The Winter’s Tale

Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University



Time, serving as a chorus, introduces himself:

I, that please some, try all, both joy and terror
Of good and bad, that makes and unfolds errors,
Now take upon me, in the name of Time,
To use my wings. Impute it not a crime
To me, or my swift passage, that I slide
O’er sixteen years and leave the growth untried
Of that wide gap, since it is in my pow’r
To o’erthrow law, and in one self-born hour
To plant and o’erwhelm custom.

If he’s adopting “the name of Time,” then he sounds in his functioning here more like a playwright.

During this passing of sixteen years, Leontes has become a recluse, Perdita has grown, and Florizel, the son of Polixenes, is smitten with Perdita. The elder Ogburns identify Florizel with the Fair Youth of the Sonnets and elsewhere (Ogburn and Ogburn 852). The “sixteen winters” (V.iii.50) could, presumably, refer to the sixteen years of marriage Oxford had with Anne (Ogburn and Ogburn 759).


Camillo asks Polixenes’ permission to return to Sicilia but Polixenes values him too much and wants him to accompany him in disguise to visit a shepherd’s home and find out why Florizel is hanging around there all the time. Camillo responds:

What his happier affairs may be, are to me unknown; but I have (missingly) noted, he is of late much retir’d from court, and is less frequent to his princely exercises than formerly he hath appear’d. (IV.ii.30-33)

The elder Ogburns detect a reference to de Vere in these lines (Ogburn and Ogburn 1066). Parallels to Leontes’ earlier behavior suggests that Polinexes has a touch of tyrant in him too, something soon confirmed.


“Sicilia appears to be all court and Bohemia all country” (Garber 828). In this country setting appears a stage gypsy or rogue, singing a bawdy song: “When daffadils begin to peer,” including the allusion to “summer songs for me and my aunts, / While we lie tumbling in the hay” (IV.iii.11-12). He was once a servant of Florizel but has become a petty thief and con-man. His song continues:

And when I wander here and there,
I then do go most right.

“It might be Shakespeare’s ‘apology’ buried just where one might expect Shakespeare to bury it, in a song” (Goddard, II 263). If that’s so, the next lines are intriguing:

If tinkers may have leave to live,
And bear the sow-skin bouget [budget = wallet or bag],
Then my account I well may give,
And in the stocks avouch it [testify to my thieving trade].

My traffic is sheets….

The character identifies himself as Autolycus. Homer’s Autolycus, grandfather of Odysseus, was a thief; Ovid’s Autolycus was a son of Hermes/Mercury. Mercury was the god of thieves and merchants “which indicates the rather mixed opinion that the ancients had of merchants — possibly with some justice” (Asimov 160). Much praise is lavished on this character, mostly because he is considered refreshing after the audience “has suffered the jealous, flesh-hating diatribes of Leontes” for so long (Bloom 652). Etymologically, the “Auto-” part of his name should provide a hint, say the elder Ogburns (995).I’d add that the name ought to signify something like Self-Wolf, or Self-Enemy, enemy of the self.

When Autolycus comes across the shepherd’s son making financial calculations based on wool sales (and listing various wintertime food purchases such as “warden pies” (IV.iii.45-46), which are made of winter pears, currents, rice, prunes, raisins, etc., Autolycus grovels before him suddenly: “O that ever I was born!” “I’ th’ name of me,” utters the startled rube (IV.iii.50-51). Autolycus claims to have been beaten by a footman, robbed, and made to wear rags. His shoulder-blade is hurt (IV.iii.73). The Clown is sympathetic and gullible, more so when Autolycus refuses the offer of money, although he does so in the hopes that the Clown won’t realize his pocket has been picked. Autolycus describes the villain who so abused him:

I knew him once a servant of the Prince. I cannot tell, good sir, for which of his virtues it was, but he was certainly whipt out of the court. (IV.iii.87-90)

That part sounds like Oxford. But the description continues:

I know this man well; he hath been since an ape-bearer, then a process-server, a bailiff, then he compass’d a motion of the Prodigal Son, and married a tinker’s wife within a mile where my land and living lies; and, having flown over many knavish professions, he settled only in rogue. Some call him Autolycus…. That’s the rogue that put me into this apparel. (IV.iii.94-104)

This sounds like another of Oxford’s assessments of Shakspere, and if so it’s significant that Autolycus transfers his name. The entire scene amounts to a con based on blurring or shifting identities. Autolycus will venture onward to his kinsman’s place. The Clown leaves. Autolycus has picked his pocket and, he declares, he will rip off more people at the sheep-shearing festival: “If I make not this cheat bring out another, and the shearers prove sheep, let me be unroll’d, and my name put in the book of virtue!” (IV.iii.120-122). He exits singing.


A long scene providing “a very superfluity of comic and romantic riches” (Goddard, II 267) begins with Florizel and Perdita discussing costumes for the festival. She is modest and awkward about appearing as a goddess, or “queen” (IV.iv.5), when, after all, she is merely a shepherd’s daughter. What would Polixenes say if he happened by? Florizel insists he blesses the day his falconry brought him to her hovel, and he would rather have her than retain his royal status; besides, after all, the gods often disguised themselves as beasts to go slumming.

Perdita’s shepherd foster-father arrives, as do Polixenes and Camillo in disguise, and others. Perdita is urged to fulfill her hostess function as mistress of the feast by welcoming all, which she does, giving the disguised Polixenes and Camillo rosemary and rue nosegays to symbolize grace and remembrance. A delightful botanical exchange of wit ensues. All are quite flattering to Perdita. Florizel praises her thus:

What you do
Still betters what is done. When you speak, sweet,
I’ld have you do it ever; when you sing,
I’ld have you buy and sell so; so give alms;
Pray so; and for the ord’ring you 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 so, 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.

This passage has an “incantatory rhythmic function”; it imitates the “swaying motion” of the sea mentioned by creating a simultaneous “impression of movement and stillness” (Wells 345).

Perdita agrees to dance with “Doricles,” Florizel’s assumed name. Throughout the scene, Perdita “unites the simplicity of a shepherd’s daughter with the poise and grace of a princess” (Goddard, II 268); “like the flowers she scorns, she is a product of both art and nature” (Wells 346). Polixenes and Camillo detect this nobility in Perdita: “Nothing she does, or seems, / But smacks of something greater than herself, / Too noble for this place” (IV.iv.157-159). During a dance arranged by the Clown, Polixenes asks the shepherd about the young couple, Perdita and Florizel, whom the shepherd knows as Doricles. The Shepherd reports that “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” (IV.iv.171-174). The elder Ogburns take this moon/water reference to connote Elizabeth and Raleigh (760). The Shepherd says Doricles has announced his love for Perdita: “If young Doricles / Do light upon her, she shall bring him that / Which he not dreams of” (IV.iv.178-180).

A servant announces a peddler at the door selling songs and ribbons. Autolycus arrives singing a list of his wares and charming everyone. The Clown intends to purchase something for his true love, Mopsa, who gets in a fight briefly with another maid, Dorcas. We are reminded that the Clown was “cozen’d” on the road (IV.iv.251) and lost his money. Mopsa wants a print ballad: “I love a ballad in print … for then we are sure they are true” (IV.iv.260-261). And what does this imply that Shakespeare thinks about literalism? Autolycus describes a few ballads and heads up the performance of one “to the tune of ‘Two maids wooing a man'” (IV.iv.288-289) — appropriately enough for Dorcas and Mopsa, fighting over the Clown. All enjoy the dance of the twelve satyrs (unless, like the BBC, the production mercifully leaves this out of an already ponderously long Act IV).

Florizel is goaded by the disguised Polixenes into publicly declaring his love for Perdita. Polixenes advises discussion with Florizel’s father. The shepherd agrees, but Florizel refuses. Polixenes tears off his disguise, disowns Florizel, and wants to kill the Shepherd and Perdita, whom he calls a “fresh piece / Of excellent witchcraft” (IV.iv.422-423) and a “knack” (IV.iv.428). Perdita instructs Florizel to forget her and to take up his royal duties: she knows her place and vows resignedly, “I’ll queen it no inch farther” (IV.iv.449). The Shepherd, upset with Perdita for bringing this misfortune upon him, runs off. Florizel remains steadfastly devoted, and it is not easy for Camillo to convince him finally, after marrying Perdita, to sail to Sicilia and seek out Leontes. They just need disguises.

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. (Garber 845)

Autolycus enters gloating over the suckers he’s fleeced and calling the people “the herd” (IV.iv.608). Camillo bargains for his clothes to disguise the young lovers. Perdita acknowledges, “I see the play so lies / That I must bear a part” (IV.iv.655-656). When the lovers leave, Camillo indicates he wants to convince Polixenes to follow after them so that he himself can see his home, Sicilia, again. Autolycus assures us he would not report the elopement to the King, Polixenes, since he must be constant to his dishonest profession (IV.iv.679ff).

The Shepherd and the Clown discuss their defense: that Perdita is a changeling. Therefore they, being no relations to her, should not be punished. Autolycus, pretending to be a courtier in his new clothes, greets them and grills them about where they’re going: “Let me have no lying. It becomes none but tradesmen” (IV.iv.722-723). That, from “a thoroughly sympathetic character in The Winter’s Tale, … is Shakespeare’s opinion of the class to which Shakspere’s father belonged” (Ogburn 243). The rubes are awestruck: “He seems to be the more noble in being fantastical. A great man, I’ll warrant; I know by the picking on ‘s teeth” (IV.iii.751-753). The elder Ogburns take this to be another identification of Oxford (Ogburn and Ogburn 422). Autolycus, through fear tactics, gets money out of the Shepherd and his son in exchange for his ostensible help with the King. Autolycus gloats some more over his good fortune.

Act V