Ideas of nature

Nature and nurture

The ‘nature versus nurture' debate is of long standing, going back at least to the time of Plato. Currently, developments in psychology and also much more detailed knowledge about our genetic make-up have contributed to the discussion.

Basically, the arguments concern the extent to which our personality and skills are naturally inherited, and the extent to which they depend on our upbringing, or nurture. Obviously both are important: Amala and Kamalawe are undeniably born with certain characteristics, but equally obviously we learn at least some of our behaviour. This is clear from, for example, the study of feral (that is, ‘wild') children such as the two girls found living with wolves in India in the 1920s, who, because of their nurture, behaved like animals in many ways even though they had been born to human parents.

The debate about the relative significance of nature and nurture has influenced many works of literature, including those of Shakespeare. It is in his 'Romance' plays (Cymbeline, Pericles, The Tempest and The Winter's Tale) that the nature / nurture debate has greatest significance.

The nature / nurture debate in The Winter's Tale

The nature / nurture debate is at the centre of The Winter's Tale. The heroine, Perdita, is a princess who has been abandoned at birth and brought up by poor shepherds. However, she grows up with such innate grace that Prince Florizel falls in love with her beauty of person and delicacy of character, declaring that ‘All your acts are queens'. Although Florizel has no idea of Perdita's true rank, he sees her innate nobility.

More on nobility in the Romances: In all Shakespeare's Romance Plays, the inborn nobility of royal children shines through even if they have been brought up in the wild, far from so-called civilisation, as have the princes in Cymbeline, or on a remote island, as has Miranda in The Tempest.

Florizel's father, King Polixenes, upon meeting Perdita, remarks:

‘Nothing she does or seems
But smacks of something greater than herself,
Too noble for this place.'

The other young shepherdesses do not share her instinctive nobility, suggesting that it is nature, not nurture, which is dominant.

Later, when Perdita is returned to Sicilia, it is her innate nobility which finally confirms her true identity:

‘the majesty of the creature in resemblance of the mother, the affection of nobleness which nature shows above her breeding'.

More on nature / nurture in The Tempest: It is interesting to compare how Shakespeare treats the nature / nurture debate in another ‘Romance play', The Tempest:

  • The inborn nobility of Miranda, who has grown up on a remote island away from the court but has instinctive gentility, is contrasted with the ‘deformed slave' Caliban, who has grown up in the same environment but is

‘a born devil, on whose nature / Nurture can never stick'.

  • However, there is also a contrast between the gentle and virtuous Prince Ferdinand, brought up in the court of Naples, and the corrupt and villainous Antonio, also of high rank by birth but evil in nature. As Miranda says, ‘Good wombs have borne bad sons.'

Gentle nature

Mamillius and Perdita

In the Romance plays, those who are born to parents of noble or ‘gentle' blood often (but not always) inherit their innate gentility. In Act I, sc i of The Winter's Tale Mamillius is said to have the noble qualities expected of a prince:

‘You have an unspeakable comfort of your young prince Mamillius: it is a gentleman of the greatest promise that ever came into my note'

Mamillius is a ‘gentleman' by both breeding and education. Perdita, too, has innate gentility though brought up by shepherds.


However, Shakespeare makes us think further about this matter by making the courtier Antigonus aware (Act III, sc iii) that he will suffer for carrying out ‘this ungentle business' of abandoning the baby.

The Shepherds

Towards the end of the play, when the shepherds who have brought Perdita home are honoured, Shakespeare humorously uses their naïveté to make us realise the truth: they are peasants, but have noble instincts:

Old Shepherd:
‘Come boy; I am past moe children, but thy sons and daughters will be all gentlemen born. …
I know you now sir, a gentleman born.
Ay, and have been so any time these four hours. …
I humbly beseech you, sir, to pardon me all the faults I have committed ...
Prithee, son, do; for we must be gentle, now we are gentlemen.'

More on gentility: The question of what makes a gentleman (and a lady) – whether it is high rank or behaviour – is also at the heart of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Wife of Bath's Tale, where he discusses ‘gentillesse', and Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, where Pip's ambition is to be a ‘gentleman', whilst the blacksmith Joe is described as ‘a gentle Christian man'.

Art versus Nature

What is ‘art'?

‘Art' has various meanings. It does not only mean ‘pictures' (though it is associated in Perdita's mind with painting the face: in Shakespearean drama ‘painting' can mean ‘make-up'). Art can also mean more widely ‘artificiality' or ‘unnatural powers'.

There is a contrast in the world of The Winter's Tale between the court - which, especially through Leontes' jealousy and plotting, has at times a sense of artificiality and deceit – and the naturalness of the country life of the shepherds. The audience is at various times in the play asked to consider whether:

  • nature is better than art
  • art is better than nature, or just different
  • art is the result of ‘natural' skill.

Natural purity versus artificial beauty (Act IV, sc iv)

In the sheep-shearing scene (Act IV, sc iv) Perdita engages with Polixenes in a debate about the importance of natural purity versus artificial beauty, asserting that she does not like:

‘streak'd gillyvors' (carnations and pinks)
‘which some call nature's bastards',


‘I have heard it said
There is an art which, in their piedness' (mixed colouring) ‘shares
With great creating nature.'

Polixenes argues that the gardener's skill which creates hybrid plants is a natural art:

‘Yet nature is made better by no mean
But nature makes that mean: so, over that sort
Which you say adds to nature, is an art
That nature makes….
The art itself is nature.'

Although Perdita says that she understands his argument – ‘So it is' – she still refuses to grow such ‘bastard' flowers, which are so ‘streak'd' that they seem artificially painted.
She herself rejects make-up as unnatural:

‘I'll not put
The dibble in earth to set one slip of them;
No more than, were I painted, I would wish
This youth should say ‘twere well, and only therefore
Desire to breed by me.'

Nature versus artifice (Act V, sc iii)

Later in the play ( Act V, sc iii) the same debate is touched on by Paulina with Leontes, this time in the Sicilian court. Paulina has hidden Hermione for sixteen years, but now presents her as a statue. The sculptor is said (Act V, sc ii) to have such talent that he:

‘would beguile Nature of her custom, so perfectly he is her ape' (i.e. her mimic).

When the statue is unveiled (Act V, sc iii), the figure of Hermione has ‘her natural posture' and seems so realistic that Leontes thinks ‘we are mock'd with art'. He asks,

‘What fine chisel
Could ever yet cut breath?'

Paulina has to reassure him that she is not assisted by ‘wicked powers', by which she means black magic (an ‘art' or artificial skill). Leontes worries that it is unlawful art, magic, and he wants it not to be, ie. he thinks that it is not natural but hopes it is lawful

‘If this be magic, let it be an art
Lawful as eating.'

More on nature versus art in The Tempest: This debate about art and nature is even more noticeable in another Shakespearean Romance play, The Tempest. The main character Prospero, Duke of Milan, is a magician, cast away upon an island with his daughter Miranda, and throughout the play his magic is described as his ‘Art'. Art' in this sense may be contrasted with nature, implying learnt or ‘artificial' skills, which Prospero uses to control the natural forces of the island, such the invisible spirits which inhabit it, and also wider natural powers such as the sea and winds.

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