Antigonus, who is carrying the hapless royal infant, asks his mariner if they have landed upon "the deserts of Bohemia." The mariner confirms that they have, but he worries about an approaching storm that he interprets as a punishment by the angry heavens. Antigonus orders the mariner to return to take care of the ship and promises to hurry back. The mariner urges Antigonus to stay close to the shore and to hurry and avoid the wild beasts that lurk inland. As Antigonus leaves, the mariner says he will be glad to be finished with this assignment.
Meanwhile, Antigonus talks to the infant about a dream he had the night before. Believing Hermione to be dead, Antigonus describes a nightmarish appearance of the queen's spirit. Like a beautiful "vessel of . . . sorrow," the white-robed spirit approached him, bowed three times, then emitted fury, as a configuration of two spouts projected from her eyes. This dream figure acknowledged that a "fate, against thy better disposition,/ Hath made thy person for the thrower-out/ Of my poor babe." She requested that Antigonus leave the baby in Bohemia and name her Perdita, which means "the lost one." Because of the unpleasant duty that Antigonus had pledged to do, Antigonus will never again see Paulina. Then the spectral figure of Hermione disappeared amidst frightening shrieks.
Antigonus confesses both his fright and his belief that the events seem too real to be called only a dream. Giving full rein to superstition, he interprets that Hermione is dead and that Apollo has directed the baby to the homeland of her real father, Polixenes. But he is not certain of the fate for the baby. So, he blesses her and tenderly lays her down with her few belongings. At that instant, the storm begins.
That for thy mother's fault art thus exposed
To loss and what may follow! Weep I cannot,
But my heart bleeds; and most accursed am I
To be by oath enjoined to this. Farewell! (III.iii. 49–53)
Then, seemingly in confirmation of the dream-prophecy, the storm bursts, and a bear chases Antigonus off the stage.
A shepherd enters, grumbling about the useless aggravation caused by boys between the ages of ten and twenty-three. Apparently, he suspects that some youths with the 'boiled brains" of this age group have been hunting in the storm and have scared off two of his best sheep.
Suddenly he sees the "very pretty" child, Hermione's daughter. Having already said that boys do nothing but harm, including "getting wenches with child," he assumes this child was born of just such an escapade. Overwhelmed by pity, the shepherd decides to take the baby home. But first, he calls his son, "the clown," to see it: "What, art so near? If thou'lt see a thing to talk on when thou art dead and rotten, come hither." The shepherd notices that his son is upset, so he asks what is wrong.
Two different disasters have shaken the boy. First, during a storm that he describes as encompassing the sea and the sky, he heard the screams and watched the deaths of the entire crew aboard a wrecked ship. Then, someone named Antigonus begged for help as a "bear tore out his shoulder-bone." As the sailors yelled for help, "the sea mocked them," and as Antigonus screamed for help, "the bear mocked him"; eventually, the clown says, all of the victims were "roaring louder than the sea or weather." The shepherd asks when this happened. Just now, responds his son, too soon for the men to be chilled in the sea or the bear to be "half dined on the gentleman."
Both men are distraught at their helplessness. So in contrast, the shepherd draws the clown's attention to "things new-born," and points out "a bearing-cloth for a Squire's child." The shepherd speculates that this baby is a changeling, given to him by fairies to fulfill an old prediction that someday he would be rich.
The clown declares that his father will be rich from the gold which is tucked in the baby's wrapping, but the shepherd warns his son to keep the "fairy gold" a secret; he wants to hasten home without bothering to search any longer for his missing sheep. The clown tells his father to take everything home; he will return to the place where Antigonus was killed. Reasoning that if the bear ate until it was sated, it will no longer be dangerous; the boy wants to see if there is enough left of Antigonus to bury. After commending his son for his goodness, the shepherd asks to be brought to the scene so that he himself can see if enough is left on Antigonus to identify his origins. As they exit, the shepherd says cheerfully, "'Tis a lucky day, boy, and we'll do good deeds on I."
This scene is structured on irony and laced with sardonic humor. Dramatic irony is first evident when Antigonus swears to faithfully carry out the king's order to abandon the baby; the audience, you should remember, knows full well that Leontes has now repented of his tyranny. There is additional irony here because of the old shepherd's vituperative attacks on young men; obviously, his son does not conform to the shepherd's notion of the norm. Consider also the many tragedies that preceded the shepherd's finding the baby, contrasted with his simple belief that the fairies dropped both the baby and gold in his pathway in order to make him rich.
From this point until the end of the play, comedy will be threaded throughout the central plot, which focuses primarily on poetic justice. The comedy here is based on Shakespeare's incorporating the astounding and incredible. Consider that in this scene alone, Shakespeare includes noisy thunder, ghosts, an attacking bear, slapstick humor, fairies, and a rags-to-riches myth!
Another use of the astounding that contributes to the plot involves the fate of Antigonus, of Perdita, and that of the mariners. Antigonus and the crew, of course, must die so that no one can report to Bohemia who the infant is, and no one can bring news to Sicilia where the infant was abandoned. Since Antigonus did not select Bohemia as his destination prior to embarking from Sicilia, Perdita is now completely abandoned to Fate.
As with all Pastoral Romances, the events in this scene can flourish without insistence upon absolute truth. On the way to the "deserts of Bohemia," Antigonus believes that he experiences a supernatural vision which he incorrectly interprets as proof that Hermione has died and that Perdita was fathered by Polixenes. Equally as confused as Antigonus, the old shepherd irrationally believes that something supernatural guided the fairies to leave him a changeling and the gold for his own fortune.
Another element that is consistent with the genre of Pastoral Romance is Shakespeare's moral lessons about virtue and vice. Both Antigonus and the mariner worry about retribution by the heavens for their participation in the heartless, unwarranted punishment of the infant. And this retribution occurs just after Antigonus leaves the infant, stating "most accursed am L" A hungry bear chases Antigonus off the stage at the very moment that the thunderstorm breaks. This storm would most certainly have been viewed by Elizabethan audiences as a disruption of the Heavenly Order.
Shakespeare's humor softens this horror when the shepherd and clown bury Antigonus because "'Tis a lucky day" which calls for "good deeds." Clearly, these two characters are characterized by their rewards for virtue as surely as Leontes is characterized by his punishment for the absence of such virtue. Significantly, all the fantastic elements are used to save Perdita for the healing role that she must play in order for the major conflict to be resolved.
Realism, here, is achieved through characterization. Antigonus, already established as a kind of man who is reluctant to carry out the king's orders, contributes to the possible survival of the infant by wrapping a substantial amount of gold in her blankets. The gold must have been his own; certainly, it was not provided by the crazed Leontes. Antigonus' foresight does attract the attention of the shepherd, and although he believes the superstitious possibility that the baby is a changeling (whom the fairies have used as an instrument to provide riches), the shepherd is also a good man who never considers killing the baby — only keeping the gold. He unwaveringly accepts the responsibility to raise the baby — initially, when he thought it was an abandoned bastard and, later, when he thought that it was an instrument of the fairies.
Probability in the plot depends upon the acceptance of illusion: If Perdita were in the hands of these characters on a seacoast of a place called Bohemia where wild bears roamed at the very moment a vicious storm broke, then this might follow. Modern audiences will all surely recognize and forgive this perceived breach of probability.
The scene balances comedy and tragedy nicely, introduces new major characters, and it saves the baby for the resolution of renewal and rebirth. Its final dramatic result is that it places Perdita in the very middle of illusion and reality.