Act VAct 5.1
The Sicilian court is clouded over by Leontes' penitence, and troubled with the question of succession. Paulina fights off suggestions that Leontes should marry again, confronting him yet again with the spectre of his fault. Florizel's arrival is announced, and the beauty of his companion, which rouses Paulina to defend the memory of peerless Hermione. When the couple appears, Leontes is struck with amazement, and with Florizel's resemblance to his father. He is painfully reminded yet again of the wrong he did to Polixenes, and of the children he lost, but Florizel's claims to be an ambassador for reconciliation makes them as "welcome ... / As is the spring to the earth" (5.1.151). Things become more complicated when news comes of Polixenes' arrival, in hot pursuit, having picked up Camillo and the two rustics on his way. It it soon discovered that the couple are not married after all. Florizel begs Leontes to try and sway Polixenes in favour of the match, but his new view of the situation changes Leontes' view of Perdita, clearly not a Libyian princess after all. Paulina has to rebuke him - "Your eye hath too much youth in't" (5.1.224) - calling him back to the memory of Hermione. Unnecessarily: "I thought of her / Even as these looks I made" Leontes replies, and tells Florizel he will try and help.
The stage has been set for the discovery of Perdita's true identity but, astonishingly, the audience does not anticipate it. The scene opens onto the middle of a conversation, as does the very first scene of the play, with Autolycus eager to hear what a gentleman of the court has to tell about the opening of the bundle. The first gentleman saw the bundle opened and the amazed reactions of Leontes and Camillo, thinks he heard the Shepherd say that he found Perdita. Then he was ordered out: the full extent of the "news" is progressively discovered as two more gentleman arrive, so that what begins as the rumour of a significant event is gradually fleshed out into the full story. What comes first, however, is an extreme shock of amazement and disbelief that could greet either a great disaster or its opposite:
"there was speech in their dumbness, language in their very gesture; they looked as if they had heard of a world ransomed, or one destroyed: a notable passion of wonder appeared in them; but the wisest beholder, that knew no more than seeing, could not say if th'importance were joy or sorrow; but in the extremity of the one it needs be." (5.2.13-20)
The narrative is one of extremity, not only the extremity of what was discovered - impossible to believe, like an old tale - but also the extremity of the characters' reactions to it: the meeting of the two kings is an encounter "that lames report to follow it, and undoes description to do it" (5.2.58-9). Paulina, caught between sorrow at the tale of Antigonus' death and joy at Perdita's finding, is appreciated as theatre:
"The dignity of this act was worth the audience of kings and princes; for by such was it acted." (5.2.79- 80)
Perdita hearing of her mother's death was such a powerful picture of grief that "if all the world could have seen't, the woe would have been universal" (5.2.91).
The audience might feel deprived at having missed such a powerful scene, and frustrated that it should be relayed in such an artificial way, especially one that calls attention to its own limitations. The theme of the replacement of nature by art is itself raised inside the scene: the assembled company has gone to see a statue of Hermione, "a piece" by Julio Romano, an Italian master "who had he himself eternity and could put breath into his work, would beguile Nature of her custom, so perfectly is he her ape" (5.2.97- 9) Unsurprisingly, the gentlemen decide to waste no more time, in case they miss some new marvel, "some new grace", and they leave the audience behind with Autolycus.
Autolycus realises the full effect of his intervention. He had even told Florizel about the Shepherd's fardel, on the boat, but the prince had been to preoccupied with sea-sickness and Perdita to realise its full implications, and in any case, his past behaviour bars him from claiming any credit for the happy ending or the ennoblement of the Shepherd and his son, who now arrive on the scene. The tables are turned on their earlier encounter at the end of 4.4: this time the two rustics can put a word in for him at the court. The Clown promises to say, or rather swear, that Autolycus is brave and sober, even if it is false.
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