On the day of the sheepshearing, Perdita and Florizel walk together outside her home. She is decked out in flowers, and he compliments her on her grace and beauty. It quickly becomes apparent that the couple is deeply in love, but Perdita expresses concern over the possibility of their eventual union, pointing out that Florizel's father is bound to oppose it. The prince reassures her, declaring that "I'll be thine, my fair, / Or not my father's"(IV.iv.42-43). As they talk together, the Shepherd comes in with a huge crowd, including the Clown, a group of shepherdesses, and the disguised Polixenes and Camillo. The Shepherd tells his adoptive daughter to act the hostess, as is proper, and so she busies herself distributing flowers to the new arrivals, which leads to a discussion of horticulture with Polixenes. Watching and listening to her, Florizel is inspired to another effusive declaration of his love. At this point we learn that he is going by the alias of Doricles./PARAGRAPH Polixenes remarks to Camillo that Perdita is "the prettiest lowborn lass that ever / ran on the greensward. Nothing she does or seems / But smacks of something greater than herself, too noble for this place"(IV.iv.156-59). He asks the Shepherd about "Doricles," and the Shepherd tells him that his daughter's suitor is some high-born fellow, and that the two are deeply in love—"I think there is not half a kiss to choose / Who loves another best"(IV.iv.175-76). Meanwhile, a peddler arrives, with the promise of entertaining the company with songs. He is allowed in—it is Autolycus, in a peddler's costume—and sets about selling ballads to the Clown and the shepherdesses, and then singing for the entire group. As he does so, Polixenes asks Florizel why he has not bought anything for his love, and the prince replies that he knows that Perdita does not desire such silly things as the peddler is offering. He then decides to take this moment to ask the Shepherd to seal their betrothal, and the old man gladly agrees to do so./PARAGRAPH Before they make the compact, however, Polixenes asks Florizel why he does not consult his father before getting engaged, and the prince (still unaware of whom he is speaking with) replies that there are reasons, which he dares not share, why his father cannot know of his betrothal. He urges the Shepherd to "mark our contract"(IV.iv.16), but the king now casts aside his disguise and declares that the betrothal shall not go forward: the Shepherd will be executed for allowing a prince to court his daughter; Perdita's beauty shall be "scratched with briers"(Iv.iv.424); and Florizel will be disinherited if he ever speaks of her again. He relents slightly, after a moment, and decides to spare the life of the Shepherd and the face of his daughter, but tells them that if they ever see the prince again, there lives will be forfeit. Polixenes then departs, ordering his son to follow him to court, and leaving everyone horrified.Read a translation of Act IV, Scene iv, lines 1-440 →
Perdita and Florizel make an appealing couple. Shakespeare gives him a number of excellent speeches to direct toward his beloved, including this one—"When you speak, sweet, / I'd have you do it ever: when you sing, / I'd have you buy and sell so, so give alms, / Pray so, and, for the ord'ring of your affairs, / to sing them too: when you do dance, I wish you / A wave o' the sea, that you might ever do / Nothing but that, move still, still so / And own no other function"(IV.iv.136-43). Meanwhile, Perdita is implicitly linked with the Roman goddess Proserpina (Persephone in Greek myth), who was kidnapped and forced to marry Pluto, god of the underworld, but who lives only half the year underground, and brings the spring with her every year on her return to the brighter world. Perdita is like Proserpina in that she, too, brings the spring—she is crowned with flowers, and dispenses them to all the guests, and the audience feels that this "winter's tale" has broken out into spring color, and it is all due to her arrival.
The flowers occasion a debate between Polixenes and Perdita over the value of interbreeding flowers—he argues that a gardener can legitimately "mend nature—change it rather"(IV.iv.96-97), while she prefers a purer nature, unsullied by human hands. Some critics have argued that this debate illuminates Shakespeare's own inner debate over the relation between his art and nature. The scene is ironic, however, for Polixenes argues for something in flowers—"you see, sweet maid, we marry / A gentler scion to the wildest stock"(IV.iv.93)—that he opposes in his son's case, namely, the mixing of royal and common blood. The Bohemian king forfeits our sympathies almost completely in this scene, for while we may sympathize with his anger at his son, nothing can justify the absurd heights of his vitriol against the manifestly worthy Shepherd and the wonderful Perdita.
Meanwhile, Autolycus's appearance as the peddler provides both a comic counterpoint to the more serious love-plot, and an opportunity for Shakespeare to satirize the ballad-sellers of his own London, and the eager buyers who snatched up their wares. "Here's one to a very doleful tune," Autolycus declares, "how a usurer's wife was brought to bed of twenty moneybags at a burden, and how she longed to eat adders' heads and toads carbonedoed." The guileless shepherdess asks, "Is it true, think you?" to which the salesman replies, "Very true, and but a month old"(IV.iv.262-66). The sale is made, and the audience can only applaud the virtuousity of the huckster.