Act V, Scene ii

Synopsis of Act V, Scene ii

Autolycus, who has arrived in Sicilia with Florizel, Perdita and the two shepherds, is speaking with some lords. They have witnessed the opening of the bundle brought by the Old Shepherd and recount how it contained a cloak and jewel of Hermione's, and letters from Antigonus, confirming that the baby Perdita is in fact the lost child of Leontes: the Oracle has been fulfilled. They also report that the young shepherd gave an account of the death of Antigonus and of the sinking of his ship.

Leontes has expressed to his daughter his great grief and guilt at being the cause of her mother's death. Perdita is about to go with Paulina to a house where, it is now revealed, Paulina has been having a statue made of the dead queen.

The two shepherds enter, now acknowledged as Perdita's saviours and dressed in smart clothes. They insist to Autolycus that they are now gentlemen. They are on their way with Leontes, Polixenes and the other nobility to see Hermione's statue.

Commentary on Act V, Scene ii

Beseech you sir The whole of this scene is in prose. This gives the impression of a more factual conversation – even though the lords are amazed at what has occurred – allowing for a more serious, spiritual and significant tone to be created by the use of blank verse in the next, and final, scene of the play. See: Blank verse, prose and rhyme.

As they had heard of a world ransomed The gentleman means to convey the surprise of Leontes and Camillo; but the idea of ‘a world ransomed' would have a specific meaning for Shakespeare's audience, who would have recognised the idea that human sin was paid for by the sacrifice of Christ. According to the Bible, through his death and resurrection the world was ‘ransomed' from the penalty that sin required. See also: Spiritual re-creation.

The Oracle is fulfilled The idea that the gods have had a care of human lives throughout the play is repeated here; the re-discovery of Perdita is not seen as merely accidental, but part of a providential plan.

So like an old tale ... Like an old tale still This means: ‘The story seems unbelievable.' The phrase, however, will remind the audience of the conversation Hermione had with her son in Act II scene i where Mamillius comments that ‘A sad tale's best for winter.' Shakespeare may also be drawing attention to the artifice of his play, which is not rationally likely, yet emotionally ‘true'.

The letters of Antigonus found with it These presumably tell who the child is; the fact that the shepherds (who are not illiterate – see Act IV scene iii and Act IV scene iv) have not read them seems unlikely – but there are many elements of the play which are not strictly close to reality. The Romance Plays all have an element of fantasy. (See: Romance plays.)

All the instruments … were even then lost when it was found The idea of loss and finding is a central one in the play. It also reflects biblical parables of loss and finding, suggesting a loving providence at work in the world.

Caught the water though not the fish Although Shakespeare writes the scene in blank verse, he re-creates a rather ‘precious' voice for the Third Gentleman by giving him an elaborate and somewhat self-conscious prose style.

Would beguile Nature of her custom This suggests that the statue, though a piece of art, is a perfect representation of nature. This both contributes to the ‘art versus nature' discussion in the play (see: Ideas of nature) and prepares the audience for the moment when the ‘artifice' of the statue turns out instead to be ‘natural'.

She hath privately twice or thrice a day, ever since the death of Hermione, visited that removed house The idea that no-one should have been suspicious about Paulina's movements is unlikely in the world of reality; but this is not the world of reality. There are many elements of the play which are not strictly close to reality; the Romance Plays all have an element of fantasy. (See: Romance plays.)

Every wink of an eye, some new grace will be born ‘Grace' here has its spiritual meaning of ‘undeserved mercy or gift from God'. See: Spiritual re-creation.

Investigating Act V, Scene ii
  • The discovery of Perdita's identity is one of the key moments of the play. However, Shakespeare cannot show it without detracting from an even more significant moment – the revelation that Hermione is still alive, which neither the characters in the play (apart from Paulina) nor the audience know about.
    • Make notes of the ways in which Shakespeare sets about creating a sense of amazement and wonder, without actually showing the revelation of Perdita's identity on stage.
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