Act IV, Scene iii

Synopsis of Act IV, Scene iii

A new character, Autolycus, appears, singing a jolly song. He was once a courtier, serving Prince Florizel, but now makes his living by theft and trickery. The young shepherd (the ‘Clown') enters; he is working out the amount he has made by selling the wool from his sheep. With the money, he is to buy ingredients for the sheep-shearing feast. Autolycus pretends to be a traveller who has been attacked by a thief. The kindly shepherd assists him to his feet; during this process Autolycus steals the shepherd's purse. The shepherd sets off to buy the food he needs – though he will soon find he has no money to do so – and Autolycus decides to turn up in a different guise at the sheep-shearing feast.

Commentary on Act IV, Scene iii

Enter Autolycus, singing The arrival of this cheerful rogue, singing of spring, and of his frank enjoyment of drink, illicit love and theft, marks a complete change in the mood of the play.

Daffodils, photo by Anne Cleaver, available through Creative CommonsWhen daffodils begin to peer It is clearly not the season of spring, when daffodils arrive, as sheep are not sheared until summer. Perdita later says (In IV. iv.) that ‘the year (is) growing ancient'- it is towards the end of summer. However, a song of spring gives an appropriately cheerful note in keeping with Autolycus' carefree character.

This is the first use of music in the play, and, as is usual in Shakespearean drama, the harmony of music suggests a wider harmony – which is to be achieved by the end of The Winter's Tale. The words of the song are in rhyme – see: Verse and prose.

The red blood reigns in the winter's pale Autolycus' sentiment is that ‘in the spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love'. Human passions bring colour to pale cheeks. There may also be a pun: ‘the pale' may also refer to an enclosed area controlled by a ruling power: feelings of spring-like renewal take over control from winter. (See: Contrasts and divisions; The seasons; Language in action.)

The white sheet bleaching on the hedge It was common in Shakespeare's day, and in country areas for much longer, to hang sheets over hedges to dry.

I have served Prince Florizel As we are to see from the knavery of Autolycus and the cruelty of Polixenes, coming from the court does not guarantee ‘courteous' behaviour.

More on the town / country debate: Shakespeare constructs a debate about the relative values of court and country, or so-called civilisation and wilderness, here and in other plays, notably As You Like It and The Tempest. It is a debate that has flourished in literature since ancient times; see: The pastoral tradition.

Velvet frockWith die and drab I purchased this caparison ‘Die' is the singular of dice and ‘drab' is a prostitute. Autolycus has lost his money through gambling and women, and now wears rough clothing instead of the ‘three-pile' velvet he once wore.

What will this sister of mine do with rice? Since the shepherd finds this request surprising on a list of foodstuffs for the feast, there may be a hint here that Perdita is thinking of using it to be thrown at her wedding: the throwing of rice and other grains as a sign of plenty has long been a tradition. That Perdita and Florizel have talked of marriage is evident from their conversation at the start of Act IV, sc iv, where Florizel talks of their ‘nuptial'.

Raisins o' th' sun Grapes dried in the sun; from this point onwards the sun is frequently mentioned – another contrast with the ‘winter's tale' atmosphere of Leontes' court in the first half of the play. See: The seasons.

O that ever I was born! Autolycus pretends to have been attacked, and is assisted by the young shepherd in a manner which is strongly reminiscent of the parable of the Good Samaritan – see Luke 10:25-37. This would have reinforced for Shakespeare's audience the kindness and gentleness of the shepherds (in contrast to the trickery of this ex-courtier). See also: Ideas of nature.

His vices … there's no virtue whipped out of the court … yet it will no more but abide The young shepherd's (somewhat naïve) belief that the court cherishes virtue adds to the ‘court versus country' debate. See: The pastoral tradition.

The progical sonHe compassed a motion of the Prodigal Son That is, he set up a puppet-show telling the story of the The Prodigal Son (see Luke 15:11-32.) As the account of someone who threw away his wealth by riotous living, this would be an apt story for Autolycus to choose. However, it is also more importantly a story of forgiveness and reconciliation – an appropriate story to remind the audience of at this point in the play.

I know this man well Autolycus' deceit is so brazen that it is undoubtedly funny. Even though the audience may sympathise with the young shepherd, they must laugh at the episode – and there is no suggestion that the loss of the money inconveniences the shepherds (who have after all acquired a considerable amount of gold through their lucky find). Even roguery adds to the cheerful atmosphere of this part of the play.

Jog on, jog on The second song of the play, providing a suitably light-hearted exit for Autolycus.

Investigating Act IV, Scene iii
  • Act IV scene 3 is the first time we have seen Autolycus. Start a list of his characteristics as they appear in this scene
    • Go back to this list at the end of the play and ask whether your view of him has changed or been added to in any way?
  • What would the play lose if Autolycus did not feature?
    • Is he just there to advance the plot, or does he add more?
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