The Queen of Curds and Cream

The Winter’s Tale, Act IV: Scenes 1-4

Scene 4 is a killer. It runs 30 pages in my text and all but knocked me for a loop. Gone went those well-intentioned, afore-mentioned plans to finish before midnight. Gone went all hope of shutting the Shakespeare window off in my head for the night.

I read somewhere that the pastoral nature of the setting has wavered wildly in audiences’s tastes. I confess it had a certain rustic charm to it, and a lovely pre-Romeo romantic streak going on (and on and on). But OMG, Neil Young, it isn’t just rust that never sleeps.

I won’t recount it all here. I couldn’t. I wont! In the name off all that’s humane and decent, and for the love of Cliff’s Notes I’m cutting to the chase — if I can — but I would say this:

It’s now sixteen years later. We learn this from the character of Time himself, who apologizes for this blatant plot contrivance. Shakespeare knows by doing this he is breaking up one of Aristotle’s principle unities. He gets away with it by being so obvious that you have to chortle at the sheer chutzpah.

Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, wonders what keeps distracting his son in yonder fields. He hatches a plan with Camillo, who still dutifully serves him these long years, to get in disguise (oh, no!) and find out what’s what.

Florizel, said King of Bohemia’s son, has unwittingly met and fallen head-over-heels for the King of Sicily’s daughter, Perdita, by fate and/or circumstance. (The young man’s hawk flew far afield, and in fetching it, he found the fetching lass instead.)

Camillo, for his part, would sooner be back in Sicily, for he misses his homeland and wishes to patch things up with the grieving Leontes. But he’s so valuable to Polixenes that the king convinces him to stay (file this away for future reference).

Meanwhile (hsssssssssssss) a lowlife catpurse enters the story. Seems the lowly shepherd made good with the cash that was left with lovely Perdita as a babe, and now his fields are thriving. A fall festival is in the works, but in the midst of the planning, the thief has robbed the shepherd of his cash and swapped duds.

For reasons unknown and taxing, the thief, Autolycus, will play a prominent role in much that follows, seemingly just to gum up the plotworks and expand scenes to the brink of boredom and confusion. But I rant.

At the feast, we feast our eyes upon the goodly maiden, who by all accounts seems beyond her station in life. Thus, the quote you find above: she is the queen of curds and cream — certainly in the heart of young Florizel, who swoons whenever she is nearby.

All is proceeding rather swimingly until (dun dun duh!) the king and Camillo show up in disguise. Why his own son doesn’t recognize him is just one of those things you have to let go. Disguises must have been darn convincing them days, or else audiences had to accept the contrivance as a given. “Suspend your disbelief all ye who enter here.”

Fair enough.

The plot thickens when Florizel speaks of his intentions to marry Perdita no matter what his father thinks. In true Salieri fashion (the man’s been slandered, I know, I know), the father implores his son to reveal to his father (himself) how he feels about the lassie. When the son says no way, Jose… the proverbial manure hits the overmatched fan.

Father goes ballistic. In my notes, I see a circular pattern here: he’s making the same mistake Leontes made sixteen years earlier. Has he not read Hamlet? Does he not know that Horatio is the model for how to behave? ( I jest.)

The kid’s called back to the palace and his actual life, warned that if he persists in this dalliance he shall be disinherited. The daughter is chastised as an enchanting and beguiling wench who had best keep her hatches battoned. And the old man fears the noose. Cue the pumpkin and the fairy godmother and we’re good to go.

But wait, there’s more!

(Groan, sigh, wince.)

The catpurse has infiltrated the affair and swindled the innocent partygoers of their trusting moneypouches. Nary a codpiece is safe from his conniving. You can almost hear him chortle: “There’s a sucker born every minute!”

Which is just about what he says after the party clears on orders of the king. He’s counting his cash, laughing at the gullibility of the masses, when lo and behold, he gets to hear all the plans that are being made “in secret.”

Florizel has determined to jettison his future royalty and elope with the goddess of the prairie. Camillo swears to help him come up with a decent plan, something better than, “We’re setting out, I know not where.” (My words, not Shaky’s. Can you tell?)

Camillo though — wouldn’t you know — has designs all his own. (Now is the time to remember what I told you to earlier.) He will rat out the prince’s plans to the king, only so that he himself may be assigned to bring the wanton youngling back. Camillo knows whom he serves… for he serves himself (though it could be argued that he does not know himself. Aha, very clever, Grasshopper!)

Now, if this isn’t confusing enough, the nice, do-good shepherd and his son, called The Clown in my text for some reason, concocts their own scheme for saving their own gooses. That plan? To reveal to the king that the fair maiden is indeed adopted. The ol’ Get Smart we-don’t-know-how-she-got-here-but-she-did. The thinking is this: if she’s not the shepherd’s true daughter, then the king should not take offense at the wandering lust of his son. Therefore, the geese should live to fight (or flight) another day.

Ah, but wait… there’s more. I know, I know. I’m wanting to turn the channel too. But here goes.

Autocylus, that darned thief, just happens to be in the right place at the right time again. Not only did he overhear the prince’s plans (and swap clothes again, thanks Camillo), but now he catches up with the shepherd and clown — just to see if he can work a little more of that swindler’s magic. For some reason, he wants to see that the prince sets off with the hot shepherd girl who really isn’t a shepherd girl. Call it the Romantic in him. But he’s not above manipulating the situation to extract as much gold for himself as he can.

Exhausted? So am I.



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