Act IV, Scene iv

Synopsis of Act IV, Scene iv

Prince Florizel has gone to visit Perdita, with whom he is in love. He is dressed as a country man, while she is wearing a special dress for the feast, making her look, he thinks, like a goddess. Perdita, who knows he is the prince, is worried at the thought of his father's reaction should he ever find his son so humbly dressed and in such company. Florizel praises her beauty and dismisses her fears. He bids her to welcome her guests to the sheep shearing.

Polixenes and Camillo, disguised, arrive. The Old Shepherd (whom Perdita believes is her father) asks her to welcome them, and she offers them flowers. Polixenes discusses with Perdita whether nature is better than art; Perdita prefers nature. She then turns to other shepherdesses, wishing she had spring flowers to give them, to suit their youth. Polixenes watches her, and admires her grace and beauty.

AutolycusThe shepherds and shepherdesses dance, and then a servant enters to announce the arrival of a pedlar. It is Autolycus who comes (unrecognised by the Clown) to sell gloves, ribbons, ballads and other nick-nacks. Mopsa and Dorcas, two young shepherdesses who are rivals for the Clown's affections, persuade him to buy a ballad for them to sing together. Then other shepherds and farm-workers enter, disguised as satyrs, to perform a dance.

Florizel announces to the company that he wishes to make his betrothal vows to Perdita. She indicates that she will readily exchange vows. At this point Polixenes, still in disguise, suggests to Florizel that he should not take such an important step without the presence and approval of his father. Florizel insists that he will not let his father know – at which Polixenes reveals his true identity.

Turning on the Old Shepherd, Polixenes threatens him with death, and Perdita with torments. He insists that if Florizel ever even thinks of Perdita again, he will be disowned and barred from the succession. Saying that he will defer the penalties with which he had threatened Perdita and her father, Polixenes storms out.

Perdita asks Florizel to leave. The Old Shepherd is aghast that Perdita knew Florizel's identity and encouraged him. Camillo now reveals himself, and advises Florizel not to return to court until Polixenes' temper has cooled. Florizel insists that he will marry Perdita, and that in order to do so he will leave the country; he has a ship in harbour nearby. Camillo decides to help Florizel and simultaneously to fulfil his own wish to return to Sicilia; he advises Florizel to sail for Sicilia, as if he were bringing greetings from Polixenes to Leontes, and to introduce Perdita as his princess.

Autolycus re-enters, having sold all his pedlar's wares. Camillo persuades him to change clothes with Florizel, and they also alter Perdita's appearance. The two young lovers then set off for Florizel's ship.

Camillo decides to let Polixenes know where the lovers are going, in the hope that Polixenes will follow; Camillo wants to go with his new master to see Leontes.

  • Camillo's motives are not entirely clear, but presumably he does not wish simply to betray the young people:
    • He promises Florizel to write to Leontes, and to get Leontes to appeal to Polixenes, to persuade him to be reconciled to the lovers
  • Camillo's main motive seems to be to go to Sicilia.

The Old Shepherd and the Clown now enter, terrified at what may happen to them. The Clown advises his father that he should produce the evidence (the things left by Antigonus) which show that Perdita is not the daughter of the shepherd, who can therefore not be held responsible for her actions.

Autolycus sees them and now adopts yet another persona – he pretends to be a courtier who can assist them. The Old Shepherd reveals that he has a bundle which contains secrets the king needs to know, and Autolycus offers to take them to Polixenes, who, he says, in on board ship. In fact Autolycus intends to take them onto Florizel's ship, as he thinks that the prince may reward him for keeping from Polixenes whatever information they may have.

Commentary on Act IV, Scene iv

PerditaThese your unusual weeds i.e. clothing – though there may be a suggestion of flowers too, since she says later that he has ‘prank'd (her) up': he has in some way decorated her, perhaps with garlands.

Shakespeare makes both of them speak in blank verse, suggesting that both speak in a dignified way and with innate nobility. Florizel also addresses Perdita as ‘you' – the formal term – indicating his respect for her. See: Thee, thou and you, and also Blank verse, prose and rhyme.

Flora peering in April's front This is the first of many references to gods and goddesses in the scene, many of which compare Perdita to a goddess.

Sir: my gracious lord This, and her later explicit comments about his rank and his father, indicates that she knows who he his – though no-one else in her family does.

I should blush Autolycus had earlier sung that ‘the red blood reigns'. This scene is full of images of redness, warmth, heat, and especially sunshine – a complete contrast to the wintry feel of the first half of the play. (See: The seasons.)

Now Jove afford you cause! Perdita is anxious, but her exclamation reminds us again of the power of the gods and of providence over human life in this play – as we have already seen with Apollo's Oracle. Although Polixenes' anger seems to justify Perdita's fear, nevertheless by the end of the play ‘Jove' does afford them cause to rejoice. See: The higher powers.

The gods themselves Florizel's list of gods who have taken human form not only reminds us of the influence of the gods but reinforces the idea of Perdita as being like a goddess (within the play however, the only actual supernatural intervention is provided by the Oracle). Later in the scene she is associated with ApolloProserpina, who brings spring after winter.

Golden Apollo, a poor humble swain, / As I seem now By comparing himself to Apollo, Florizel takes on the role of the sun-god – another reference to the sun in this scene.

My desires / Run not before mine honour, nor my lusts / Burn hotter than my faith Florizel and Perdita both feel passionate love, but are self-restrained by their innate chastity. In this they are like Hermione, and their feelings contrast with Leontes' jealous obsession with ideas of sexual lust.

More on chastity: The importance of chastity as a sign of innate nobility is stressed by Shakespeare in other young lovers in his Romance Plays, such as Miranda and Ferdinand in The Tempest. His argument is that nobility should be determined by the moral qualities of an individual rather than their worldly status.

Be merry, gentle ‘Gentle' here is an endearment, but it reminds the audience that she is indeed of ‘gentle', that is noble, stock.

Celebration of the nuptial which / We two have sworn shall come This comment confirms for the audience that the couple have exchanged private vows. Later in the scene they will exchange them more publicly.

Fie, daughter! When my old wife liv'd The Old Shepherd's encouragement of Perdita to welcome the guests shows the audience his generous hospitality. Ironically, he is also welcoming the very man who will disrupt it: Polixenes. The good-hearted, ‘gentle' instincts of the Old Shepherd are underlined by Shakespeare creating his speech in blank verse (see: Blank verse, prose and rhyme).

Rosemary, by Fir0002, available through Creative CommonsThere's rosemary, and rue; these keep / Seeming and savour all the winter long: / Grace and remembrance be to you both Perdita gives out herbs which are symbolic: rosemary, as she says, is for remembrance, whilst rue means ‘repentance' – Perdita here uses ‘grace' as a synonymous term. (See: Spiritual re-creation.) Her comment that they keep their scent all through the winter reminds the audience that grace and remembrance (of sin, and of mercy) are qualities which endure throughout times of hardship – and which were there in Leontes' court even when he himself denied them.

The year growing ancient, / Not yet on summer's death nor on the birth / Of trembling winter Sheep-shearing usually takes place in June, and Autolycus had earlier sung (in Act IV, sc iii) of spring flowers – but this line may indicate that the scene is probably set in August, especially as she says later that she is giving them ‘flowers of middle summer'. It is clear, however, from other references, that it is still a time of sunshine. (See: The seasons.)

Flowers … which some call nature's bastards It is interesting to note that Perdita refuses to grow flowers which are called bastards, given that she herself was erroneously labelled a bastard by her father. This accusation was strenuously denied by Paulina (in Act II, sc iii) who declared that ‘good goddess Nature' had made the baby identical in features to Leontes.

There is an art which ... shares / With great creating nature This discussion between Perdita and Polixenes is a very interesting one, reflecting a debate which was familiar in Renaissance times (See: The Renaissance.) Polixenes argues that all ‘art', or skill, is given to humanity by nature, so that there is no difference between them. Perdita, however, although she seems to accept the argument – she says ‘So it is' – nevertheless prefers to hold by precepts of absolute purity, and refuses to have anything to do with such flowers.

We marry / A gentler scion to the wildest stock Ironically, Polixenes appears to be arguing it is good to graft a ‘nobler' race onto a ‘bark of baser kind' – which is certainly not what he approves when it comes to Proserpina by Dante Rossettithe marriage of his own son to a shepherdess!

O Proserpina / For the flowers now that, frighted, thou let'st fall This appeal to Proserpina associates Perdita with the goddess whose disappearance, according to mythology, brought winter to the earth, and whose rediscovery brought spring and renewal.

Juno … Cytherea ... Phoebus Like Florizel earlier, Perdita refers to several gods and goddesses.

No, like a bank, for love to lie and play on ... Quick and in mine arms The purity and chastity of Perdita are often stressed in this scene, but she also has a healthy awareness of passionate love. However, her choice of the word ‘play' reflects an innocent meaning, unlike the sexually immoral meaning which Leontes gave it in I. ii when he described Hermione apparently ‘playing' with Polixenes. (See: The plays and playing.)

Methinks I play as I have seen them do / In Whitsun pastorals ‘Play' here may actually mean ‘perform in a play' (see below); but see also the comment on ‘play' above, as well as The plays and playing.

Whitsun, or White Sunday, is the day in the calendar of the Christian Church which celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit, to the disciples of Christ gathered in Jerusalem after Christ's death and resurrection. It is in one sense very strange that Shakespeare should introduce such a Christian festival into the middle of a sheep-shearing feast, which has been full of pagan references; but Whitsun revelries in Shakespearean England certainly included plays and other festivities. In any case, Shakespeare has indicated throughout The Winters' Tale, by his many references to, for example, grace, that Christian theology is significant even within the supposedly pagan setting.

All your acts are queens Although Florizel has no idea of Perdita's true rank, he sees her innate nobility. As 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.)

Doricles A typical name for shepherds in pastoral writing (see: The pastoral tradition); here, it is the name by which Florizel is known among the shepherds.

An unstain'd shepherd Again, the purity and chastity of Florizel is stressed.

Smacks of something greater than herself / Too noble for this place Polixenes, like Florizel, recognises that Perdita has innately fine and noble qualities – though it does not stop him from refusing her as a daughter-in-law!

Never gaz'd the moon / Upon the water as he'll stand and read / My daughter's eyes The moon was traditionally a symbol of chastity, so that the Old Shepherd's image simultaneously suggests Florizel's passion and his purity.

She shall bring him that / Which he not dreams of Irony – the Old Shepherd is thinking of the gold left by Antigonus; the audience knows that she has much more to give, in her noble rank. (See: Dramatic irony.)

Forewarn him, that he use no scurrilous word in's tunes Shakespeare reinforces the audience's perception of Perdita's instinctive purity. The other shepherdesses – Mopsa and Dorcas – are much less refined in their words and attitudes.

Enter Autolycus, singing This is another of Autolycus' personas; he has used the money he stole from the Clown to set himself up as a pedlar, and his song advertises his wares.

Mopsa and Dorcas, by the Chiltern Shakespeare CompanyHe hath promised you more than that Dorcas implies that the Clown has promised marriage to Mopsa – with the underlying hint that she may have given him sexual favours in return; Mopsa retaliates by suggesting that Dorcas may also have been too free with her favours. This exchange indicates a marked contrast in both words and attitudes between Perdita and these other shepherdesses.

I love a ballad in print … for then we are sure they are true Shakespeare gently mocks the uneducated person's reverence for the printed word.

Master, there is three carters … they call themselves Saltiers The twelve dancers are dressed as satyrs- that is, half-man, half-goat, an appropriate entertainment for a sheep-shearing. In the First Folio, the servant calls them ‘saltiers', and the stage direction says ‘Here a dance of twelve satyrs'. It may be that the term ‘saltier' is a pun, as the men are described as being able to jump and ‘sault' is an old word (from French) for ‘to jump' (as in ‘somersault'). A dance at this point also adds to the sense of music and festivity which characterises the first half of the scene.

How now, fair shepherd! / Your heart is full of something Polixenes decides that the time has come to intervene in the love between Perdita and Florizel. He begins by talking to the prince of his love for Perdita.

O hear me breathe my life Florizel turns to Perdita and takes her hand. He is about to make a formal, public declaration of betrothal.

This hand / As soft as dove's down, and as white as it A shepherdess would normally have a brown, roughened hand from working outside. Perdita's innate nobility extends even to her complexion. Unlike some earlier Shakespearean drama, where appearance often belies reality, in the Romance Plays inner beauty of soul is reflected by outer beauty. (See: Romance plays.)

More on skin colour and social class: Pale skin, which had not been sunburnt, and which was soft, was for Shakespeare's audience a sign of someone who did not have to work for a living – and remained such a sign in England until the early part of the twentieth century when the wealthy travelled abroad to sunny places for pleasure, for example to the French Riviera.

Take hands, a bargain! The Old Shepherd acknowledges the formal betrothal of ‘Doricles' and Perdita.

I give my daughter to him, and will make her portion equal his This statement is doubly ironic, since the Old Shepherd has no idea that ‘Doricles' is really Prince Florizel, and that only a princess could have an equal ‘portion.' However, neither does he realise that Perdita is a princess, and that, in the near future when the bundle he takes to Sicilia reveals her identity, he will indeed ‘make her portion equal his'. (See: Dramatic irony.)

The father (whose joy is nothing else / But fair posterity) This line may well remind the audience of the grief of Leontes, whose mad jealousy has, apparently robbed him of all ‘fair posterity'.

Mark your divorce, young sir Polixenes angry words begin a kind of parallel to the first part of The Winter's Tale, where a king's violent rage and threats of death caused a breach between him and his offspring, and where the loyal service of Camillo helped to divert disaster.

Thou, old traitor … hanging thee .. I'll have thy beauty scratch'd with briars … we'll bar thee from succession .. I will devise a death as cruel These threats of violent retribution are very reminiscent of Leontes' threats to Hermione, Paulina and the infant Perdita.

I was about to speak, and tell him plainly, / The selfsame sun that shines upon his court / Hides not his visage from our cottage These lines not only reveal Perdita's courage and sense of justice, but they also remind the audience of some important symbolism; the sun is a strong symbol throughout the scene, suggesting warmth and growth, in contrast to the deadly misery of the ‘sad tales' of Leontes' court. In addition, the sun-god watching over both court and country is Phoebus Apollo – he whose Oracle has revealed Hermione's innocence and is bringing good out of evil.

I am but sorry, not afeard Florizel will keep faith with Perdita, even though he has no idea that she is in reality a princess. His honour and loyalty are admirable qualities in direct contrast to the dishonourable suspicions of Leontes.

More on honour: The same kind of honour is evident in the young hero of another Romance Play – The Tempest – where Ferdinand sees Miranda as goddess-like even though he does not know that she is the daughter of the Duke of Naples.

It cannot fail, but by / The violation of my faith; and then / Let nature crush the sides o' th' earth together This vow is reminiscent of Othello's declaration that he will always love Desdemona – ‘And when I love thee not, chaos is come again'. The Romance Plays suggest that such tragedy can be avoided by repentance and reconciliation. (See: Romance plays.)

It does fulfil my vow; / I needs must think it honesty Florizel's faithfulness is stressed; he will do anything rather than break his promise of love and marriage to Perdita.

I am put to sea Literally, Florizel will set sail on a ship with Perdita. But also symbolically, he will launch himself into the unknown.

More on the significance of the sea: In all the Last, or Romance Plays of Shakespeare, the sea plays a significant part, suggesting a force which both gives and takes away. It is perhaps most important in The Tempest. See: Romance plays.

We profess / Ourselves to be the slaves of chance Florizel thinks that he and Perdita are in the hands of blind fate, but the outcome (following the words of Apollo's Oracle) suggests that they are in the hands of a beneficent providence (that is, a kindly and merciful God.)

Methinks I see … asks thee there, Son, forgiveness This would doubtless remind the Shakespearean audience of the story of the Prodigal Son, where a sinner returns to the arms of a beloved relative but, in the biblical story, in contrast, the son asks the father for forgiveness. (See Luke 15:11-32.)

There is some sap in this Florizel means that the plan may well succeed – but the image he uses is of sap rising in a tree, indicating growth and renewal. See: Birth and growth.

Camillo … the medicine of our house Disease images have been common in the first acts of the play, where Mamillius was also said to ‘physic' (that is, heal) ‘the subject'. Camillo's loyalty is now also seen as medicinal, healing the misery of Polixenes.

Ha! Ha! What a fool Honesty is! Autolycus mocks faith and honesty, but it is these very qualities which finally bring joy to Florizel and Perdita. Shakespeare writes Autolycus' speech in prose, in contrast to the more elevated thoughts of Camillo, Florizel and Perdita.

Change garments with this gentleman: though the pennyworth on his side be the worst Autolycus' dress was described as poor in IV iii. – he complained that he had once been well dressed, but persuaded the Clown that he had been given ‘detestable' clothes to wear by those who had robbed him. Presumably he bought new clothes to become the pedlar, because the ‘swain's' costume that he has from Florizel is described as being worse than that Autolycus gives up. In practice on stage, any disguise is accepted as being impenetrable, and the audience is unlikely to quibble about it.

Let me pocket up my pedlar's excrement Yet again Autolycus changes appearance. He now wants to appear as a courtier, and does this largely by his speech – for example, addressing the shepherds as ‘rustics' and using phrase such as ‘I insinuate or toaze thee'.

Advocate's the court-word for a pheasant – i.e. a bribe; supplicants would often take gifts of food to those they wanted to plead for them. However, Autolycus is also mocking the ignorance of the shepherds.

To offer to have his daughter come into grace! Ironic – Autolycus sees marriage to a prince as ‘coming into grace'. Shakespeare makes it clear that ‘grace' is a spiritual, not a material, benefit.

He was provided to do us good Ironic – although Autolycus is in fact tricking the shepherds, he will inadvertently ‘do them good' by making them the means of revealing Perdita's true identity to Leontes. ‘He was provided' suggests that Autolycus is one of the instruments of a beneficent providence. It also echos the story in Genesis 50:20, where the wickedness of Joseph's brothers in selling him to pasing traders is made a blessing, ‘God meant it unto good': there is also a theme of concealed identity in the biblical account.

There may be matter in it Another example of dramatic irony: Autolycus means that he may gain by the situation – in fact the ‘matter' is far greater than he suspects: the revelation of Perdita's true birth.

Investigating Act IV, Scene iv
  • This very long scene contains some of the most important ideas of the play. Make notes on:
    • References to sun, heat, warmth, growth
    • Ideas of purity and chastity associated with Perdita and Florizel
    • The contrast between Perdita and Florizel and the other shepherds and shepherdesses
    • References to gods and goddesses
      • What do these add to the scene / the play?
    • References which suggest that Perdita has an innate nobility even though she has been brought up as a shepherdess
    • The behaviour of Polixenes and Camillo within this scene
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