Clown (Young Shepherd)

The Clown's good nature

Young shepherdThe young shepherd's part is described as ‘Clown' in the First Folio, for his main role is to be good-hearted but also naive and rather foolish. From the point of view of the plot, he first acts as a witness for the audience to the death of Antigonus and to the wreck of his ship with the loss of all hands – so that no-one can return to Sicilia to tell where the baby has been abandoned. Sixteen years later, he then becomes the first victim of Autolycus' roguery, and in the course of this he tells us that there is to be a sheep-shearing feast.

But in both these situations, it is also established that he is kindly and is indeed, in spirit if not in rank the ‘gentleman born' that he claims to be in Act V, sc ii:

  • In Act III, sc iii, even though they have just discovered the gold concealed in Perdita's clothing, he suggests staying to bury the remains of Antigonus
  • He only falls victim to Autolycus' trickery in Act IV, sc iii because, like the Good Samaritan (see Luke 10:25-35) the Clown is a ‘good neighbour' and does ‘a charitable office'.

Naïveté vs. sophistication

In Act V, sc ii the Clown's naïveté makes him think he can be ‘ a gentleman born' – and his belief that it is now acceptable for him to swear that Autolycus is honest adds to the humour of the scene:

‘If it be ne'er so false, a gentleman may swear it in the behalf of his friend.'

Yet there is a serious point here: Shakespeare has used the Clown throughout as a counterpoint to the sophistication and potential cruelty of the courtiers, and whilst we laugh at the Clown's naïveté, we may feel it is preferable to his learning deceit. When the Old Shepherd tells his son,

‘We must be gentle, now we are gentlemen',

the audience should be conscious of the irony, for they have been ‘gentle' in many ways from the outset.

The Clown and the shepherdesses vs. Florizel and Perdita

Although he is ‘gentle' at heart in many ways, the Clown's behaviour and conversations with Mopsa and Dorcas in Act IV, sc ivshow that he does not have the innate nobility which characterises the courtship of Florizel and Perdita:

  • While they vow faithfulness to one another, and are chaste, the Clown seems to have had a relationship of some sort with Dorcas which is now past, for Mopsa retorts to her:
‘He hath paid you all he promised you: maybe he has paid you more, which will shame you to give him again.'

Dorcas seems jealous of Mopsa, who, she sneers, needs ‘garlic to mend her kissing with'. The song that they sing with Autolycus also seems to echo their situation, for it is called ‘Two maids wooing a man', and includes the line

‘Thou hast sworn my love to be',

responded to by the other shepherdess with

‘Thou hast sworn it more to me.'
  • We also learn that, because the Clown is now ‘enthralled' by Mopsa, he has promised her ‘certain ribbons and gloves' – whereas Florizel knows that Perdita
‘prizes not such trifles as these are.'
  • Whilst Mopsa reminds the Clown that he has promised her
‘a tawdry-lace and a pair of sweet gloves',

Florizel declares of Perdita that:

‘The gifts she looks for from me are pack'd and lock'd
Up in my heart.'
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