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SCENE SUMMARY WITH NOTES
ACT II, SCENE 4
Parolles interrupts a paradoxical conversation between Helena and Lavache, the clown. The clown begins insulting Parolles, whom he calls a wise man who says nothing, does nothing, knows nothing, and has nothing. Parolles dismisses the clown as annoying and turns to Helena. He tells her that Bertram has been called away on important business and cannot consummate the marriage. Furthermore, he tells the young bride she is to leave at once and carry a letter from Bertram to his mother. She is not to tell the King where or why she is going. Unsuspecting of any dishonorable actions, Helena agrees.
This short scene serves to enhance even further the characterizations of Parolles and Helena. While the clown's trivial banter provides yet again a welcome relief from the disturbing events in the play, it also serves to illuminate that even the clown thinks Parolles is no good and worthy of contempt.
Helena's unquestioning submission to Bertram's commands reinforces the depth of her devotion to him. Her passive acceptance and fulfillment of all of Bertram's wishes is remarkable, if not pathetic. And the fact that she herself must carry the letter that declares her an unwanted wife is quite ironic and creates great sympathy for her plight.
ACT II, SCENE 5
Once again, this short scene takes place in Paris. Lafeu is trying to persuade Bertram of Parolles' true nature, but Bertram continues to defend his "friend". Lafeu leaves Bertram with a warning about Parolles: "the soul of the man is his clothes", meaning he has not depth of character. His personality is as changeable as his garments. Bertram then asks Parolles whether he and Lafeu have fallen out, but Parolles pretends not to know why there is a problem between him and Lafeu.
Helena approaches and tells Bertram that she will obey his commands. Bertram gives Helena the vicious letter and tells her to leave. Helena willingly complies, asking only for a farewell kiss, which Bertram coldly refuses. After Helena leaves, Bertram muses that he will never go home as long as Helena is alive. Then Bertram and Parolles set out for Florence
The scene is significant because Lafeu has seen through Parolles' disguise and warns Bertram not to trust him in matters of grave importance. The audience has already seen Lafeu's unmasking of Parolles. He now shrewdly tells Bertram that "the soul of this man is his clothes", a truth that will soon become evident. But Bertram remains blind to Parolles' hypocrisy and insists that he "is very great in knowledge, and accordingly valiant". This provides a telling comment on Bertram's inexperience and his faulty judgment. He does not possess the quality of discernment and cannot see through the obviously disloyal Parolles.
This scene clearly illustrates how coldly Bertram chooses to treat Helena, though she is utterly obedient and unquestionably loyal in a way Parolles will never be. When Helena approaches, Bertram remarks with disdain, " Here comes my clog". Bertram also shows himself to be a liar, in addition to being a feckless, impressionable youth. Bertram does not possess the strength of character to tell Helena on her face that he is abandoning her so he takes the coward's way out and steals away to Florence on the pretext of serving in a war, sending his wife home with a letter designed to insult her. Bertram's behavior makes it very difficult for the audience to sympathize with him and see him as anything more than cruel and self-absorbed.