Old Shepherd

The Old Shepherd as kind and gentle man

The Old Shepherd is the first Bohemian we meet outside the court, and, as a Old shepherdpeasant, he is in some ways a complete contrast to those of noble rank. Yet, ironically, he has more of real gentlility (in the sense of being a true ‘gentleman' at heart) than some of the kings and courtiers we meet in The Winter's Tale. (See also: Ideas of nature).

  • When we first encounter him, he is seeking his lost sheep – an image that would not be lost on Shakespeare's audience, who would associate this with the figure of Christ and his parable of God as a shepherd seeking lost souls.
‘What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?' AV Luke 15:4
  • The Old Shepherd immediately finds the abandoned baby, and though he assumes it is the result of some indiscretion by a ‘waiting-gentlewoman', he has no hesitation in adopting it:
‘I'll take it up for pity.'

This is in complete contrast to the cruelty of Leontes, who had ordered that the baby should be left in ‘some remote and desert place'.

  • When the shepherd's son arrives with news of the death of Antigonus, the good-hearted father exclaims,
‘Would I had been by, to have helped the old man!'
  • He then tells his son,
‘Thou met'st with things dying, I with things new-born';

and indeed the Old Shepherd does, with his act of humanity to the baby, enable the process of re-creation which culminates in Perdita's being reunited with her parents.

The Old Shepherd's language

When we first meet the Old Shepherd in Act III, sc iii, his style of speech is in marked contrast to that of Antigonus, whose blank verse soliloquy about his vision of Hermione has filled most of the rest of the scene. The Old Shepherd speaks in prose, using a down-to-earth style in which he talks of reckless youths as ‘boiled brains', young women as ‘wenches', and the baby as a ‘barne' (or ‘bairn').

Yet when we next meet him, sixteen years later (in Act IV, sc i), Shakespeare makes a conspicuous change: the Old Shepherd speaks for much of the scene in blank verse, and his sentiments are those which also elevate him – he begins by advocating good hospitality ,and later describes the love of ‘Doricles' in poetic terms:

‘He says he loves my daughter:
I think so too; for never gaz'd the moon
Upon the water as he'll stand and read
As ‘twere my daughter's eyes.'

Even when threatened by Polixenes, he still speaks to Perdita in blank verse; it is only later, in scenes with a more humorous tone (when he and his son are being duped by Autolycus into taking ship with Florizel, and in the comic scene where they encounter Autolycus at Leontes' court) that Shakespeare again makes the Old Shepherd speak in prose. (See: Blank verse, prose and rhyme.) For much of his time on stage, then, the Old Shepherd is given a style of speech, as well as principles, which might be more often associated with nobility.

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