Act IVAct 4.1
An old man with a scythe and hourglass, named Time, steps forward. In rhyming pentameter couplets he informs us that sixteen years have passed. This temporal chasm, utterly at odds with the classical dramatic unity of time, enforces a switch in the audience's perception of the play away from its being a tragedy. Matters have changed in ways it would be impossible for them to alter in the space of a day. Perdita is now a young woman, Prince Florizel in love with her. Time's appearance as a choric figure on the stage, (like Rumour, prologue to Henry IV part 2), gives him a greater claim to control over both the events of the play ("which follows after / Is th' argument of time") and makes him the vital medium of the audience's experience, the means of focus that sets the stage ("imagine me... In fair Bohemia" 4.1.19- 21) and the means of forgetting that turns stage into mere story:
"so shall I do
Our first glimpse of Bohemia is not of Perdita but of two old men: Polixenes refuses Camillo's request to return home (as Leontes had done to him), and draws parallels between Leontes' loss of children and his own virtual but no less painful loss of Florizel, who prefers to spend his time at a shepherds hut. Polixenes takes Camillo with him to investigate, in disguise.
Autolycus enters singing a summer song, an antidote to the manoeuvres of the old grey men. Once a servant of Florizel, his traffic now is sheets, meaning both bed sheets and ballad sheets. His is named after the son of Mercury, who is classical mythology was messenger to the gods and himself god of thieves and dishonesty, renowned for cunning. Autolycus lives up to his name, fleecing the Clown by pretending to have been beaten and robbed of everything including his clothes by a rascal named Autolycus, who left behind his old rags. The Clown, sent by Perdita to buy sugar, spices, nosegays and fruit for the sheep-shearing, bends down to help and has his pocket picked. Full of sympathy, he even offers to give him some money, but Autolycus could not possibly accept. The situation recalls two well-known incidents of fleecing: Odysseus' escape from Polyphemus in The Odyssey, and Jacob pretending to be Esau in Genesis.
"if I make not this cheat bring out another, and the shearers prove sheep, let me be unrolled, and my name put in the book of virtue!" (4.3.115-18)
i) Finally we do see Perdita, the queen of the festivities bedecked with flowers and accompanied by Florizel. Florizel's first lines lay their stress on the present occasion: "These... this... you", and on the way it has transcended itself: the sheep-shearing is now a meeting of the petty gods. Perdita on the other hand is disturbed by the "unusual weeds", and worried about Florizel's father beholding her, dressed in "borrowed flaunts" above her station, with Florizel, dressed below his. The threat of Polixenes' anger at his son's unsuitable match, irrespective of how the couple is dressed, seems to disturb her less than the kind of spectacle they are making of themselves. Perdita's idea of nature is of an honesty untainted by any deceit, even that of dressing up. Perhaps for that reason she has to be coaxed into playing her part in the festivities and reassured that there is nothing wrong with this kind of playing. In this long scene full of group performances - Perdita's flower-giving, two dances, a three-part song, and - almost - a betrothal, at each point before the perfomance begins there is a hesitation on the threshold.
When the guests arrive the Shepherd urges Perdita to behave like the hostess, painting a word picture of how his late wife used to play the hostess. Although his wife is dead and the description in the past tense, it is as if she were here and now: "This day ... now here ... now i'th'middle; / On his shoulder, and his...".
Perdita and Polixene's disagreement about flowers has been much discussed by people looking for a clue to the aesthetic of this scene and of the play as a whole. Any such attempt has to cope with a major obstacle to a simple reading: the irony that Perdita argues against grafting whilst being herself "grafted", while Polixenes argues for marrying "a gentler scion to the wildest stock" only to violently oppose
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