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SCENE SUMMARY WITH NOTES
ACT II, SCENE 1
This scene opens in the King's palace in Paris. The King is accompanied by Bertram, Parolles, and several young lords who are ready to leave for the Florentine wars. The King exhorts them to fight valiantly in the true French spirit; in a lighter vein, he tells them to watch out for Florentine girls. Bertram, who is not allowed to accompany the lords to battle because of his youth, decides, at the urging of Parolles and others, to sneak off to war.
Parolles and Bertram leave in pursuit of the departing lords after Parolles decides it might be a good idea for them to ingratiate themselves with the other soldiers. In the meantime, Lafeu enters. He kneels before the King and tells him a lady doctor has arrived who believes she can cure him. The King agrees to see her, and Lafeu re-enters with Helena. After Lafeu leaves, Helena introduces herself as the daughter of the famous physician Gerard de Narbon. She tells the King she can cure him with her father's remedy. The King is doubtful that she can succeed, especially when she proposes to cure him within the space of twenty-four hours. Helena strikes a deal with the King that if she is unable to cure him, he can kill her on the spot. But if she succeeds, he must allow her to choose a husband from among the noble bachelors of the court as payment for her services.
This scene is important mostly for the way it depicts first the hero, then the heroine, of the play. The scene opens with Bertram denied a chance at military victory because of his youth. He is petulant, eager, and enthusiastic. He feels left out and rejected by the lords and the King who are used to valors in life. This young impressionability in Bertram is further heightened in the way that Parolles counsels him, advises him, seeks to shape him into the kind of man he would like to be. Parolles, acting as a tempter, persuades Bertram that youth should not stop him; instead he tells his friend to take matters into his own hands and sneak off to battle. Bertram, utterly impressionable and spineless, does everything Parolles tells him to do.
In direct contrast, young, confident, and determined Helena boldly petitions the King for a chance to prove herself. She comes before him, not only young but also a woman, and proposes that he allow her an honest chance to cure him. After some persuading, Helena succeeds in speaking for herself honestly and openly. She strikes up a bold and confident deal with the king, proving that she is not in need of flattering counselors and false praises and suggestions in order to achieve what she wants. If she cures the King, she will be able to choose anyone she wants for a husband; of course, she has Bertram in mind.
Throughout this scene, Helena proves herself to be self-driven, ambitious, and doggedly determined; she knows what she wants and is not afraid to go after it. In sharp contrast, Bertram is weak, easily led, and in need of both confidence and direction; he has no idea of what he really wants in life, but allows Parolles to influence all his decisions.
It is important to notice the importance that Parolles places on clothing and fashion. He is the main character in the play to establish the theme of appearance vs. reality. He always seeks to be perfectly dressed, as if to hide his very imperfect being. The audience, however, can easily see right through his appearance to his rotten core. At the end of the drama, when his true self has been revealed to all, including Bertram, he will be shabbily dressed.