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SCENE SUMMARY WITH NOTES
ACT III, SCENE 1
This scene shifts to Florence. The Duke enters accompanied by two French lords and soldiers who are discussing the imminent war. The Duke expresses his astonishment at the French King's refusal to help. The First Lord refuses to divulge the reasons for the French King's refusal, but the Second Lord quips that the younger lords will soon come to Florence to exercise their talents in military exploits.
This brief scene provides the necessary background to the Florentine wars. The setting shifts to Florence, a necessary move for the coming action of the play, in which Bertram tries to escape his wife. Helena, with plans of her own, sets out on a pilgrimage for Florence.
The scene also reiterates the theme of military honor, which Bertram so eagerly seeks. He will arrive here because he values the honor he thinks military exploits will bring. Several young lords echo his feeling, giving the impression that the eagerness for war belongs to the young and inexperienced..
ACT III, SCENE 2
This scene shifts back to Rousillon and opens with a conversation between the Countess and the clown. The Countess expresses satisfaction at the way things have turned out. Her only grudge is that Bertram is not accompanying Helena home. The clown says that Bertram had appeared to be very melancholic. Taking up Bertram's letter, the Countess remarks that she will read what he has written and find out when he intends to come home. The clown remarks that he has dropped his intentions of marrying Isbel since he has been at court, for he has found a great difference between the Isbels of the country and Isbels of the court.
The clown leaves while the Countess is reading the letter. The contents of the letter shock the Countess, who is afraid Bertram's foolish actions will anger the King. The clown re-enters with the news that Bertram has run away. As the clown leaves, Helena enters along with some gentlemen. She has already heard about her abandonment and is heartbroken. One of the gentlemen attempts to console Helena. The Countess tells her to be patient. She says that she has experienced so many situations of grief and joy that they have lost the capacity to move her excessively. Then she asks the gentlemen if they know where Bertram has gone.
The Countess is told that Bertram has gone off to serve the Duke of Florence in battle. Helena shows her the letter she has received, in which Bertram states that he will never be her husband until she can obtain the ring that he always wears on his finger and becomes pregnant with his child. He also tells her he will never return to France as long as she is alive. The gentlemen who have brought this letter express their apology for its sorrowful contents and inform the Countess that Parolles is accompanying and advising Bertram. The Countess is incensed at Bertram's conduct and says that he does not deserve to have Helena's love. The Countess further denounces Parolles as a "tainted fellow, full of wickedness" who is corrupting her son by encouraging him in his waywardness. The Countess asks the gentlemen, who are returning to Florence, to tell Bertram that he will never regain the honor that he has lost by abandoning his wife. She gives them a letter for Bertram in which she disowns him.
The Countess and the gentlemen leave together. Helena, left alone, begins to cry. She blames herself for Bertram's being in the war. She prays for his safety and expresses her belief that if Bertram is killed in battle, it will be her fault. She desperately wants Bertram to return to Rousillon, away from battle. Since it is her presence in France that keeps him away, she decides to sneak away at night, hoping he will consider it safe, and return.
The central event in this scene is the delivery of Bertram's letter. It is important to note that while Helena is deeply hurt by Bertram's callous behavior, she does not show any resentment towards him. Instead of feeling anger at her shoddy treatment, she is driven by a sense of guilt and blames herself for his departure. She even worries about him being killed, which would be her fault, and thinks, "Whoever shoots at him, I set him there; Whoever charges on his forward breast; I am the caitiff that do hold him to't; And though I kill him not, I am the cause; His death was so effected". Her concern for him and lack of regard for the way she has been treated are almost pathetic.
There is a distinct contrast between the reactions of the Countess and Helena to Bertram's letter. While Helena blames herself for driving Bertram away, the Countess is explicit in her denunciation of her son. Like many others, she refers to her son as a boy, indicating his extreme immaturity. She is angry that he does not follow the King's desires and honor Helena. She remarks furiously, "Nothing in France until he have no wife! / There's nothing here that is too good for him / But only she, and she deserves a lord / That twenty such rude boys might tend upon / And hourly call mistress". The Countess is deeply shocked by Bertram's rash behavior and makes the statement that Bertram cannot hope to win back the honor that he has lost by mistreating his wife, not even as a hero of war. Her words reiterate Lafeu's earlier idea -- that virtuous deeds are more important that noble birth, and that noble birth can never make up for virtue-less actions. Several other characters also spout this view at various points in the play.
The terms of the riddling letter are cruelly blunt but do provide a clear and decisive course of action for the impetuous and determined Helena. As a result of Bertram's letter, Helena formulates her plan to steal away in the cover of darkness. Perhaps this will bring Bertram back to France. Once again, she makes her own destiny.