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SCENE SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
ACT III, SCENE 3
The scene is set near the seacoast of Bohemia. Antigonus, with the baby in his arms, asks the mariner if the ship has touched the deserts of Bohemia. The mariner replies that they have but they have landed at a very unfavorable time. The sky is gloomy and a storm is about to break out. Antigonus asks the mariner to get aboard the ship. He will join him soon. The mariner warns that Antigonus should make haste not only because the weather is rough but because the place is famous for beasts of prey. After the mariner's exit, Antigonus speaks gently to the baby. He says that he had a vision the previous night in which Hermione had appeared to him. She had said that since he is fated to be the person who is to cast the baby away as per his oath, he should name her Perdita and leave her on the Bohemian coast. For this cruel act (though thrust on him by Leontes), Antigonus is fated not to see his wife Paulina anymore.
Antigonus believes that Hermione is dead and that Apollo wanted the baby to be left in the kingdom of the baby's natural father, Polixenes. He tells the baby that she is to suffer for her mother's fault. He leaves the baby along with gold that may be used for her upbringing. The weather gets worse and a bear makes its entry. Antigonus runs for his life, chased by the bear.
A shepherd enters, complaining about adolescence. There should be no age, he proclaims, between ten and twenty three, or else youth should sleep through this period, as they do nothing but indulge in illegitimate sexual activity, offend old people, steal or fight. Now some young boys have frightened away two of his best sheep. The shepherd who is looking for the sheep finds the baby left by Antigonus. He picks up the baby, admiring how pretty it is. He is sure the baby is the product of some illegitimate love affair.
He is soon joined by his son, who is in fact a clown. The clown has seen two dreadful sights: one by the sea and the other by land. He has seen the shipwreck in the sea and also has seen a man called Antigonus devoured by a bear on land. The shepherd is sorry for the unfortunate man and says that while the son has met dying men, he himself has met a newborn baby. The shepherd is sure the baby is a changeling. They open the packet left by Antigonus and find gold in it. The shepherd is sure the gold has been left by the fairies. It has been predicted that he will be made rich by fairies. The clown and shepherd go to bury whatever is left of Antigonus, for it is a fortunate day and they must do noble things.
This scene marks the transition from the first half of the play to the second. The serious and the tragic gives way to levity, simplicity and comedy.
The scene begins with the rough sea and stormy weather, and Antigonus casting the new born away. His description of the vision he had of Hermione leads everyone to believe that Hermione must have really died. This in itself is ironic considering that the audience knows this to be true yet not for the reasons Antigonus thinks. It is unfortunate that Antigonus is bound by an oath to cast the child away and that he should believe Hermione to be guilty of adultery. He is the straight man, bound by duty and loyalty to the king. That he is killed after abandoning the child brings an element of poetic justice to the play, as does the drowning of the crew at sea. After he makes his exit pursued by a bear, only the baby is on the stage. This baby, the beautiful Princess Perdita who is lying as a helpless infant, is the one to bridge not only the two parts of the play, but the two friends Leontes and Polixenes and the two countries Sicilia and Bohemia. When the shepherd enters, the second half of the play begins.
Even the shipwreck and death of Antigonus are devoid of tragic intensity as they are narrated through the shepherd and the clown's exchanges. The clown says that the poor men in the ship had roared and the sea had mocked them. The nobleman Antigonus had roared and the bear had mocked him. The key lines of this scene which mark the transition are spoken by the shepherd:
"Now bless thyself. Thou met'st with things dying, I with things new born."
This reveals the central theme of the play, that of destruction and rebirth. Renewal takes place with the discovery of the baby. It is a lucky day for them as they have found a changeling with fairy gold. Rather than reading the sight of the baby as being just that, an abandoned child, the shepherd sees it in a fortuitous as well as supernatural light, casting the child and the money found as products of fairies. Just like Leontes developed his own illusion based on jealousy, so does the shepherd now see his discovery of the gold and the child as being a product of beings which don't exist: fairies. With their windfall, the two feel obligated to do good deeds and provide care for the child and a proper burial for Antigonus. On a structural note, the shipwreck and the death of Antigonus are dramatic necessities, if somewhat implausible coincidences to modern audiences. If they were to go back and report, the repentant Leontes would definitely have tried to bring back the baby to Sicilia. But Perdita has to grow up a shepherdess and there has to be a long period of repentance for Leontes.