As Camillo and Polixenes were preparing for their surreptitious visit the Bohemian countryside, a local rascal, Autolycus, was in the vicinity of the Old Shepherd's estate, and up to no good. On the country paths Autolycus passed the time by singing and chatting away to himself.
"When daffodils begin to appear,
With hey, the maid 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 hey, the sweet birds, oh, how they sing!
Does set my pilfering tooth on edge,
For a quart of ale is a dish for a king.
“The lark, that tirra-lirra chants,
With hey, with hey, the thrush and the jay,
Are summer songs for me and my girls,
While we lie tumbling in the hay.
“I have served Prince Florizel and in my time wore fine garments, but I’ve been sacked!
“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 for me what's 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.
“I deal only in linen sheets. My father named me Autolycus, after the son of Mercury, patron of pickpockets, Dad was also a -how shall I put it?- a connoisseur of pockets, those full of neglected coins. Gambling and women got me into this state and now my earnings are a few opportune tricks. A hanging and a beating are too daunting a prospect to make me a highwayman! The future, who cares! Ah ha, here comes a hapless victim!"
The Old Shepherd's son, Clown, was dilly-dallying along the path.
"Let me see now. Every sheep produces 28 lbs. of wool, fifteen hundred shorn, so twenty-one shillings per sheep is... Oh, how much?" Clown said to himself, perplexed by the arithmetic.
"If the trap works the birdy is mine...." Autolycus said to himself.
"Oh, I need my abacus! Let me see, what was I to buy for our sheep-shearing feast? Three pounds of sugar, five pound of currants, rice- what will this sister of mine do with rice? Oh, but my father has made her mistress of the feast, and she decides what's what. She has made me get twenty-four nosegays for the shearers. They are all good singers, tenor, baritone, bass and only one of those dreary Puritans. I must have saffron to colour the warden pies; mace; dates- no, she's crossed that off; nutmegs, seven; one or two ginger roots, but that I may beg; four pound of prunes, and four pounds of dried raisins."
Autolycus was now lying in wait for his victim, literally. He was sprawled on the ground groaning.
"Oh, that ever I was born!"
"In the name of me-" Clown exclaimed.
"Oh, help me, help me! Pull off these rags and let me die I tell you, die!"
"Oh, poor soul! You need more clothes, not less."
"Oh sir, the loathsomeness of them offends me more than the punches I have received, which were mighty and many."
"Alas, poor man! A million punches may come to a great matter."
"I've been robbed, sir, and beaten. My money and apparel taken from me, and these detestable things left for me to wear."
"What, by a highwayman, or was he on foot?"
"Foot, sweet sir, on foot."
"Indeed, he must have been a common mugger, anyone who could afford a horse would have been able to afford a better coat than this,” Clown declared on seeing Autolycus’ garment. “Give me your hand and I’ll help you. Quick, your hand."
Clown was exceeding Autolycus’ most optimistic expectations.
"Oh, good sir, tenderly," Autolycus squealed. "Oh, the pain!"
"Alas, poor soul!"
"Oh, good sir, softly, good sir! I fear, sir, my shoulder has been dislocated."
"Can you stand?"
Autolycus was bent over with his hand round Clown's waist. Slowly Autolycus’ hand slipped into Clown's jacket pocket. Autolycus groaned and grunted in agony and his fingers clutched at Clown's money.
"Softly, dear sir," Autolycus whimpered. "Good sir, slowly, slowly. You have done something truly charitable today."
"Do you have any money? I can give you a little money."
"No!" Autolycus said in a high pitched squeal. "Good sir, no. I beg you. I have a kinsman not three quarters of a mile from here. It was to him I was going when this happened. There I shall find money, or anything I need. Don't offer me money, please. It would only embarrass me."
"What type of fellow was he who robbed you?"
"A fellow, sir, that I have known to go about with harlots. I recognised him, he was once a servant of the Prince. I cannot tell, good sir, for which of his virtues it was, but he was certainly whipped out of the court," Autolycus said.
"His vices, you mean, virtue never got anybody sacked from court. They make a big to-do over vice but virtue doesn't stay put for long."
"Vices, I should say, sir. I know this man well. Since being sacked he has been a showman, complete with monkey. Then he was a bailiff, then he joined a religious puppet show! Finally, he married a tinker's wife within a mile of my own land. Having tried just about every job under the sun he's now content being a rogue. I have heard some call him Autolycus."
"Oh, him! A thief, just a thief! He haunts fairs and festivals!"
"Very true, sir, that’s him," Autolycus nodded smugly. "Him, sir, him. That's the rogue whom has put me into this apparel."
"There’s not a more cowardly rogue in all Bohemia. If you had but looked big and fought back, he would have ran."
"I must confess to you, I am no fighter. I am nervous in that way. And he knew it, I'll bet."
"How are you now?"
"Sir, much better than I was. I can stand and walk. I will even take my leave of you, and walk slowly to my kinsman."
"Shall I go with you?
"No, kind man. No, no, no."
"Then goodbye and take care. I must go buy spices for our sheep-shearing."
"Prosperity to you, kind man!" Autolycus said as he waved Clown off.
Autolycus smiled to himself with delight.
"Your purse is not hot enough to purchase your spices," Autolycus muttered to himself as Clown wandered off. "I'll be with you at your sheep-shearing party too. If I don't capitalise on this mischief at the feast then let me be barred from the criminal class and enrolled in a school of virtue!
“Jog on, jog on, the foot-path way,
And merrily jump the stile-a:
A merry heart goes all the day,
Your sad heart tires in a mile-a."