The Winter's Tale Act 4, Scene 4 Summary & Analysis
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At the sheep-shearing festival, Florizell (dressed up as a shepherd named “Doricles” for the festival) compliments Perdita on her beauty. She worries about what will happen if king Polixenes should find them together, since she is only a lowly shepherd’s daughter. Florizell says that he doesn’t care about her social status, but Perdita says that Polixenes will surely oppose any union between them. Florizell tells her not to worry and to enjoy the festival.
Florizell and Perdita’s relationship mixes up different levels of society. He is a prince, while she is merely a shepherd’s daughter (though we as the audience know she is actually a princess). Florizell encourages Perdita not to worry about serious matters and to enjoy herself, signaling to the audience that the play is becoming more comedic than tragic.
A group of shepherds (including the shepherd who found Perdita when she was a baby, and his son) enter, along with Polixenes and Camillo in disguises. The shepherd tells Perdita to fulfill her duties as “mistress o’ the feast” and welcome everyone. Perdita distributes some flowers to the guests and talks with Polixenes about hybrid flowers made by grafting two different plants together. She describes such flowers as “nature’s bastards,” but Polixenes says that even they are made by nature and tells her not to call them “bastards.”
All the disguises and mixed-up social roles of the festival (with the king Polixenes disguised as a normal citizen, for example) reflect how the world of the play is out of order, with Camillo and Perdita in the wrong land and Perdita in the wrong family (and social class). The discussion about the flowers has ironic resonance for Perdita, who was sent away from her own home because Leontes thought she herself was an illegitimate bastard child.
Perdita continues to give out flowers and garlands to all the guests, describing each particular kind of plant. Florizell compliments her beauty again, as well as her speaking, singing, and dancing. Continuing to flirt with her, he asks her to dance. Polixenes mentions to Camillo that Perdita seems noble in her behavior, as if she were more than just a shepherd’s daughter. Music begins, and all the shepherds and shepherdesses begin to dance.
The light-hearted festival is full of song and dance. Perdita and Florizell’s budding relationship exemplifies innocent, young love, free from the jealousy that tore Leontes and Hermione apart. Polixenes notes Perdita’s noble behavior, as if she can’t help but naturally act like the royal noblewoman she really is.
Polixenes speaks to the shepherd who has adopted Perdita, and learns that Perdita and the young man dressed up as “Doricles” are in love. A servant enters and announces that a “peddler” has come to play songs and ballads and sell small trinkets. The shepherd’s son calls for the peddler to come sing, and Autolycus enters. He sings about the various wares he is selling, encouraging everyone, “Come buy of me, come. Come buy, come buy. / Buy, lads, or else your lasses cry. / Come buy.”
The mixed-up, topsy-turvy world of the play, a common feature of comedies, is reflected in all the festival’s disguises and costumes, with Autolycus, Polixenes, Camillo, and Florizell all pretending to be people they’re not. The concerns of this part of the play seem to be less grim or serious than those of the previous scenes in Sicilia.
The shepherd’s son buys a shepherdess named Mopsa some ribbons from Autolycus. Mopsa asks him to buy her some more things, but he reminds her that he was robbed recently. Autolycus acts sympathetic and tells the shepherd’s son that it pays to be careful. Autolycus, the shepherd’s son, Mopsa, and some others discuss what ballad they should sing. They decide on a song called “Two Maids Wooing a Man,” and sing it together.
The festival continues to be a source of comedic amusement, with the tricky Autolycus feigning sympathy for the shepherd’s son’s having been robbed, when he was the one who robbed the boy. This scene in particular draws many elements from the pastoral genre, with the shepherd’s son giving his beloved shepherdess a gift to show his affection.
Another group of herdsmen enters and performs a dance. The disguised Polixenes approaches Florizell and asks him about Perdita. Florizell says that he is in love with Perdita, and describes her beauty at length. Perdita avows her love for Florizell, and the shepherd agrees to give her away in marriage to him. Just as the shepherd is set to join Florizell’s and Perdita’s hands (symbolizing their engagement), Polixenes stops Florizell and asks him if his father is aware of this.
The levity of the festival continues, though more serious matters are developing, as the disguised Polixenes learns about his son’s intentions with Perdita. Polixenes is concerned about his son’s dishonesty, but ironically he is the one sneaking around in disguise to learn about his son’s doings.
Florizell says he doesn’t plan to tell his father, and Polixenes says that he is wronging his father by marrying without his knowledge or consent. He encourages Florizell to tell his father about Perdita, but Florizell refuses. Polixenes suddenly removes his disguise, angrily says that Florizell is no longer his son, says that the old shepherd will be killed, and threatens to have Perdita’s face “scratched with briars.” He tells Florizell that he is no longer heir to the throne of Bohemia.
Florizell’s love for Perdita is in conflict with his familial love for his father. Polixenes feels betrayed and—like Leontes earlier—over-reacts. Thinking he is carrying out just and deserved punishments, he threatens Florizell, Perdita, and the shepherd cruelly.
Perdita tells Florizell he should leave, and says she is giving up on her dream of being with him. The shepherd is upset and angry at Perdita for mingling with the prince. Camillo tells Florizell to beware of Polixenes’ temper and not to appear before him “till the fury of his Highness settle.” Florizell agrees not to go see his father, and tells Perdita that he doesn’t care about losing his right of succession to the throne. He refuses to go back on his vow of love to Perdita and says that the two of them can run away from Bohemia together.
The light-hearted festival has now been interrupted by the serious matter of Polixenes’ anger. Florizell agrees not to go see his father, because Polixenes likely cannot be persuaded to change his mind (just as Leontes remained stubborn in the early part of the play). Florizell is willing to leave both his father and his homeland to pursue his love for Perdita. A father's stubbornness again causes him to lose his family.
Camillo talks to himself and realizes that he may be able to use Florizell’s fleeing Bohemia to his advantage, by getting Perdita and him to flee to Sicilia. He speaks to Florizell and says that he has been a loyal subject of Polixenes, and will be loyal to Florizell. He encourages Florizell to go to Sicilia, where he says Leontes will be kind to him as a way of making up for his betrayal of Polixenes.
Camillo doesn’t exactly behave dishonestly, but isn’t entirely honest as he manipulates Florizell into going to Sicilia, hoping that this will give him an opportunity to return to his rightful place in his homeland.
Camillo tells Florizell to tell Leontes that he comes from Bohemia as a representative of his father Polixenes’ good will. He tells Florizell that Leontes must think Florizell is on good terms with his father. Florizell and Perdita agree with the plan, but Florizell worries about arriving in Sicilia with his shepherd’s costume. Just then, Autolycus enters and brags to himself about how he sold all his cheap trinkets at the festival, and picked many people’s pockets while he was at it.
Florizell is easily persuaded by Camillo to flee Bohemia for Sicilia. As Autolycus enters, he is still in a light-hearted, comic mood, somewhat out of place as things have recently taken a turn for the more serious. Though one could argue that the events now occurring are like a comedic echo of the tragic events of the first half of the play.
Camillo promises to write letters of introduction for Florizell to Leontes. Then, he sees Autolycus and gets an idea. He asks Autolycus to change clothes with Florizell, and Autolycus agrees after a bit of protest. Camillo advises Perdita to disguise herself as well, so that she and Florizell can safely escape Bohemia. Speaking to himself, he says that he will tell Polixenes about Florizell and Perdita’s escape to Sicilia, so that Polixenes will pursue them there and take Camillo with him, back to his homeland.
The exchange of Autolycus’ and Florizell’s clothing is a further example of how people and things in the play are out of order and reversed. These reversals keep on heightening until the resolution of the play.
Perdita, Camillo, and Florizell leave. Alone, Autolycus says that he understands what is going on, but will not inform Polixenes, because he prefers dishonesty over honesty, and thinks, “this is the time that the unjust man doth thrive.” The old shepherd and his son enter, carrying the box in which they found Perdita so long ago. The shepherd’s son persuades his father to tell king Polixenes that Perdita is a “changeling” and not his daughter by birth. Since she is not his “flesh and blood,” he has not technically offended the king through his daughter’s relationship with the prince, and so perhaps Polixenes will pardon the shepherd.
While issues of dishonesty are normally serious throughout the play (resulting in Hermione’s death and Florizell’s expulsion from Bohemia, for example), the character Autolycus gives a more humorous example of dishonesty, with his petty tricks. The shepherd and his son hope that the truth about Perdita will be enough to persuade Polixenes to spare them and behave justly.
The shepherd and his son plan to go to Polixenes’ palace. Autolycus overhears them and, pretending to be a noble courtier, asks what business they have at the royal court, as well as what the box they are carrying is. He tells them that the king is not at his palace, but aboard a boat. Pretending not to recognize the shepherd and his son, he tells them that the king’s son is rumored to have tried to marry a shepherd’s daughter.
Autolycus continues to be a dishonest con-man of sorts, though his dishonesty seems to be without serious or tragic consequences, so far. The fact that Autolycus is wearing a nobleman’s clothes (those of Florizell) heightens the sense of disorder and reversal of social hierarchies in this part of the play.
Autolycus says that the girl’s father is sure to be killed, as well as the shepherd’s son, who will be flayed alive, covered in honey and “set on the head of a wasps’-nest, and then stoned to death. He offers to take the shepherd and his son to Polixenes and tells them he will “tender your persons to his presence,” and “whisper him in your behalfs.” The shepherd gladly gives Autolycus some gold for promising to do this and promises to give him more once he has done it.
Autolycus’ imagined punishments are comedic in their absurdity, but a serious matter of life or death for the shepherd and his son, who are tricked by Autolycus’ lies.
Autolycus directs the shepherd and his son toward the seashore. They think their only hope is to tell Polixenes that Perdita is not actually the shepherd’s daughter, and believe they are “blessed” to have found Autolycus. They leave ahead of Autolycus, who, alone on-stage, remarks how lucky he is. He plans to bring the shepherd and the shepherd’s son to Florizell instead of the king, and thinks that Florizell will reward him for it.
In their eagerness to try to persuade Polixenes to pardon them, the shepherd and his son are completely fooled by Autolycus. They ironically thank him for saving them, when he is doing the opposite. This irony is humorous, though, as opposed to the tragic irony of Leontes betraying Hermione while accusing her of betrayal.