Act III, Scene iii

Synopsis of Act III, Scene iii

(The action of this scene follows on from Act II, sc. ii, where Antigonus is commanded to take the baby and to abandon her on a distant shore.)

Antigonus in Winter's Tale at Lord Leebrick Theatre in EugeneThe ship on which Antigonus has set sail has reached the coast of Bohemia – the country ruled by Polixenes. A storm is brewing. Antigonus has had a dream in which he saw Hermione: Antigonus assumes the dream meant she was guilty of adultery, and has been put to death. In the dream, Hermione told Antigonus to call the child Perdita, and to leave her in Bohemia. He was also told that he would never see his wife again. Antigonus leaves the baby - together with gold and a written account of her story – on the shore. As he leaves to go back to the ship, he is attacked and killed by a bear. The baby is then found by an old shepherd and his son, who decide to look after the child. The ship sinks in the storm, drowning everyone on board.

Commentary on Act III, Scene iii

The heavens with that we have in hand are angry … Their scared wills be done! The power of the gods over human affairs, and their interest in human actions, are recurring and significant ideas in the play. Apollo's judgement of Leontes, and the words of Apollo's Oracle, have dominated the previous scene and will shape the rest of the play.

The spirits o' th' dead / May walk again The exact nature of ghosts was hotly debated in Shakespeare's time, especially since Protestants did not accept the concept of purgatory. Ghosts were often thought to be devils (cf. the whole question of the nature in Hamlet of the ghost of Old Hamlet.) However, what Antigonus sees is not a ‘spirit of the dead' but a vision in a dream. He assumes (wrongly) as do the audience at this point, that Hermione is dead – which is essential for the plot if Shakespeare is to surprise the audience in Act V.

In pure white robes, / Like very sanctity Although later in his speech Antigonus assumes the guilt of Hermione, her appearance indicates her innocence – an innocence which the audience have seen confirmed by Apollo's Oracle in the previous scene.

Places remote enough are in Bohemia Antigonus assumes that Polixenes is the father of the child (he later says explicitly that it is ‘the issue of King Polixenes') and that this is why the figure in his dream wants the child left there. For Shakespeare's plot, however, it is important that Perdita should grow up where she can meet Polixenes' son Florizel, thus leading to reconciliation between the kings.

For the babe / Is counted lost for ever, Perdita / I prithee, call't Perdita means ‘the lost one'. There is an interesting instance here of the difference between reality and what is acceptable in the theatre. Only Antigonus, who then dies, knows that the child is to be called Perdita, but this is the name she is given by the shepherds who bring her up. The inconsistency is very unlikely to be noticed by an audience caught up in the action of the play.

The Shepherds, the Propella groupThis ungentle business The term ‘gentle' is a complex one, indicating not merely ‘kindness' but also ‘nobility'. It is clear later that the shepherds, who are not ‘gentlemen' by rank, are nevertheless ‘gentle' in their feelings. See: Ideas of nature.

Dreams are toys: / Yet for this once, yea, superstitiously, / I will be squar'd by this As with ghosts (see above) dreams were not held to be significant in Protestant doctrine. (Nevertheless, dreams in Shakespearean drama are often significant indicators of the truth – as in Romeo and Juliet and Richard III, for example.)

I do believe … thy mother's fault Antigonus now accepts the earlier view of Leontes that Hermione has been guilty of adultery. His death by the ‘savage' bear may perhaps be seen as an appropriate punishment for his acceptance of Leontes' savage misjudgement of Hermione.

The storm begins The storm sinks the ship; it is necessary for the plot that no witnesses survive to tell where the child has been left. However, the storm and the bear may also be both seen as symbolic of the savage side of nature – but which can lead to acts of human pity, as, for example, in the storm scenes in King Lear and The Tempest. See: Nature.)

Expos'd / To loss and what may follow Loss may, as the audience sees by the end of the play, be followed by reconciliation.

Exit, pursued by a bear This stage direction has led to much comment. Some critics think that the Globe theatre (see: Design of theatres) may have introduced a real tame bear, or have had access to bear skins. Some think the episode is to be seen as comic. However, it is the entry of the shepherd which marks a change of mood (see below) and what the audience hears of the death of Antigonus is horrifying rather than comic.

I would there were no age between ten and three and twenty The older shepherd's pithy comments – in prose (see also: Blank verse, prose and rhyme) - on the behaviour of the young bear-hunters mark a very noticeable change of mood in the play.

They have scared away two of my best sheep Shakespeare's choice of a shepherd as the rescuer of Perdita introduces a pastoral world far removed from the court of Leontes. (See: The pastoral tradition.) There may also have been an echo for the Shakespearean audience of the story of the lost sheep, which is a parable of loss, forgiveness and reconciliation (see Luke 15:3-6) – although, in contrast to the parable, the shepherd here leaves his sheep when he finds the gold.

I'll take it up for pity Although the shepherd assumes the child is illegitimate, his immediate instinct – well before he finds the gold concealed in the baby's clothing – is to rescue it. His kindness is a striking contrast to the cruelty of Leontes.

Enter Clown A ‘clown', as the young shepherd is designated in the First Folio, does not mean the sort of circus clown which the term tends to be associated today. It simply meant an uneducated and somewhat comic character.

You cannot thrust a bodkin's point … you'd thrust a cork into a hog's-head These brief, homely but immediately striking images are very apt for the speaker. Shakespeare changes his characters' language to reflect appropriately their character and status. (See: Verse and prose.)

O the most piteous cry … the poor souls Like his father, the young shepherd has instinctive qualities of kindness and good-heartedness – a contrast with the behaviour of Leontes, whose ‘gentle' birth has not so far been reflected in ‘gentle' behaviour. See: Ideas of nature.

Thou met'st with things dying, I with things new-born The child represents new hope and the possibility of renewal for sinful humanity. See: Birth and growth; Children; Sin and innocence.

What's within, boy? The shepherds find the gold which Antigonus has left.

More on discovering Perdita: In Act V scene ii we learn that Antigonus had also left letters, but these are not mentioned by the shepherds. If the audience wishes for a logical explanation (rather than accepting this as part of Shakespeare's plot, ensuring that Perdita's whereabouts are not discovered earlier), it may be assumed that the shepherds did not know how to read Sicilian. (They were not illiterate: the Clown reads a shopping list in IV.iii and welcomes the sight of ballads in Act IV, sc iv). 
Investigating Act III, Scene iii
  • Re-read Antigonus' account of his vision of Hermione. Consider the impression this vision and Hermione's words may have on an audience seeing the play for the first time, who at this point think she is dead
    • What impression would Antigonus' account of his vision of Hermione have on an audience who knows the play, and are aware that this is a vision of the living Hermione.
  • The mood changes, and humour is introduced, with the arrival of the shepherds. Examine their speeches to see how Shakespeare makes them comical even when they are discussing the deaths of Antigonus and his party. The end of this scene marks the end of the first part of the play; immediately afterwards, sixteen years are deemed to have passed.
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