Summary and Analysis
Florizel and Perdita enter in the middle of a discussion about their future. Florizel then talks about Perdita's role in the feast. He urges her to abandon her identification as the shepherd's daughter while she has this opportunity to exhibit the mythical and royal qualities that he sees in her. But Perdita rejects the romantic dreams of both her role in the feast and their future as lovers. Although she does not want "to chide at [Florizel's] extremes," she details the sham of their costumes:
Your high self,
The gracious mark o' th' land, you have obscured
With a swain's wearing, and me, poor lowly maid, Most
goddess-like pranked up. (IV.iv. 7–10)
Indeed, if costumes and pranks were not common to these feasts, she doubts that she could tolerate the sham.
Florizel responds by blessing the time that his falcon flew over her father's land. Perdita, however, expresses her dread at the consequences of their "differences," recognizing that "your greatness/ Hath not been used to fear." Suddenly she trembles from the fear of his father arriving and confronting her for a defense of this liaison.
Defending his point of view with examples from mythology, the prince cites a number of gods who transformed themselves for love. He gallantly argues that no precedent of surprise was "for a piece of beauty rarer,/ Nor in a way so chaste." But Perdita warns Florizel that his determination cannot withstand the power of a king. If King Polixenes opposes their union, either "you must change this purpose,/ Or I my life." Florizel declares that should his father force a choice, Perdita would be his choice. Believing that this assurance will free Perdita from her fears, he urges her to begin her fun at the feast by greeting the approaching guests. Far from feeling assured, Perdita appeals, "0 lady Fortune,/ Stand you auspicious!"
Like Florizel, the shepherd urges Perdita to begin acting like the hostess of the feast; but, unlike Florizel, he approaches her with anger and frustration. She compares poorly with his old wife, who prepared all the food, then welcomed and served the guests, in addition to performing a song and dance; whereas, Perdita seems to fail at even serving as a hostess.
Thus, the feast's "queen" begins to greet the strangers; first, she greets King Polixenes and Camillo (in disguise), with an aside to us concerning her father's wish that she serve as hostess. She graciously offers nosegays of rosemary and rue as she welcomes them to the feast. All three exchange meaningful comments about flowers and life as Perdita favorably impresses the disguised king (whom she has so dreaded to meet).
Florizel then hurries Perdita away to dance, praising her until a pretty blush appears on her face. As they observe the lovers, Polixenes and Camillo are charmed by Perdita. The king describes her as beautiful and nobler than her background can explain. Camillo declares her to be "the queen of curds and cream."
The clown, meanwhile, organizes a silly crew into a dance of shepherds and shepherdesses, and Polixenes asks the shepherd about his daughter's dancing partner. The shepherd calls him "Doricles," a worthy young man who obviously loves his daughter; furthermore, he hints at a surprising dowry if the two should marry.
A servant announces that a "pedlar" who sings ballads requests entrance. Declaring himself a song-lover, the clown chortles over the sample verses, and he welcomes the pedlar. Perdita cautions against allowing tunes with "scurrilous words."
The clown admits the rogue Autolycus, who instantly charms all his listeners. The clown promises gifts of lace ribbons and gloves to both of his female companions, and the three of them choose a suitable ballad to sing. Autolycus then leaves with them in order to rehearse the ballad.
More entertainers request permission to perform. The shepherd objects, but Polixenes persuades him to permit them to perform; so they watch a dance of twelve satyrs. This reminds Polixenes that it is time to part the lovers.
He teases his son about missing the opportunity to buy gifts for Perdita. Florizel retorts that Perdita prizes the gifts of love, not trifles. Further baited, the young prince declares his love for Perdita for all to hear. Immediately, the shepherd arranges a betrothal with a dowry "equal to Doricles's wealth."
Polixenes interrupts to inquire if the young man has a father to consult. Florizel snorts that his father does not know of this matter and never shall. Although Polixenes grants that a young man should have a say in the choosing of a wife, he suggests that the joy and consequences should be discussed with a father. The shepherd joins in the entreaty. But Florizel stubbornly refuses.
Angrily, Polixenes rips off his disguise. He severs his son's inheritance, threatens to hang the shepherd, and wants to scar Perdita's bewitching beauty before killing her.
Perdita begs Florizel to return to his duties at court and forget her. The shepherd lashes out at his daughter for ruining him and rushes off. But Florizel arrogantly proclaims all this is but a mild setback. His plans remain unchanged. He will marry Perdita.
Camillo intervenes to advise separation until the king's anger subsides. Perdita comments, "How often said, my dignity would last/ But till 'twere known!" Only Florizel remains unmoved by the disasters that he has brought upon everyone, seeing nothing as important as fulfilling his vow to Perdita.
Camillo manages to convince Florizel to leave Bohemia and sail for Sicilia, and thus Camillo can both protect the young people and achieve his own goals. And he also convinces the young prince to marry Perdita, then present this romance to Leontes as part of a representation for a reconciliation mission on behalf of Polixenes.
Perdita joins her common sense to Camillo's arguments that this plan is superior to aimless, poverty-stricken wandering. Beginning to realize that he has to protect his beloved, Florizel seeks more advice from Camillo. First, Camillo says, they must acquire disguises for Perdita and Florizel for the escape from Bohemia.
This opportunity presents itself with Autolycus' entrance. The rogue is bragging about his successful thievery at the festival because of the clown's distracting singing. Only a wailing disruption by the distraught shepherd prevented Autolycus from successfully purse-snatching from the entire group. His celebration of what he managed to get away with, however, is interrupted by the approach of the three escapees. They are discussing effective letters that Camillo can provide. Autolycus fears that they have overheard enough to hang him. But Camillo is interested only in bartering for Autolycus' clothes. As soon as Autolycus recognizes Florizel, he begins scheming again, his schemes fueled by careful observation of the two hasty disguises.
Camillo sends the two young lovers off; then, in an aside, he reveals that he will try to convince Polixenes to follow. Thus, Camillo hopes to see Sicilia again, "for whose sight/ I have a woman's longing."
The delighted Autolycus remains to savor his opportunity to inform the king of the flight. But first, he must decide if this would be an honest deed. After deciding that it would be "more knavery to conceal it," he chooses silence as being more true to his profession.
Then, Autolycus steps aside for another opportunity to make money, for he sees the clown and the shepherd approaching. The clown is arguing that his father should tell the king that Perdita is a changeling, not a legitimate daughter, and show the evidence to the king. The shepherd agrees, but he wants to add an indictment against Florizel's pranks.
Autolycus decides to intervene, but he confuses the simple countrymen with an outburst of nonsense that makes him sound convincingly like a courtier. After saying that the king has sought solace from his grief on board a ship, Autolycus frightens the shepherd and his son into believing that they are slated for horrible deaths. Autolycus then promises to carry their story to the king. The gullible clown convinces his father to pay Autolycus enough to buy his help. As the two simpletons gratefully wander off toward Florizel's ship, Autolycus lingers on stage and talks to the audience about his plan. He will allow Florizel to consider the evidence and the possible harm that might happen to him. At best, the prince will reward him for the information; at worst, he will free the two men and scorn Autolycus for being too officious.
This scene is dominated by the image of renewal. This image dominates all other dramatic elements in preparation for its healing role in resolving the major conflict of the plot. This was the role for which Perdita was saved by heavenly intervention and human heroism in Act III, Scene 3. Now, the remaining act must transport Perdita and her possessions toward Sicilia. This is accomplished by Polixenes' tantrum and by some fast thinking by Autolycus and Camillo.
Florizel's opening speech, dense with the imagery of spring and rebirth, focuses on the hope of renewal that is indigenous to the world of this play.
These your unusual weeds to each part of you
Do 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. (IV. iv. 1–5)
Perdita responds by clinging to reality (as she understands it). Ignorant of her royal heritage and the fact that she is a princess, she counters Florizel's romantic dreams with mundane facts, and she expresses her fears about the consequences of his impulsive obsessions. Without the traditions that justify a costume, she would have "sworn, I think,/ To show myself a glass."
Flower imagery dominates Polixenes' estimation of Perdita. The dominant image of renewal is then extended to a universal idea by his weaving the idea of renewal into humanity and nature, then anchoring it to spring's rebirth. As her first act as "queen" of the feast, Perdita presents rosemary and rue to the guests, symbolizing "grace and remembrance," flowers which seem fresh for a long time "and savour all the winter long." At this point, Polixenes quizzes Perdita about her prejudice against gillyflowers. Perdita says that she has heard that the multi-colored appearance of these flowers, called by some "Nature's bastards," may be due as much to the skills of the gardener as to the flowers' natural characteristics. Polixenes reminds her that this is part of an art that enhances nature, as in the art of grafting, wherein,
A gentler scion to the wildest stock,
And make conceive a bark of baser kind
By bud of nobler race. (IV.iv. 92–95)
But Perdita holds to the purity of nature, tying cycles of nature to cycles of humanity with references to flowers "of middle summer" for "men of middle age" and flowers for virgins with hope as well as for virgins who die without having enjoyed a fulfilling love. She covers the entire cycle of human life with a gentle, wise point of view that impresses her visitors.
Perdita is embarrassed about her long speech, but Florizel adds it to a list that he wants to continue forever — her speech, her singing, and her dancing:
I wish you
A wave o' th' sea, that you might ever do
Nothing but that; move still, still so,
And own no other function. Each your doing,
So singular in each particular,
Crowns what you are doing in the present deeds,
That all your acts are queens. (IV.iv. 140–46)
Perdita also impresses Polixenes with her unexpected grace and wisdom; in fact, all observers express amazement at her queenly behavior although she insists that they remember that she is only a simple shepherd's daughter. Ironically, Polixenes seems ready to "graft" this delight onto the royal family. But Florizel refuses to inform his father of the betrothal. This proud flaw in his nature serves as an important key to the plot development. Florizel refuses to be moved from his independent stance, and he eventually convinces Perdita that she must marry him. They both agree to serve as ambassadors of peace to Sicilia. These are right choices; therefore, no one is punished for filial impiety or deceit — not Florizel, not Perdita, not Camillo, not Autolycus, not the shepherd, and not even the clown.
By this time, the illusion/reality image is treated as a mirrored irony. No one realizes that Perdita's royal qualities are real when Camillo persuades Perdita to play the role of a disguised princess in Sicilia. As for Perdita, who has been trapped between reality and illusion since the end of Act III, the reality of being a "shepherd's daughter," which she believes herself to be, prevents her from accepting a role of royalty. Note that everyone believes that Perdita's natural qualities will provide the needed healing power for a reconciliation between Leontes and Polixenes.
In summary, Camillo has intervened in events in order to achieve one more step in his consistent motivation — that is, to return home to die. Polixenes has manipulated people in order to bend them to his will, and Florizel has maintained a single-minded motivation to marry Perdita. Autolycus, the shepherd, and the clown have acted upon previously established motivations. All have contributed to the eventual success of the trip to Sicilia — the healing renewal.
Perdita contributes the least to the plot development at this point because she is ignorant of her heritage and her potential contribution. But she does remain consistent to her character trait of having an uncommon amount of realistic, common sense.
Although none of these characters are one-dimensional, they are all subordinate of the development of plot. Even Leontes emerges as relatively weak. He did not, like Galileo, cling to truth in spite of opposing opinion; Leontes simply flaunted truth with his incorrect opinion.
Clearly, this long, elaborate subplot enhances the main plot; it is not merely filler. This scene moves from recognition of Perdita's unique qualities through the cataclysmic upheaval which removes her from her Bohemian sanctuary to the beginning of her journey back to Sicilia. At this point, the hope of renewal is added to Shakespeare's traditional tragic themes of prosperity and destruction.