As the play is Older Than Steam and most twists in Shakespeare's plots are now widely known, all spoilers on this page are unmarked.
A play by William Shakespeare. With its unusual plot and odd resolution, it straddles the line between comedy and tragedy, and is considered to be one of Shakespeare's "problem plays". It was based on a story from The Decameron.
Helena is a beautiful but lowborn woman, the orphaned daughter of a great physician. She serves as gentlewoman to a French countess and is secretly in love with Bertram, the countess' son. Bertram leaves to become the ward of the King of France, but the king suddenly falls ill. Helena promises she can save him, but asks that she be able to marry any lord she chooses; the king agrees. Using the knowledge her father imparted to her, she cures him, and he gives her leave to marry above her class.
She chooses Bertram as her husband, but adds that he doesn't have to marry her if he doesn't want. The king will have none of it, and orders that Bertram marry his rescuer. Furious about the match, Bertram escapes to Italy shortly after the wedding, along with his cowardly friend Parolles. Bertram sends a taunting letter to Helena, declaring that he will not have her as a wife unless she meets two requirements: She must get his family ring, and she must become pregnant with his child. Since he never plans on returning to France, he brags that neither will ever take place.
Helena is distraught, but sets out to retrieve her husband. She winds up in Florence, where Bertram is living, and discovers he now has his sights set on Diana, the daughter of a widow. With help from the young lady, Helena tricks Bertram: First, she has Diana convince Bertram to give up his family ring as a love token, which she then gives to Helena. Next, Diana invites Bertram into her room; Diana and Helena execute a Bed Trick, and Bertram ends up sleeping with his wife. In an unrelated subplot, Parolles is exposed as a coward and exiled from the army.
With the help of the countess, Helena spreads rumours that she has died, prompting Bertram to return to France. She follows in secret, along with Diana and the widow. Once everyone is all together, Helena reveals that she 1) is not dead, 2) has Bertram's family ring, and 3) is pregnant with his child, thanks to their one-night romp. His conditions met, Bertram promises "I'll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly."
- Action Girl: Helena is probably Shakespeare's best fit for this trope, especially because, unlike other heroines, she doesn't have to disguise herself as a man to take an active role in the story. First, she travels to the King of France and cures him of an illness when no one else can; then, when Bertram flees to Italy, she follows him and plays various tricks to complete the challenge he left for her.
- Adaptation Name Change: In the original story, Helena is called Gilette. (Yep, like the razors.)
- Adapted Out: Two examples, that in a way are only one.
- The play takes place during a shorter time frame than the short story from The Decameron that it's based on. Therefore, the twin boys she gives birth to don't appear in the play, since the play ends before she can give birth.
- Also, since she's pregnant with one child in the play, and not twins, the second twin can be accurately said to be adapted out. (Or the first one, if you prefer that phrasing.)
- Bed Trick: Helena substitutes herself for Diana when Bertram shows up for his assignation with Diana.
- Cool Old Lady: The Countess. She loves Helena like a daughter and despite the difference in their social classes, is favorable toward the idea of Helena marrying Bertram. She also has a well-developed sense of humor, shown in her interactions with Helena and the courtiers, her Snark-to-Snark Combat with Lavache, and her amused disappointment at Bertram's behavior.
- Dirty Coward: The play's subplot consists of Bertram's soldiers trying to expose Parolles as this. They succeed by setting up a situation where they make him think he's been captured by the enemy, and Parolles proceeds to slander his fellow soldiers and provide information (voluminous information at that) on troop composition and movements.
- Does Not Like Men: Diana has a fairly low opinion of men, due to the frequent warnings she has received of how men manipulate women into giving up their virginity, and then abandon them, and it doesn't help that Bertram follows to the letter every trick Diana's mother warned her of.
- Earn Your Happy Ending: Helena goes through hell and back to get Bertram to love her, and comes out the victor in the end.
- Engagement Challenge: Helena invokes a rare gender inverted traditional example wherein she persuades the King to let her attempt to cure him, indicating she will give her life if she fails. In exchange, she asks for the hand of any nobleman she chooses. Additionally, Bertram's letter sets (what he believes to be) impossible conditions under which he will acknowledge Helena as his wife, and she sets out to fulfill them.
- Get Thee to a Nunnery: Oh, boy.
- 'queen' may play on 'quean' another word for prostitute.
- 'blow you up' means to make you pregnant.
- 'to be blown up' means either to have an erection, or an orgasm.
- 'to blow a man down' means to induce his orgasm.
- 'breach' is vagina.
- In the following quote, 'city' means virginity.Parolles: Marry, in blowing him down again, with the breach yourselves made, you lose your city.
- 'date' can mean penis.
- 'pie' can mean vagina.
- 'porridge' can also mean vagina.
- 'pear' can also mean vagina.
- In the following quote, there is a Double Entendre on 'case', meaning vagina, and on 'service' meaning sex.Lavatch: In Isbel's case and mine own. Service is no heritage.
- 'go' can mean to have sex.
- In the following quote, 'holy', besides meaning 'sanctioned by marriage', also means 'holey' referring to vaginas.Lavatch: Faith, madam, I have other holy reasons, such as they are.
- 'to ear' can also mean to have sex, or impregnate.
- 'sparing the team' means to take the load off one's sexual organs.
- 'to comfort' can mean to pleasure sexually.
- In the following quote, 'shrinks' means to lose his erection, besides 'recoiling'King: See that you come not to woo honour, but to wed it, when the bravest questant shrinks.
- In the following quote, 'serve' means to have sex, besides 'to fight'.King: Beware of being captives before you serve.
- 'araise' means to sexually arouse, besides 'to raise from the dead':Lafew: Whose simple touch, is powerful to araise King Pippin.
- 'pen' can come to mean penis.
- 'light' can mean sexually suggestive, besides 'lighthearted':Lafew: If seriously I may convey my thoughts in this my light deliverance, I have spoke with one that, in her sex, her years, profession, wisdom and constancy, hath amazed more than I dare blame my weakness.
- The Good King: The King of France is a wise, kind, generous man who fulfills his promises and is quick to call out his own nobles for behaving poorly, as his stern treatment of Bertram shows. He's also remarkably progressive, allowing a woman to attempt to cure him of his illness and celebrating her when she succeeds.
- Here We Go Again!: At the end of the play, the King of France offers Diana her choice of husband as a reward for helping Helena.
- Horrible Judge of Character: Bertram is definitely one. He is completely trusting of Parolles and considers him a valuable friend, whereas everyone else in the play immediately knows that Parolles is a two-faced scoundrel. Conversely, Bertram scorns Helena, whereas everyone else who meets her sings her praises.
- I Have No Son!: When the Countess hears what a horrible jerk Bertram has been to Helena, she angrily declares that she no longer considers the boy her son, instead claiming Helena as her only child.
- I Love You Because I Can't Control You: If Bertram's final line is sincere, Helena's trickery — in other words, proof that she can be as cunning and devious as himself — leads to him respecting and loving her.
- Impossible Task: Bertram tries using this to dissuade Helena from pursuing him: she has to wear his family ring and carry his child without his knowing it. But Helena is not to be outdone and completes the tasks with help from her new friends.
- Jerkass: Bertram. At first, you can understand why he might be angry about the arranged marriage to Helena. He came to court believing that he would finally be able to prove his manhood and get out of his father's shadow, and instead the King bars him from going to war and gives him away as a prize to one of his mother's servants. But he ends up handling the situation very childishly (proving that he's not as grown up as he would like to think he is), and he cruelly takes out his anger on the good-natured Helena, even though it was the King who forced the marriage. And sending your wife a letter bragging about leaving her, then trying to sleep with another woman, is pretty low. (Notably, this is not a case of Values Dissonance — even the other characters in the play, including the king, point out that he's being a complete douchebag.)
- Love Martyr: Some productions interpret Helena as one, especially after reading Bertram's taunting letter. She knows that he's being a horrible person and is clearly angry at him, but she also can't help but love him and actively tries to win him over.
- Mandatory Motherhood: Parolles argues for this, as virginity is waste; it would just be lost in death, whereas a woman who loses her virginity can produce ten more virgins.
- Miles Gloriosus: Parolles gets an entire subplot dedicated to his empty brags.
- Named by the Adaptation: Diana has no name in the original story.
- Rewarded as a Traitor Deserves: Invoked. When Parolles believes himself to be captured by the enemy, he shamelessly sells out his fellow soldiers to save his life. After this happens, he is told by the "translator" for his "captors" him they are going to execute him anyway, because someone who would sell out his allies like that can't be trusted.
- Runaway Bride: Bertram is a Rare Male Example of a groom running away from an Arranged Marriage, a counterpoint to Helena being a Rare Female Example of the peasant winning an Engagement Challenge.
- Sand In My Eyes: At the end of the play, Lafeu cries with joy and proclaims "Mine eyes smell onions; I shall weep anon."
- Title Drop:We must away;Our wagon is prepared, and time revives us:All's well that ends well; still the fine's the crown;Whate'er the course, the end is the renown.