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The Women of The Winter's Tale Pt. 2: Perdita

INTRO RECAP (skip this if you already read about Paulina): As I was starting to explore The Winter’s Tale, a couple of things really jumped out at me. One: haven’t we seen an awful lot of these characters and scenarios before? And two: can I think of another Shakespeare play with such purposefully powerful female characters? As our Artistic Director, Will, says – The Winter’s Tale may be Shakespeare’s first truly successful experimental piece. Pericles, which comes before, is “what everyone thinks of Shakespeare: it’s long, it’s boring, and nobody knows what’s going on.” And The Tempest, which comes after, might be one of the most perfect interweavings of comedy and drama.

There are echoes of ghosts of Shakespeare’s past in Paulina, Perdita, and Hermione – in how they identify themselves, and relate to Leontes (our…protagonist? Primary antagonist?). Yet the women of Winter’s Tale in so many ways seem to be more full crystallizations of some of those earlier characters. The Winter’s Tale feels like a mythic convergence of earlier themes, and there are clues throughout that it is an allegorical story set outside what we might consider reality. It’s a setting-in-stone kind of play (if you’ll pardon the pun).

There’s a lot to talk about there – for example, Time is personified as a character who introduces the second act – but I’m interested in exploring the central female characters and how they embody mythical statuses. In her book The Women of Will, Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Company points out that this play’s women “adhere to the ancient archetypes”: mother, virgin, witch. So that’s the framework I’m choosing to work through for this particular conversation.


Moving on to the wayward, banished Perdita – the virgin of the trio. She functions in a prodigal/redemptive daughter role for Leontes, perhaps similar to Marina in Pericles or Cordelia in King Lear. The Lear parallel interests me more, because many have suggested that Winter’s Tale may be Shakespeare’s response to the loss of his own child sixteen years prior, and it came on the heels of Lear. In both plays, a “mad king” exiles a daughter. In Lear:

Here I disclaim all my paternal care,

Propinquity and property of blood,

And as a stranger to my heart and me

Hold thee, from this, for ever.

(Lear, King Lear, I.i)

In The Winter’s Tale:

We enjoin thee,

As thou art liege-man to us, that thou carry

This female bastard hence and that thou bear it

To some remote and desert place quite out

Of our dominions, and that there thou leave it,

Without more mercy, to its own protection

And favour of the climate. As by strange fortune

It came to us, I do in justice charge thee,

On thy soul's peril and thy body's torture,

That thou commend it strangely to some place

Where chance may nurse or end it. Take it up.

(Leontes, The Winter’s Tale, II.iii)

Looking at these speeches side by side, the first thing that jumps out is Lear’s “I” versus Leontes’s “we.” Though they both deliver these speeches in front of a crowd, for Lear, the decision to cast Cordelia out is a personal one. He is speaking as a man and a father, not as a king, and he rejects emotional if not literal paternity. Leontes refuses to acknowledge any paternity or responsibility for his daughter, and employs the “royal we,” speaking as a king united with God. Perdita is an “it” rather than a “she.” As much as Lear is famous for his madness, Leontes’ madness feels like an escalation – the total lack of reason and personal connection is on a whole other level.

We see a similar contrast in form when the father-daughter pairs are reunited later in each play. The audience gets to witness Lear’s reunion with Cordelia:

Pray, do not mock me:

I am a very foolish fond old man,

Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less;

And, to deal plainly,

I fear I am not in my perfect mind.

Methinks I should know you, and know this man;

Yet I am doubtful for I am mainly ignorant

What place this is; and all the skill I have

Remembers not these garments; nor I know not

Where I did lodge last night. Do not laugh at me;

For, as I am a man, I think this lady

To be my child Cordelia.

(Lear, King Lear, IV.vii)

As well as their later rediscovered companionship:

No, no, no, no! Come, let's away to prison.

We two alone will sing like birds i' th' cage.

When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down

And ask of thee forgiveness. So we'll live,

And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh

At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues

Talk of court news; and we'll talk with them too-

Who loses and who wins; who's in, who's out-

And take upon 's the mystery of things,

As if we were God's spies; and we'll wear out,

In a wall'd prison, packs and sects of great ones

That ebb and flow by th' moon.

(Lear, King Lear, V.iii)

In The Winter’s Tale, we as an audience don’t get the privilege of witnessing Perdita and Leontes’ reunion. We hear about it from a passerby on the street:

Our king, being ready to leap out of

himself for joy of his found daughter, as if that

joy were now become a loss, cries 'O, thy mother,

thy mother!' then asks Bohemia forgiveness; then

embraces his son-in-law; then again worries he his

daughter with clipping her; now he thanks the old

shepherd, which stands by like a weather-bitten

conduit of many kings' reigns. I never heard of such

another encounter, which lames report to follow it

and undoes description to do it.

(Third Gentleman, The Winter’s Tale, V.ii)

As in the banishment scene, the experience is somewhat less personal. We hear about this pivotal moment from an insignificant character (no offense, Third Gentleman) in a chance meeting of people in public, passed along as gossip, playing “Telephone,” elevating the drama. It’s like a Greek chorus, or an oral history.

It’s also worth noting that, for Leontes, Perdita is only half the battle and half the redemption. In King Lear, the idea of girl and woman are both wrapped up in Cordelia, who is also a wife herself - indeed, the fact that she must also play the role of a wife is what prompts Lear’s initial rage:

Good my lord,

You have begot me, bred me, loved me: I

Return those duties back as are right fit,

Obey you, love you, and most honour you.

Why have my sisters husbands, if they say

They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,

That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry

Half my love with him, half my care and duty:

Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,

To love my father all.

(Cordelia, King Lear, I.i)

But Leontes has double the trouble, in two women: his madness and betrayal, and subsequently reunion and redemption, also concern his wife, Hermione.

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