David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s THE WINTER’S TALE: A Retelling in Prose — Act 4, Scene 3

 — 4.3 —

Autolycus, a scamp who lacked morals, sang on a road near the shepherd’s cottage. Autolycus was thoroughly selfish, but he was not below occasionally doing a good deed, as long as it happened by accident.

Autolycus sang, “When daffodils begin to appear,

With heigh! The doxy over the dale,

Why, then comes in the sweet of the year;

For the red blood reigns in the winter’s pale.

The white sheet bleaching on the hedge —

With heigh, the sweet birds, oh, how they sing! —

Does set my thievish tooth on edge;

For a quart of ale is a dish fit for a King.

The lark, that tirra-lyra chants,

With heigh! With heigh! The thrush and the jay,

Are summer songs for me and my aunts,

While we lie tumbling in the hay.”

Autolycus was singing about the arrival of spring, flowers, and songbirds. He was also singing about some of his major concerns in life: women and thievery. A doxy is a beggar woman, who is also often the girlfriend of a beggar. By “aunts,” Autolycus meant “prostitutes.” Because it was spring, housewives were doing laundry and leaving their sheets outside to dry. As a thief, Autolycus was on the lookout for sheets so he could steal them, sell them, and buy ale.

Autolycus said, “I have served Prince Florizel, and in my time I have worn the very best velvet clothing, but now I am out of service — I have no position.”

He sang, “But shall I go mourn for that, my dear?

The pale Moon shines by night:

And when I wander here and there,

I then do most go right.

If tinkers may have leave to live,

And bear the sow-skin budget,

Then my account I well may give,

And in the stocks avouch it.”

As a wandering thief, Autolycus believed that all roads led the right way. It did not matter to him where he went. But he was concerned about being punished for being a vagabond and a thief, one punishment for which was being put in the stocks. The stocks immobilized the thief’s hands and/or feet, and if someone in the crowd, such as one of the thief’s victims, wanted, he or she could torment the thief. Autolycus, however, planned to claim that he was a wandering tinker. He would carry a pigskin budget, aka bag, of the kind that tinkers used to carry their tools. Of course, Autolycus hoped to keep his bag filled with stolen loot.

Autolycus said, “My trade is sheets; I steal them and sell them. When the kite builds a nest in the spring, housewives need to look after their lesser linen because these birds will steal small pieces of linen and use them to line their nests. My father named me Autolycus. Being, as I am, littered when the planet Mercury was ascendant, according to the astrologers, my father was likewise a snapper-up of trifles that housewives did not carefully enough watch.”

Autolycus knew that he had a good name for the kind of person he was. The pagan god Mercury was the patron god of thieves, and with a mortal woman named Chinoe, he had fathered a child named Autolycus, who like his father, Mercury, was a skilled thief.

Autolycus continued, “With die and drab I purchased this caparison. In other words, with gambling and whores, I ‘purchased’ this outfit of rags that I am wearing. My main source of revenue is the silly cheat, aka petty thievery. Gallows and hard knocks are too powerful on the highway: Being beaten and/or hanged is a terror to me, and I hope to escape being punished for petty thievery — let the officers of the law pursue those who commit grand thievery! As for the life to come, I sleep and do not think about it.”

Seeing Clown, the old shepherd’s son, walking toward him, Autolycus said to himself, “A prize! A prize!”

A pirate seeing a ship that he could rob would also say, “A prize! A prize!”

Clown was trying to figure out how much money his father would make during the forthcoming sheep shearing: “Let me see. Every eleven sheep yield a tod of wool: about 28 pounds. Every tod yields one pound and odd shillings; fifteen hundred sheep will be shorn. What total will the sale of the wool come to?”

Autolycus said to himself, “If the trap works, the woodcock’s mine.”

A woodcock is a proverbially stupid bird that is easily caught in a trap.

Clown said, “I cannot do it without counting-disks. Let me see. What am I to buy for our sheep-shearing feast? Let me read my list. Three pounds of sugar, five pounds of currants, rice — what will this sister of mine, Perdita, do with rice? But my father has made her mistress of the feast, and she makes the most of it. She has made twenty-four nosegays for the shearers. All of them sing parts in songs that are written for three men, and they are very good singers, but most of them are tenors and basses and cannot sing treble. Only one Puritan is among them, and he sings psalms to the gay music of hornpipes. I must have saffron to color the pear pies, and mace, which is a spice. How many dates? None, dates are not on my list. Seven nutmegs; a root or two of ginger, but that I may ask for as a favor; four pounds of prunes, and as many pounds of sun-ripened raisins.”

Autolycus set his trap. He lay on the ground and acted as if he had been beaten and was in pain.

He cried, “I am sorry that I was ever born!”

Clown said, “In the name of me —”

He may have been about to say, “In the name of mercy.”

“Oh, help me, help me!” Autolycus said. “Pluck these rags off my body and then let me die, die!”

“Alas, poor soul!” Clown said. “You need more rags to put on you, rather than have these rags taken off.”

“Sir, the loathsomeness of these rags offends me more than the stripes I have received from being beaten; the stripes are mighty ones and in the millions.”

“Alas, poor man!” Clown said. “A million stripes from being beaten is rather a lot of stripes.”

“I have been robbed, sir, and beaten; my money and apparel have been taken from me, and these detestable rags were put upon me.”

“Who did it?” Clown asked. “A robber on horseback, or on foot?”

“He was on foot, sweet sir; he was a footman.”

“I can believe that,” Clown said, “because of the garments he has left with you. Anyone who can afford a horse can afford better clothing than this. If this is a horseman’s coat you are wearing, it has seen very hot service in battle. Give me your hand. I’ll help you up. Come, give me your hand.”

“Good sir, gently help me up,” Autolycus said. “I am in pain.”

“Alas, poor soul!”

“Oh, good sir, gently, good sir! I fear, sir, my shoulder blade has been dislocated.”

“How are you?” Clown asked. “Can you stand now?”

Autolycus said while picking Clown’s pocket, “Gently, dear sir; good sir, gently. You have done me a charitable deed.”

Clown asked, “Do you need any money? I have a little money that I can give you.”

Autolycus, who did not want Clown to reach for his money and find that it was missing, replied, “No, good sweet sir; no, but thank you, sir. I have a kinsman not more than three quarters of a mile from here, to whom I was going. I shall there have money, or anything I want. Don’t give me any money, please; that would kill my heart.”

“What kind of fellow was he who robbed you?”

“He was a fellow, sir, whom I have known to go about with troll-my-dames, a game that women often play and gamble on. I know that he was once a servant of Prince Florizel. I cannot tell, good sir, for which of his virtues it was, but he was certainly whipped out of the court.”

Clown said, “His vices, you should say; no virtues are whipped out of the court. People at court cherish virtues and want them to stay, and yet virtues stay only a short time before leaving.”

“In the case of this man, ‘vices’ is the right word, I would say, sir,” Autolycus said, “I know this man well. He has been in the past a traveling showman with a monkey, and then he was a process-server, aka a bailiff, and then he traveled with a puppet show that told the story of the Prodigal Son, and then he married a tinker’s wife within a mile of where my land and living lie. Finally, having tried his hand at many knavish professions, he settled on being only a rogue. Some call him Autolycus.”

“Damn him!” Clown said. “He is a thief, I declare by my life — he is a thief! He haunts rural festivals, fairs, and bear baitings; those are the places he commits his crimes.”

“That is very true, sir,” Autolycus said. “He is the rogue who put me in these rags.”

“There is not a more cowardly rogue in all Bohemia,” Clown said. “If you had only looked mean and spit at him, he would have run.”

“I must confess to you, sir, that I am no fighter,” Autolycus said. “I am false of heart that way, and I bet that he knew it.”

“How are you now?”

“Sweet sir, much better than I was; I can stand and walk. I will now take my leave of you, and walk slowly towards my kinsman’s.”

“Do you want me to walk with you there?” Clown asked.

“No, good-faced sir; no, sweet sir.”

“Then may you fare well,” Clown said. “I must go buy spices for our sheep-shearing feast.”

“May God make you prosper, sweet sir!”

Clown departed.

Autolycus said to himself, “Your purse is not hot enough for you to purchase your spices. Money is not burning a hole in your pocket because now you have no money. I’ll be with you at your sheep shearing, too. If I cannot make this trick lead me to another, and if the shearers do not prove to be my sheep, let my name be taken out of the roll of thieves and put in the book of virtue!”

He sang, “Jog on, jog on, the footpath way,

And merrily jump the stile-a:

A merry heart goes all the day,

A sad heart tires in a mile-a.”

***

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

***

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