Helena, orphaned daughter of a doctor, is under the protection of the widowed Countess of Rossillion. In love with Bertram, the countess' son, Helena follows him to court, where she cures the sick French king of an apparently fatal illness. The king rewards her by offering her the husband of her choice. She names Bertram; he resists. When forced by the king to marry her, he refuses to sleep with her and, accompanied by the braggart Parolles, leaves for the Italian wars. He says that he will only accept Helena if she obtains a ring from his finger and becomes pregnant with his child. She goes to Italy disguised as a pilgrim and suggests a 'bed trick' whereby she will take the place of Diana, a widow's daughter whom Bertram is trying to seduce. A 'kidnapping trick' humiliates the boastful Parolles, whilst the bed trick enables Helena to fulfil Bertram's conditions, leaving him no option but to marry her, to his mother's delight.
In seeking to find her wayward husband Bertram in Florence, Helena disguises herself as a pilgrim on Jubilee. She says her Italian destination is St. Jaques le Grand. In de Vere's Tuscan visit, Rome had reached its capacity and pilgrims found the gates to Rome shut. Overflow sites included the shrines of St. James the Great (St. Jaques le Grand in Helena's native French) in the Tuscan towns of Pistoia and Prato.
On his way out of Italy in 1576, de Vere was known to travel from Milan to Lyon. The Mont Cenis pass northwest of Turin province was the most probably route through the Alps. Landing in France, de Vere's caravan probably followed Mont Cenis's mountain stream the Arc, leading to the river Isère, which flows through Grenoble and St. Marcellin, where it meets the Rhone. A day's journey up the Rhone is the hillside town of Tournon. In the sixteenth century, the local magistrate was Just-Louis, Lord Tournon, count of Rousillion. In the Tournon household was the unmarried sister Hélène de Tournon. The mother of Hélène and Just-Louis - the dowager countess of Rousillion, also lived with the family. The play features the Dowager Countess of Rousillion and her son, the Count of Rousillion. Helena in the play was probably based on Hélène.
Hélène was in love with a French Marquis who returned her affections. The marquis family opposed the match, because they wanted him to be a priest. The marquis gave in, and at a court function, he refused to acknowledge Hélène's presence. She swooned, and apparently died of sorrow causing a scandal. Underlying the play is de Vere's mistreatment of his wife Ann Cecil as a result of family politics.
Helena portrays the relationship at Ann Cecil's most ambitious and aggressive. Helena seeks Bertram's hand. Bertram objects because Helene is beneath Bertram in social rank. The play resolves this dilemma with a quick entitlement of Helena's family (as occurred with William Cecil, who is reported by the Spanish ambassador to have offered a generous dowry of 15,000 pounds) and a threat against Bertram from the King that he had better marry Helena or else.
I will throw thee from my care forever
Into the staggers and careless lapse
Of youth and ignorance, both my revenge and hate
Loosing upon thee in the name of justice
Without all terms of pity
In the play, the Clown jests: "I know a man … that sold a goodly manor for a song." In 1573 or 1574, De Vere signed over a family estate called Battails Hall in Essex to the musician William Byrd, the organist at Chapel Royal. Bird is today considered one of the finest composers in Elizabethan England. He wrote a march of the Earl of Oxford.
In 1585, England was fighting the Spanish in the lowlands (now the Netherlands). In August, de Vere is reported to have crossed the English Channel to join with his forces in the lowlands. They moved up the coastline to the Hague, and met with Lord Norris and other superior officers in the lowlands campaign. The group awaited orders, as no one had been put in charge. In due course, de Vere's enemy Leicester was appointed commander. By October, de Vere was recalled to England. While de Vere's role in the campaign was limited, the play is filled with names of various field commanders.
The play was written in 1602-1603 by a mature Edward de Vere. It is a mature play about immaturity, mirroring his mature reflections on his life.