Summary Scene i:
Father Time, the chorus of this play, tells the audience that sixteen years have passed since the end of Act 3. We leave behind Leontes, grieving in Sicilia, and come to Bohemia. Perdita, now a young woman, grows in grace and beauty. Father Time asks us also to remember that Polixenes has a son, Florizell, who is now a young man.
Summary Scene ii:
Camillo is asking Polixenes to allow him to return home. Leontes has asked Camillo to come back, and Camillo longs to see his homeland and his old master. Polixenes has come to depend on Camillo's administrative abilities, and urges the courtier to stay. Their conversation implies that Bohemia and Sicilia enjoy restored relations, although the friendship between the kings has never recovered. Polixenes asks if Camillo knows the whereabouts of Prince Florizell, who lately is often absent. The king has heard that Florizell often visits the house of a shepherd who has a beautiful daughter. He asks Camillo to go with him, disguised, in order to find out what Florizell has been doing.
Summary Scene iii:
Autolycus, a young man formerly in the service of the prince, now makes his living as a con artist. He pretends that he has been wounded by highway robbers. The unsuspecting Shepherd's Son, out buying supplies and ingredients for the sheep-shearing feast, stops to help him. While the Shepherd's Son is distracted, the rogue swipes the dim man's purse. When Autolycus hears about the sheep-shearing festival, he sees an opportunity to strike again.
Summary Scene iv:
Florizell and Perdita speak to each other lovingly at the Shepherd's house. She wears a nice dress for the festival, while the prince is disguised as a young peasant. We learn that they first met because his hunting falcon flew out over the grounds of Perdita's home. Florizell is aglow with love for Perdita, but she is nervous about the prince's rank. She fears that if his father finds out, it will be a disaster for her and her family. We learn that although the two youths are in love, they have not consummated the affair. Florizell tells Perdita that he will risk being disowned for her.
Enter the Shepherd, the Shepherd's Son, Mopsa, Dorcas, shepherds and shepherdesses, servants, musicians, and Polixenes and Camillo in disguise. The Shepherd encourages his daughter to devote herself wholeheartedly to the role of hostess, describing how his deceased wife was a hostess worth emulating. Perdita obeys her father and is charming and gracious to the guests. Polixenes and Camillo are impressed by the girl's beauty and bearing. Polixenes talks to the Shepherd, asking the identity of the young man with Perdita. The Shepherd does not know Florizell's true identity; he believes that Florizell is a country youth named Doricles. He tells the disguised king that the boy and Perdita are in love, and the Shepherd approves of the match. A servant announces the approach of a ballad-singer selling ribbons and other trinkets, and the Shepherd's Son eagerly calls for him to be brought in. Perdita warns that the ballad singer must not use obscene words. In comes the singer, who is none other than Autolycus. He sings a song about the wares he sells. We learn that the Shepherd's Son and the girl Mopsa are a pair, although Dorcas often playfully flirts with him. The three sing a ballad with Autolycus, and they all exit, with the Shepherd's Son promising to buy trifles for both women.
A servant announces the approach of rustics who have dressed themselves as satyrs. The Shepherd, worried that he is boring his guests with too much "homely foolery," is about to send the satyrs away, but Polixenes is delighted by the prospect of dancing satyrs and insists that they be brought in. After the dance, Polixenes chats with Florizell, who has not recognized him. Florizell eloquently proclaims his love of Perdita, and Perdita indicates that she feels the same way. The Shepherd approves the match. The disguised Polixenes asks Florizell if he has a father, and if his father knows of this match. Florizell admits that his father knows nothing, nor will he know. Polixenes presses him to tell his father, and the Shepherd agrees that Florizell's father should know. When Florizell still refuses to share the important news with his father, Polixenes reveals himself. Furious, he disowns his son and threatens the Shepherd and Perdita. The Shepherd will escape harm this time, but if Perdita sees Florizell again she will be executed. Polixenes exits. Perdita was about to tell him that the same sun shines on the court and on her cottage, but now the chance is past and her concern is for the safety of her and her family. She asks Florizell to leave. The Shepherd is angry with both children for their deception, and he exits in a huff. Florizell is undeterred by his father's disapproval. He still wants to marry Perdita. Camillo, now revealed, tries to caution the prince about rash behavior, but the prince has made his choice. He will marry Perdita and, if necessary, flee Bohemia. In an aside, Camillo wonders if he can help the prince to escape as well as use the event to his advantage, so that he can once again see Sicilia and his old master, King Leontes.
Camillo has a plan. Florizell and Perdita should go to Sicilia, where King Leontes will welcome them. In their absence, Camillo will try to convince Polixenes to accept his son's decision. Florizell and Perdita will pretend to be emissaries of Polixenes, with letters and instructions from Camillo to make the act believable. Autolycus re-enters, having sold all of his junk. Camillo pays him to switch clothes with Florizell, so that the prince can escape in disguise. The hat is given to Perdita. In an aside, Camillo reveals that he will tell the king where the children have gone, in hopes that the king will follow them to Sicilia. Camillo will accompany him, and the old courtier will be able to see his homeland once again. Perdita, Camillo, and Florizell exit. Autolycus knows Camillo and the prince, but he decides not to tell the king, because the act of honesty would not suit his knavish character.
The Shepherd and the Shepherd's Son re-enter, discussing their plight. The Shepherd's Son convinces the Shepherd that they must tell Polixenes that Perdita is a changeling. Autolycus approaches them, pretending to be a great courtier. He warns the men that the king is furious, and fools them into believing that the king plans brutal tortures for all those involved in Florizell's courtship of Perdita. He tells them that if needs be, he will present them to the king and put in a good word for them. The Shepherd and the Shepherd's Son are duped, and they give Autolycus gold to thank him for his help. Autolycus reveals in an aside to the audience that he will work to benefit his old master, the prince, in hopes that he may achieve some advancement. While helping the prince, there is no hurt in conning the peasants out of a little more gold.
The shift in tone and focus between Act 2 and Act 3 is one of the most dramatic transitions in Shakespeare. Suddenly, the tragic momentum set up by Leontes' irrational jealousy and tyrannical behavior is left behind; at the request of the chorus, Father Time, we leave the world of Sicilia and enter the pastoral world of Bohemia's countryside. The focus here is the love story of Perdita and Florizell, set in an idyllic landscape of shepherds, rogues, and peasants dressed as forest satyrs. The court of Bohemia never enters our consideration; when we do see courtiers and royalty, they are foundlings unaware of their true identity or they are in disguise. Nature and its regenerative powers dominate the stage. When we first see Florizell and Perdita, he compares her to a goddess of nature, and later, men dressed as mythical satyrs dance for our entertainment. Shakespeare is creating a charming rural world full of allusions to the nature deities of ancient Greece.
Depictions of the pastoral have a long tradition in English literature. A pastoral is an idealized literary portrait of life in the country, often involving shepherds and shepherdesses who are surprisingly literate and given to speaking in verse. To many of the Londoners who saw Shakespeare's plays, the pastoral was a form of escapism to a life that was removed from the hubbub of the city. Literate aristocrats, fond throughout the ages of romanticizing poverty that they do not share, enjoyed the fantasy images of sheep tending, quaint festivals, and poetry-spouting peasants. These pastorals depicted a world that was supposedly more simple and beautiful than the lives of the urban or the rich.
Here, the pastoral setting contributes to the important theme of death and rebirth. Leontes has caused the deaths of his wife and son and the apparent death of his daughter. Yet Perdita has miraculously survived, and her restoration to her father will seem, to the grieving court of Sicilia, like a miraculous resurrection. The idealized world of Bohemia's countryside is the site of nature's cycles, which parallel the loss and death of the first three acts followed by the renewal and restoration in Acts Four and Five.
The dangers of tyranny are present in Act 4, but this time Polixenes is the man at fault. His anger with his son is understandable, but it is also excessive. When he threatens Perdita with physical violence, it is the act of a man whose throne will protect him even if he terrorizes his subjects. Tyranny separates a king from his people; remember Leontes' delusions and his tyrannical behavior, which isolated him farther and farther from his court and family. The Winter's Tale warns against this kind of isolation: good kingship means guarding against it. Perdita's intended words of advice to the king are to the point: "I was not much afeard, for once or twice / I was about to speak and tell him plainly / The selfsame sun that shines upon his court / Hides not his visage from our cottage but / Looks on all alike" (4.4.520-4). Monarchs should be responsible, like everyone else, for the proper treatment of friends and family; kings are linked even to their poorest subjects by a common humanity. Throughout Shakespeare's plays, a king forgets these truths at his peril.
Yet in this play, Shakespeare goes easy on Leontes and Polixenes. They are allowed, despite their misuses of their power, to have a happy ending. Fate is generous and forgiving. Polixenes never even has to apologize for his rough treatment of Perdita and her adoptive family, nor does he have to learn the lesson that Perdita was about to share with him. His problem with his son's marriage takes care of itself when Perdita's true parentage is revealed. Although both kings at different points misuse their power, the play does not leave them isolated. Leontes and Polixenes learn their lessons or half-learn them; either way, fate accommodates them and restores their relationships with friends and family.