A comedy by Shakespeare, first printed in the First Folio of 1623. Its close affinity to Measure for Measure suggests that it was written 1604–5. Both plays are generally classified as ‘tragi‐comedies’ or ‘problem comedies’.
Its chief source is Boccaccio's Decameron (Day 3, Tale 9), which Shakespeare may have read either in the translation by Painter, or in the French version by Antoine le Maçon. Bertram, the young count of Rousillon, on the death of his father is summoned to the court of the king of France, leaving his mother and with her Helena, daughter of the famous physician Gerard de Narbon. The king is sick of a disease said to be incurable. Helena, who loves Bertram, goes to Paris and effects his cure by means of a prescription left by her father. As a reward she is allowed to choose her husband and names Bertram, who unwillingly obeys the king's order to wed her. But under the influence of the worthless braggart Parolles, he at once takes service with the duke of Florence, writing to Helena that until she can get the ring from his finger ‘which never shall come off’, and is with child by him, she may not call him husband. Helena, passing through Florence on a pilgrimage, finds Bertram courting Diana, the daughter of her hostess there. Disclosing herself as his wife to them, she obtains permission to replace Diana at a mid‐night assignation with Bertram, having that day caused him to be informed that Helena is dead. Thereby she obtains from Bertram his ring, and gives him one that the king had given her. Bertram returns to his mother's house, where the king is on a visit. The latter sees on Bertram's finger the ring that he had given Helena, suspects Bertram of having destroyed her, and demands an explanation on pain of death. Helena herself now appears, explains what has passed, and claims that the conditions named in Bertram's letter have been fulfilled. Bertram, filled with remorse, accepts her as his wife. The sub‐plot, concerning the braggart Parolles, has been felt by some readers, including Charles I, to dominate the play, and in performance it has often done so.
Subjects: Shakespeare Studies and Criticism.
Related content in Oxford Index
William Shakespeare (1564—1616) playwright and poet