Spices for our Sheepshearing: The Three Masks of Autolycus in Shakespeare's Winter's Tale
By Clifford Stetner
The sheep-shearing festival, that takes up so much of the action of The Winter's Tale is usually interpreted in terms of its narrative function in advancing the plot from its tragic first half to its comic second half. Serving as the backdrop for the chaste love of Perdita and Florizel, the rural festivities are regarded as unambiguously festive and regenerative (the only perceivable threat being to their disruption (Laroque 219)). An interpretation of the Bohemian festivities merely as a joyous occasion fails to acknowledge the deep sense of resentment expressed by rural agricultural communities throughout England since the early Reformation towards Church/State suppression of festive entertainments. While the details of the seasonal customs in the lengthy fourth act must at first seem esoteric to the modern reader, the contemporary Jacobean audience would have been sensitive to allusions to specific elements of native traditions, and their relevance to the contemporary political controversy surrounding festival practices among the commonalty.
In addressing the audience directly, the balladeer, peddler, and prig, Autolycus, who appears during the preparations for the festival and disappears following its
conclusion, establishes a special place for himself separate from the narrative. The perception of Autolycus as engaged in a discourse with the audience apart from his role in the larger plot characterizes much of the criticism of his character and is reflected in the brief comments of Simon Forman regarding a 1611 performance.
After a single paragraph plot summary, Forman, a “mountebank physician, quack astrologer and roguish seducer of women” (Sokol 169), gives as much space to a
description of the character of the “Rog” and his presence at the “shep-sher.” This bisection of the play may reflect Forman’s personal priorities; most criticism, however, tends to follow a similar pattern. While Autolycus’s role as artist, rogue, or lord of misrule has been acknowledged separately by various critics, it is my contention that in the conflation of these three identities Shakespeare defines his own role as dramatist and argues for a place for his profession in the Jacobean state.
The scarcity of analysis of the role of Autolycus, given the large number of lines allotted to him (second only to Leontes), may partially be explained by his radical dissociation from the parts of the play in which he does not appear, but I believe that it is rather owing to the fact that he is an extremely enigmatic character. Like those of Lancelot Gobbo, Autolycus’s dialogues with the Clown are like madness, yet there’s matter in them.
Rather than foolish banter to amuse the groundlings, or to “protract the sagging action” and rouse discomfort (Knight111), these dialogues encode cryptic discussions of the meanings of the plays under the guise of verbal slapstick. If Autolycus embodies a pro-festive, anti-Puritan political discourse (as I shall argue), then the tortures he describes to the Clown (IV.iv.771) may reflect the fears motivating its cryptic concealment.
Autolycus volunteers his services as comic actor to deliver what might otherwise be construed as treasonable or heretical.
Shepherd. My business is to the king.
Autolycus. What advocate hast thou to him? (IV.iv.727)
The rustics fear authority, a “stubborn bear” like the one that they have already seen kill Antigonus, the first bearer of Perdita. The comic actor in the person of
Autolycus with the authority bestowed by the king’s livery serves as a sort of middle man between different factions of the society. As an artist, he is proof against the title of subversive the way that Autolycus is proof against the title of rogue.
Designed to puzzle the wittiest Jacobean courtier, Autolycus’s humor is far more opaque to the modern reader on whom most of the contemporary allusions are lost.
Nevertheless, historicist research can help to illuminate its possible meanings.
I. THE ROGUE
Dr. Forman makes no assertions about the character of Autolycus as representing the plight of the Jacobean artist, and while he notes that the date was under the sign of Mercury, his comparison of Autolycus to a supernatural being is limited to his costume. For the one contemporary witness, interpreting from within the same cultural context, Autolycus is primarily a rogue. In his final comment, Forman seems to deduce the moral of Autolycus’s social mobility as indicating the similarity between fawning courtiers and vagrant coney-catchers. Although Shakespeare might have gotten much of the details of Autolycus’s criminal behavior from the coney-catching pamphlets of Greene (from whom he also took the source of his plot), it seems likely that his traveling company may have had a passing acquaintance with highwaymen in their journeys throughout England, Ireland and parts of the Continent.
The abolition of private armies at the conclusion of the Wars of the Roses drove many former soldiers out of work and onto the highways. After the start of the
Reformation, those who had worked in the monasteries as gardeners, butchers, cooks, and launderers were left homeless, and itinerant friars and pardoners were deprived of their benefices. Finally, enclosure of common lands owing to the emergence of a large scale wool industry in England displaced large numbers of agricultural workers. Many of these disenfranchised people ended up on the dangerous, isolated and poorly maintained dirt roads referred to as highways (Salgado 119), and must have crossed paths with the traveling players.
London theater companies went on tour, not to promote their latest hit plays, but only when times were lean in London, or when the theaters closed for the plague. While Shakespeare’s company wore the King’s livery, and may have been welcomed in some aristocratic country estates, their social class would have entitled them to hospitality at local inns where they must have spent a good deal of time eating and drinking with the likes of Autolycus and Falstaff.
Since 1572, players who traveled under the patronage of the peerage, unlike “fencers, who exhibited feats of sword play; bearwards, who trained and showed
performing bears; jugglers; and magicians,” were exempted from the vagrancy act and therefore free from the fear of “gallows and knock” while traveling the highways.
However, as the early modern definition of rogue is one who “…went about with forged papers, apparently seeking a long-lost relative or bearing an important letter to a gentleman in a neighbouring shire,” the distinction between player and rogue grows exceeding thin. A traveling player without proof of aristocratic patronage might be forced to dip into his wardrobe to imitate Autolycus’s deception of the rustics:
Shepherd: Are you a courtier, an't like you, sir?
Autolycus: Whether it like me or no, I am a courtier. Seest
thou not the air of the court in these enfoldings?
hath not my gait in it the measure of the court?
receives not thy nose court-odor from me? reflect I
not on thy baseness court-contempt? Thinkest thou,
for that I insinuate, or toaze from thee thy
business, I am therefore no courtier? I am courtier
cap-a-pe; and one that will either push on or pluck
back thy business there: whereupon I command thee to
open thy affair. (IV.iv.718)
The correspondences between rogue and player allow Shakespeare to use Autolycus to develop his discourse in The Winter's Tale on the role of the artist. As with
the element of questionable papers of transit, there are ways in which “…the commercial and performative functions of a mountebank ironically re-echo the play’s many other self-references to its own theatricality and mock-naïve genre” (Sokol 176). Autolycus travels legally under the guise of a peddler. Peddlers along with tinkers joined liveried players in being exempted from the vagrancy act in 1604 (Beier 90). Like players, however, their liberty was tenuous, and a syndicate sought to license them in 1617. Similarly, “in 1648, Parliament declared all players to be vagrants, while during the Protectorate a law ordered fiddlers and minstrels summarily to be branded” (Beier 96). Autolycus, as small-time crook claiming the legal protection of his profession of peddler of ballads, is a model for the conditions facing traveling players owing to their deteriorating status under the Jacobean state.
Shakespeare develops these parallels in the details of Autolycus’s character. One similarity between the profession of Autolycus and that of actor is his use of masks.
Another more complex relationship between the two professions is implied in the title of “prig” assigned to him by the Clown. “Out upon him! Prig, for my life, prig! He haunts wakes, fairs, and bear-baitings” (IV.iii.96). Partridge’s Dictionary of the Underworld defines Prig as:
A thief; esp. a professional thief; 1566, Harman, T. A Caveat. of a gang of
tramps and beggars asleep in a barn, ‘Sometyme shall come in some Roge, some
pyckinge knave, a nymble Prygge ; he walketh in softly a nights, when they be at
their rest, and plucketh of as many garmentes as be ought worth that he maye
easely cary the same, and runneth a waye with the same with great seleritye’
Here we have a hint of Autolycus’s penchant for other people’s clothing and for plucking unattended sheets by moonlight. Moreover, making off with other people’s clothes recalls the accusation made against him by the author of his source twenty years earlier. While his stealing of “sheets” more precisely figures the kind of plagiarism which Greene’s insult implies. And since a folio sheet of paper cost a penny, the same as the price of two loaves of bread, the analogy raises the question of how manuscript resources were supplied during lean times.
Autolycus’ profession has been described as the selling of ribbons and ballads and things at county fairs while stealing sheets from country women as a sideline, but few critics have remarked the way that these occupations are related to each other. What better way to obtain raw material for ribbons than from stolen sheets, and what better way to fence stolen sheets than to tear them into ribbons. What is most striking is the way ribbons and ballads get conflated in the description of Autolycus by the Servant.
He hath ribbons of all the colors i’ th’ rainbow, points more than all the lawyers in
Bohemia can learnedly handle, though they come to him by the gross—inkles,
cambrics, lawns. Why, he sings ‘em over as they were gods or goddesses. You
would think a smock were a she-angel, he so chants to the sleeve-hand and the
work about the square on’t. (IV.iv.203)
Here, I believe, Shakespeare conflates his own identity with that of the rogue. By conflating points/needles with points/rhetorical devices, Autolycus’s shill prepares for the conflation of the singing of his colored ribbons, inkles, cambrics and lawns with the singing of his other commodities, the ballads.
The ballads are miniature plays and in conflating them with a process of tearing up stolen sheets and hocking them as ribbons for ladies’ hair , Shakespeare is
commenting on his own craft. He is Autolycus, and parallel to, but not wholly a part of, the play’s discourse, is a playwright’s complaint of sorts concerning his own career in loyal service to his prince. We might read the sheets stolen by the light of the moon as Ovid and Plutarch, as well as Greene, who provided Shakespeare with many colored ribbons to be sold at Whitsuntide fairs.
It is most fitting, then, that Autolycus takes his wares to be sold at a sheep-shearing festival. A rural sheep-shearing festival seems like a likely place for traveling
player, prig and peddler, and lord of misrule to be found. The nature of the festival as well as the fact that it was held “at different dates in different areas, since one had to be sure that the animals would not suffer from the cold without their wool” (Laroque 155) would have made it an opportune event for transient workers from Spring through Summer.
The use of shearing sheep as a euphemism for conning people dates back to this period, and both Autolycus and Shakespeare were in the game of unloading hot sheets.
“Hot sheets” serve nicely to summarize Autolycus’s stock in trade, as they imply not only the rogue who lives by petty theft, but the dramatist who lives by doctoring up the writing of others, as well as the fertility spirit to whom the lord of misrule is most closely related.
II. THE LORD OF MISRULE
The lord of misrule is best known as a Christmas figure, but “there is evidence that the term was freely extended to folk ‘kings’ set up, not at Christmas only, but at other times in the year” (Chambers Mediaeval 419). Likewise, there is an element of ambiguity between the seasons of winter and summer in The Winter’s Tale. Given its title, for example, one might be surprised to find such extended summer activities taking up so much of the drama. Autolycus ’s appearance in the early spring coincides with some traditions and foreshadows Perdita’s reemergence, so that he straddles winter and summer. His statement that he is “littered under Mercury” implies a winter birth in Shakespeare’s canon and
…may relate very complexly to his confusing mention of a springtime rising of ‘red blood’ just before the start of a late summer festival… according to an old ‘rustic or farmer’s calendar’ he [Mercury] was a god of May or spring, together with Flora … identifying Mercury with winter, and opposing him to Apollo and spring…[may represent] a deliberate confusion of two calendars operative at once, a rural and ‘sophisticated’ one. (Sokol 246n30)
The ambiguity of seasons implied in the allusions to Mercury simultaneously reflects an analogous ambiguity in the customs surrounding the lord of misrule (who also
traditionally relates to both seasons in complex ways) as well as the complexity of the regenerative function of the artist. Similar analogies can be drawn from the name Autolycus itself.
While acknowledging the classical origins of Autolycus’s name, critics ignore the other Autolycus, a Greek philosopher of the fourth century BC who wrote the oldest extant complete mathematical treatises on the geometry of the sphere and on the rising and setting of the fixed stars. In a play obsessed with the passage of time and seasons, the rogue’s historical namesake is no less relevant than the mythological one to whom he alludes.
Ruth Nevo points out that “…there is a self, and a wolf also, in his name,” and that his first act is to “…con the clown by enacting the part of his own victim…” (Nevo 122), without elaborating on this identification of his profession as dramatist, or on the appropriateness of a wolf self as predator at a sheep-shearing festival. B. J. Sokol is more explicit about the connection between wolf and artist, but he sees his presence at the sheep-shearing as essentially non-threatening. If Autolycus is less destructive to the community than bears and lions, it seems to be by choice. His revenue is the “silly cheat,” because “gallows and knock are too powerful on the highway ; beating and hanging are terrors to me…” (IV.iii.24). The deceptions and charlatanism practiced by the dramatist is a petty crime that, unlike prigging and cutting of purses, does not carry the threat of beating and hanging. But Autolycus’s easy handling of the rude folk implies that rather than simply shearing the sheep, he could act the wolf and devour them. His first robbery of the Clown is only of his spice money although it seems at first to be of the entire annual revenue of his wool:
Clown. Let me see; every ‘leven wether tods; every tod yields pound and odd
shilling ; fifteen hundred shorn, what comes the wool to?
Autolycus. [aside] If the springe hold, the cock’s mine. (IV.iii.31)
The audience must assume that Autolycus is after the poor Clown’s entire annual revenue and is relieved to discover, after Autolycus has succeeded in cutting his purse:
Clown. Shall I bring thee on the way?
Autolycus. No, good-faced sir ; no, sweet sir.
Clown. Then fare thee well. I must go buy spices for our sheep-shearing.
Autolycus. …I’ll be with you at your sheep-shearing too. (IV.iii.108)
In fact, the Clown has already made his purchase. In depriving him only of his discretionary entertainment funds rather than his living (his spice rather than his meat, his sheep’s wool rather than its life) is implied a defense of the drama against the Puritan charge that festival sports including the theater wasted the people’s livelihood.
The episode in Ovid’s Metamorphoses involving the mythological Autolycus, which opposes his role as son of Mercury to that of Philammon born from the same
mother to Apollo, is followed by the story of a “A Wolf turn'd into Marble.” This is the same Autolycus who stole the helmet that his grandson Odysseus wore at Troy, implying an allegorical role as the bestower of Odysseus’s renowned wisdom. This further reflection of the artist’s function, connects him also with his lineage to “…Mercury-Hermes… guide of souls and father of hermeneusis or interpretation” (Bieman 83). But the primary divine qualities of the sheep-shearing which serves as the backdrop for Autolycus’s character and the various allusions to Mercury and Apollo are related to fertility customs.
Lee Cox sees “repeated hints that Autolycus is the agent of a superior power…” (286). However, for Sokol “…he is not an elemental or transcendental figure…like Puck [or] Ariel…” (174). Nevertheless, the appetite newly ‘on edge’ in Autolycus [his ‘pugging tooth’] is as seasonal and sempiternal as his itinerant habits of sheet stealing and ‘tumbling in the hay’ (171). Perhaps the further definition of prig: “prince. First defined in B.E., 1698, as ‘ King of the Gypsies ; also a Top-Thief, or Receiver general,’ i.e., a thief ranking high in his profession, or a ‘fence’ at the top of his” (Partridge) is sufficient to link him to the idea of the lord of misrule who might also be described as a prince of thieves. His description of himself:
The pale moon shines by night.
And when I wander here and there,
I then do most go right. (IV.ii.15)
is a fair definition of the principle of misrule as the inversion of accepted values. Hartley Coleridge remarked in 1851 that Autolycus is the only character in the play that displays Shakespeare’s customary philosophic depth; his domination of the summer festival scenes associates him with the controversial figure of lord of misrule for a number of further reasons.
The sheep-shearing and the festivals surrounding it from May Day through Whitsuntide and Midsummer was not an exclusively rural festival, but “found its way to court, and became a sumptuous pageant under the splendour-loving Tudors” (Chambers Mediaeval 179). The practice of May-games and May-poles prominent in these festivals was suppressed under Edward the VI, enjoyed a brief revival under Mary and were then
vigorously denounced by the Puritans until they were suppressed during the interregnum.
Chambers suggests that, while festival practices were increasingly suppressed among the rural agricultural communities, they grew more elaborate within the precincts of the court and aristocracy where they developed into the tradition of the court masque (Mediaeval 393). The lord of misrule played a prominent role in both rural and courtly festivities early in their history, but increasingly became the target of repression: "In 1585 the Bench forbade that any one should ‘in time of Christmas, or any other time, take upon him, or use the name place, or commandment of Lord, or any such other like. Nevertheless…in 1594…Mr. Henry Helmes of Norfolk, was ‘Prince of Purpoole,’ [the rhyme with misrule seems intentional] and he had the honour of presenting a mask before Elizabeth. This was written by Francis Davison, and Francis Bacon…" (Chambers Mediaeval 417).
During that same Christmas festival at Gray’s Inn: ‘ a company of base and common fellows’ was brought in and performed ‘ a Comedy of Errors, like to Plautus his
Menaechmus’ (Chambers Mediaeval 417).
Shakespeare’s company then may have provided spices for the sheep-shearing festivals of peasants and scholars alike, and were likely to have been engaged to do so by lords of misrule in both venues. The practice of electing a Lord or Prince seems to disappear until “in 1617 there was again a Prince of Purpoole, on this occasion for the entertainment of Bacon himself as Lord Chancellor” (Chambers Mediaeval 417).
Although most incidents of lords of misrule in the Universities and Inns of Court are connected with Winter festivities, the Inner Temple also held ‘revels’ on All Saints’, Candlemas, and Ascension days (Chambers Mediaeval 415) . Autolycus arrives in Bohemia close to Ascension, but because of the moveable nature of the sheep-shearing, his arrival cannot be dated precisely. If his presence as a type of lord of misrule signals the beginning of summer festivities, then we might identify his appearance with Mayday.
His allusions to women of ill repute may therefore refer both to Walpurgis and to the Roman holiday of Bona Dea. The activities of the peasants, shepherds and peers of Bohemia can be connected with the customary practice for this occasion “…generally known as a ‘May-play’ or ‘May-game,’ or as a ‘king-play,’ ‘king’s revel,’ or ‘king-game.’
The leading personages are indifferently the ‘king’ and ‘queen,’ or the ‘somerkyng’ or rex faestivalis. At other times he is the ‘lord of misrule,’ or takes a local title, such as … ‘Abbot of … ‘Mayvole’ or ‘Mayvoll’… ‘Mayvoll’ seems to point to ‘Maypole’” (Chambers Mediaeval 144).
A further hint to his divine identity is given in the dance of satyrs which follows the conclusion of his first appearance. Satyrs were the companions of the Roman Pan who more than any other classical divinity with the possible exception of Dionysus, deserves the title lord of misrule. The theme of pagan god disguised is further elaborated by Florizel who “…catalogues the gods who have disguised themselves for love: Jupiter as a bellowing bull, Neptune a bleating lamb and…the fire-rob’d god, / Golden Apollo, a poor humble swain / As I seem now. (IV.iii.29)” (Knight 103).
In his country setting, as a lord of misrule related to Pan, Autolycus evokes a type of tree-spirit. ‘…he is organic to the whole country scene … he comes and goes with the aloofness of an elf among humans…” (Tillyard 48). He is “…spring incarnate; carefree, unmoral, happy…” (Knight 100). Spring incarnate, the tree-spirit, related to the Maypole, is a Celtic/Saxon parallel to the fertility god figured by the classical Pan and Apollo.
Marjorie Garber sees Autolycus’s “… influence over courting couples (but not his boasted behaviour with ‘aunts’)” as according “…with …distinctions between bawdry and sexual energy, pornotopia and passion” (Sokol 249n60).
Not only do his ballads contribute to the wooing of the Clown by the two maids, Mopsa and Dorcas, but their comic activity and the May-game it figures serve as a foil for the regenerative love of Perdita and Florizel. For Ruth Nevo “Autolycus is a figure of libido, unruly, lawless and volatile, uninhibited, cunning, subversive” (Nevo 122).
Besides being an agent of fertility, however, Autolycus also frequently threatens cuckolding and castration. Autolycus’s first ballad seems to refer to the rivalry of Mopsa and Dorcas over the clown, but might just as easily refer to Autolycus himself.
Autolycus. Why, this is a passing merry one and goes to the tune of ‘Two maids
wooing a man.’ There’s scarce a maid westward but she sings it. ‘Tis in request,
I can tell you.
Mopsa. We can both sing it ‘ if thou’lt bear a part, thou shalt hear. ‘Tis in three parts.
Autolycus. I can bear my part ; you must know ‘tis my occupation. Have at it
As with his hot sheets, which of his parts it is Autolycus’s profession to bear depends on whether it is Autolycus the balladeer, actor or fertility god who is singing. This ambiguity is reflected in yet another definition of the occupation of prig: prig- star… Perhaps simply prigster, one who filches (the love of the woman concerned) (Partridge). While Autolycus identifies his occupation with castration, his cryptic seductions allow Mopsa and Dorcas to play upon the Clown’s jealousy and so to facilitate the process of fertility.
Autolycus later refers to his commodity as:
…Golden quoifs and stomachers
For my lads to give their dears,
Pins and poking-sticks of steel,
What maids lack from head to heel… (IV.iv.222)
Poking-sticks of steel that maids lack from head to heel for my lads to give their dears is just what a fertility god should provide. The intruding phallus, like the traditional Maypole, serves as a catalyst to fertility rather than as cuckolder.
Clown. We'll have this song out anon by ourselves:
… bring away thy pack after
me. Wenches, I'll buy for you both. Pedlar, let's
have the first choice. Follow me, girls.
Autolycus. And you shall pay well for ‘em.
Finally, Autolycus conflates his role as fertility spirit with his role as playwright by his attribution of the authority for the truth of one of his ballads to the ambiguously named Mistress Taleporter, a midwife. “Paulina…sometime taleteller…[is also] called “midwife” by Leontes…but Autolycus is the professional, the most active teller of tales in this winter’s tale” (Cox 285).
We have already seen that the theme of clothing provides a link between Autolycus as prig and Autolycus as dramatist/player. The pervasive clothes imagery of the last two acts also contributes to the theme of seasonal transformation. “Whitsun, like Easter, was a time for donning new clothes. It was a pretext for showing off one’s finery and competing in elegance, but the custom was also a way of celebrating all the new growth of spring” (Laroque 137).
Along with the lord of misrule, the theme of spring renewal is indicated by the allusions to the king and queen figured in Florizel and Perdita. Knight refers Perdita’s allusion to Proserpine to her own identity as a “…seed sowed in winter and flowering in summer” (106). The inclusion of a king and queen of the May along with a lord of misrule represents the conflation of a number of different traditional customs. The king and queen represented at summer festivals often took the form of Robin Hood and Maid Marian in the morris dance which occurred particularly during May-games (Chambers Mediaeval 179). The morris dance was included as part of the mummer’s plays which Francois Laroque describes as “the drama of the green world, …its theme is once again the triumph of life over the waste land, the death and revival of the year impersonated by figures still human, and once divine as well” (193).
It should be noted that the performance of The Winter's Tale at the Globe theater reported by Simon Forman took place on May 15, the official date fixed for Whitsuntide in Jacobean London. This occasion is especially fitting not only for its relevance to the theme of the play itself, but because of the entire calendar. “Whitsun was …a favourite time for staging pastoral dramas which must have been the rural and village equivalent of the evening performances given in Elizabethan London during the month of May” (Laroque 138).
Whitsuntide was also often the occasion for Corpus Christi plays which might be presented by a “lord of the summer feast” (Sokol 174n1). The disguising of Polixenes and Camillo to attend the folk festivities reflects a genuine practice of participation by local aristocracy. The pageants that replaced the traditional Corpus Christi plays were attended by Earl Derby, Lord Strange, and other noblemen (Chambers 636). The attack of the increasingly vocal Puritan elements in Reformation England against the theaters was intimately connected with the attack on pageants, on the mystery plays that preceded them, the festivals that provided their occasion, the pagan deities that were believed to officiate at these festivals, and ultimately upon Satan who was believed prince of these deities.
While the pageants and seasonal festivals, in their preservation of local traditions were supported by some segments of the aristocracy, they were open to attack as simple indulgence in immorality by others.
The undeniable popularity of this work [Stubbes’s anatomie of Abuses] points to the existence, among the elite and the educated, of quite a strong movement of opposition to festivity, while at the same time testifying indirectly to its persistent vitality and popularity among the masses. (Laroque 6)
By the late Elizabethan period, rural seasonal festivals had become associated with a number of the same abuses that the Puritans were simultaneously attributing to the urban theaters, including riots, drunkenness, and the birth of bastard children.
Puritan attacks continued from the publication of Stubbes’s anatomie through the… reign of Charles I, in which the supporters of the traditional Church of England, with the backing of the monarchy, clashed with the municipal authorities of Puritan persuasion. First church ales, then wakes, are also the subject of Philip Stubbes’ indictments…in the Elizabethan period they seem to have coincided most often with the Whitsun festival. (Laroque 159)
The fact that rogues like Autolycus frequented these festivities was naturally used by the Puritans to demonstrate their pernicious character.
III. THE ARTIST
It is for these reasons that Autolycus is an ideal figure and a Whitsun ale an ideal occasion to carry on a discourse defending the theaters against the Puritan polemic. Like most seasonal feasts in the calendar, the summer feast lasted approximately twelve days from May-day to Whitsun. It reversed, however, the usual order of a religious followed by a secular festival. This reversal amplifies the theme of reversal underlying the festive principle of misrule which defines the role of Autolycus. Autolycus is in part a liminal figure. His liminality is, however, only a microcosm of the liminality of the entire festive structure as well as that of the arts within English culture.
Mary Livingston points out that The Winter's Tale:
…contains an astonishing number of art forms: a tragedy, a comedy, a pastoral, a tale, a dream-vision, a statue, songs and ballads (and other music), a shepherds and shepherdesses’ dance, an anti-masque, a poem, a picture, and suggestions of a play within a play… Throughout the pastoral interlude he [Autolycus] acts as artist, stage manager, variously costumed actor, and commentator. …Seeing his guises deceive simpler folk should make us question how art, either his or The Winter Tale’s, works on us: perhaps the pockets of both audiences are being picked. (Livingston 346)
According to Livingston, Autolycus’s liminality, “the artist as pickpocket is an inverted comment on the responsibility of art and artist implied in Perdita and Polixenes’ debate on “nature and art” (Livingston 349). But the coterminality of Autolycus’s appearance in the play with the seasonal festivities associates the function of art and artist with the principle of misrule associated with national festive traditions. Rather than using the pernicious nature of Autolycus as balladeer as an antitype with which to glorify his own dramatic poetry, Shakespeare makes him the vehicle of the recovery of the lost fardel which leads to the renewal of the culture and the glorification of the state, a role to which the true artist might aspire.
The artist as pickpocket is the true artist. Like Autolycus, he takes some of the money from each purse in his audience and provides nothing in return but a false show of a robbery victim, or the hypnotic effects of spectacle depending on their capacities. In so doing, however, he may succeed in providing the medium for greater things. For Livingston, the woman who “…longed to eat adders’ heads and toads carbonadoed” (IV.iv.263) in one of Autolycus’s ballads represents “‘the perversion of natural appetites’ whereas chastity in obedience with the natural order of the universe is one of the motifs of The Winter’s Tale…” (Livingston 348). However Shakespeare uses a prominently displayed rogue to help to convey these motifs. He uses the perverse to convey the natural, and his plays have more in common with Autolycus’s ballads than in contrast.
As Cox observes:
…faith in the false may lead to winter and yet faith in the seeming false to the expelling of winter, then the role of Autolycus, the epitome and the purveyor of falsehood, is most important. And in a play suggesting that art may illuminate and extend “great creating nature” …the agency of the rogue artist is worth attention. (286).
Besides a confession that his theater company is little better than a band of pickpockets, and his equation of his plays with lesser linen torn by the kite from stolen sheets to be sold at public gatherings, another parallel between the arts of Shakespeare and Autolycus lies in the simple plagiarism of ballad peddling. As a commodity, Autolycus is not even selling the claim of authorship. Like his ribbons, ballads are a product the raw materials for which are free. For Livingston, the demand that the ballads be new is opposed to the “old tale” that The Winter's Tale is said to resemble.
Shakespeare, however, could not have sold the old tale of Greene’s Pandosto to the theater-going public without doctoring it up into something “new.” In Autolycus’s ballads, Shakespeare confesses that his own art is neither original or new, but torn up into strips and assembled into a kind of favor for the local lads to give their ladies on festive occasions.
As with his role as pickpocket, his role as balladeer also serves to amplify the theme of reversal and misrule. His ballads are described as being fit for mixed company:
Servant: …he has the prettiest love-songs for maids, so without bawdry (which is strange); with such delicate burdens of dildoes and fadings, jump her and thump her; and where some stretch-mouthed rascal would, as it were, mean mischief and break a foul gap into the matter, he makes the maid to answer “Whoop, do me no harm, good man…” (IV.iv.193)
As Knight points out “…the songs are ribald enough” For him they are “…little burlesques of our main fertility-myth…” (Knight 109). Even the servant’s protest to the contrary borders on obscenity, and the self-contradiction is striking. We do not hear phrases like “jump her and thump her” too often even in Shakespeare’s comedies. The maid’s modest reply does little to remove the bawdry from the song. As that which is purportedly chaste can convey what is ultimately obscene, that which is purportedly obscene, such as a seasonal festival of misrule or a public theater performance, can convey what is ultimately chaste.
There is a suggestion that, if Autolycus’s occupations are to be taken as self-referential of Shakespeare’s art, the latter stands in distinct relation to different segments of the culture. We have already remarked on the imputation suggested by Sokol that there is an intentional confusion between a rustic and sophisticated calendar in the ambiguous references to Mercury. Similarly, Autolycus himself behaves differently among rural and sophisticated characters. He acts like a predator, like a wolf among sheep, in his dealings with the common people. He uses them for his own purposes, but he is equally made use of by the nobles to further their purposes. “We’ll make an instrument of this; omit / Nothing may give us aid” (IV.iv.580), says Camillo on first spying Autolycus. In other words, despite the corruption and immorality of the rogue, and of the lord of misrule and artist he represents, he can be of benefit to the state.
The self reference extends beyond Autolycus’s occupations of rogue, prig and balladeer. We have seen that his preoccupation with clothes reflects his status as rogue and prig as well as lord of the festival of summer renewal. Clothes, more than paper, however, represent the greatest operating expense of the theater company. In his first encounter with the Clown he uses all the power of tragedy in an attempt to obtain a better wardrobe.
Autolycus. O, help me, help me! Pluck but off these rags, and then death, death!
Clown. Alack, poor soul, thou hast need of more rags to lay on thee, rather than have these off.
Autolycus. O, sir, the loathsomeness of them offends me more than the stripes I have received, which are mighty ones and millions.
Clown. Alas, poor man! A million of beating may come to a great matter. (IV.iii.50)
The Clown’s sympathy for Autolycus’s phony tragic suffering allows Autolycus to relieve him of his spice money. It is finally the nobles rather than the commons, however, who provide him with a change of costume, and it is this “…better ‘wearing’ [that] allows him to be a crucial passenger to Sicilia” (Sokol 173).
As servant to the prince Autolycus is a fortunate artist who accompanies the ship of state in its great historical motions. But as an artist, his status in the Prince’s service is unclear. At IV.iii.13 he says: “I have served Prince Florizel and in my time wore three-pile, but now I am out of service.” At IV.iv.697 he says: “I know not what impediment this complaint may be to the flight of my master.” But only the use of his clothes to conceal the escaping couple seems to have returned him to his former patronage. He simply “…puts himself back in a service which denies, in one sense, that he is outcast and renegade” (Cox 293).
As dramatist to the King’s Men, Shakespeare was officially in the king’s livery, but the increasing power of the Puritans must have threatened that status. As Ruth Nevo point out: “…we are not told why he is ‘out of service’” (121), but as he ends up in the service of the Clown, it is never clear that he is back in. This uncertainty reflects the status of Shakespeare as dramatist regarding his courtly patronage.
Autolycus. … I knew him once a servant of the prince. I cannot tell, good sir, for which of his virtues it was, but he was certainly whipped out of the court.
Clown. His vices, you would say. There’s no virtue whipped out of the court. They cherish it to make it stay there, and yet it will no more but abide. (IV.iii.82)
If Shakespeare’s art possesses virtues which can serve the culture and the interests of the state, it should, like Autolycus, be cherished to make it stay at court (which is where it wishes to reside in the service of the prince).
Autolycus. Vices, I would say, sir. I know this man well. He hath been since an ape-bearer, then a process-server, a bailiff. Then he compassed a motion of the Prodigal Son, and married a tinker’s wife within a mile where my land and living lies… (IV.iii.86)
Shakespeare here plays on the ambiguity of the Clown’s would as in mean to against Autolycus’s would as in wish I could. Autolycus knows this man well, as Shakespeare knows this man well, because it is he. Whether Shakespeare had ever been an “ape-bearer, then a process-server, a bailiff,” we don’t know (although, given accounts of his first job as holding horses at the door of the theater, at least the first seems possible). His drama of a rogue seeking a return to his prince’s favor might, however, be described as a motion of the Prodigal Son.
The discussion of his own status at court includes a reference to Shakespeare’s status as gentleman, granted presumably in recognition of his service to his patrons as poet and dramatist. Like the Clown, Shakespeare was a gentleman born before his father. Shakespeare’s father was granted a Coat of Arms in 1596 before the upheavals of the Essex rebellion and the succession seem to have alienated the playwright from English politics. In 1611, he is reminding the Jacobean state of services rendered to the Elizabethan in the face of Puritan charges of the immorality of the public theater. Having the title granted to his father in exchange for his own services gave the playwright a greater entitlement to the status of gentleman born, because, strictly speaking, he had the title by inheritance.
Of the discussion of the shepherd’s social position between Polixenes and Camillo, as with Prospero and Miranda, an autobiographical reading would suggest that the playwright is simultaneously seeking an advantageous match for his own daughter:
Polixenes. …he is seldom from the house of a most homely shepherd, a man, they say, that from very nothing, and beyond the imagination of his neighbors, is grown into an unspeakable estate.
Camillo. I have heard, sir, of such a man, who hath a daughter of most rare note. The report of her is extended more than can be thought to begin from such a cottage. (IV.ii.36)
It also implies a complaint in the fact that after “…advancing rapidly in the social scale [Autolycus finds himself]…now bowing and scraping to his former gull” (Knight 111).
More than to his nominal patron, King James, Autolycus seems to me to embody an appeal to Prince Henry to restore an earlier Elizabethan relationship between arts such as the public theater and the state with the imputation that such a relation might aid England’s return to its Elizabethan glories. Sokol says of Autolycus: “perhaps his joining the party of the outcast ‘Prince my master’ is best understood as an attempt of a small-time cheat to preserve his identity as a marginal figure at a time of momentous change” (Sokol 175). And there is indeed no reason given why he chooses to place himself in the prince’s rather than the king’s service:
Autolycus: …I am
courted now with a double occasion, gold and a means
to do the prince my master good; which who knows how
that may turn back to my advancement? (IV.iv.)
Surely the king would bring a better chance of advancement than a renegade prince “…about a piece of iniquity, stealing away from his father with his clog at his heels” (IV.iv.). Autolycus claims that if he “…thought it were a piece of honesty to acquaint the king withal, I would not do't: I hold it the more knavery to conceal it; and therein am I constant to my profession. (IV.iv.), but the status of his service to the “prince my master” remains conspicuously uncertain suggesting that it is an issue that must ultimately be settled by the prince.
Lee Cox sees “…behind the facade of the happy-go-lucky thief …a frightened man.… trembling when the rogue fears that his self-congratulation on an efficient picking and cutting of the festival purses has been overheard” (Cox 288). And, indeed, when the clown says of him that there is “not a more cowardly rogue in all Bohemia. If you had but looked big and spit at him, he’ld have run.” He confesses that “…I am no fighter. I am false of heart that way…” (IV.iii.100). This may be a confession of the fears attaching to the tenuous status of the artist during a period of cultural decline.
Nevertheless, despite his characterization by the clown he lives by far the more hazardous life of the two. To don a fake beard and peddle ballads to a man you have just robbed, especially for one who claims to be terrified of beating and hanging requires extraordinary courage. You might accuse the rogue or the artist of moral turpitude, but not of cowardice.
By the time of the Whitsuntide performance of The Winter's Tale in 1611 the customs surrounding seasonal festivities like the rural Bohemian sheep-shearing had changed remarkably little since the bronze age. While these popular practices had always been condemned by the Roman church which recognized them as rooted in religious paganism, they seem to have enjoyed almost universal popularity among the English people and the virtual sanction of the state through most of the Elizabethan age. By the period of the interregnum forty years after Elizabeth’s death, however, little remained of the ancient customary practices for the Puritans to repress. The late Elizabethan and Stuart reigns, therefore, represent a significant period in the decline of seasonal feasts and festivals in England, and it is this decline to which the extended festival sequence of The Winter's Tale primarily responds.
Recognizing the relationship between the polemical attacks on rural festivities which were leading to their demise and similar attacks on the public theater, Shakespeare mobilized the character of Autolycus as a rhetorical defense first of the virtues of the ancient customs themselves and then of the London theater companies who were in large part the heirs of those traditions. James’s Romanist tendencies had given rise to increasing Puritan dissent which recognized the roots of the public theater in the mystery plays successfully suppressed during the previous century.
The pageants which replaced the mystery plays in the rural districts were tailored to Puritan standards and began to resemble the purely laudatory rhetoric of the Stuart masques. One given in honor of Henry’s coronation as Prince of Wales in Chester in 1608, makes extensive references to Mercury which suggests that Autolycus may have been littered under Mercury by Shakespeare specifically to offer to Henry a better and more entertaining alternative to the dry flattery of the pageants and masques. Autolycus is that other son of Cyllene, the trickster and soul guide who changes black and white back and forth opportunistically in accordance with situations in which good and evil are inextricably mixed (Bieman 84).
The London theaters began their great flowering almost immediately after mysteries and miracles ceased to be performed in the country. This along with the fact that one in eight Londoners visited the theater every week suggests that, at least in the city, the public theater benefited from the cultural energy that had traditionally been invested in the seasonal performances.
By 1611, the rural festivals whether owing to Puritan interference or other causes had for the most part degraded to occasions for selling ale in order to raise taxes. If traditions that had survived for several centuries were so rapidly brought to an end, the functions that they had performed had to be transferred onto other structures and institutions. Just as the functions of earlier pagan rituals had at one time been transferred onto the Christian mystery and miracle plays, part of the function of the latter had been transferred to the public stage during the Elizabethan renaissance. Religious repression and lack of support from the state now began to threaten both the stage and the remnants of the festival simultaneously. Despite his impending retirement, Shakespeare is still as involved with these issues during the period of his romances as he had been at the height of his career. “…in Shakespeare’s last plays, festivity reassumes its original cathartic powers of reconciliation —or ‘recreation’, as Leontes puts it in The Winter’s Tale (III, ii, 239); for here it serves as a rite of passage between generations, a means of making the transition from the old world to the new” (Laroque 304).
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare played on the similarity between the festivities of May Day and those of Midsummer, deliberately confusing them as if they were more or less equivalent. He seems to have wanted to synthesize all these popular traditions, turning them into a single major festival, the midsummer one, which marked the transition into the pastoral period of summer. (Laroque 217)
Given the enormous self-referentiality in Shakespeare’s work, it may be, rather, that he is offering the theater performance itself as a candidate for this synthesis.
Autolycus as the principle of misrule in his cozening of “Honesty” and “Trust, his sworn brother,” although liable to charges of immorality, serves a vital function in the community: he provides a liminal figure according to which virtue and vice can be collectively and publicly defined and he provides the spice that the Chester pageant in honor of Prince Henry lacked.
That the festivities of The Winter's Tale are directed against a Puritan polemic is indicated by the comment of the Clown: “…She hath made me four and twenty nosegays for the shearers—three-man songmen all, and very good ones; but they are most of them means and bases, but one puritan amongst them, and he sings psalms to hornpipes (IV.iii.39).
Puritans being not real men but sopranos are incapable of grasping the spirit of festival misrule and will sing pious psalms to gay music, just as they will replace traditional festival sports with dull pageants.
I have suggested that the theaters were subjected by the Puritans to charges similar to those against festivals, “wakes, fairs and bear-baitings.” Plagues and riots traced to the theaters were taken as signs of God’s disfavor. Autolycus as a symbol of the public theater does not offer a denial of the vice surrounding it, but rather he represents the idea that a little vice in the name of misrule or of art is necessary to bring about greater virtues. The greater evil of a tyrannous king has been transmuted, in part through the actions of the rascal. Without his presence, the sheep-shearing feast dissolves into naked market relations, the May-game into a jealous competition for spouses and the Whitsuntide into a drunken tax collection. He stands prominently at the center of this play and out of his pack spill the tragedy of its first acts, the pastoral romance of its middle act and the comedy of its final act.
Emerging onto the stage after the onset of a cultural decline from the glories of the Elizabethan renaissance which would culminate in the revolution thirty years later,
Autolycus offers the promise of cultural regeneration through the rejection of Puritan principles and the return to state favor not of exclusive courtly masques but of the public theater where, as with the traditional seasonal festivals, all classes of society came together in a common experience of spectacle and ideas.
If Henry had not died the year following the performance of The Winter's Tale, Ben Jonson and his contemporaries may have seen Autolycus returned to true service to his prince and a new era of courtly patronage of the theater companies. Instead, Charles moved the tradition of festival entertainments increasingly within the precincts of the court for which only a small handful of artists were allowed to design the masques.
Puritan resentment of his displays of profligacy and paganism ultimately contributed to his overthrow, while popular resentment of being finally stripped of all their traditional sports and entertainments ultimately contributed to the overthrow by the commons of the Puritans in turn.
Autolycus’s role in aiding in the return of Perdita to Sicilia and thereby the reconciliation of the two kings and the recovery of Hermione makes reference to what Knight refers to as “…the eternity-dimension…some concept of spiritual royalty corresponding to Wordsworth’s in his Immortality ode with further political implications concerning the expansion of sovereignty among a people” (Knight 108). It is in this capacity that Autolycus is both used by the nobility for the good of the state while using the commoners for his own purposes. The expansion of sovereignty figured in the recovery of Perdita is to be affected through the adaptation of the principles of the seasonal festival through the theater to the changing culture.
As evidence of the intimate relationship between the festival and the public theater, many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries tried their hands at touching festival themes in the drama. Livingston sees in the power of true art to bring a woman out of a statue as opposed to the false art of the ballads which transmutes a woman into a fish, a “promise …that the play will image a truth beyond the appearances of this world and will renew nature” (351). If the drama is capable of working such miracles it will be through the “festivity which… rendered impotent or destroyed in the no man’s land of tragedy, miraculously re-emerges …in an atmosphere of freshness and innocence” (Laroque 199).
Magical though it seems, the festivity does not provide a complete cure for evil. “Nature, however strongly reaffirmed, cannot do without the helping hand of art … if the hope that flowered timidly during the festival is to take firm root in this wasteland, ravaged by jealousy and tyranny” (Laroque 218).
Polixenes defends the role of art against Perdita’s criticism in the analogy of the grafted flowers:
Polixenes. Wherefore, gentle maiden,
Do you neglect them?
Perdita. For I have heard it said
There is an art which in their piedness shares
With great creating nature.
Polixenes. Say there be;
Yet nature is made better by no mean
But nature makes that mean; …
…this is an art
Which does mend nature, change it rather, but
The art itself is nature. (IV.iv.62)
But this concept of art can extend beyond drama and poetry to take in religion and civilization itself (Knight 105). It is not just the Puritan repression of nature which must be checked, but a too strict purism in the respect of nature over art if a healthy English nation is to be constructed. In the little masquerade that allows Perdita and Florizel to escape on the ship to Bohemia, Autolycus allows himself to be directed by Camillo whose scheme he only pretends to understand. As a professional deceiver, the artist like the rogue is peculiarly suited to serve the nobility in certain capacities. In participating in the deception orchestrated by his masters he is only being constant to his profession.
Although the plot could function without him, like the public theater from London and the lord of misrule from the seasonal festival, Autolycus’s harmless sheep-shearing would be sorely missed if, in order to please the Puritans, Shakespeare had omitted him and allowed only that which was without bawdry onto the stage. In exchange for the spice he has added to our winter’s tale, we are tempted to forgive him a purse or two.
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