Act IV, Scene ii

Synopsis of Act IV, Scene ii

The scene moves to the Bohemian court, where Camillo has been living as the faithful servant of King Polixenes ever since they fled the Sicilian court many years before, although he still sees Leontes as his master. (Camillo says fifteen years, though Time has just told us sixteen years have passed.)

Camillo now wishes to return to see Leontes, who has asked Camillo to come back; Camillo thinks he might be able to help the penitent and grieving Leontes.

However, Polixenes says that he too has need of Camillo, on whom he relies for help in many matters of state. Although Polixenes and Leontes have been reconciled, Polixenes urges Camillo to stay in Bohemia, and asks for Camillo's advice concerning Prince Florizel, Polixenes' son, who has been away from court a great deal lately.

Polixenes has had information that the Prince frequently visits the house of a shepherd – who has acquired extraordinary wealth – with a beautiful daughter. The king asks Camillo to go with him, in disguise, to visit the shepherd, and Camillo agrees.

Commentary on Act IV, Scene ii

I pray thee, good Camillo The opening words of this scene establish for the audience (who have not seen Polixenes and Camillo since the end of Act I) that Camillo has become just as valued in Bohemia as he once was in Sicilia. Polixenes' words are a request, not a command; Camillo is addressed as ‘good'; and the king uses the familiar ‘thee' form, indicating friendship. (See: Thee, thou and you.)

Notice also that for this quiet, conversational scene, Shakespeare uses prose, even though his speakers are nobility. Prose is not only for ‘low-life' characters. (See: Blank verse, prose and rhyme.) Prose also acts as an effective contrast between the rhyming couplets of Time's speech, and the rhyming song with which the next scene (IV. iii.) begins.

The penitent king, my master Although Camillo is a loyal servant to Leontes, he still sees Leontes as ‘my master'. The adjective ‘penitent' not only reminds the audience that Leontes has acknowledged his guilt, but also indicates that there has been correspondence between the two countries which has revealed this news.

Reconciled king, my brother Leontes and Polixenes have become ‘reconciled' (presumably by letters) even though there has been no physical contact; Polixenes now regards him again, as he did at the start of the play, with the affection of a brother.

Loss of his most precious queen and children No amount of repentance can bring back Mamillius; sins have their consequences which cannot be undone.

  • However, much of the ‘loss' will be restored.
  • The audience is led to believe, as are all the characters in the play except Paulina, that Hermione is dead; but she is restored in Act V.
  • The audience also knows more than any of the characters, in that they know Perdita is alive.

More on levels of awareness: It is interesting in any Shakespearean play to see the difference between what characters believe and what the audience knows (dramatic irony); comedy is often based on this disparity, as, for example, in Twelfth Night where the gender of Viola is a secret she shares with the audience alone.

Kings are no less unhappy, their issue not being gracious The importance of grace as a desirable spiritual quality has already been stressed throughout the first part of the play. (See: Spiritual re-creation.) It will be as significant in the second half in relation to Perdita and Florizel. At the moment, Polixenes thinks that Florizel is being ‘ungracious' in disappearing from court.

I have eyes under my service Polixenes has spies who report back to him. The fact that a king had secret agents would have been known to a Jacobean audience; King James was kept informed by his network of spies about plots against him. (See also: Divine right of kings.)

Is grown into an unspeakable estate Another instance in which the audience knows more than the characters - the audience has seen the Old Shepherd find the gold which Antigonus left with the baby Perdita.

A daughter of most rare note: … more than can be thought to begin from such a cottage In all Shakespeare's Romance Plays, the innate nobility of royal children shines through even if they have been brought up in the wild, far from so-called civilisation, as have the princes in Cymbeline, or on a remote island, as has Miranda in The Tempest. (See: Ideas of nature; Romance plays.)

Where we will (not appearing what we are) have some question with the shepherd The figure of the disguised ruler appears in other Shakespearean plays, with a variety of motives; see, for example, Henry V and Measure for Measure.

Investigating Act IV, Scene ii
  • What impression of Polixenes, as both a man and a ruler, is given to the audience in this scene, and by what means?
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