“Underlying all is the one Ovidian myth that –beyond all others — informs the play: the story of Proserpina…”

The Winter’s Tale

Act Four, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams


From Marjorie Garber:

winters-tale_l“At the act of act 3, however, these latent revivals are far from evident, and the barrenness of time in Sicilia appears in marked contrast with the liveliness of time on the seacoast of Bohemia, where perpetuity is achieved not by transcendence but by repetition – not by becoming an art object, whether a statue or a winter’s tale, but by subsuming oneself into the cycle of nature. In a particularly beautiful passage Florizel describes the peculiar quality of time in Bohemia, which is at once fleeing and permanent. He is praising his beloved Perdita and describing his joy in even her most insignificant actions:

     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 t he ord’ring of 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.


Being and becoming here fold into each other; waves, like the flowers that live and die in Perdita’s garden, each in its appointed season, are not immortal or eternal, except by the illusion of repetition, each new wave appearing as a reincarnation of the last. The word ‘still’ (‘move still, still so’) carries the double meaning of ‘unmoving’ and ‘always,’ so that the lovely paradox of ‘move still’ encapsulates the meaning of the whole image, and contrasts sharply with Paulina’s picture of ‘still winter/In storm perpetual.’

Time in its various guises – barren time, fruitful time, redemptive time – is clearly a central topic for The Winter’s Tale, and the concept is emblematized, and brought to life, in the figure of Time, the Chorus who introduces act 4. This ancient figure of Father Time with his hourglass represents a survival from older literature, rather like Gower, the narrator of Pericles. And like Gower, Time is in a way necessary, or at least useful, as a device to smooth over the rough spots left by a gap of sixteen years between acts 3 and 4. (The audience might well be reminded of that ‘vast,’ or wasteland, evoked in the play’s opening conversation between Camillo and Archidamus.)

Shakespeare the playwright here returns to the awkward device, used in Pericles, of bisecting his play with a major gap in time. By now it is clear that the pattern of Shakespearean romance requires a mature second generation, a marriage, and a redemptive union – hence the need for many years to pass between the original act of disruption and the final consensus. But the intrusion of the figure of time, we might contend, draws attention to this gap rather than naturalizes it. Why then does Shakespeare choose to employ it?

Time speaks of himself as ‘I that please some, try all; both joy and terror/Of good and bad; that makes and unfolds error.’ He says, ‘[I]t is in my power/To o’erthrow law, and in one self-born hour/To plant and o’erwhelm custom’ (4.1.1-2, 7-9). He speaks of ‘my tale’ and ‘my scene,’ and he tells us, ‘I mentioned a son o’th’ Kings,’ when so far as we know he has not, since we have never seen or heard from him before. And he finishes his speech by describing ‘th’argument of Time,’ and by offering an apologia to the audience in advance, hoping that we will like what is to come. It does not take much to see that this is the voice of a playwright talking, an artist introducing and describing a work of art. His phrase ‘joy and terror’ is close enough to Aristotle to suggest the dimensions and requirements of drama. Time boasts that he can break rules (‘o’erthrow law’ and ‘overwhelm custom’), rules like the so-called dramatic unities, of time, place, and action, which the play does break, extravagantly, as it unfolds over time and space. Time is a craftsman, an artist, and a maker, as we will see again much later on, [ONE LAST PLOT REVEALER IS COMING UP FOR THE REST OF THE PARAGRAPH] when the statue of Hermione is revealed, and seen to be lined with age. ‘Hermione was not so much wrinkled, nothing/So aged as this seems,’ exclaims Leontes, who remembers her as a young woman. And Paulina replies, ‘So much the more our carver’s excellence’ (5.3.27-28, 30). ‘[O]ur carver’ is here both Time and Shakespeare. The presence of time, the Chorus, is not nearly as intrusive or distracting as may first appear; the play is framed by time, and is in effect itself a kind of hourglass, waiting to be turned once more, and to begin anew.

No sooner does the audience encounter time, his glass and his scythe, than we are introduced to another figure who seems both to be in and of time and also to transcend it. That figure is Autolycus, the trickster, peddler, cheat, and self-described ‘snapper-up of unconsidered trifles’ (4.3.25-26) – a character who is thus, plausibly, a counter-creator, another fiction-maker, player, and playwright. Camillo and Polixenes, conferring on the whereabouts of Prince Florizel, determine that he has been seen in the neighborhood of a certain shepherd’s cottage, and decide to investigate the matter for themselves. In order to enter the true world of Bohemia, in which the shepherd and not Polixenes is king, they doff the appurtenances of rank and disguise themselves as elderly countrymen. The Bohemia world is a version of ‘carnival,’ the low become high, the hierarchy of order and power inverted, a potentially subversive challenge from below to the sometimes repressive ideology of order. As with Falstaff and Prince Hal in the Henry IV plays, disguise allows the infiltration of the alternative society, and the social logic of the world turned upside down pervades much of Bohemia, knowingly and not. So we find Perdita dressed as a ‘Queen of the Feat’ to shepherds, and Polixenes trapped in his country costume, a king forced into the position of a commoner.

16909-raw‘We must disguise ourselves,’ Polixenes declares, in the familiar rallying cry of those entering Shakespearean middle worlds. The phrase serves as a magic world, parole, or open sesame, for no sooner does he say this than he and Camillo are confronted with the embodiment of the concept of disguise, Autolycus. Indeed, Autolycus seems in a way to be all role, no essence. It is difficult to isolate his ‘true’ nature out of the mass of fictions; in act 4 he presents himself as, in rapid sequence, a robbed man (who himself robs the Clown), a peddler with a pack of (worthless) finery and bawdy ballads, and a courtier supposedly in the service of King Polixenes. Autolycus is the play’s resident artist and genius loci, spirit of place. His name reveals his link with the classical trickster Autolycus, one of the master thieves of Greek tradition, and a son of the quicksilver god Hermes, or Mercury. Looking back across the Shakespearean spectrum, we see he has some formal and structural connections with Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and with the aptly named Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, as well as with a host of thieves and rogues; and in a way he looks forward to the idealized and more benign figure of Ariel in The Tempest. But Autolycus differs crucially from Puck and Ariel because he is human, a rascal as well as a wonder-worker.

In his role as nature spirit and Bohemian genius loci, Autolycus is most certainly a harbinger of the seasons, as his first song, though characteristically bawdy, nonetheless declares:

When daffodils begin to peer,

With heigh, the doxy over tye dale,

Why then comes in the sweet o’the year,

For the red blood reigns in the winter’s pale.


Daffodils – and doxies, or prostitutes. The red blood of desire is the same blood of lineage and incipient violence that was present in the Leontes court. With the second verse, and the mention of ‘[t]he white sheet bleaching on the hedge,’ we begin to see Autolycus not only as peddler and singer, but also as something of the spirit of springtime itself. Pulling sheets off hedges becomes a poetic and prosaic way of describing not only a common peddler’s theft, but also the melting of snow in the spring. Even the lark, the redemptive bird that rises in the morning in the English countryside, becomes ‘summer songs for me and my aunts/While we lie tumbling in the hay.’ The servant who rushes into the feat of sheepshearing to announce that a singing peddler is at the door is eager to stress the chasteness of his tunes – apparently in contrast to the language of those offered by the usual run of peddlers. “He has the prettiest love songs for maids, so without bawdry, which is strange, with such delicate burdens of dildos and fadings, ‘Jump her and thump her’’ (4.4.191-194). There is characteristic misspeaking in this comic scene: dildos were then, as they are now, penile sex toys; ‘with a fading’ refers to a popular song ‘of an indecent character’ (OED); and ‘jump her’ meant then just what it means today, to have sex with her. But Autolycus’s talents are not, apparently, restricted to the inculcation of virtue; there is magic in his web. As the same servant reports, ‘why, he sings ‘em over as they were gods or goddesses. You would think a smock were a she-angel, he so chants to the sleeve-hand and the work about the square on’t’ (4.4.205-207). As he chants, he enchants, making the smocks and sleeves come to life. Charming in itself, this embedded detail also, we might note, points straight ahead to [PLOT REVEAL!] the statue scene, where, again, the apparently inanimate will be summoned to life by a powerful natural magician.

Why does the play need and welcome a contrary spirit like Autolycus? As with his simpler forebears in the comedies, like Lucio in Measure for Measure, Autolycus will be excluded from the play’s summing-up. In fact, he goes out of his way to stress those aspects of his character that render him an outlaw to society. Responding in act 5 to the offstage reunion between Perdita and her father, he comments wryly, ‘Now, had I not the dash of my former life in me, would preferment drop on my head.’ (Here we may, if we like, hear an echo of Edmund, dying, in King Lear: ‘Some good I mean to do, Despite of mine own nature.’ (5.3.217-218). But Autolycus is true to character and true to type, and when he has effected his transformations and discoveries, he disappears, absenting himself from the final reunions and revelations. Yet what he has contributed has been essential.

I noted above that Autolycus springs into being the moment that disguise is mentioned, and that he seems a counterpart not only of the (downscale) disguises of Camillo and Polixenes, but also of the (upscale) ‘unusual weeds’ of Perdita, who is costumed as Flora, the goddess of blossoming plants. (Remember Antigonus’s benediction: ‘Blossom, speed thee well.’) ‘Weeds’ is a common period term for clothing (we still speak of ‘widow’s weeds’), but it is also associated, in Jacobean times as today, with the garden, and Florizel confirms this seasonal association, declaring that she is ‘no shepherdess, but Flora/Peering in April’s front’ (4.4.2-3).

Yet as lovely as the courtship of Florizel and Perdita seems to be, and as strongly as it evokes the patterns of Ovidian myth, there still seems to be an important dimension missing from the quality of their love. As Florizel says, emphasizing the Ovidian link to metamorphosis:

    The gods themselves,

Humbling their deities to love, have taken

The shapes of beasts upon them. Jupiter

Became a bull, and bellowed; the green Neptune

A ram, and bleated; and the fire-robed god,

Golden Apollo, a poor humble swain,

As I seem now…


These are all details of myths of seduction and metamorphosis, gods pursuing nymphs for love. But Florizel chooses to distance himself from the erotic aspect of courtship:

     Their transformations

Were never for a piece of beauty rarer,

Not in a way so chaste, since my desires

Run not before mine honour, not my lusts

Burn hotter than my faith.


An insistent theme in the late Shakespeare, the determination to embrace chastity and lawful marriage rather than sexual license, is here rather unusually voiced, not by a watchful father (Simonides, Prospero) but by the young lovers themselves. Florizel, despite his flowering name, insists upon it, and Perdita in her ceremony of flower giving (so reminiscent, in a different tonality, of Ophelia’s similar gesture in Hamlet) evokes chastity and unchastity at every turn. Thus to Camillo she offers [‘t]’he marigold, that goes to be wi’th’ sun,/And with him rises, weeping’ (4.4.105-106), and to the shepherdesses, whose ‘virgin branches’ yet bear their ‘maidenheads growing,’ she gives ‘pale primroses,/That die unmarried ere they can behold/Bright Phoebus in his strength – a malady/Most incident to maids’ (122.125). In other words, Perdita’s bestowal of flowers, however symbolically connected to sexual ‘deflowering’ (again, a common term in the period), is, like Florizel’s language, infused with awareness of her virgin status. She is mistress of the Old Shepherd’s house, not yet of her husband’s.

It is at this point, significantly, that Autolycus bounds onto the scene, bringing with him among his wares ‘tawdry-laces,’ ‘poking sticks’ (for the propping of collars and the pleating of ruffs), and the ballad of the woman who ‘was turned into a cold fish for she would not exchange flesh with one that loved her.’ ‘The ballad,’ as he says, ‘is very pitiful, and as true.’ (4.4.268-270). The anarchic energy he brings to the sheepshearing feast is ameliorative, erotic, and sexual as well as antihierarchial and chaotic. The ballads that make up his most attractive stock are a popular ‘news’ medium as well as a popular mythology (notice how the ‘cold fish’ story is structured like an Ovidian transformation). And when the shepherdess Mopsa announces, ‘I love a ballad in print, alife, for then we are sure they are true’ (251-252), the playwright allows himself to mock both the emergent culture of print and publicity and the claim for poetic ‘truth.’

The long and celebrated sheepshearing scene, act 4, scene 4, is focused on that mainstay of pastoral – the debate – a format we saw both employed and gently mocked in Shakespeare’s other major pastoral play, As You Like It. In this case the debate takes a very familiar form, that of ‘Nature and Art’ – which is the greatest, which the lesser? But, again with the characteristic Shakespearean twist, this most conventional of conventions is undercut from within, fore ach of the two debaters winds up arguing against his or her own interest. Perdita, who thinks she is a lowborn shepherdess and wants to marry a young man who is a king’s son, argues for social purity, for not marrying out of one’s proper rank, while Polixenes, a king disguised as a countryman in order to detect and foil this misalliance, speaks blithely of marrying ‘a gentler scion to the wildest stock’:


Sir, the year growing ancient,

Not yet on summer’s death, not on the birth

Of trembling winter, the fairest flowers o’th’ season

Are our carnations and streaked gillyvors,

Which some call nature’s bastards. Of that kind

Our rustic garden’s barren, and I care not

To get slips of them.


Wherefore, gentle maiden,

Do you neglect them?


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.


Perdita’s distrust of art runs deep; she is uncomfortable in her ‘unusual weeds,’ her costume of Flora, and later, when Camillo urges her to practice further deceit – dressing Florizel in Autolycus’s clothes ‘as if/the scene you play were mine,’ she resists: ‘I see the play so lies/That I must bear a part’ (4.4.581-582, 638-639). She is sensitive to the way costume can change not only appearance but temperament and character. Earlier, primping shyly in her new gown, she had claimed, ‘Sure this robe of mine/Does change my disposition,’ and she associates the performance with that of a local seasonal festival: ‘Methinks I play as I have seen them do/In Whisun pastorals’ (4.4.134-135, 133-134).

Whitson (Whitsunday) was an English springtime festival, seven weeks after Easter, for which masquerading was a central part of the celebration. The figures of Robin Hood and Maid Marian were among the key players. A ‘king’ and ‘queen’ were appointed, and this ‘May-game,’ as it was also known, became intermittently the target of clerical protest. But this paganized festival has its roots in a Christian holy day, Pentecost, when the Holy Sprit is said to have entered the Apostles, and they were able to speak ‘with other tongues’ (Acts 2:4) and thus go forth and preach Christ’s ministry throughout the world. In essence, Pentecost is a reversal of the fall wrought by the Tower of Babel in Genesis (11:1-9), when the Lord ‘confused the language’ of impious men seeking to build a tower to heaven, rendering them unable to communicate with one another, and frustrating their design. By contrast, Pentecost took many languages and in effect made them one, by giving the Apostles the ability to speak and understand them all.

This transformation mirrors a pattern that lies close to the center of The Winter’s Tale, as we have already seen, in the etymology of the word ‘infant’ from the Latin for ‘unable to speak.’ Perdita as an infant could not move and persuade her father, as Paulina had hoped. (Paulina’s name, as we have noted, links her with the Apostle Paul, whose story is likewise told in the Book of Acts.) Now, sixteen years later, an articulate if unpracticed Perdita will learn to speak and to play her part. As Leontes’ servant will report to him when – following Camillo’s plan – the young couple, Florizel and Perdita, seek refuge in Sicilia from Polixenes’ wrath, ‘when she has obtained your eye,’ she will ‘have your tongue too’ (5.1.105-106).

Classical myth -- Persephone / ProserpinaFor the sheepshearing scene, which seems almost to enact a minicycle of the seasons – beginning in harvest and succumbing to a wintry blast of paternal anger – now gives way to another journey over water, bringing Camillo home, and Perdita too, though she does not know it. The fifth act of The Winter’s Tale, masterful in its architecture and capacious in its mythmaking, in effect stages the family reunion three times, in three successive scenes, one seasonal or cyclical, the second narrative or reported, and the third ekphrastic or apocalyptic…Underlying all is the one Ovidian myth that – beyond all others – informs the play: the story of Proserpina, the daughter of Ceres, the harvest goddess, who was stolen away by the god Pluto, or Dis, taken to the underworld, and then permitted to return to the earth for eight months of the year. Because she had eaten four seeds of the pomegranate, Proserpina was required to remain in Pluto’s kingdom for the four months that became winter. Upon her return, her mother rejoiced, and the earth bloomed again. Perdita had acknowledged this story in the course of the sheepshearing scene:  ‘O Proserpina,/For the flowers now that, frighted, thou letst fall/From Dis’s wagon!’ (4.4.116-118)

When she and Florizel appear at Leontes’ court in act 5, Perdita is described by an admiring servant as ‘the most peerless piece of earth, I think,/That e’er the sun shown bright on’ (5.1.93-94). As the couple stand, in the King’s phrase, ‘begetting wonder,’ Leontes, who of course does not recognize his daughter, greets them in a language that is correspondingly seasonal and ‘natural’: ‘Welcome hither,/As is the spring to ‘th’earth!’ (150-151). Here the myth fairly bursts forth from the play. In what may be a vestigial memory of an older nature myth, Leontes briefly thinks of marrying this paragon himself, echoing the incest motif we have proposed, and set aside, in Pericles. It may be of some interest that stagings of the play have sometimes, perhaps unwittingly, reinvigorated this disruptive moment on the path to reunion by doubling the parts of the young Hermione in acts 1 and 2 and her grown daughter of the later acts. In any case, Leontes quickly reverses himself, pledging to be of service to the young pair.”


Ready for the miracle that is Act Five?


Our next reading: Act Five of The Winter’s Tale

My next post:  Thursday evening/Friday morning


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