frequently had amorous connotations, which idea fits Parolles' feelings for Bertram.

93. "Kept a coil" = fussed over

94Forehorse is the lead horse, and smock means "woman." Considering this line with the next one, I think Bertram means, "leading a woman around a dance floor." He also says "dance" in the last line of this speech.

95. "Creaking my shoes on the plain masonry": Hunter says this means "making a useless noise on the smoothly tiled floors." I think it should be considered with the previous line, and that it means "dancing instead of fighting."

96. "But one to dance with"; Hunter says that Elizabethans wore a light, decorative sword on the dance floor, one which was not suitable for combat.

97. Oh, there is not! There's no honor in any theft. Shakespeare is allowing Captain Dumain to be jocular so that he can reiterate one of the themes of the play: "The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together" (IV.3.68; see the Introduction). Besides, Captain Dumain does not take Bertram--or his intention--seriously, as he's about to show.

98accessary = one who accedes to something, often to a crime. Accessory was the adjective, and ultimately became the more common noun having the same meaning.
But note that Captain Dumain concludes his speech with "and so farewell." He does not really expect to see the weak-willed Bertram in the Italian wars, and lets Bertram know that with his "farewell," which is another insult to Bertram.
99. Bertram imagines himself being torn apart. Hunter thinks this remark is merely a courtly affectation. I don't think Bertram has the sophistication necessary to produce such affectations, and that he really means it. He is desperate to be accepted as a man, and is forever treated like a boy.

100. Bertram receives the usual treatment: both kindly Captains Dumain ignore his anguished remark, and turn from him to say farewell to Parolles. This is yet another insult to Bertram.

101Hunter describes sweet as "one of the most generally ridiculed affectations of courtly language." I have to take his word for it, since I cannot find this sense in the OED nor in Partridge.

102. The effect of this line, with its sonorous repetitive use of bombastic three-syllable words--"regiment," "Spinii," "Spurio," "cicatrice," "sinister"--tends to be hilarious. And Shakespeare hints to us that the entire anecdote is a lie by using the name "Spurio," which looks a lot like "spurious." Hunter believes similarly, only he has better scholarly authority. A cicatrice is the scar of a healed wound (OED).

103F2 printed the line as "Stay: the King." But the King does not join in the conversation, and Parolles' next speech shows no acknowledgement of the King's presence. I think the line means "Stay here and attend on the King," and I have authority from the OED: "To remain in a place or in others' company (as opposed to going on or going away)."

104. "take a more dilated farewell" = "say a longer goodbye"; (dilated = prolonged); Parolles is almost incapable of uttering a simple sentence, but we can gather that he is praising the Lords who are setting off to the Italian wars. It is in keeping with his morality role as the Evil Angel to give Bertrand bad advice: "though the devil lead the measure, such are to be followed."
Note that Parolles criticizes the quality that makes Bertram an unsatisfactory romantic hero: he doesn't speak enough. As we discussed, this is probably a result of the lifelong advice given him by his mother, "Be checked for silence, but never tasked for speech," discussed at note [9].
105. The Folio doesn't have a stage direction for Lafew to kneel, but editors assume it's necessary since the King immediately tells him to stand up.
But why does Lafew kneel and beg the King's pardon before even opening the conversation? In fact there's a very good reason that Lafew kneels every time he enters the King's presence, and we'll discuss it later.
106. The Folio has "see"; the editor Lewis Theobald changed it to "fee" in his 1733 edition of the Shakespeare plays. The line means, approximately, "I'll hire or pay thee to stand up," by which I think the King is merely giving Lafew permission to stand.

107. The King's instant negative reaction should not surprise us. Lafew told us in the first scene, line 6, that the King had "abandoned his physicians."

108. Lafew is making reference to Aesop's fable about the fox and the grapes. See

109. The canary was a lively Spanish dance thought to have been imported from the Canary Islands.

110. This speech seems to be blather on Lafew's part. He's implying that he just now met Helena, when of course he's known her all her life.

111. "Hey--Shakespeare said the King had given up on doctors." So he did, but he also made it pretty clear that the King still likes girls. Given the chance to have the company of one, he readily accepts it.

112. The King implies that Lafew talks too much. We shall learn the truth of that.

113. The line is short. I assume that the pause occurs when Helena, actually faced with the King, immediately tries to flee, and has to be dragged back into the room by Lafew. And see the next note.

114. In Troilus and Cressida (1601-2), the play which scholars think immediately preceded this one (AWW 1602-3), Cressida's uncle Pandar brought the lovers together--and there was the same business in that play (as described in note ([112]) when Cressida, meeting Troilus for the first time, tries to run away, and has to be dragged back by Pandar. Regular theater-goers might well have remembered the business from the previous play.

115follow = accompany, serve or depend upon (OED).

116. This line is short. I do not know if Helen takes an instant to gather her courage before speaking to the King, or pauses after she has blurted out her answer, or something else. Since the next line is also short, I assume Helena is intimidated by the King, and her shyness makes her speech jerky.

117. The King picks up his cue instantly, probably trying to move the conversation along. Please to remember that he's slowly dying a painful death, and all activity is a trial to him. Helen, catching his mood, becomes more businesslike.

118receipt = prescription

119triple = third; it is possible (but doubtful) that Shakespeare knew of the Eastern (Hindu, Taoist) belief that the third eye was a sign of extraordinary spiritual wisdom.

120malignant = exceptionally harmful (of a disease); apparently not used of tumors until the 18c.

121appliance = administering (of the prescription)

122empiric = an unskilled (medical) practitioner, even a quack

123. The King has declined Helen's aid with a polite but definite "No." But notice that he has begun to rhyme, which, as I mentioned above (at [42]), is a sign that Divine Grace has begun to work in him.

124thought and thank = have the same origin, and the original meaning of "thank" was "thought" (OED).
But from what we know of Helen's state of mind, she will probably not go back to Rossillion. She will probably hang herself from the nearest tree.
125. The King continues his polite remarks. He doesn't say much, except to further deprecate Helen's skill as a physician. The important thing is that the scene has gone fully into rhymed verse. Helen instantly recognizes the King's mood, and continues in rhyme.

126. "set up your rest"; Hunter says this is a term from the card game Primero (fashionable 1530-1640) and means "bet everything."

127. I have blathered about rhymed couplets (particularly at [42]) indicating that the characters who speak it (in this case, both Helen and the King) are in a state of grace (although it takes Helen a moment to understand the King's mood or, to continue the hypothesis, his spiritual state). In that case, one might ask, why is the writing so bad? In this crucial moment, couldnt Shakespeare have done better than to rhyme "try" with "remedy," and "finisher" with "minister"?

I think the answer is that, divine grace or not, these characters are human. Even immersed in grace, they are imperfect. Shakespeare couldn't bring himself to write perfect verse for mortals, even in this situation.
I could certainly be wrong, but as evidence I offer Pericles, in which everybody agrees that the verse of the first two acts (or more) is of inferior quality. and, as Coleridge wrote, "At first he proceeded with indifference, now and then only troubling himself to put in a thought or an image, but as he advanced he interested himself in his employment, and the last two acts are almost altogether by him." Well--no. Pericles is about the journey of pagan man into Christian grace (whose presence is represented by Marina), and Shakespeare saw no reason to improve the text he was given to perfection while he was writing about still imperfect man.

I apologize for the fact that I cannot give a reference for the Coleridge quotation, but I have warned the reader multiple times that I am a snake-oil salesman.
128. "I am not an imposter, that proclaim myself against the level of mine am"; Hunter says this means "I am not a braggart who boasts he'll hit the target even before aiming."

129. The King has not said "Yes," but he has stopped saying "No," and his momentary wavering has given Helen her opportunity.

130Hunter puts Helen's line together with the King's above to make one line of ragged iambic pentameter. That's certainly possible, but it's also possible that Helen's line is short because she takes a pause to collect her powers before launching into the incantation. "So which is it?" "Probably it has to be decided by the actor in performance." See the next note.

131.  Shakespeare was fond of putting real magic on stage, and he had a marked preference for magic that took the form of a Christian miracle. That's what we're about to see. In production, I've always had Helen put her hands on the King while she says this speech. Here we go:

"The greatest Grace lending grace"
There are several versions of a geocentric universe, but I'm going to assume that the one Shakespeare has Helen invoking corresponds with Dante's. Helen sends her incantation out to the farthest sphere, the Empyrean, where God, the greatest Grace, dwells, according to Dante (Paradiso). The Empyrean is a circle beyond the (fixed) stars and is not shown in the diagram below (which I chose for its clarity; retrieved November 27, 2016).

132.  "Ere twice the horses of the sun shall bring / Their fiery torcher"
There are two things to note in these two lines: Helen has brought the power from the Empyrean down to the sphere of the sun, and; she has specified that the King will be cured within two days.

Hunter doesn't like the Folio word "torcher" and substitutes "coacher."
133.  Hesperus is Venus as the setting evening star. Helena has brought her magic down to the orbit of Venus, and repeated her promise that the King's cure will take only two days.

134Glass = hourglass. Either Shakespeare is imagining that a pilot's glass measured a two-hour interval, or Helen has reduced the projected time of the King's cure to one day. The main point is that the power of her spell is now on earth, apparently approaching by sea.

135Thievish minutes: the minutes are thievish because usually they steal life. But in this case, each passing minute brings the King closer to health. Helen uses the word "thief" two more times in this play, each time with reference to herself. So a "thief," in Helen's use of the word, is always a good thing (if we consider Helen herself as being good).

136. Helen's incantation is complete and divine power is working inside the King's body, driving out his infirmity. Note, please, Helen's use of the word free. Shakespeare often uses the word to mean "free from sin." So Helen's magic, being of divine origin, has not only cured the King but also absolved him.

137. Very approximately: "Let me be called a whore, let bawdy songs be made up about my promiscuity." See the next note.

138Vild is an obsolete variant of "vile."
This is a no-lose bet for Helen. First, she knows that the King is cured, since she's performed the incantation. Second, if for some unlikely reason he hasn't been cured, she won't be allowed to get the favor she wants (Bertram for a husband), and she's already told us that she has no desire to live without Bertram. She's been trying to commit suicide since the first scene. Capital punishment holds no terror for her.
139. This looks like a quid pro quo, but it isn't. Whatever the King may answer, Helen has already cured him.

140Hunter says the line means, "Will you balance my request with your fulfilment of it?" Nothing in the OED seems to contradict him.

141. Helen quickly reassures the King that she has no intention of asking for the Dauphin's hand. Probably Helen saw that the King turned white as a sheet when she brought up the subject of a husband, for reasons which we will discuss.

Notes for All's Well that Ends WellAct Two Scene Two

142. A director: "God, this is a long scene, and nothing happens in it, except at the end, when the Countess sends Lavatch to Paris. And Lavatch may go to Paris, and he gives Helen the note, but otherwise he has no contact with her and Bertram. Besides, another Falstaff Lavatch is not. Let's cut the whole scene."
You're the director, and the writer and his agent are both dead, so you can do what you want (and you will, as I know from experience). But I think you syhould give the scene a chance. It may help you to get an idea of what the play is about.
143. I assume the Countess proposes to catechize Lavatch about his behavior before sending him as her messenger to the court (he apparently already knows that's his destination).

144. "Highly fed and lowly taught (or bred)" has become proverbial since Shakespeare wrote this play, and maybe it was proverbial before that. It is sometimes applied to the spoiled children of the rich, who are brought up in luxury (and well fed) but not taught manners.
but = "only" in Lavatch's usage
145. "put it off: "to pass off for what it is not" (OED). But Hunter points out that Lavatch is merely enlarging on and rebutting the Countess' "put off" in her speech. Whatever the etymology, Lavatch means that he will easily succeed at court, for reasons which he is about to explain.

146. "make a leg = bow (OED)

147. "That's a bountiful answer that fits all questions = "that's a generous and robust penis that can satisfy every eager vagina." The conversation turns bawdy, and the Countess has made the first remark composed of a double entendre. The Countess will explain shortly where this impulse of hers comes from.
If you think I'm distorting the Countess' meaning, please consider Parolles' last speech in II.3, discussed at footnote 200.
148. Lavatch began with men ("serve all men") and continues the discussion of male anatomy, but he emphasizes the buttocks. Most of the buttock descriptions are obvious, but not even the OED knows the meaning of quatch.

149. The Countess seems stuck on this particular image, mentioned at  [147].

150. Lavatch's speech abounds in sexual images.
ten groats = since a groat was nominally worth four pence, Lavatch apparently thinks that 40 pennies was a suitable fee for a lawyer;

French crown = five shillings (with a sexual reference to the "French disease," syphilis, which caused balding), a payment which Lavatch apparently thinks is suitable payment for a:

taffety punk = a prostitute (punk) dressed in silk;

Tib's rush: the rush shaped into a ring worn by the country girl Tib; slipping it over Tom's forefinger is obviously symbolic of coitus;

pancake for Shrove Tuesday: pancakes are a traditional food for the last day before Lent;

nail to his hole: another image of coitus;

cuckold to his horn: cuckolds, husbands of unfaithful wives, were said to grow horns (OED says from 1430 to 1942);

a scolding quean to a wrangling knave; a quean is a whore, and I presume that the wrangling knave is her quarrelsome customer;

the nun's lip to the friar's mouth sounds like illicit fun in the convent;

as the pudding to his skin; a close relationship, not necessarily sexual, but Isabel uses a similar image in the conversation in which Angelo falls in love with her (MFM II.2: "a kind of medicine in itself / That skins the vice o' th' top").
151. Lavatch continues to be obsessed with buttocks.

152. The Countess continues to be obsessed with penis size.

153. The Countess implies that in her youth she was frivolous--even foolish.

154OED says that "Lord have mercy" (and its vulgar variants) was an expression of astonishment. Lavatch uses "O Lord, sir," according to the context, to mean either "yes" or "no," and it eliminates the need for him to give an unambiguous answer.
In this case Lavatch's "O Lord, sir" in answer to "Are you a courtier?" means approximately "Can you doubt it?" or more simply, "Yes!" But he didn't have to tell a lie, so he has not broken his own idiosyncratic moral code. He continues to play on the phrase "put off."
155. In the game, this sounds to Lavatch like the beginning of a request for a loan or gift of money, and his sequent "O Lord, sir" is a preface to the pleading of his inability to help.

156Homely = unsophisticated, simple, plain (OED)

157. "O Lord, sir!" = "Bring on the meat!"

158. This sudden, violent change of topic represents what happened to the Countess. At some point in her life, when she had strong sexual appetites and a frivolous attitude about them--at least she now thinks she was being frivolous, as mentioned at [153]--she was suddenly pulled up short and severely reprimanded. I doubt that whipping was involved, but her punishment in fact was worse, as we shall see. See Backstory.

159housewife = hussy, "A light, worthless, or pert woman or girl" (OED). The unlikely combination "noble housewife" reinforces the play's theme that conflicting characteristics make up a human being. See [97].
The Countess has concluded her game with Lavatch which, I reiterate, is a capsule version of what happened in her life. She was happy, carefree and had sexual interests, and she was pulled up abruptly and severely punished. She also goes from relaxed verse into formal iambic pentameter to give Lavatch his marching orders.
160. Whatever Lavatch means by this, he's not really in Paris yet. See the next note.

161Haste you again: Hunter thinks this means "hurry back." Since Lavatch's first attempt to get to Paris hasn't gotten him anywhere, I think the Countess may be suggesting that he try again.

Notes for All's Well that Ends WellAct Two Scene Three

162. The dialogue between Parolles and Lafew is repeated attempts by each to interrupt and top the other. Of course it makes sense in the morality structure; they represent Satan and the Vice, and they should be chummy. As usual, Bertram can't get a word in edgewise.

163Miracles are past: according to John H. Walter, editor of the Arden Second Series Henry V, it was Protestant doctrine that the age of miracles was past (H5 I.2.67, note). Catholics, of course, witness the miracle of transubstantiation every time they take communion (, ret. 12/24/2016)), and Catholic saints can't be canonized unless they've performed miracles. Shakespeare refutes this Protestant "no-more-miracles" doctrine at least twice in his plays; Henry V performs a miracle (albeit a horrid one) at Agincourt, and we have just seen Helena heal the King.

164. Lafew says that our proper attitude should not be a glib secularism, but a pervasive awe at the miracles we see around us.

165Artists = those who are expert in the art; we would say "scientists."

166Galen (129-216AD) was a notable Greek who practiced medicine under the Roman Empire; Wikipedia says he was "the most accomplished of all the medical researchers of antiquity." Paracelsus (1493-1541AD) ("beyond Celsus") was a physician who became famous--indeed, notorious--for trusting more to his own observation than the authorities of antiquity (such as Galen, whose works he publicly burnt).
Both Lafew and Parolles are showing off their scholarship (and verbosity), and you will notice that when Parolles can't keep up, he interjects the equivalent of "Me, too!"
167. Broadside ballads, printed on one side of a single leaf, were very popular in the 16th and 17th centuries; apparently they were frequently written to commemorate some notable current event. Falstaff threatens to have one printed praising his own exploits to discomfit Prince John in Henry IV, Part 2, and Autolycus enchants all the attendees at the sheep-shearing with one in The Winter's Tale by singing one. Apparently one has already been written and printed to celebrate Helena's curing of the King.

168Dolphin is English for dauphin (French), the title of the King's son and heir, who bore a dolphin in his coat of arms. The King mentioned that he had a son in his last line in I.2. Lustier, the comparative of lusty, is a direct relation of the German lustig, here meaning "healthy, strong, vigorous." The word also had sexual connotations from at least Chaucer's time (OED). See [171] below.

169'Fore me: OED says it's an exclamatory interjection, and (I say) were the play more secular and profane, Lafew might have cried "by God!" or "'Fore God!" as in fact he will in about 10 lines.

170facinerious = extremely wicked; in Latin a facinus, related to facere, was a deed, usually a bad deed.
The word also exists in a form with one less syllable, facinorous, but we would expect Parolles to use the most complicated language he can think of.
171Lustig is German, not English, again meaning "healthy, strong, vigorous" (but with the sexual connotation). By Dutchman Lafew means "German."

172Coranto = a lively French dance from courante (Fr.).
Note that the King, restored to health, is glad to be able to dance, an act which Bertram abominated (see [94]).
173. Hunter says that mor du vinager (mort du vinaigre in correct French = "death of vinegar") is "meaningless," but allows that "Case, in the Yale edition, says that 'mort du vinaigre' means 'by the crucifixion,' but gives no authority" (Hunter, p. 52). The authority is that on the cross, when the soldiers heard Jesus say, "I thirst," ". . . straightway one of them ran, and took a spunge, and filled it with vinegar, and put it on a reed, and gave him to drink" (Matt. 47:28, but the incident is in all four Gospels). "Death of vinegar" indeed.
Lafew's answer "'Fore God, I think so" is disingenuous. He knows perfectly well it's Helen; he's the one who brought her in to cure the King. It's also possible that he's being tongue-in-cheek; by now he has found out Parolles' imposture as a man of arms, and enjoys having fun at Parolles' expense.
174Marry, to each but one: I think that Helena is warning the lords against divorcing and remarrying rather than against bigamy. Divorcing and remarrying is forbidden as an act of adultery in all three synoptic Gospels (e.g. Matt. 19:9). Helena will refer to it as "deadly divorce" in the last scene in the play.

175I'd give bay Curtal and his furniture: "I'd give my reddish-brown horse and his saddle and bridle." A curtal is a horse with a bobbed tail.

176My mouth no more were broken than these boys' = "I wish I still was young enough to have all my teeth"

177And writ as little beard: "I wish I were as young as these beardless boys."
Writ is an unusual word--here it merely means "had"--but Shakespeare is at pains in this play to emphasize the importance of the written word. See the Introduction and Letters.
178. The short line indicates that Helena has a big pause, maybe before she speaks the word, maybe again afterwards. As usual, in a case like this, it has to be worked out between the actor and the director. Since the actor has to say the line, she should prevail.

179. There is no short line, but the next line begins with a trochee (the reverse of an iamb; the stress comes on the first syllable), and that line has twelve syllables, indicating, I think, that Helena either blurts it out or is at least very distracted by having to choose. Helena has suddenly and completely lost her nerve and turns back to the King to ask to be let out of her reward. But any smart actress will figure out how to play it, and a smart director won't get in her way. I like pointing out the obvious, that's all.

180Dian = Diana, the Roman virgin goddess, also mentioned at  [78]. In agreeing to choose a husband, Helena is abandoning her virgin way of life, symbolized here by her imaginary worship of Diana.

181. "Yes, I'll marry you!" Note that every one of the lords seems willing, eager, even salivating to marry Helena--and this before the King has promised to make her a rich woman.

182Ames-ace is snake-eyes, each die showing the single spot. Lafew is being ironic and saying something very approximately equivalent to, "I'd rather be among the contenders for Helena's hand than play Russian roulette." No paraphrase is going to be as good as what Shakespeare wrote.

183. Helena seems to be saying that the honor of the Lord she is addressing is too great for her even to consider marrying him. By honor I assume she implies "rank," which would fit the themes of the play.

184. I assume the Lord is trying to say that he wants no one better than Helen.

185. The Turks used castrated men as guards for the sultan's harem.

186. Helen continues to use the pretense that she is not good enough to be the bride of the Lord she addresses.

187. "My father paid for her upbringing," implying that Helena's family was so poor that Bertram's father had to support them.

188. "I'd prefer eternal damnation."
This shocking remark of Bertram's causes the King to pause (as you can see if you count the syllables in this line and the next). In the world of the play it's a terrible insult to the King, as well as to Helena. In the morality play, Helena ultimately stands in for Jesus, and the King stands in for God the Father. In rejecting Helena, Bertram, Sinful Man, rejects God's love and chooses his own damnation, as he himself asserts.

Note that the King, in the face of this horrific insult, does not fly immediately into a rage, although he will later. Shakespeare modeled the character of the King after the information he found in the Bible: "The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy." Psalm 103:8.
189. This line has six complete feet.
1 2 3   4   5   6  
 'tis ON-  ly TI- tle THOU- dis DAIN'ST in HER the WHICH

The Countess' line, scanned at footnote [70], also has six complete feet. Shakespeare is using the verse to make it clear that the King and the Countess, when thrust into similar circumstances (the Countess compelling Helen to confess her love, the King compelling Bertram to accept Helena), share certain feelings.

190. "Where titles puff us up (swell's = "swell us") without virtue"

191a dropsied honor = an honor swollen by disease, like a human being with dropsy

192. The King is saying, approximately, that amy honor we possess derives from our actions, not our forebears, Bertram is going to ignore this counsel; he's been taught, his whole life, that he himself only has value because he is the son of a nobleman.

193dust and damned oblivion: I have already suggested that by the time he wrote this play, Shakespeare was an atheist. He loved the stories and values of the Christian religion; he did not believe in an afterlife. This is one of the many passages in this play that express Shakespeare's belief.

2998. I offer this line and Parolles next speech as evidence that part of his interest in Bertram is amorous and sexual.
Well, why not? In the morality play, Parolles and Helena, bad angel and good angel, struggle for Bertram's soul. Shakespeare always took care to write about human beings, not abstractions or mathematical constructs. It was easy for him to see the logic of changing Parolles desire for Bertram into a sexual one (as Helena's of course is).
2999Kicky-wicky: Signet agrees with Partridge that the term derives from the French quelque chose (= "something") and adds that it probably has an obscene meaning as a derogatory term for the female genitalia. Such an explanation would certainly suit Parolles' nature; see below [3000]

3000. Editors' interpretations of this line tend to be hilarious. Kindly Hunter (Arden) says that "these balls bound" means "now you are playing the game properly," and that it is the balls which are hard. New Pelican (McEachern) says that the balls are tennis balls. Signet (Barnet) and Riverside (Evans) ignore the line altogether.
Anybody with any kind of prurient mind can guess that Parolles' excitement at having beaten Helena, the good angel, and going off with Bertram to Italy à deux has aroused Parolles sexually. The balls are Parolles' testicles (this meaning dates from 1325, according to the OED). The noise is like matter, which OED says can mean "pus" (and Shakespeare uses it so in LLL III.1.116), except in this case noise means semen. That which is hard is Bertram's situation, but also Parolles' penis.

Neither Partridge nor the OED lists noise with the definition I have just used, which makes me either an Intrepid Scholar or a Great Scoundrel, but all notoriety is good.


OED Hunter McEachern Partridge