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:
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.
- 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 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 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.
- English Standard Version
- King James Version
1Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, This man receives sinners and eats with them. 3So he told them this parable: 4What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? 5And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost. 7Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. 8Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? 9And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost. 10Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents. 11And he said, There was a man who had two sons. 12And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me. And he divided his property between them. 13Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. 14And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself, he said, How many of my father's hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants. 20And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21And the son said to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. 22But the father said to his servants, Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to celebrate. 25Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27And he said to him, Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound. 28But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29but he answered his father, Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him! 31And he said to him, Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.
1Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him. 2And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them. 3And he spake this parable unto them, saying, 4What 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? 5And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. 7I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance. 8Either what woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it? 9And when she hath found it, she calleth her friends and her neighbours together, saying, Rejoice with me; for I have found the piece which I had lost. 10Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth. 11And he said, A certain man had two sons: 12And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living. 13And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. 14And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. 15And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. 16And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him. 17And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father's have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! 18I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, 19And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants. 20And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. 21And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. 22But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: 23And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: 24For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry. 25Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard musick and dancing. 26And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant. 27And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound. 28And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and intreated him. 29And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: 30But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf. 31And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. 32It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.
In the Bible, the term given to stories that Jesus told as part of his teaching.
The name given to the man believed by Christians to be the Son of God. Also given the title Christ, meaning 'anointed one' or Messiah. His life is recorded most fully in the Four Gospels.
Someone who disobeys God's will by their actions or failure to act. The Bible regards all human beings as predisposed to sin.
a term applied in Shakespearean studies to his later works
A play involving love, magic and mystery, rather than realism, and often also including music and dance.
Daughter of Zeus and Ceres, who was carried down into the Underworld by Hades. Later, she would spend half the year with Ceres and half with Hades, so giving rise to the cycle of the crop-growing season. Also known as Proserpine.
Roman goddess of fertility and the crops. (Greek name, Demeter.)
In Christian belief, the redemption of humanity was achieved by Jesus who in his death on the cross made a complete sacrifice sufficient to pay for the sins of the world.
The act of turning away, or turning around from, one's sins, which includes feeling genuinely sorry for them, asking for the forgiveness of God and being willing to live in a different way in the future.
Literally, rising to life again. In the Bible it is specifically applied to Jesus Christ's coming to life after his crucifixion; and from thence, to the hope of all believers that after death, they will be raised to a new life in heaven.