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Act IV, Scene IV, of William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale marks a shift away from the Sicilian, courtly world that dominates the previous three acts and much of Act IV. The chaos and disorder resulting from court happenings, Hermione’s apparent death, Perdita’s abandonment, Polixenes’ betrayal by Leontes, and Camillo’s exodus from Sicilia, for example, begin their resolution in the serenity and beauty of the pastoral world, which is closely connected to nature.
Whereas Acts I, II, and III revolve around the actions and consequences that stem from betrayed love, the fourth scene of Act IV is dominated by successful love stories. There are the central love story between Florizel and Perdita and a peripheral love story between the shepherd’s son and a country maid. As Scene Four begins, Florizel and Perdita reveal their feelings for one another in an exchange that incorporates the first of many references to ancient Roman deities and the natural world: “These your unusual weeds to each part of you / Does give a life; no shepherdess, but Flora / Peering in April’s front. This your sheep-shearing / Is as a meeting of the petty gods, / And you the queen on’t” (4.4.1-5). Perdita is likened to Flora, the goddess of nature, and all the peasants attending the sheep-shearing festival are likened to “petty gods.”
Not only is Nature responsible for Perdita’s “unusual weeds” on this day, it is also responsible for giving Florizel an excuse to visit her, and even for getting the two together in the first place. Florizel refers to their first meeting by saying, “I bless the time / When my good falcon made her flight across / Thy father’s ground” (4.4.14-16). Florizel’s falcon, a wild bird that typically prefers wide-open spaces, flew over Perdita’s cottage and forced a meeting between the two.
Interrupting the lovers’ discourse, Perdita’s adoptive father approaches and implores his daughter to “bid / These unknown friends to ‘s welcome, for it is / A way to make us better friends, more known. / Come, quench your blushes, and present yourself / That which you are, mistress o’ th’ feast” (4.4.64-68). Being referred to as the “mistress o’ th’ feast” calls to mind Florizel’s reference to her as the queen of the sheep-shearing, and both appellations underscore the fact that Perdita should, indeed, one day be a true queen.
In response to her father’s entreaty, Perdita begins to welcome the unknown guests, who are actually Polixenes and Camillo in disguise, by gathering flowers for them. Perdita comments briefly on various flowers that she distributes, but she expands eloquently on a few flowers not present:
For the flowers now, that, frighted, thou let’st fall
From Dis’s wagon! Daffodils,
That come before the sparrow dares, and take
The winds of March with beauty; violets, dim,
But sweeter than the lids of Juno’s eyes,
Or Cytherea’s breath; pale primroses
That die unmarried, ere they can behold
Bright Phoebus in his strength (a malady
Most incident to maids); bold oxlips and
The crown imperial; lilies of all kinds
(The flow’r-de-luce being one). O these I lack
To make you garlands of, and my sweet friend,
To strew him o’er and o’er!
This passage mentions Proserpina, who is the daughter of Ceres, a goddess connected with the earth goddess and fertility and death. Proserpina is the goddess of spring and the underworld. One connection between Proserpina and Perdita is that when Proserpina was kidnapped by Pluto (the god of the underworld, also known as Dis) to be the queen of the underworld, she was gathering flowers. Perdita is also gathering flowers in this scene and giving them to her guests. Another connection between Perdita and Proserpina is that Proserpina is the goddess of the underworld, and Perdita is believed dead by those who dwell in Sicilia.
The first flower that Perdita mentions is the daffodil. Its appearance is interesting because this is the only play in which Shakespeare mentions it. It typically was seen as a symbol of rebirth, and this is fitting here because one of the major themes of TWT, and this scene in particular, is death and rebirth. During the play, Hermione and Perdita die-or so the Sicilian court believes. In this scene, spring is breaking and plants are blooming (a symbol of rebirth), and Perdita, thought dead, reappears in an apparent rebirth. She is not only alive, but fully grown. Hermione is also reborn in a sense in the next and final act.
The next flower that Perdita mentions is the violet. Violets represent faithfulness and are a good-luck gift to a woman in any season. They also allude to Roman mythology: Cupid once deemed a group of maidens lovelier than Venus, who then beat them out of jealousy until they were blue, thus turning them into violets. (“Cytherea,” which is used here, is another name for Venus.)
Primroses represent dawning love and refer to Perdita and Florizel’s feelings for each other. Likewise, lilies represent purity, maidenly modesty, and innocence: Perdita and Florizel agree to wait until marriage to consummate their relationship. Crown imperials represent power, evoking Florizel’s status in court and Perdita’s birthright in the Sicilian court. Her lack of these flowers is a metaphor for her lost birthright.
The theme of honesty and disguise is also prevalent in this scene. It is set in the pastoral world, and the more structured world of the court is left behind. Following in the pastoral strain, all members of court who appear in the pastoral world disguise themselves as peasants. Each disguise is affected in order to serve the character’s personal goal. Florizel calls himself “Doricles” and dresses as a peasant so that he may freely court Perdita. Camillo and Polixenes dress as peasants so that the king may monitor his son’s behavior through them and observe the woman with whom Florizel has fallen in love. Autolycus is no longer a member of court, but he remains a master of disguise for reasons that are all self-serving.
However self-serving Autolycus is, he yet remains one of the most honest characters in the play. He is dishonest in taking advantage of people to line his pockets, but his self-awareness and near-comical adherence to his naughty behavior make him an almost likable villain. Loyalty to his dishonest lifestyle helps the happily-ever-after ending of the play. He says at one point that “If I / thought it were a piece of honesty to acquaint the King / withal, I would not do’t. I hold it the more / Knavery to conceal it; and therein am I constant to my profession” (4.4.679-683). Autolycus thinks that telling Polixenes of his son’s intentions to elope to Sicilia would be too honest an action, so he refrains. In this way, Perdita is allowed to reclaim her birthright, and her mother is restored to life.
In the first half of the play, Leontes is guilty of tyranny. In this scene, Polixenes exhibits the same vice when he threatens Perdita and her family after his son chooses her for his bride. After he leaves, Perdita says she wanted to tell him that “the self-same sun that shines upon his court / Hides not its visage from our cottage, but / Looks on alike” (4.4.444-446). In Richard II, the image of the sun is often used to indicate royalty and ordained right to the throne. The same meaning can be found here: the sun shines on Polixenes’ court because he is the King of Bohemia, but it also shines on Perdita’s cottage because she is royal by birth. This passage also shows how Perdita will be as a ruler. She was raised with the people so she understands the people and how to treat them with respect and empathy. It is similar to Hal’s rise to power in Henry IV and his actions as king in Henry V.
In TWT, Shakespeare presents a kind and merciful version of fate. Leontes and Polixenes are sometimes tyrannical, but despite the fact that they never apologize for their actions or thank the Fates, everything works out in the end: Leontes’ wife and daughter are restored to him; Polixenes is spared death because a servant (of his would-be assassin, ironically) obeyed his conscience; and his son’s bride-to-be turns out to be royalty rather than a peasant.
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