The Reading Room
Perverse Machinations, Providential Results: Autolycus in Shakespeaere’s The Winter’s Tale
Shakespeare’s romance The Winter’s Tale depicts the consequences of unfounded mistrust and accusation, the healing results of charity and forgiveness, and the overarching notion that the world is governed by a benevolent Providence that transcends human machinations.
These themes are seen clearly through King Leontes of Sicily’s mistaken belief that his wife, Hermione, is the lover of his childhood friend King Polixenes of Bohemia, the deadly effects of his accusations against her, Leontes’s subsequent repentance, and the tearful reunion sixteen years later between Leontes and Hermione, whom Leontes believed had died because of his folly. The joy of their reunion is punctuated by the reconciliation between Leontes and Polixenes and the marriage between Polixenes’s son, Florizel, and Leontes’s and Hermione’s daughter, Perdita, whom Leontes had believed was Polixenes’s child and whom Leontes had ordered to be abandoned in a wilderness.
One character, however, unrepentantly demonstrates the opposite of the charity that is celebrated in The Winter’s Tale. The thief Autolycus explicitly appears in only three scenes, and yet the manner in which his self-focused machinations are foiled serves to emphasize the play’s implicit message that good will ultimately prevail and that charity will be rewarded over and against misguided and malevolent human design.
We first see Autolycus in Act 4, scene 3, in which he steals from the unsuspecting and good-natured Clown, the son of the old Bohemian Shepherd who found the abandoned Perdita (see 3.3.67-74) and raised her as his daughter. Just before the Clown appears on stage, Autolycus announces his name, and we do well to consider its significance. In Greek mythology, Autolycus, the son of Hermes, was a thief who could change his shape and thus deceive his victims. The name’s Greek etymology is also telling, for it comes from auto, meaning “self”; and lúkos, meaning “wolf.” As we shall see, Autolykos is entirely self-interested at the expense of his victims, upon whom he preys like a wolf upon sheep. When Autolycus sees the Clown approach, he exclaims, “A prize, a prize!” (4.3.30-31), and he proceeds to “grovel on the ground” (stage directions at 4.3.49) and call for help, claiming that he has been robbed. While the gullible Clown aids him, Autolykos picks his pocket (4.3.73-75).
But although this scene is humorous and Autolykos is an entertaining character, there is something fundamentally troubling about his manipulation of the Clown. Audience members will remember that the Clown is first seen, in a scene set sixteen years earlier, crying out to his father in deep emotional pain because he has just simultaneously witnessed a man—the virtuous Antigonous, who, having convinced Leontes to not murder his baby daughter, has just left her in a remote area of Bohemia in the hope she would be found and cared for--being torn apart by a wild bear and a ship sinking in the sea. Thinking upon them, he moans, “Oh, the most piteous cry of the poor souls!” (3.3.88), and he is clearly traumatized by the suffering and death he has witnessed and his inability to aid the victims. When he sees the ostensibly suffering Autolykos lying on the ground and crying for aid, the Clown demonstrates a similar empathy, crying “Alack, poor soul!” (4.3.53), inquiring after his condition, helping him to his feet, offering him money, and offering to accompany him on his way to the kinsman Autolykos claims he is going to visit (see 4.3.49-115). The man Autolykos misuses here is one who demonstrates kindness, compassion, and generosity toward him, one who, moreover, has been the faithful stepbrother to the abandoned Perdita these sixteen years.
And not only does Autolykos take advantage of the compassionate and charitable Clown, but after learning that the Clown is preparing for the local sheep-shearing festival, he announces in a soliloquy that he will attend the festival to profit from its attendees, for he anticipates that “the shearers” will “prove [to be] sheep” (4.3.119) that he, true to his name, can exploit to his own benefit. Like his shape-shifting Greek namesake, Autolycus appears at the festival in the guise of a travelling peddler, selling his worthless “trumpery” (4.4.600) even as he cuts the purses of his unsuspecting customers (see 4.4.599-621), afterward mocking their gullibility by declaring, “Ha, ha, what a fool Honesty is! And Trust, his sworn brother, a very simple gentleman!” (4.4.598-99). We do well to consider that in mocking honesty and trust, Autolycus is dismissing as foolish the very foundations of healthy relationships of any sort. It is in fact Leontes’s choice to distrust his wife and scorn her claims to honesty that have wreaked such destruction on his family and kingdom. Indeed, Autolykos’s immoral selfishness is the very antithesis of the kind of charity that rescues the helpless and restores relational brokenness.
Later in Act 4, scene 4, Autolykos sees another opportunity to benefit himself at the expense of those who trust him. This time, however, his intentions are thwarted by what the text suggests to be a higher providence that transcends his self-seeking machinations. During the aforementioned sheep-shearing festival, King Polixenes has confronted Prince Florizel for engaging the lowly shepherdess Perdita against his father’s will, and Polixenes threatens violence against her and her seeming father, the old Shepherd. Autolykos then eavesdrops on the terrified Shepherd and Clown while they discuss their need to go to Polixenes and show him tokens that the Shepherd found alongside baby Perdita that prove that she is not really the Shepherd’s daughter, but a foundling. Appearing in yet another disguise, Autolykos tells the men that he can take them to Polixenes, who he claims has boarded “a new ship” (4.4.767) and is planning the Shepherd’s destruction (772-84). The deceived Shepherd pays Autolykos handsomely to take them to Polixenes, telling the Clown that their seeming benefactor “was provided to do us good” (832-33), but the thief, anticipating his own “advancement” (835), takes them instead to the ship of Florizel, believing that the prince will pay him generously for keeping the Shepherd’s revealing information from Polixenes. Instead, as Autolykos later learns, Florizel, who has sailed his ship to Sicilia, has taken the Shepherd and his evidence to King Leontes, who rejoices to be reunited with his daughter and who, along with Polixenes, who has also seen the Shepherd’s evidence, blesses the union of Florizel and Perdita even as Leontes asks Polixenes’s forgiveness and the two kings reconcile (see 5.2.3-59). For their part, the Shepherd and his son are rewarded financially and given titles as gentlemen; when they appear in Act 5, scene 2, they are described as “dressed in finery” (5.2.124). Seeing them, Autoclykos says, “Here come those I have done good to against my will” (5.2.125). Indeed, the plans of the self-focused Autoclykos have been overruled, and the machinations of the manipulator have been repurposed by one who, in the words of the naïve but benevolent Shepherd, “provided” Autolykos for the “good” of the Shepherd and his son.
But Autolykos’s redirected manipulations do not merely benefit the two rustics. Rather, they are the catalyst for the aforementioned reunion between Leontes and Perdita, for Polixenes’s blessing upon the marriage he had previously forbidden, for the reconciliation of the two kings, and as such they pave the way for the final reconciliation between Leontes and his long-thought deceased wife, Hermione. She has been hidden for sixteen years by her wise friend Paulina and comes to life before Leontes and the others in the play’s final scene where she transforms from " a lifelike statue of the queen," in response to Perdita’s and Leontes’s loving admiration, revealing the statue to be Hermione herself (see 5.3.20-116).
The play’s text suggests that Autolykos himself, having accompanied the rustics at the Clown’s invitation (5.2.173-75), was present to witness the reunion of Hermione, Leontes, and Perdita. Speaking the final lines of the play, Leontes tells his wife that Florizel is “trothplight to” Perdita by means of “heavens directing” (5.3.153, 152). We may rightly ask if the perpetually self-focused Autolykos, hearing these words, considers at that moment if, in the end, his ways too were ultimately directed by a design that was not his own.