Father time, speaking as the play’s chorus, sets up the stage for Act IV.
Sixteen years have passed, and during that time Leontes has been in seclusion, doing penance for the mess he had made. Polixenes’ son, Prince Florizel who is of the similar age to the late Mamillius, is now all grown up and fit to be a king. Conversely, Perdita (so named by Hermione) who has been raised as a shepherd’s daughter in Bohemia, is now, for all intents and purposes, a young woman.
As he has spent the last fifteen years of his life in virtual exile in Bohemia, Camillo tells Polixenes of his desire to return to Sicilia. Polixenes dissuades Camillo, however, arguing that it would’ve been better if Camillo had not come Bohemia at all than for him to leave now all of a sudden and deprive Polixenes of Camillo’s invaluable service. Presently, Polixenes wants to know precisely why his son, Prince Florizel, is spending so much of his time in the company of a shepherd’s daughter and would like Camillo to help him find out. Camillo agrees to help, meaning that he will stay in Bohemia.
Autolycus, a rogue, laments his present state of penury the cause of which is Prince Florizel whom he used to serve. Since Prince Florizel’s chronic absence from Polixenes’ court, Autolycus has earned his living by stealing trifles. Presently, he sees an opportunity to increase his revenue.
The Shepherd’s son, the Clown, is on his way to the market to buy food for a sheep-shearing feast. Thus, the Clown is reviewing the items to be bought and computing their net price in his head when he comes across Autolycus who is rolling about on the ground and pretending to be the victim of a robbery. As the Clown helps Autolycus to his feet, Autolycus pickpockets the Clown. When the Clown questions Autolycus about what had happened, Autolycus says that he was robbed by Prince Florizel’s former servant, Autolycus. The Clown avers that he knows Autolycus and confirms him as a thief and a rogue. Feeling sorry for the victim, the Clown offers him some money, but Autolycus assures the Clown that he has a kinsman who lives nearby to whom he can apply for assistance. And thus they part.
Despite Perdita who would rather that she and Florizel break off their engagement and Florizel return to his rightful place in Polixenes’ royal court, Florizel means to marry Perdita even if it means keeping the matter a secret from his father, Polixenes, and having the old Shepherd believe that Florizel is Doricles, a fellow shepherd.
Presently, guests arrive to the old Shepherd’s sheep farm as today is the sheep-shearing feast. Perdita is exhorted by her putative father (the old Shepherd) to greet his guests which include Polixenes and Camillo who are both incognito. Being virtuous as well as beautiful, Perdita welcomes her guests who sing her praises, making a point of how her qualities seem to belie and exceed her humble status. As dancing begins with Florizel taking Perdita as his partner, Autolycus, who is taken for an accomplished musician, is admitted for the purpose of providing entertainment. However, Autolycus takes advantage of his admittance to sell counterfeit trinkets, accessories, and sheet music of ballads.
Meanwhile, Polixenes manages to pull Florizel away from his dancing and engages him. He asks why Florizel doesn’t buy Perdita trinkets and accessories as the Clown has done for his sweetheart, Mopsa. Florizel replies that Perdita doesn’t value trifles. Indeed, Florizel boasts that Perdita is so above trifles that he would have emperors serve and kneel to her. By and by, the old Shepherd announces Doricles’ and Perdita’s marriage ceremony. Before the Shepherd could get on with it, however, Polixenes questions Doricles if his father knows of his rash decision and when told ‘no’ tries to dissuade Doricles from going ahead and getting married. When Doricles stands by his decision and urges the ceremony to proceed, Polixenes reveals his true identity. Thus, King Polixenes censures the Shepherd, Perdita, and his son, threatening the Shepherd with immediate death, Perdita with physical disfigurement, and his son with denial of his inheritance.
With an ‘I told you so’, Perdita counsels Florizel to forget about their intended marriage and to return to his rightful place. But Florizel will have none of it. Indeed, he will elope with Perdita, and to that end he urges Camillo to do what he can to appease the King when news of their elopement becomes known. Camillo tries to dissuade Florizel, but seeing how determined the young man is, Camillo decides to help on the off chance that it might pave the way for his--Camillo’s--return to Sicilia. Camillo’a plan is this: that Florizel go to Sicilia and there present himself and Perdita as Bohemia’s newly wed Prince and Princess. Camillo is certain that Leontes, who is eager to be reconciled with Polixenes, will welcome Florizel and Perdita who will explain their arrival as Polixenes’ gesture of reconcilement by proxy. In time, when Polixenes discovers that Florizel and Perdita have eloped to Sicilia, Camillo is hopeful that he will part of the Bohemian embassy that will be deployed to Sicilia.
By and by, Florizel and Perdita are about to board the ship to Sicilia when Camillo, spotting Autolycus, has him exchange his clothes with Florizel’s. Thus dressed in Florizel’s clothes, Autolycus is primed for more mischief. (He intends to tell Polixenes of Florizel‘s and Perdita‘s elopement to Sicilia). Indeed, he pretends to be a courtier in the Polixenes’ service when he discovers that the old Shepherd and his son, the Clown, are on their way to see the King. By pretending to be the Shepherd’s and the Clown’s advocate, Autolycus will have an excuse to appear before Polixenes to whom he will disclose his having switched his clothes with Florizel and what that portended (for which he anticipates a handsome reward).