The Winter’s Tale
Act Four, Part One
By Dennis Abrams
Act Four: The action is restarted sixteen years later by the figure of time – Perdita has grown up in Bohemia as the daughter of the Shepherd. More recently, she has been courted by Polixenes’ son, Florizel. Hearing of this, Polixenes and Camillo decide to attend the shepherd’s shearing feast in disguise in order to spy on the couple. When Florizel (known to Perdita as Doricles) admits that he plans to marry her, his father angrily reveals himself, condemns the Shepherd to death, and threatens to disinherit his son. After he leaves, Camillo hatches a scheme which allows the couple to elope to Sicily and present themselves to Leontes. In the meantime, the Shepherd and his son are on the way to present their case to Polixenes, when they are fleeced by Autolycus, the local con artist.
It seems that with the Shepherd’s “newborn things” that the play begins its turnaround. Following the intercession of time – a literal personification of whom appears on stage to advertise (and apologize for) a sixteen-year gap in the action, The Winter’s Tale continues with a fully grown Perdita who, like Guiderius and Arviragus in Cymbeline, somehow manages to exude royal breeding despite her humble upbringing with the Shepherd. But then Bohemia, not unlike Ardenne in As You Like It, is an exotic and pastoral location, complete with (as we have seen) a real bear (possibly from a Southwark bear-baiting pit?), a con man, Autolycus, straight out of Jacobean city comedy; and a fictional sea-coast, all of which, it seems to me, announce that Shakespeare has absolutely no intention that his location be taken too literally. In Bohemia there are, in fact, hardly any mentions of what had seemed to be the main plot: people apparently spend their time in revelry and sheep shearing, with Florizel oh-so-casually wooing the strangely beautiful girl in his land (without, of course, revealing his royal blood.) Nothing, it seems can harm they joy. When Perdita promises to “strew” her “sweet friend” with garlands, he is momentarily shaken:
What, like a corpse?
No, like a bank, for love to lie and play on,
Not like a corpse – or if, not to be buried,
But quick and in my arms.
The sexually implicit in Perdita’s words hint that death can be banished by love, and that the play’s winter can ultimately be transformed into a flower-filled spring. Bohemia contains all the elements necessary for the play to become a comedy: Perdita herself, her boyfriend Florizel and the kindly Camillo. Even the tall tales of the con man Autolycus, who seemingly roams the Bohemian countryside telling fantastical stories to the country’s open-mouthed inhabitants have a certain, albeit bizarre, charm. Though Florizel’s father Polixenes is displeased that his son has fallen in love with what he thinks is an actual shepherdess, it is not long before Camillo persuades the loves to elope. All they have to do, he explains, is trust in providence, and follow/a course more promising/Than a wild dedication of yourselves/To unpathed waters, undreamed shores.” (4.4.565-6)”
From Harold Goddard:
“For sheer joy in life and breath at the present moment, the fourth act of The Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s pinnacles. Perdita alone would be enough to make it so. But there is Autolycus too, who is as far beyond good and evil in his roguery as she is in her innocence – a childlike not a childish innocence, be it noted. And thrown in for good measure is Florizel, most faithful and poetically articulate of princely lovers (we would like to think that Shakespeare stole phrases for him from the memories of his own love-making), ready to sacrifice his royal prospects for a shepherd’s daughter. And then there are those two minor masterpieces, the old shepherd and his clownish son. All in all it is a very superfluity of comic and romantic riches.
Perdita (whose name in view of what she is could be taken to imply that she is the Paradise Lost of human nature) has beauty both of countenance and of character, and that beauty is infectious in the sense that it seems to endow all who come near her, if it does not strike them dumb, with the power to say something beautiful about it. An anthology of such utterances from the play would exceed in loveliness even the one she herself makes of the flowers. Camillo wants to gaze at her forever. Florizel wants her to continue doing without end whatever she happens to be doing at the moment. When the King praises her dancing, her shepherd-father says she does anything as well. And even after Florizel’s father has revealed his identity and turned on the young couple all the fury at his command, he cannot even castigate her without complimenting her in the same breath. ‘Fresh piece of excellent witchcraft,’ he calls her, ‘…enchantment,’ and threatens to have her beauty scratched with briars. Camillo accepts correction from her on the question of the effect of adversity on love and confesses she has attained wisdom without schooling:
I cannot say ‘tis pity
She lacks instructions, for she seems a mistress
To most that teach.
The gentleman who announces her arrival in Sicilia speaks of her as
The most peerless piece of earth, I think,
That e’er the sun shone bright on…This is a creature,
Would she begin a sect, might quench the zeal
Of all professors else,
and her own father, before he recognizes her daughter, calls her ‘goddess.’ If she were not Florizel’s he would beg her for himself.
The best thing we can say about Perdita is that she lives up to all this adulation and seems no whit hurt by it. She unites the simplicity of a shepherd’s daughter with the poise and grace of a princess. Her blood can make her blush or speak boldly as fits the occasion. When the enraged King threatens her with death if she ever embraces his son again, though she dismisses her dream instantly and announces that she will go back to milking her ewes, she is not at all put out by the King’s tirade:
I was not much afeard; for once or twice
I was about to speak, and tell him plainly
The self-same sun that shines upon his court
Hides not his visage from our cottage, but
Looks on alike.
This is the Shakespearean equivalent of Melville’s great theological justification of spiritual democracy – ‘His omnipresence, our divine equality!’ – and is enough in itself, in the light of what Perdita is, to wipe out for good and all a multitude of the silly things that have been said and written about the poet’s ‘snobbery.’ And Florizel is as true a son of Shakespeare as Perdita is daughter. Nothing is altered between us, he assures her when the blow falls. ‘What I was, I am.’ It might be Shakespeare’s own vow in the 123rd sonnet, ‘No, Time thou shalt not boast that I do change,’ or his dictum in the 116th:
Love is not love
Which alters when it alternation finds,
though it is the father here, not the loved one, who has brought the alteration. Let the succession go, Florizel boldly protests, ‘I am heir to my affection.’ ‘Be advis’d,’ cautions Camillo, ‘I am, and by my fancy,’ Florizel retorts:
If my reason
Will thereto be obedient, I have reason;
If not, my senses, better pleas’d with madness,
Do bid it welcome.
Fancy here of course means love. It is one of the plainest of a number of passages in the later Shakespeare showing that as against his earlier ideal of a balance between instinct and reason (‘blood and judgment’) he had come to believe that reason should be obedient to the imagination – or to imaginative love, as some may prefer to call it here. The person on this occasion whose reason is subdued to madness in another sense than Florizel’s is the infuriated father whose sudden outburst seems to be put in as a counterpart of the royal explosion of Leontes in the first act. The Jealous Husband, the Patriarchal Father: there seems little to choose between these ancestral types in the matter of emotional unbalance. Polixenes has more excuse on the grounds of dynastic custom, but less excuse in the fact that his loss of temper is deliberately planned and timed.
In view of Perdita’s simplicity it is interesting that she has what is perhaps the most complicated role in Shakespeare in the matter of disguise. But this is in keeping with the fat that true simplicity is the most complex thing in the world. The disguise the poet uses in Perdita’s case is not disguise for its own sake or for purely theatrical purposes, as in the early Comedies, but disguise fairly overflowing with symbolic significances. Perdita is by blood a princess, King Leontes’ daughter. Exposed as a babe, she is found and brought up by a shepherd as his own child. On the occasion of the sheep-shearing this princess who supposes herself a shepherd’s daughter impersonates the goddess Flora, pausing incidentally at her ‘father’s’ request, while still in her costume as goddess, to act as combined hostess and servant to the guests at the sheep-shearing, a part the shepherd’s wife had often played when she was living. Here is a mixture indeed of high and low, of human and divine. To complete the picture, this princess-shepherdess-housekeeper-goddess is wooed by a king’s son disguised as a country swain (with a remote suggest that he is also Apollo) who is so serious in his intentions that, as we have seen, he is willing to surrender his hope of the throne rather than give up the girl he loves. And to keep the comedy abreast of the romance, the rogue Autolycus is transmuted into a gentleman by exchange of clothing with the prince. It is all good fairy-tale stuff and admirable ‘theater.’ But it is also a summation of much that Shakespeare has been saying most of his life on the interrelations of what we now call democracy and aristocracy, of humanity and divinity.
Through much of this idyllic festivity that representative of reality, the Father, is present in disguise, ready at the proper moment to break the iridescent bubble with one breath of paternal authority. While still in the role of casual visitor at the feat, Polixenes can admire and compliment his son’s sweetheart as enthusiastically as anyone:
This is the prettiest low-born lass that ever
Ran on the green-sward,
And even instinctively detect her secret:
Nothing she does or seems
But smacks of something greater than herself,
Too noble for this place.
Quite as unconsciously she rebukes his recognition of artificial distinctions with regard to human nature by boldly asserting her preference for natural flowers as against those artificially crossed. The lines in which he answers her are among the most famous on art in Shakespeare:
Yet nature is made better by no mean
But nature makes that mean; so, over that art
Which you say adds to nature, is an art
That nature makes. You see, sweet maid, we marry
A gentler scion to the wildest stock,
And make conceive a bark of baser kind
By bud of nobler race. This is an art
Which does not mend nature, change it rather, but
The art itself is nature.
This reads like an explicit blessing on a union between this king’s son and this shepherd’s daughter – a gentle scion married to wild stock – but Polixenes is not acute enough to get the application of his words to the present situation. His general doctrine of the relation of art and nature is true or false according as we choose to use the word ‘nature’ in an all-inclusive or in a restricted sense, to contrast art with nature or subsume it under it. If I say, ‘It is the nature of art to add to nature,’ the opposite meanings of ‘nature’ are evident. Usage generally, and etymology specifically seem to be against Polixenes. Shakespeare waits for the fifth act to make his comment. Meanwhile, Perdita, with a bewitching mixture of feminine docility and stubbornness, assents to this stranger’s idea in the abstract but refuses to have anything to do with it in the concrete:
The art itself is nature.
So it is.
Then make your garden rich in gilly-flowers
And do not call them bastards.
I’ll not put
The dibble in earth to set one slip of them,
any more, she adds, than I would paint my own cheek to lure a lover. And then follows her memorable words about the flowers Proserpina let fall from Dis’s wagon,
That come before the swallow dares, and take
The winds of March with beauty…
And so on, words lovely in their own right, lovelier still in their mythological echoes, but loveliest of all in their elusive allusiveness to Perdita herself, who in more sense than one is a spring flower who dared come ahead of time.
Sure this robe of mine
Does change my disposition.
We are ready to take her at her word and to believe that a touch of the goddess Flora has entered into her from her costume, for clothes can be creative when treated as poetic symbols just as they can be degrading when taken as mere insignia of social rank.”
And, from Tanner:
“At the start of Act IV, Time comes forward himself and whisks away sixteen years, inviting us to turn our attention to the children of the Kings: Prince Florizel and Perdita ‘now grown in grace/Equal with wond’ring’ (IV.i.24-5). This effortless ‘sliding’ over ‘wide gaps’ of time is entirely appropriate in a romance. But it must not be thought that the omitted time leaves no traces – just as it is the time which permits Perdita to grow to beauty, so is the time which will bring wrinkles to her mother’s face. As Time says, he is responsible for the bringing in of the ‘freshest things’; but he will also ‘make stale/The glistering of this present’ (IV.i.12-14). He allows ‘errors’ to be made; but ensures that matters will, in due course, be ‘unfolded.’ He ruins, and reveals, erases and renews. As Kermode has pointed out, Shakespeare’s attitude to Time is comparable to Spenser’s as expressed in the Mutabilitie Cantos:
All things steadfastness do hate
And changed be: yet being rightly weighed
They are not changed from their first estate,
But by their change their being do dilate,
And turning to themselves at length again,
Do work their own perfection so by fate.
The subtitle of Pandosto is: ‘The Triumph of time. Wherein is discovered by a pleasant Historie, that although by the meanes of sinister fortune, Truth may be concealed yet by Time in spight of fortune it is mot manifestly revealed.’ Shakespeare prefers more compact, pregnant formulations, but the feeling is shared.
Then a short scene which reveals Polixenes’ concern that his son is spending a lot of time away from the court at the house of a shepherd who is reported to have ‘a daughter of most rare note’ (IV>ii.45). Polixenes intends that he and Camillo should visit the place, in disguise. Then we meet another figure created by Shakespeare for this play (though drawing on Greene’s The Art of Conny-Catching pamphlets – informed accounts of devices of thieving and gulling) – Autolycus. He announces his ancestry:
In fact, he was sired by Ovid:
And to the wing-foot god [Mercury] a wily brat
Was born, Autolycus, adept at tricks
Of every kind, well used to make black white,
White black, a son who kept his father’s skill.
His brother, born to Chione from Phoebus, was Philemon, ‘famed alike for song and lyre.’ In the play, Autolycus takes on both roles – he tricks and sings. Bate says that the appearance of Autolycus ‘confirms that the play is shifting into the register of myth.’ Yes and no. The rest of this act is full of contemporary rural realities, and as Wilson Knight suggested you can, as it were, find as much Hardy as Ovid in this world – it is the coalescence of the classical and folkloric which generates the quite special atmosphere.
Autolycus enters singing:
When daffodils begin to peer,
With heigh the doxy over the dale,
Why, then comes in the sweet o’ the year,.
For the red blood reigns in the winter’s pale.
The winter’s pale(ness) is a reflection of the winter’s tale which, effectively, was told and dramatized in the first three acts. Good red blood (not the bad hot blood of Leontes’s sick imagining) is rising to flush it out. The sourness of the court is about to give away to the sweetness of the country. The daffodils beginning to ‘peer’ anticipates the entry of Perdita in the next scene, looking like ‘Flora,/Peering in April’s front’ (IV.iv.2-3). The word ‘peer’ occurs quite frequently in Shakespeare, invariably referring to what we would no call members of the House of Lords. Its – infrequent – use as a verb, as far as I can find, always denotes something positive: the sun peers, honour peers, proud rivers peer, perhaps good peer, and live peers (‘through the hollow eyes of death,’ Richard II II.i.270-71). Perdita-Flora-spring peers; and her mother, we later learn, ‘lived peerless’ (V.iii.14). (Antony and Cleopatra ‘stand up peerless,’ Antony and Cleopatra I.i.40 – it is a word for rare and special, and Shakespeare uses it sparingly of people.) After the cold and wintry sterility of Leontes’ court, new life is beginning to ‘peer’ (‘to look out keenly or with difficulty; peep out; come into view, appear’ – OED: all meanings apply here), and Shakespeare signals this in the first line of the first song of the play (no singing at Leontes’ court, but there will be music in Paulina’s chapel at the end).
Switching to his other skill, Autolycus, pretending he has been beaten and robbed, picks the pocket of the too trusting Clown who is going shopping for the sheep-shearing feat (he runs through what he has to get – saffron, pies, mace, dates, nutmegs, ginger, prunes, raisins; such listing and itemizing, out of place in the placeless idealities of conventional pastoral, help to give a thick sense of the local, the real). Unaware of his loss, Clown offers to give Autolycus what ‘little money’ he has. Autolycus is a rogue (not the dark and evil figure some tremulous critics have found him), and his rogueries, along with his singing and ballads and peddling, liven up this whole act, just as they animate the whole sheep-shearing feast and the little rural community. But Clown’s instinctive little gesture of kindness and compassion means that he ‘glisters’ through Autolycus’ ‘rust’ – as Leontes admitted that Camillo did through the royal rust (III.ii.167-8). It is surely not insignificant that Autolycus boasts he has spent time at court – where he no doubt learned to refine his skills of deception. But, as the Shepherd wearily accepted, stealing was as much a part of country life as wenching; and the roving energy and ‘snapping-up’ activities of the amorally opportunistic, though invariably merry, Autolycus (a touch of the picaro here) adds a realistic saltiness (how appropriate that he breaks into a list of spices!) to a scene which might have become too ‘sweet’. I don not intend to track the comings-and-goings of Autolycus, but one of his ballads is worth noting. It is a ballad supposedly sung by a lamenting fish which appeared off the coast: ‘It was thought she was a woman, and was turned into a cold fish for she would not exchange flesh with the one that loved her. The ballad is very pitiful, and as true’ (IV.iv.280-283). It’s like a distant, distorted echo from another world – where a king turned himself into a cold tyrant because he did not trust one that loved him and thought she had exchanged flesh with someone else; where a king turned a woman into a cold corpse because he ceased to love her. Can these cold fish live?
The feast at the Shepherd’s cottage opens with the first appearance of Perdita, whom Florizel has dressed up as Flora (revealing his merging intentions?). Flora was the Roman goddess of flowers, and there is no scene in Shakespeare as full of flowers as the one that follows. Prince Florizel is playing at classical pastoral:
This is your sheep-shearing
Is as a meeting of the petty gods,
And you the Queen on’t.
Perdita is, though, uneasy that he has ‘obscured’ his ‘high, self’ with ‘a swain’s wearing; and me, poor lowly maid,/Most goddesslike pranked up’ (IV.iv.7-10) – and she is right to be uneasy at being thus ‘pranked up’ (Shakespeare’s only use of the word). No matter how sincere his love, Florizel is playing a dangerous pastoral ‘prank’ on her. there is certainly myth in the air. Florizel invokes the gods ‘humbling their deities to love,’ and cites the ‘transformation’ of Jupiter to a bull, Neptune to a ram, Apollo to a swain – though even he realizes that these metamorphoses are not particularly happy auguries as far as a woman is concerned, and he hastens to distinguish his own honorable ‘desire’ from their hot, unchaste ‘lusts.’ But as well as myth, there are more insistent proximate realities, some of them unpastorally harsh and cruel, as the scene will bear our. The old shepherd (now, supposedly her father) immediately comments on the inappropriateness of her dress (he says she looks like ‘a feasted one, and not/The hostess’ (IV.iv.63-4), and gives a picture of the more ungoddess-like behavior and deportment required in this setting:
Fie daughter! When my old wife lived, upon
This day, she as both pantler, butler, cook;
Both dame and servant; welcomed all, served all;
Would sing her song, and dance her turn…
and so on – affording a vivid cameo of an actual rural festival.
The whole prolonged episode serves to show the kind of world Perdita grew up in –not her royal birth but her rural nurturing. It is not a brief interlude in the ‘green world,’ nor does it take place in a magic wood. It is an extended scene – at some nine hundred lines it must be the longest in Shakespeare (there is none of this in Greene, simply half a dozen lines referring to a ‘meeting of all the Farmers Daughters in Sycilia’ where Fawnia appears as ‘mistress of the feast’), and through it all there is an accumulating sense of the realities of country life. After three oppressive, sterile acts in the court of Sicilia, we need a good long dose, or draft, of the freedoms and fertilities of rural Bohemia – if only to make us feel that this world has sufficient weight and reality to counterbalance Sicilia’s winter-world.
With the arrival of the guests to the feast (including the disguised Polixenes and Camillo), Perdita commences her obligations as hostess – by giving everyone flowers. She starts by handing rosemary and rue to the unknown visitors, and Polixenes comments that these ‘flow’rs of winter’ fit well ‘our ages’ (IV.iv.78-9). Here we may just note that there is what must be a deliberate indeterminacy about the time of year this is taking place. Sheep-shearing would be in mid-June, and there is certainly a feeling of late-spring burgeoning in the air. Yet Perdita replies to Polixenes:
Sir, the year growing ancient,
Not yet on summer’s death, nor on the birth
Of trembling winter…
which suggests the near approach of autumn. The reason for this, I suggest, is that while Perdita is certainly a Prosperina-like figure of returning spring [MY NOTE: SLIGHT ACT FIVE PLOT GIVEAWAY HERE], her mother will of necessity be in the autumn of her life at the time of the reunion which the scene is preparing for. I think Shakespeare wants to mix or merge a sense both of rising sap and mature ripening – the non-wintry phases of creative life.
Perdita continues her speech to Polixenes:
the fairest flow’rs o’ th’ season,
Are our carnations, and streaked gillyvors [pinks],
Which some call Nature’s bastards: of that kind
Our rustic garden’s barren; and I care not
To get slips of them.
This precipitates what has been called the ‘great debate,’ and it certainly leads to a major exchange, when Polixenes asks Perdita why she ‘neglects’ such flowers:
For I have heard it said,
There is an art, which in their piedness shares
With great creating nature.
Say there be;
Yet nature is made better by no mean
But Nature makes that mean; so over that art,
Which you say adds to Nature, is an art,
That Nature makes. You see, sweet maid, we marry
A gentler scion to the wildest stock,
And make conceive a bark of baser kind
By bud of nobler race. This is an art
Which does mend Nature, change it rather; but
The art itself is Nature.
The Elizabethans loved discussing the relationship between Art and Nature, and throughout his work Shakespeare found many occasions and formulations to deepen and further that discussion. There is nothing particular original in Polixenes’ argument, which from one point of view is unassailable – Nature that made the carpenter, made the house, as Emerson succinctly put it. Compare this, from Puttenham’s The Arte of English Poesie (1589); ‘In come cases we say art is an ayde and coadiutor to nature, or peradventure a meane to supply her wants…In another respect arte is not only an aide and coadiutor to nature in all her actions, but an alterer of them, and in some sort a surmounter of her skill…’, a description which fits nicely with what Shakespeare is doing as a playwright. But was also felt that men, with their ‘artificiall devises,’ had in some ways corrupted and ‘basterdized’ ‘our great and puissant mother Nature’ (see Montaigne’s essay ‘of the Cannibales’ – Florio’s translation appeared in 1603). The grafting and cross-breeding of plants, in which there was much contemporary interest, offered a fine focus to such discussions – as it does here. It could be said that they are both ‘right,’ inasmuch as Perdita is deprecating (bad) artificiality, while Polixenes is defending (good) art. The more general point is that the whole matter of the relations between nature and art is both vital and endless – is itself generative. ‘Piedness’ (from the miscellaneous objects jumbled together by the magpie) here means the multi-colored results achieved by cross breeding flowers, and Perdita feels that there is something unnatural about it (how nature can produce something felt to be ‘unnatural’ occupies Shakespeare from start to finish).
The more immediate dramatic effect of the scene is of a profound irony, partly retrospective, partly proleptic. We heard the baby Perdita many times execrated as a ‘bastard’ by Leontes, and she was cast out as one – yet here she is taking a principled stand against bastardy. While Polixenes here argues positively in favor of the practice whereby ‘we marry/A gentler scion to the wilder stock’; but when it comes to grafting the (supposedly) base-born Perdita onto his own noble twig (‘scion’) Florizel (which is, after all, what Perdita is hoping for, despite opposition to graftings), his horticultural approval vanishes in a fury of rejection. For the moment, Perdita continues to distribute flowers – hot lavender, mints, savory, marjoram, marigolds, ‘these are the flow’rs/Of middle summer’ (IV.iv.106-7). She specifically regrets that she lacks ‘some flow’rs o’th’ spring’ which would be more fitting, both for Florizel and the shepherdesses – virgins all. But, in the poetry of her regret she effectively brings in spring:
That come before the swallow dares, and take
The winds of March with beauty; violets, dim,
But sweeter than the lids of Juno’s eyes,
Or Cytherea’s breath; pale primroses,
That die unmarried ere they can behold
Bright Phoebus in his strength…
Nothing else could evoke an actual English spring more immediately than those quite astonishingly lovely opening lines. At the same time, the young maid’s fancy lightly turns to myth; and Juno, Cytherea and Phoebus are somehow hovering over the flowers. It is in this speech that Perdita specifically invokes Prosperina, and the flowers she let fall ‘from Dis’s wagon’ (IV.iv.118), and of course the Ceres-Proserpina relationship is the most important mythical enlargement of the central drama of the mother and the daughter in The Winter’s Tale. It is perhaps because Shakespeare wanted to strengthen this enriching analogy that he switched the geography, thereby having Perdita born in Sicily which was the birthplace of Prosperina and from whence she was abducted. This is the story from Ovid with the most influence on the play. I hardly need rehearse it here in full, but one detail is worth noting. When Ceres learns from Arethusa that her daughter is now a queen in hell –
The mother heard in horror, thunderstruck
It seemed and turned to stone.
The mother is ‘turned to stone’ in Shakespeare’s play as well, though in quite different circumstances and to quite different ends.
Florizel is, understandably, enchanted by the demeanor and words of Perdita, and he is moved to this ardent hymn of appreciation:
What you do
Still betters what is done. When you speak, sweet,
I’d have you do it ever; when you sing,
I’d have you buy and sell so; so give alms,
Pray so; and for the ord’ring your affairs,
To sing them too. When you do dance, I wish you
A wave o’ th’ sea, that you might ever do
Nothing but that – move still, still so,
And own no other function. Each your doing,
So singular in each particular,
Crowns what you are doing in the present deeds,
That all your acts are queens.
The poetry of this, and of Perdita’s immediately preceding speeches, is at times blindingly beautiful – there is hardly a more regal compliment in the whole of Shakespeare than that last one; and – among other things – it contributes greatly to our sense of Perdita’s very special beauty. This, it has to be said, is her most important quality: she has none of the wit and sparkle and intelligence of Beatrice, Viola and Rosalind (she is more like Pastorella in Spenser’s Fairie Queen), and she is, indeed, effectively a mute for the whole of the last act. But in this play her preternatural beauty is everything she is, as it were, the almost divine representative of great creating Nature herself.
But Florizel’s speech also touches on a deeper longing that runs through the play – that the beauties of life should last; here, that youth’s blooming grace and loveliness should be somehow perpetuated and preserved – not once and gone, but now and ‘ever.’ That nature, which is forever moving, indeed ‘dancing,’ should also, somehow, be ‘still.’ Shakespeare, of course, fastens on just that phenomenon in nature which seems to enact that contradictory condition – a wave, which, as it moves towards the shore is always and never the same. Shakespeare catches this with marvelous economy – ‘move still, still so’: movement and stillness, movement in stillness, stillness moving – these four words anticipate the climax of the play. But it is and can be only seems. The wave must break on the shore; Perdita must acquire her mother’s wrinkles, and her spring will pass away into winter. But the yearning and striving for eternity – the desire that the mutable natural should yield the unchanging eternal – is a profound one, and Shakespeare taps more deeply into is in this play than ever before. Shakespeare knows as well as every other human being that things pass away, that even a memory cannot be made to last forever, that ‘thy grave [must] give way to what’s seen now,’ [MY NOTE: THE REST OF THIS PARAGRAPH GIVES AWAY A MAJOR PLOT POINT FOR ACT FIVE – I THINK AT THIS STAGE IT’S IMPORTANT TO KNOW, BUT IF YOU DON’T WANT TO…SKIP AHEAD TO THE NEXT PARAGRAPH], as Paulina says to the supposedly dead Hermione (V.i.97-8). But just there we stop. Paulina has seen to it that Hermione has not passed away, and, until the final stunning surprise, it appears that she has been preserved in and through art. Shakespeare, being Shakespeare, has one further step to take. Of course, when Hermione steps out of art into life, she is still in theatre. But Shakespeare gives play to the great and unending question of to what extent art can appease or satisfy man’s desire for what Yeats called ‘monuments of unageing intellect,’ whether it can provide, or substitute for, or act as ‘the artifice of eternity.’ Yeats articulates and explores this desire in ‘Sailing to Byzantium,’ and again in ‘Byzantium’ where the ‘glory of changeless metal’ and the ‘marbles of the dancing floor’ seem to offer an immutable value, as opposed to ‘the fury and the mire of human veins’ and the ‘dolphin-torn’ sea. Art, it might be, allows life to produce ‘monuments of its own magnificence’ (‘Sailing to Byzantium’). All these matters come to a head in the concluding moments of the play.
The rural pleasures continue for some time, and the amorousness of the young lovers rises to the point where they wish to formally commit themselves to each other, and Florizel asks the unknown visitors to act as witnesses to ‘mark our contract.’ ‘Mark your divorce’ says his furious father, dropping his disguised (IV.iv.421). Polixenes has been so courteous, and so appreciative of Perdita’s beauty and seemingly innate nobility, that when he now starts spewing hatred, anger and cruel threats around, it is as sudden and frightening as Leontes’ earlier incomprehensible eruption. Perdita becomes a ‘piece of excellent witchcraft,’ his own son a ‘royal fool,’ while the old Shepherd he will have hanged. The viciousness with which he turns on Perdita is truly shocking:
I’ll have thy beauty scratched with briers and made
More homely than thy state.
As children Leontes and Polixenes were ‘as twinned lambs’; as adults they are as twinned – what? wolves, maddened bears? Polixenes has brought a Sicilian winter to the Bohemian country, and what was so promisingly in the bud seems blighted. Perdita was right to be apprehensive – some intimation of the potentially dark behavior of father-kings must have been born in her blood. The rest of the act is taken up with the plotting and arrangements which will bring all those involved back to Sicilia. Perdita doesn’t know it, but she is going home.”
Thoughts? How’s everybody enjoying the play?
My next post: Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning: More on Act Four