Autolycus, whose name means “loan wolf,” is a con artist who roams around the Bohemian countryside taking advantage of any poor sap he happens to come across. This guy will do anything to make a buck and he’s really good at his job. (We think he gives Herman Melville’s “Confidence Man” a serious run for his money.) Autolycus also happens to be a pretty likeable character, partly because he’s so good at his job and partly because he’s so straight forward and, well, honest (with the audience anyway) about his scheming ways. He’s also pretty entertaining – his lying and cheating is interspersed with singing and dancing that helps inject Act 4 with a festive spirit befitting a Shakespearean “comedy” (check out “Genre” if you want to know more about the play’s generic categories).
Autolycus’s knack for entertaining and pleasing the audience brings us to our next point, which is that Autolycus’s tendency toward theatricality and disguise makes him seem a whole lot like a professional actor. In Shakespeare’s day, professional actors often went on tour (like the travelling players that show up at a certain Danish Prince’s doorstep in Hamlet).
When we first meet him, Autolycus dramatically flings himself to the ground and relates a fabricated story about being robbed of all his clothing (all for the sake of picking the pockets of the country bumpkin Clown). Soon after, Autolycus shows up at the sheep-shearing feast disguised as an ordinary peddler (a guy who roams around selling an assortment of stuff). After unloading his junk on the festival-goers, Autolycus (who is now wearing the Prince Florizel’s clothing) then pretends to be a helpful nobleman, scamming the Old Shepherd in order to help Prince Florizel escape to Sicily. (We should keep in mind that his attempts to aid Florizel are also self-serving, since he’s ultimately hoping to get in good with the Prince, who is in a position to reward Autolycus.) We can’t help but notice all the “costume changes” and dramatic acting that goes down when Autolycus is on the scene. Is Shakespeare suggesting that professional actors (like himself) aren’t much different from common grifters like Autolycus?
Shakespeare’s Autolycus may offer some socio-political commentary where we least expect it. Literary critics often point out that Autolycus resembles the “masterless men,” of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England – the impoverished and homeless guys who bummed around the countryside. These men were reputed for pretending to be disabled and/or mentally ill so they could beg for food and cash. (Like “Poor Tom” in King Lear.)
What’s interesting is that historians tend to attribute the high numbers of such “masterless men” to the increasing enclosure of land in the countryside. As land was closed off for the purpose of grazing livestock (like sheep), there was less land for communal farming purposes, which put guys like Autolycus out on the “streets” with no means of supporting themselves and/or their families.
Why does this matter? Well, Autolycus’s social position is a contrast to that of the Old Shepherd, who is wealthy (from the bundle of gold he found with Baby Perdita and also because he’s a successful shepherd). While Autolycus wanders around scrapping for food and money, the Old Shepherd and his family live the good life, so to speak, partying it up at the sheep-shearing feast and spending money to entertain their friends.
In the play, Autolycus brags that he’s named after the mythological figure of the same name (4.3.1). In mythology, Autolycus (sometimes spelled Autolykos) is the son of Mercury (a.k.a. the Greek god Hermes). In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Autolycus inherits his father’s (Mercury’s) traits of trickery. (No surprise here – Ovid’s Metamorphoses is a major literary source for The Winter’s Tale.) We should also point out that, in Homer’s Odyssey, Autolycus is the grandfather of Odysseus, who also happens to be quite cunning.