Perdita, the lost one

The name ‘Perdita' means ‘she who has been lost', and in this way – especially as she is brought up among shepherds – she would certainly have reminded the Shakespearean audience of the parables which Jesus told about ‘finding that which is lost', including the lost sheep.

‘What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?'AV Luke 15:4

However, in the parable the lost sheep represents a sinner: but it is Leontes, not Perdita, who will remain ‘in the wilderness' ‘if that which is lost be not found'.

In all the Last Plays of Shakespeare (The Winter's Tale, The Tempest, Cymbeline and Pericles), there are lost children who represent a loss of innocence, and whose finding both brings about and symbolises spiritual renewal in the older generation.

Who calls her ‘Perdita' and with what effect?

Given that it is a Romance Play (See: Introduction) when watching the action of The Winter's Tale in the theatre, the audience will probably not notice logical inconsistencies – especially if there is an internal consistency within the drama. Perdita's name is an example of this. She is first called ‘Perdita' by Antigonus, as he leaves her on the shores of Bohemia, having been given the name in a vision of Hermione:

‘There weep and leave it crying: and, for the babe
Is counted lost for ever, Perdita,
I prithee, call't'

Antigonus is then killed by a wild bear, without telling anyone else the baby's name. Nevertheless, when we next meet her, sixteen years later (in IV.iv) Florizel calls her ‘dearest Perdita'. Realistically, it would of course be most unlikely that a shepherd would choose a Latinate name- and the same one as Antigonus received in a vision. But dramatically it is important for the audience to know that this is the lost princess. As references abound to her grace and innate nobility, the audience can perceive all the implications, nuances and ironies of which the characters are unaware.

Perdita and Proserpina

When Perdita (her real identity still unknown) arrives in Leontes' court in Act V, sc i, he greets her (and Florizel) with:

‘Welcome hither,
As is the spring to the earth.'

These words echo the idea from Act IV, sc ivthat Perdita speaks of when wishing for spring flowers:

‘I would I had some flowers o' th' spring, that might
Become your time of day; ….
O Proserpina ,
For the flowers now that, frighted, thou let'st fall
From Dis's waggon!'

The myth that Perdita is speaking of is one that grew up to explain the seasons; Proserpina (or Persephone), daughter of the goddess of the harvest, Ceres, was snatched from the earth by the god of the underworld, and eventually had to stay there for six months of each year. For the other six months she came up from the underworld, and there was rejoicing and renewed growth. Perdita herself is an image of spring coming back to the winter of Leontes' court, and bringing renewal and regeneration.

Perdita's purity

  • Although there is no doubt that Perdita feels passionate love for Florizel – she is quite willing to admit publicly that she would like to strew flowers over Florizel ‘like a bank for love to lie and play on' and she knows that he desires ‘to breed by me' – she is also a model of modesty and chastity
  • She even refuses to plant flowers which may owe their colouring to ‘unnatural' methods of propagation
  • While the other shepherdesses desire ribbons, she feels it is wrong for her to be ‘prank'd up' and might ‘swoon… To show myself a glass', and she warns her ‘brother' that the peddler (Autolycus) must ‘use no scurrilous words in's tunes.'
  • She knows that Florizel too is honourable: neither of them thinks of a relationship outside marriage. She tells her adoptive father:
‘By th' pattern of mine own thoughts I cut out / The purity of his'.
  • In this she is a reflection of her mother, and Perdita's repudiation of
‘streak'd gillyvors, / Which some call nature's bastards',

reminds us of Hermione's repudiation of Leontes' wicked accusations, and of his rejection of his daughter as a ‘bastard'.

Perdita as daughter of her parents

Perdita's appearance

  • Perdita is the child of both Hermione and Leontes. She also has, at least as a baby, her father's looks. When Paulina brings the infant Perdita to her father (in Act II, sc iii) she points out the resemblances:
‘Behold, my lords,
Although the print be little, the whole matter
And copy of the father: eye, nose, lip;
The trick of's frown; his forehead; nay, the valley,
The pretty dimples of his chin and cheek; his smiles;
The very mould and frame of hand, nail, finger'.
  • However, Perdita must also resemble Hermione, for when she arrives at Leontes' court (in Act V, sc i) and he admires her beauty, he tells Paulina that when he looked at Perdita he thought of his dead queen.

Perdita's personality

  • Perdita has inherited not only her mother's looks, and her purity, but also her mother's courage and strength when meeting adversity.
  • In the face of Polixenes' threats (Act IV, sc iv) and what she assumes must be the end of her betrothal, she shows a dignity beyond her years:
‘I was not much afeard; for once or twice
I was about to speak, and tell him plainly,
The selfsame sun that shines upon his court
Hides not his visage from our cottage, but looks on alike.
  • Nature is powerful in The Winter's Tale, and overrides upbringing in a shepherd's cottage; all Perdita's ‘acts are queens'. (See also: Ideas of nature.)

Perdita's part in Hermione's ‘resurrection'

In the final scene of the play we learn how important Perdita is to the sense of redemption and re-creation brought about by Leontes' repentance and Hermione's ‘resurrection'.

  • When the courtiers try to persuade Leontes to re-marry, Paulina reminds them of the Oracle:
‘For has not the divine Apollo said,
Is't not the tenor of his Oracle,
That King Leontes shall not have an heir,
Till his lost child be found?
  • In the final scene, in the only words spoken by Hermione, we learn that it was the hope of seeing her lost child which gave Hermione the will to live:
‘Where hast thou been preserv'd? where liv'd? how found
Thy father's court? For thou shalt hear that I,
Knowing by Paulina that the Oracle
Gave hope thou wast in being, have preserv'd
Myself to see the issue.'

Perdita is indeed as welcome ‘as is the spring to the earth'. She represents hope – the hope of spiritual regeneration and renewal.

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