Autolycus in court and country

Autolycus, who does not appear in the play until Act IV scene iii, acts as a link between court and country. (See: Ideas of nature.) He tells the audience,

‘I have served Prince Florizel, and in my time wore three-pile, but now I am out of service.'

Pretending to be a victim of Autolycus (but actually speaking of himself) to the Clown (the young shepherd), he remarks:

‘I knew him once a servant of the prince … he was certainly whipped out of the court … and having flown over many knavish professions, he settled only in rogue.'

His experience at court gives him the manner and the style of speech with which he later (towards the end of Act IV, sc iv) tricks the shepherds into trusting him as a courtier.

Autolycus and singing

When we first meet him, Autolycus is singing – the first time music has been heard in the play:

  • He sings of spring time, and of the ‘red blood' which ‘reigns in the winter's pale', and thus changes the tone of the whole drama
  • When he arrives at the sheep-shearing feast, disguised as a pedlar, he again enters singing, and brings with him ballads
  • He also takes part in singing a ballad with the shepherdesses Mopsa and Dorcas.

Although he is a rogue, Autolycus' association with music and song ensures that he carries with him a light-hearted atmosphere. (See: Spiritual re-creation.)

Autolycus and humour

AutolycusThere is very little humour in the first half of the play, but Autolycus brings laughter with him, inviting the audience to enjoy his trickery:

  • His first act of knavery, in which he tricks the gullible Clown out of his money, is a kind of parody of the parable of the Good Samaritan (to be found in Luke 10:25-35. However, by taking the audience into his confidence as they watch, they enjoy what might otherwise seem an unkind, even cruel, deception. (The fact that the robbery does not seem to hamper the hospitality on offer at the feast means that no serious consequences ensue, and we need not feel too worried!)
  • Later he amuses watchers by his brazen deception, as he tells the Clown, ‘There are cozeners abroad', and by his extravagant claims for his ballads: ‘Very true, and but a month old…. The ballad is very pitiful, and as true.'
  • Then the audience laughs at his outrageous patronising of the shepherds as he adopts his old persona of courtier:
‘Seest thou not the air of the court in these enfoldings? Hath not my gait in it the measure of the court? Receives not thy nose court-odour from me? Reflect I not on thy baseness, court-contempt?'

Finally, however, if we do feel uncomfortable at the way that Autolycus leads us to laugh at the naivety of the shepherds, we can enjoy the fact that, in the end, they are in the ascendant when they become ‘gentlemen born' (Act V, sc ii) and tell him,

‘Come, follow us: we'll be thy good masters.'

Autolycus' role in the plot

Autolycus does more than introduce music and laughter: Shakespeare uses him to effect the outcome of the play. When, at the end of the sheep-shearing scene, Autolycus is witness to the denunciation by Polixenes of Florizel and Perdita, Autolycus decides to take a hand in the action – though his motives are by no means pure:

‘The prince himself is about a piece of iniquity (stealing away from his father with his clog at his heels): if I thought it were a piece of honesty to acquaint the king withal, I would not do't: I hold it the more knavery to conceal it; and therein am I constant to my profession.'

However, Autolycus may be a rogue but he is not a real villain:

  • We see that, from his earlier position as servant to Prince Florizel, Autolycus retains affection for his former master – as well as a desire to do himself a good turn
  • When he learns that the shepherds have a bundle which they propose to show to Polixenes, he diverts them, taking them to Florizel instead

Thus Shakespeare contrives that the shepherds and their evidence of Perdita's true birth are taken to Sicilia: Autolycus' very roguery is a means of bringing about reconciliation and harmony.

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