A typical Elizabethan England comedian
Autolycus is a Greek name, but in the play. The Winter's Tale he is a typical Elizabethan England comedian. He has very little link with the play, and even if the character is deleted, it won't effect the play. He is a thief who earns his living by picking pockets of poor villagers and scoffs at honesty as a policy. He is introduced in the play in the fourth Act (Act IV) and is dragged on to Act V but with no important role.His purpose is to make people laugh by his clever machinations and songs. When the simpleton son of the shepherd-clown is going to the market to collect things for the sheep-shearing feast, he finds a person lying on the road (Act IV. Scene iii). As the clown approaches him he pretends that he has been robbed and beaten. The clown takes pity on him and helps him get up. During the process he picks his pocket. His art of stealing money from the clown creates laughter. He pretends that he can hardly stand and describes clown's effort as act of charity. The clown offers him money but he cleverly refuses for he knows that in the process the clown will come to know that his purse has been stolen. He gives out a false story that he has a kinsman about three quarters of a mile ahead. He will get money and other things from him. 'Please offer no money, it kills my heart'.
A timid person
The clown asks him if he knows the robber. He replies ‘Yes’ Once he served a prince, but he was turned out of the court for cheating. Then he became a process-server, a bailiff. Then he organised puppet shows on 'the' story of the Prodigal Son. Then he married a tinker's wife near his village. Having followed several shady professions, he ultimately became a merry rogue and came to be known as Autolycus. The clown calls him a shameful person, a thief who preys on rural gatherings at Church, fairs or dangerous games as that of a bear, in which a bear is harassed by dogs. He is a coward. He must have run away. Autolycus confesses that he is a timid person and no fighter. His heart sinks at the very idea of a fight. He knew that and so took advantage and left him in these rags. A funny story about himself, a small thief afraid of taking part in highway robberies, for in that case he could be caught and hanged. That is something he fears and so never robs rich persons—persons in high position. As the clown moves away, he decides that he will meet him again in his sheep-shearing feast. He will be a pedlar and enjoy picking pockets of the shepherds.
A good singer
Autolycus is a good singer and sings all types of songs to the taste of the listeners. He is introduced in the play with a song :
When daffodils begin to peer,
With heigh ! the doxy over the dale
Why, then comes in the sweet o' the year
For the redblood reigns in the winter pale.
The white sheet bleaching on the hedge !
With heigh ! the sweet bird, oh, how they sing
The lark, that tirra-lyra chants,
With heigh ! with heigh ! the thrush and the jay
Are summer songs for me and my aunt (sweet hearts)
While we lie tumbling in the hay.
The song ends with celebrating the summer by stealing the sheets and after selling them to buy a quart of ale.
In the sheep-shearing feast he enters as a pedlar singing about things which he sells; lawn as white as snow, cypress as black as crow, scented gloves as fine as damask roses, masks, bracelets, perfumes and undergarments for ladies, gifts for youngmen's sweet-hearts and so on. The clown loves Mopas, and so for her he purchases ribbons and gloves. Autolycus warns the clown about cheats roaming there. But the clown, assures him that he will not lose anything in the feast. Autolycus introduces to the clown and Mopas a few ballads with fairy tales.
Autolycus is very happy and laughs at honesty and praises a simpleton for his trustfulness. He has sold all his worthless goods. Customers crowded him and he could see their purses and so he enjoyed his pick-pocketing. It was real pity that in the middle King Polixenes frightens away the crowd otherwise he would have picked the pocket of each and everyone. He concludes from his venture that honesty and trustfulness go together and again laughs at them as loudly as he can.
Camillo helps Florizel and Perdita escape to Sicilia with a letter to King Leontes. They meet Autolycus in the way and Camillo asks Florizel to change his clothes with Autolycus. After that Florizel and Perdita board the ship and leave Bohemia for Sicilia. Autolycus thinks that here is an opportunity when a dishonest man can prosper. He has got good money for exchange of his clothes. The prince is fleeing with the girl, a dishonest business. 'If I thought it was a piece of honesty to acquaint the king withal I would not do't. I hold it to be more knavery to conceal it; and therein am 1 constant to my profession."
Soon he comes across the old shepherd and his son, badly stricken with fear of losing their lives because of Perdita's love with the prince and King Polixenes' threat to hang them. Autolycus poses as a courtier who can help them. He comes to know the truth that Perdita is not their daughter, and how she was found with a casket of jewels and gold. He befools them with his tricky brain and in the bargain gets gold from them. At the close of the Act IV he says, "If I had a mind to be honest, I see fortune would not suffer me : she drops booty in my mouth." He has got gold and also the opportunity to help his prince. All god-send not his effort. He can take the two to the ship and inform the prince about the truth. He decides that if they call him rogue, it is quite immaterial. But 'To him will I present them, there may be matter (something important) in it."
Autolycus turns to be honest and respectful
In scene ii, Act V, Autolycus, perchance meets the gentleman, who knows the truth about Perdita. He narrates the whole story to the prince in the ship, how Perdita was born in prison. She was Hermione's daughter. She was taken to the King by Paulina but the King took her to be a bastard and asked Antigonus, Paulina's husband to throw the child to die by the rigours of the climate at some far off place. Antigonus brought the infant to an inhospitable place on the coast of Bohemia. The infant was picked up by the shepherd, but all those involved with crime, Antigonus, and sailors perished by Apollo's will. Autolycus, knowing the truth becomes honest and respectful to the shepherd and his son, the clown and introduces them to King Leontes. Clown promises him, "Give me thy hand. I will swear to the prince thou art and as honest a true fellow as any is in Bohemia."