The Winter’s Tale – Act Four plot synopsis: Boho party goes south

Previously… on The Winter’s Tale:

In the court of King Leontes of Sicilia, his friend King Polixenes of Bohemia readies to return to his own country after a nine-month stay in Sicilia. While Leontes is unsuccessful to convince his friend to say, Leontes’ pregnant wife Hermione is able to convince him. This spurs suspicions in Leontes’ mind, worrying him about being cuckolded by his friend. His lord Camillo admits that Polixenes has bowed to the “good queen’s entreaty” (I.ii.220). Leontes lays out his argument for his own cuckolding. The lord is incredulous, but in an attempt to calm down the king, Camillo tells the king that he will poison Polixenes that night. Leontes leaves, and Camillo bemoans his state. Polixenes joins Camillo on stage, and a tormented Camillo explains the situation to Polixenes, urging him to flee the country. Polixenes agrees.

Leontes, after learning that Polixenes has left the country, taking Camillo with him. feels vindicated, and tells Hermione that he knows she’s carrying Polixenes’ baby, that “‘tis Polixenes [who] / Has made [her] swell such” (II.i.61-2). She denies this, and Leontes rants on how he knows she’s “an adulteress” (II.i.78) and orders her “to prison!” (II.i.103). She continues to deny the accusation, but finally heads off to prison, with her ladies, as her pregnancy, her “plight requires it” (II.i.118). In her absence, the lords, led by Antigonus, attempt to calm, then reason with Leontes, even saying they’ll sterilize their daughters if this turns out to be true. Leontes has none of it, telling them that he’s dispatched two men to the oracle of Apollo’s temple in Delphos; Leontes believes the accusation, and the oracle is to prove it to other people. Outside the prison, Paulina, wife to Antigonus, learns that Hermione’s given birth prematurely to a “daughter, and a goodly babe” (II.ii.26). Paulina decides that Leontes must be called out on his dangerous accusations. In the next scene, she presents the baby to Leontes. Leontes orders the lords to force her away, but she stands her ground, laying the newborn baby at his feet. She leaves the baby with Leontes. Leontes berates Antigonus and demands of him what he would do to save the bastard’s life. “Anything possible” (II.iii.166) is his response. To save the child’s life from Leontes’ justice, the king allows Antigonus an option: take the child to “some remote and desert place quite out / Of our dominion” (II.iii.175-6), and abandon it, leaving its fate to Fate. Reluctantly, Antigonus agrees.

Act Three of The Winter’s Tale begins with the two servants Cleomenes and Dion as they discuss their trip to and return back from the oracle at Delphos. We next see Leontes readying the lords for Hermione’s trial. She enters and the accusation is read. Polixenes’ crime has expanded from mere adultery to adultery and conspiracy with Camillo of take the king’s life. Hermione’s crime is “counsel[ing] and aid[ing]” (III.ii.19) them. Hermione speaks eloquently in her own defense, proclaiming her innocence. He announces that the newborn, the “brat hath been cast out” (III.ii.86), and that she’ll feel the same justice. Cleomenes and Dion enter, and the oracle’s message is read: it tells the truth on all counts, but Leontes refuses to accept the news and calls for the trial to continue, but it can’t because a servant enters with news: Prince Mamillius has died. And in that instant, Leontes realizes, “Apollo’s angry, and the heavens themselves / Do strike at my injustice” (III.ii.144-5), and Hermione swoons. Paulina and the ladies-in-waiting take Hermione offstage to tend to her. Leontes prays to Apollo to pardon him; he says he’ll reconcile with Polixenes, make up with Hermione, call back the good Camillo (even praising how Camillo never wanted to kill Polixenes. Then Paulina returns to announce that Hermione, too, is dead. From there, she verbally punishes him, with Leontes calling for more, for his just deserts. Leontes asks to be brought to the bodies, which he says he will bury in a single grave, which he will visit every day as his “recreation” (III.ii.238).

The last scene of Act Three takes us to the sea coast of Bohemia, where Antigonus has arrived with the baby to abandon it; the ship that brought him awaits his return, but is in the midst of a storm so bad that it seems “The heavens with that we have in hand are angry / And frown upon us” (III.iii.5-6). Antigonus puts down the baby, and some gold to help pay for its raising, and then is chased off by a bear. A shepherd comes along and finds the baby; his grown son–known only as “Clown”–arrives with descriptions of two sights: a ship off-shore sinking in the storm, and a bear eating a man. The first sight is described in horror, the second more comically. The father and son then find the gold, and decide to raise the baby. But first they go to bury what remains of Antigonus.

And with that pivot from tragedy to comedy, Act Three of The Winter’s Tale ends.

The very long fourth act of The Winter’s Tale begins with a complete change of pace (and this is saying something for a play that just had a bear chase off a character): the choric figure of Time appears to bring us up to date. Why? because we just jumped sixteen years. A solid half of the 32-line speech is an apology to have to do it at all. The other half is the exposition: Leontes “shuts himself up” (IV.i.19), and we learn that Perdita has grown up in Bohemia, and we hear that Polixenes’ son, Florizel, has grown up, too.

In Act Four, Scene Two, we are off to the palace of King Polixenes of Bohemia, where he meets with Camillo, who has been with him since they fled Sicilia fifteen years earlier (yeah, I know there is a temporal mismatch between the scenes). Polixenes is concerned about his son Florizel, who hasn’t been around much, and has been “less frequent to his princely exercises” (IV.ii.32). Polixenes says that he has heard that his son has been “seldom from the house of a most homely shepherd, a man, they say that from very nothing … is grown into an unspeakable estate” (IV.ii.37-9, 40). Camillo says that he’s too heard of the shepherd, “who hath a daughter of most rare note” (IV.ii.42). The two decide to don disguises and check this out.

Act Four, Scene Three, introduces us to Autolycus, con-man, pickpocket, seller of sheet music and trinkets, singing minstrel. It seems he has been in the employ of Florizel, but for some unstated reason he’s lost that job (gee, could it be because he’s, oh, I don’t know…a criminal?). Enter Clown, the son of the shepherd, who has been sent on an errand to purchase items for the sheep shearing feast. Autolycus asks for assistance, saying he’s been robbed. By whom? By one who has “flown over many knavish professions…some call him Autolycus” (IV.iii.94-5, 96). As the “good-faced” (IV.iii.111) Clown attempts to help, Autolycus picks the fool’s pocket. After Clown leaves to go buy spices (without money), Autolycus reveals that he will be attending that sheep shearing and see if he can fleece any of the attendees.

That festival takes place in the last scene of the act, the second longest scene in the Canon (only that 914-line behemoth Act Five, Scene Two of Love’s Labor’s Lost is longer). We first meet Florizel and Perdita, young and in love. She knows who (and more importantly, what) Florizel is (even though he’s dressed like a shepherd rather than prince)…of course, she has no idea who she is. The guests come in and the shepherd urges her to be a good hostess. And the first person she does welcome is disguised Polixenes and Camillo. When she gives them “flowers of winter” (IV.iv.79), Polixenes says that she has given them these flowers because of their advanced age. She denies this and thus begins a good-natured botanical argument, with the disguised king discussing the art of “mend[ing] nature — chang[ing] it rather” (IV.iv.96) by marrying one type of plant with another. It feels here as if he’s actually for a cross-social-class marriage, but nothing explicit is stated. She ends up giving them mid-year flowers for “men of middle age” (IV.iv.108).

As she finishes giving out flowers, Florizel gives her high praise in everything from speaking, singing, dancing: everything thing she does. She modestly demurs, and they dance. Polixenes is impressed: “Nothing she does or seems / But smacks of something greater than herself, / Too noble for this place” (IV.iv.157-9). Gotta love irony. There is more dancing.

The disguised king asks the shepherd who is dancing with his daughter. Doricles, the “father” says, and that the young man has stated himself to “have a worthy feeding” (IV.iv.160). The younger man has also said that he loves Perdita, and the shepherd believes both statements are true. Polixenes compliments her, and the shepherd hints that if Doricles were to marry Perdita, “she shall bring him that / Which he not dreams of” (IV.iv.179-80). Before the king can follow this line of questioning, a servant comes in with news of a new guest joining them.

And in walks Autolycus.

In a disguise of his own, he sings a song, and convinces the guests to buy his wares: sheet music, ribbons, and “inkles, caddises, cambrics, lawns” (IV.iv.207). There’s a comically ironic dialog between Autolycus and Clown, with the latter discussing how he had been “cozened by the way and lost all [his] money” (IV.iv.251) when it was the former who did the cozening. There’s another song that Autolycus sings with two of the shepherdesses. Another company arrives and there’s another dance (you can kind of see how this scene is as long as it is). After the dance, Polixenes talks to Camillo about the budding romance, and if you were hoping for a blessing from the king, guess again: “It is not too far gone? ‘Tis time to part them” (IV.iv.343).

At this point, the disguised king asks his disguised son his intentions with Perdita. Florizel says that even if he was king, he “would not prize [it] / Without her love” (IV.iv.373-4). The shepherd asks Perdita how she feels about this, and she concurs. The shepherd calls for this to be a match, saying that she can bring as much worth to the marriage as the young man can, and Florizel says that her virtues is worth more than him, but after he has her virtue, she “shall have more than you can dream of yet” (IV.iv.397), hinting of his royal worth.

The shepherd wants to start the wedding, but the disguised king asks the disguised prince if he has secured his father’s blessing. Florizel admits that he hasn’t and doesn’t plan to. The shepherd says that the father should know, and when Florizel again refuses, Polixenes takes off his disguise and goes off the Leontes-deep-end, refusing to call Florizel his son, threatening to hang the shepherd and accusing Perdita of using witchcraft, and telling her that if she attempts to tempt his son again, she shall face death as well, he leaves.

Perdita is devastated, telling her love to leave, as she knew it would come to this. Camillo asks the shepherd what he thinks, and he–himself devastated–even throws Perdita under the bus, saying she knew he was a prince, and she should have known better, and now they’ll all be punished for it. And the second father figure leaves.

Florizel says that none of this bothers him; he still wants Perdita. Camillo warns him of his father’s anger, but it doesn’t faze the prince in the least. He asks for the old man’s counsel. And after some thought, Camillo comes up with a plan: take Perdita across the sea to Sicilia, where Camillo envisions

Leontes opening his free arms and weeping
His welcomes forth, asks thee, the son, forgiveness,
As ’twere i’ th’ father’s person; kisses the hands
Of your fresh princess; o’er and o’er divides him
’Twixt his unkindness and his kindness.
  • IV.iv.547-550

And the lovers and the old man go off to put the plan into motion.

And you’d think the scene would be over. Nope–still more than 250 lines to go.

Autolycus enters to comically describe his fleecing of the human flock. Florizel and Camillo re-enter. Camillo has Autolycus and Florizel switch clothes, to help disguise the prince on the way out of country. In an aside, Camillo tells us the rest of his plan: to tell the king of the flight to Sicilia, and to have the king follow them abroad; this way, he can see his homeland again. And Florizel, Perdita, and Camillo exit to put their plan into motion.

And you’d think the scene would be over now. Right? Nope–nearly 200 lines to go.

Autolycus considers spilling the beans of this plan to the king (earlier than Camillo, before the couple sets sail), but he “hold[s] it the more knavery to conceal it, and therein [is he] constant to [his] profession” (IV.iv.679-80). The shepherd and Clown enter, with their own considerations of telling the king (if nothing else, that Perdita is not from their family).

Autolycus removes his false beard, and tries to play himself off to the rustics as being from the court (remember he and Florizel had traded garments). There is some comedy of the linguistic-mismatch and cross-class sorts, after which father and son continue on their trip to the king, with Autolycus to make introductions, as the con-man sees “there may be matter in it” (IV.iv.836).

And with characters on the move, Act Four of The Winter’s Tale ends.

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