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Written by Timothy Sexton
One of Shakespeare’ artfully delineated “strong women” is the daughter of Gerard de Narbon, a renowned physician. When the king falls under the spell of what has been determined an incurable illness, Helena devises the plan to use a prescription left behind by her father to prove this claim of the king’s condition being a lost cause false. Of course, her primary motive is to follow her beloved Bertram who has left her behind to attend to the court upon the news of his majesty’s illness. Much of the romantic tension driving the plot stems from the fact that while nearly everyone else is won over by her winning ways, Bertram remains an illogical holdout.
Of course, every age follows its own logical conventions regarding the suitability of a mate, and perhaps Bertram’s standoffish attitude toward the universally admired Helena is less a case of lacking logic than it is an example of lacking romantic backbone. Helena may be strong, determined and charismatic, but she’s also a commoner who can offer the ambitious courtier little opportunity for advancements in wealth or status, thus the rejection. Further adding to Bertram’s questionable role as deserving of the love of a woman like Helena is that in addition to being the last to recognize the noble nature of Helena beneath her commoner status, he is also the last to recognize that his best bud Parolles is disloyal liar of spectacular proportions. Bertram is usually recognized as being one of Shakespeare’s comedic leads with the greatest of shortcomings, but typically wins redemption on the basis of his wholesale repentance by the play’s end.
Otherwise known as Bertram’s mother, the Countess is the type of woman who should by all rights have invested in her son the ability to recognize great character. How a guy with this mother should be so blind to the values of a woman like Helena is one of the play’s most notable lapses. Adding to the quality of mercy exhibited by the Countess toward her son is that she also happens to be almost as loyal to Helena and works in tandem with the younger woman to make the romance eventually come off.
Among the many things that this play lacks which has denied it entry into the upper echelon of the Bard’s greatest accomplishments is a fully realized villain. The closest it gets is the cowardly braggart of a soldier Parolles and while he is certainly repulsive, he lacks the strength of character or the depth of wit to become even a memorable second-tier villain. Nevertheless, as a grasshopper among the male ants, he once stood out so strongly that judicious editing placed his subplot into the foreground and denied Helena her proper place as the play’s genuine protagonist.
The King of France
One of the last of the line of Louis this King of France is not. He’s old and frail and thought to be doomed to death as a result of the incurable illness. When Helena arrives with her father prescription that actually does keep him from knocking on death’s door, he proves himself kind and wise as well by recognizing her as the equal of any man on the kingdom and rewarding her for those attributes which resulted in saving his life.
Counselor to the King and close friend to the Countess, Lord Lafeu steps in to try to save face for Bertram in the wake of his unmannered rejection of the king’s new favorite young lady, Helena. More out of friendship to Bertram’s mother than out of any designs on his own ambition, tries to arrange a marriage between his own daughter and Bertram as a means of lessening the king’s outrage toward the young man.
The Brothers Dumaine
The Brothers Dumaine are soldier who try with all their might to convince Bertram of the true nature of Parolles. This comic subplot involving the kidnapping of Parolles and the braggart’s mock-heroic mission to recapture a regimental drum which his highlighted by the two Brothers speaking in phony foreign language is the one so preferred by many early audiences that it became the central focus of the edited-down version routinely mounted for production.
The pretty daughter of a widow who gains a wealthy husband of her own for possessing the abundance of virtue and piety required to recognize in Helena a fellow traveler in the world of strong morals. Her decision to assist Helena in winning Bertram is eventually the cause of another manifestation of the king’s wise and good-hearted nature as she is rewarded for being upright.
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