Act I, Scene 1
The Countess is quite upset that her son has to leave when she just lost her husband. Bertram, her son, is equally torn up about this turn of events, but he has been called on to serve the King. There’s no turning down the King. Lafeu assures them that the King is a kind and generous man, and will treat them both well. The King suffers from a fistula and there appears to be no hope in saving him. The Countess laments the recent loss of a notable doctor, Gerard de Narbon, for he surely would have been able to cure the King.
At the mention of the doctor, it is revealed that Helena, one of the Countess’ ladies in waiting, is his daughter. The Countess thinks Helena is pretty much the best woman in the whole world. She’s smart and full of virtue and, well, practically perfect in every way. Helena tears up at the speech. The Countess assumes it is because of her father and warns her against excessive grief.
Bertram interrupts because he needs his mother’s blessing before he can go. She does just that and counsels her son to live up to his father’s memory and behave well at court. Bertram asks Helena to take care of his mother before he leaves with Lafeu.
In the comfort of solitude, Helena reveals the true source of her sorrow. She is in love with Bertram and the only thing that kept her sane was seeing his beautiful face every day. Now that’s gone and she doesn’t know what to do.
Parolles walks by. He is going to be Bertram’s companion and Helena knows him to be a liar, a fool, and a coward, but he’s entertaining enough so they keep him around. Helena and Parolles have a long exchange about virginity because that is apparently what Parolles assumed she was thinking about. Helena wants to know how to guard her virginity against men, but there appears to be nothing she can do. Parolles warns her against holding on to her virginity for too long because it loses it’s value over time. Helena wishes many ladies on Bertram and then almost bursts into tears.
Parolles is called away, but not before Helena teases him about his astrological signs. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have time for a quippy reply.
Helena curses the heavens for making her love a man so high above her station, but she has a plan involving the King’s disease to help her out.
Act I, Scene 2
The King prepares to go to war with Florence and Bertram arrives in court. The King raves about Bertram’s father. He was an excellent soldier and a quick-witted youth. Bertram is honored that the King speaks so highly of his father. The King goes on about how both men wished to die before the ailments of old age set in. Other Lords try to lift the King’s spirits, but it doesn’t really work. The King wishes the doctor that Bertram’s father used was still alive, but alas the King is left with no cure.
Act I, Scene 3
The Steward is apologizing to the Countess for some of his past endeavors. She has heard the rumors but doesn’t believe them (there’s a 50/50 chance this will never be brought up again).
The Clown comes by. He wants to get married and have a baby, but he needs to make sure he’s good to his wife first. Apparently his plan is to make friends, even with people who may sleep with his wife. It’s all a bunch of dirty jokes before he is sent to fetch Helena.
The Steward reveals to the Countess that he overheard Helena confessing her love for Bertram. The Countess asks him to keep it to himself. She remembers what it was like to be young and in love.
When Helena approaches, the Countess proclaims her self to be like Helena’s mother. This makes Helena extremely distressed because if the Countess is her mother, then Bertram is her brother, and I think we can all see the problem with that situation. The Countess plays dumb for a bit before getting Helena to confess her love for Bertram.
The Countess also knows that Helena has a plan to go to Paris. Apparently, Helena’s father gave her his notes on his deathbed and bid her study them. She did and she’s pretty sure she can heal the King. The Countess sends her to Paris with her blessing.
Act II, Scene 1
The King sends some of his young lords off to the war with Florence. He wishes them well before stepping aside to rest. Bertram is bummed that he isn’t going to war with them, but there’s that whole “you have to do what the King says” thing. The young lords commiserate with Bertram’s predicament. Parolles tells them to say hello to an Italian soldier he sliced in the face during another battle. They enthusiastically agree.
After the soldiers leave, Parolles encourages Bertram to go after them and give them a better goodbye. They may not come back. Bertram goes to do just that.
Lafeu comes in to tell the King that there is a female doctor who wishes to see him. The King is intrigued and allows her to come in. She explains that she doesn’t know much about medicine, but her father was a renowned physician. She has is notes and is confident she can cure the King. He’s doubtful. What would an inexperienced woman know that all his doctors and university students didn’t know. Her argument is that great things often come in unassuming packages.
The King still isn’t swayed, so she puts her own life on the line. If he dies, she dies. That convinces the King to let her try, but she wants something in return. If she cures the King, she gets to marry anyone she wants, excluding the immediate royal family. The King agrees and a bargain is struck.
Act II, Scene 2
The Clown is back with the Countess again. They joke around about him being a high born lord before the Countess sends him to Paris. She has a message for Helena and wants the Clown to give her regards to Bertram. He goes off with a snarky goodbye.