The Winter's Tale | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Winter's Tale | Act 4, Scene 4 | Summary

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Summary

Florizell hails Perdita as the queen of the sheep-shearing festival, calling her Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers and spring. She expresses her fears that the king will forbid his son to associate with a shepherdess. He declares his love for her, elegantly alluding to some of the divine transformations narrated in amorous tales of Greek mythology.

Polixenes and Camillo enter in disguise, along with the Shepherd, the Clown, and various other country characters. The Shepherd reproaches Perdita, telling her she must take a more vigorous hand in hosting the festival. Perdita then distributes flowers to the guests, beginning with Polixenes and Camillo. Polixenes comments on the plain winter flowers she distributes, but Perdita explains that the brightly striped flowers of summer are hybrids (and thus artificial). A dance is called for, and Polixenes and Camillo comment on how pretty Perdita is, noting that everything she does "smacks of something greater than herself, / Too noble for this place." The Shepherd confirms the growing love between his daughter and Florizell, whom she calls Doricles. A servant announces the arrival of a peddler (Autolycus in disguise) who has ballads to sell. Autolycus makes his sales pitch to the Clown and to Mopsa and Dorcas, two young shepherdesses. A dozen herdsmen are then welcomed, and they perform a leaping dance.

Polixenes, still in disguise, addresses Florizell, asking why he has not bought gifts from the peddler for the young lady of whom he is clearly so fond. Florizell responds that the only gifts that truly matter are the feelings of love in his heart. Taking Perdita's hand, he asks the others to witness a formal betrothal, blessed by Perdita's "father," the Shepherd. Polixenes intervenes, objecting that Florizell should first inform his own father. When Florizell refuses, Polixenes removes his disguise and threatens him with disinheritance. He insults Perdita and the Shepherd, threatening her with disfigurement and death, and exits in a fury.

The elderly Shepherd laments his lot. Crushed, Florizell and Perdita turn to Camillo for counsel. The nobleman advises the couple to flee Bohemia for Sicilia, where he believes Leontes will welcome them with compassion. Camillo, wanting both to save his prince and see his homeland, will personally escort them.

While Camillo and the young couple step aside to talk, Autolycus enters, merrily denouncing honesty and trust as foolish virtues. He announces his roguery at the festival has been outstandingly successful. Camillo and the others step forward again, and Camillo accosts Autolycus. He instructs him to exchange garments with Florizell. In an aside to the audience, Camillo reveals his plan: the young couple will flee in disguise, and Camillo will then persuade Polixenes to pursue the lovers to Sicilia.

Next, Autolycus plays out yet another scheme on the simple-minded Shepherd and his son, pretending that he is a high-ranking courtier who has great influence with the king. Describing in great detail the tortures that await the rustics, he talks them into paying him the gold that Antigonus had left with the infant Perdita for his services as an intermediary to the king. As the scene ends Autolycus blesses Fortune for dropping "booties" (treats or prizes) in his mouth.

Analysis

Except for the concluding scene of Love's Labour's Lost, this is the longest scene in all of Shakespeare, containing about 30% of the dialogue in The Winter's Tale. Like the play as a whole, this scene exhibits a wide range of tone—beginning on a note of rustic festivity and exuberant romance, but then continuing on, with Polixenes's threats, to the verge of tragedy. After Camillo intervenes with an escape plan, the action lightens again, with Autolycus up to his old tricks as he bilks the Shepherd and his son.

Despite the intemperate threats of Polixenes, the overall tone of the scene is romantic and comic, and a tyrannical father is such a fixture of Shakespearean love that his rage seems almost a matter of form. Many of the play's major themes, symbols, and motifs resonate throughout. For example, the symbol of the seasons is prominent in Florizell's first speech, comparing Perdita to the goddess Flora. The theme of the creative interactions of nature and art is the main idea of Polixenes's speech to Perdita on the flowers called gillyvors. Perdita's discussion of hybrid flowers draws attention to her own hybrid status: she is both noble and peasant, authentic and natural, yet unknowingly in disguise. The motif of festivity underlies the setting itself, with its dances, ballads, and merrymaking. Comic irony and humor appear throughout the scene, primarily in the clever ruses and inflated pretensions of Autolycus.

The most serious interruption of the festive spirit is the intervention of Polixenes. In his pride, tyrannical behavior, and extreme language, he strongly recalls the irrational outbursts of Leontes in the first part of the play.

In the first phase of The Winter's Tale, Polixenes was an aggrieved party who was forced to make an undignified, clandestine escape from Sicilia, escorted by Camillo. Now, in the second phase, Polixenes learns of his son's passion for a seemingly low-born shepherdess. Because the audience knows that Polixenes and Camillo are in disguise in this scene, Polixenes's questions to his own son are full of dramatic irony. His dynastic fixation on the succession drives him to immoderate behavior and extreme threats. In his focus on inheritance, he is not that far from Leontes, who preferred to sentence his daughter to death rather than risk raising a "bastard." For Polixenes, the fatal issue is not infidelity but rather Florizell's willingness to stoop low in social terms. Shakespeare exploits situational irony by portraying Polixenes as every bit as prejudiced and irrational as Leontes was in the earlier acts. The tyrannical potential of absolute monarchy is apparent in the behavior of both rulers.

How may these revelations affect our interpretation of The Winter's Tale? Shakespeare may be suggesting that, given the right circumstances and provocations, absolute rulers may be difficult to distinguish from one another. Power is power, and there is little that will avail the subjects of kings when the king makes up his mind against them. At a deeper level, however, Shakespeare may be suggesting, through the parallels between Leontes and Polixenes, that we should remain mindful of pervasive errors and foibles in human affairs—departures from the norm that we can never expect to wholly avoid but which may be healed or cured through the means of good counsel, conscience, fortune, patience, and the passage of time. Thus the skirting of tragedy in Act 4, Scene 4 lays the foundation for the reconciliations of Act 5.

Aside from the disruption of the love plot in this scene, the most important element at the sheep shearing is the intermittent but notable presence of Autolycus, who maintains the fundamentally comic key of the scene. Autolycus's own noble disguise, which he uses to bilk the Shepherd and Clown, draws mocking attention to the number of nobles in this scene—Polixenes, Camillo, Florizell, and Perdita—who are disguised, knowingly or not, as commoners.

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