In the play, The Winter’s Tale, three female characters of Hermione, Perdita and Paulina are beautifully portrayed by Shakespeare with outstanding qualities of different nature. Hermione is beautiful virtuous and graceful. Young marvel Perdita is a refreshing innocent beauty and symbol of ‘creation’ and love. Paulina is bold and fearless.
Hermione—Queen of King Leontes
Mrs. Jameson regards the character of Hermione hi The Winter’s Tale one of Shakespeare’s masterpieces. She is a queen, a matron and a mother, she is beautiful, good and graceful. She is the daughter of Russian Emperor and a beloved queen of Leontes till the opening Act of the play for several years and mother of a promising son, Mamillius. Edward Dowden writes, ‘From the first, Hermione, whose clear-sightedness is equal to her courage had perceived that her husband laboured under a delusion which was cruel and calamitous to himself. From the first she transcends all blind resentment and has true pity for the man who wrongs her. She accepts her pain and sorrow gracefully and points out:
‘How will this grieve you, When you shall come to clearer knowledge, that You thus published me
Dignified and brave
Hermione suffers most in the play because of unjust, irrational and cruel jealousy of King Leontes. She keeps her calm and wait for Leontes to come to his senses through long suffering. She says;
‘I am not prone to weeping as our sex
Commonly are; the want of which vain dew Perchance shall dry your pities; but I have
That honourable grief lodged here which burns Worse than tears down; . . .’
And when Leontes threatens her with death penalty she boldly points out:
“Now, my Liege (Lord)
Tell me what blessings I have here al’e that I should fear to die?”
He can proceed with the trial. She is not afraid of death nor care for life, ‘I prize it not a straw.” But she cares for her honour, for that she Wants that she should not be condemned upon suspicion. There is no proof of her ‘adultery’ or treason other than her Lord’s jealousies, so to convict her on that alone will be nothing less than tyranny. So she requests King Leontes :
“Your Honours all,
I do refer me to the oracle,
Apollo be my judge.
Leontes concedes to her request convinced that his charge is well founded. He orders Cleomenes and Dion to read out the oracle. An officer reads :
“Hermione is chaste, Polixenes blameless, Camillo a true subject; Leontes a jealous tyrant, his innocent babe truly begotten, and the King shall be without an heir if that which is lost is not found.”
Leontes in his mad rage terms the oracle as untrue and orders to proceed with the trial. But at this he receives the sad news that his beloved son, Mamillius, a promising child is dead. He could not bear the poor plight of his mother. Leontes is shocked and utters a cry, ‘Apollo’s angry, and the Heavens themselves / Do strike at my injustice’. Hermione faints at her son’s death and Paulina declares her dead. Blasphemy brings Leontes to his senses, but Hermione for rest of the play till the last statue-scene for sixteen years remains dead, and suffers seclusion actually till Leontes’ saint-like sorrow rids him of his sin. She waits and when the statue of Hermione comes down the pedestal alive, she forgives repenting Leontes and embraces him. Her gracious behaviour lives with her nature. The play comes to a happy end at an event where Hermione was degraded. She blesses her daughter Perdita. Florizel and Perdita are betrothed. Leontes is reconciled to his wife, daughter and friend.
E.M.W. Tillyard writes. “Perdita is one of Shakespeare’s richest characters; at once a symbol and a human being. She is the play’s main symbol of the powers of creation.” Leontes is the sole agent of destruction in the play, so it is ironically fitting that his daughter whom he has thrown as a bastard to die in inhospitable condition on the coast of Bohemia should embody the contrary process. Leontes’ jealousy takes the form of first deadly sin i.e. pride. Whereas Shakespeare is conscious of original virtue, which he portrays in Perdita, her instinct to create is implied in her nature, her love for producing flowers, ‘followed by her own simple and unashamed confession of wholesome sensuality
A sad beginning
Perdita, the lost one has a very sad origin in the play. Mad with suspicion and jealousy, Leontes feels that Hermione has committed adultery and the child in her is a bastard child of Hermione and Polixenes. So he hates Hermione, charges her with adultery and throws pregnant Hermione in the prison. Hermione gives birth to an infant girl. Paulina requests Hermione to give her child and hopes that Leontes will come to his senses after seeing the child. But Leontes’ fury increases to see the child. He calls the infant a bastard and asks Paulina to take away the child at once. Paulina leaves the infant there. Leontes then calls Antigonus and orders him to put the child in fire. Antigonus shuns this heretic act. He is then ordered in Scene iii (Act III) to take the infant outside his kingdom to some in hospitable place and let the rigours of the nature destroy the child. Antigonus arrives in Bohemia and lays the infant at a horrible place on the sea-coast, when a storm is imminent. Antigonus is killed by a bear and his ship with sailors sinks in storm. Antigonus writes a note and puts jewels and clothes in a basket by the side of the infant before his death.
An old shepherd picks up the infant with the casket of jewels and happily returns to his home or hut followed by clown, his son. The infant is, Perdita the lost one. She is brought up by the shepherd as his daughter in pastoral surroundings. Sixteen years pass. Perdita is a beautiful, graceful and innocent girl. She has grace of Hermione but pastoral environment gives her a delightful personality. On sheep-shearing feast Polixenes and Camillo attend the feast in disguise. Looking at her rare beauty Polixenes remarks :
This is the prettiest low-born that ever Ran on the green sward. Nothing she does or seems But smacks of something greater than herself, Too noble for this place.
These line clearly indicate the royalty of Perdita, though she is brought us as a shepherdess. Camillo also endorses King Polixenes’ views and calls her ‘the cream of curds and creams.’ Perdita is so modest that she regards herself a ‘poor lowly maid.’ Florizel visits shepherd’s cottage and he is fascinated by Perdita. He finds her as beautiful as a flower. Both fall in love with each other and adore each other. Florizel details each of her graces, wishing her in turn to speak, to sing, to dance—as a wave of sea-forever. Watching her, he sees the universe completed, crowned at each moment of her existence.
‘Each your doing,
So singular in each particular,
Crown that you are doing in the present deeds
That all your acts are queens.’
Scene iv of Act IV is a long and significant scene with about one thousand lines of the play. It includes several events but takes the audience to the open and free English countryside depicting its beauty and joy in a wonderful sheep-shearing festival of shepherds full of songs and dances with beautiful Perdita in fine flowery clothes as hostess. Looking at her so nicely dress, Florizel says that she looks like a goddess of flowers :
“no shepherdess but Flora, (goddess of flowers) Fearing in April’s front (appearing in the spring)
But Perdita feels ashamed at seeing Prince Florizel dressed as an ordinary shepherd. He brushes aside her remark that even gods in love with earthly maidens took the form of beasts—Jupiter transformed himself into a bull to carry Europa. Green Neptune changed himself to a ram and bleated fire robed Apollo wore the look of a shepherd. So he is not ashamed of wearing the dress of a shepherd for her, who is much more beautiful than those women whom gods loved; nor their love so chaste as his for his desires do not overpower him or his lust cannot ride over his honesty and morality of his love for her. However, Perdita is afraid that his steadfastness in love will not be able to stand before the wrath of his father King Polixenes. Florizel, however, assures her that he will remain with his love forever. He asks her to be happy and attend to her guests. Old Shepherd also orders her to attend to her guests and act as a hostess for the feast, serve food, sing and dance with the guests to make them enjoy the feast; bid unknown friends welcome.
Love of nature
She goes to Camillo and welcomes him with rosemary and rue flowers. She offers the same flowers to Polixenes for the two flowers remain fresh during the winter. Rue signifies grace and rosemary friendship. She welcomes them and prays with flowers grace and friendship. Polixenes thanks her for the right flowers for their old age, not different from whiter. She politely says ‘Sir, the fairest flowers o’the season / Are caranations and streaked gillyours / Which some call bastards; Of that kind / Our rustic garden’s barren . . .’ Polixenes asks her why she has not planted them. She simply replies that she does not like grafting and like the nature as it is. Here are other flowers for ‘you’—hot lavender, mints, savery. marjoram, marigold. Camillo praising her grace says if he were a sheep in her flock, he would stop grazing on grass and flowers. He would simply feed himself by looking at her beauty. She turns to young shepherds and shepherdesses and prays that she had daffodils, violets, Juno’s pale prime roses and oxlips to make a garland for her sweet friend, Florizel and cover him with several layers of them. Florizel remarks in jest ‘to cover a dead-body’. She replies quickly ‘No’, but like a piece of ground for love and to play on … But quick and in my arms. Come and have your flowers as girls play at Mayday festival. Florizel happily replies whatever she does is pretty for instance, if she dances, he wishes her ‘A wave o’ the sea, that you might ever do. . .’
In the feast, the Old Shepherd brings the two, Florizel and Perdita together and is about to announce their engagement, but Polixenes asks him not to do so for he wants to make an enquiry. After that he discads his disguise and appears as King Polixenes. He objects to his son, Florizel marrying a low-born girl. In case he refuses he would be debarred from ascending the throne. He, further, threatens Perdita and the Old Shepherd with dire consequences if they proceed with their marriage. He leaves the feast and orders Camillo to bring the prince with him to the court. The events send a shock in the whole gathering. Perdita innocently but boldly faces the threat and says:
‘I was not much afeard; for once or twice I was about to speak and tell him plainly The self-same sun that shines upon his court Hides not his visage from our cottage, but Looks on alike . . .’
She tells Florizel. too, that he is free as far as she is concerned. But Florizel remains steadfast in his love and tells her he is not going to leave his love, he can leave the throne.
‘From my succession wipe me father. I Am heir to my affection (love)
Escape to Sicilia
Considering the situation and convinced of true love between Perdita and Florizel, Camillo suggests to them to escape to Sicilia. King Leontes is new person after long penance, so he will welcome them. He suggests to Florizel that he should introduce himself as son of his friend Polixenes and tell him he has brought greetings for him from his father. Florizel is happy to follow the plan, and calls Camillo preserver of his father and now him. In the way to the port they meet Autolycus and Camillo makes Florizel change his clothes with the clothes of Autolycus. Perdita and Florizel thus escape unnoticed to Sicilia and meet King Leontes. King Leontes welcomes them. Soon after Camillo and Polixenes follow them to Sicilia. In Act V of the play the identity of Perdita as the daughter of Leontes is revealed. Leontes is very happy to meet his daughter. Oracle comes true. Polixenes is also glad to know that Perdita is the daughter of Leontes and so engagement of Florizel and Perdita is announced. Paulina knows that Hermione is alive. She invites all of them to her place to see a beautiful statue of Hermione, and to everybody’s surprise. Hermione steps down from pedestal, forgives Leontes and embraces him. Thus the play ends on a fortunate note of reconciliation. Leontes is united with his wife, daughter and friend Polixenes. Perdita and Florizel are happily married.
Perdita is a very charming character and Coleridge rightly calls her “a pretty piece of poetry.” She is, in fact, a graceful Hermione modified by pastoral up-bringing. Truly, she is one of the most fascinating characters of Shakespeare.
Paulina is an important character in the play, The Winter’s Tale. She is honest and devoted to Queen Hermione and the royal family including King Leontes. She is bold and fearless. She is a bit theatrical and her speech and action are a part of improbabilities in the play. She is deeply concerned with the theme of forgiveness and reconciliation. Though it is quite improbable that she could declare the Queen dead and keep her in her care for sixteen years, yet she is responsible for keeping the Queen alive and in statue-scene reconciles Leontes with his wife, Queen Hermione whom everybody thinks to be dead. So Paulina plays a vital role in the play in bringing about happy reunion of changed and penitent King Leontes to his beloved graceful Queen, Hermione. Paulina is fearless and sharp tongued, who cannot bear injustice to her Queen or her virtue. For that she demands justice for her from King Leontes and at places is quite furious in her demand, almost to the tune of abusiveness.
Paulina and Leontes
Paulina learns that in his mad jealousy King Leontes has imprisoned his wife, she goes to the prison and through Emilia requests Queen Hermione to give her the new born infant girl so that she may plead with the King for justice
‘We do not know
How he may soften at the sight of the child The silence of pure innocence Persuades when speaking fails.
Paulina believes that, on seeing his infant child, King Leontes may relent and see the reason and end injustice to the virtuous Queen. She takes the infant to Leontes, tries to stop her, but she rushes in and places the infant at the feet of the King and begs—
The good queen
For she is good, hath brought you forth a daughter Here’tis; commends it to your blessing.
Quite contrary to Paulina’s wishes. Leontes in great fury says that it is not his child. It is the issue of Polixenes and orders his servant to put the child and Paulina to fire. Paulina boldly asserts that Lord should look at the child to see if it is his. King Leontes shouts at her that he will have Paulina burnt. To this Paulina replies
I care not
It is an heretic that makes the fire
Not she which burns in’t. I’ll not call you tyrant
She accuses him of charging his Queen only on ‘weak-hinged fancy’ and no other proof. ‘A most unworthy and unnatural lord can do no more.’ Thus she defies death mocking at the threats of the king.
A sincere friend of the Queen
Paulina is sincere to the Queen and cannot tolerate any insult or injustice to her. In the trial scene (Act III) when Hermione faints to hear the news of her son’s death, Paulina plots and declares her dead. The King is very sad and moved by the news, she accuses the King :
“But, O thou tyrant!
Do not repent these things, for they are heavier Than all thy woes can stir; betake thee
nothing but despair . . .”
Even if he repents for thousand years naked, fasting upon a barren mountain, and still winter gods won’t take pity on him. She pleads, implores and even accuses the King to relent and accept that Queen Hermione is noble and chaste. She has been always loyal and faithful to him. He should abandon his frantic jealousy and live his old life of love and affection with her. But she finds that Leontes in his vain fancy charges the honourable Queen with adultery, she loses her patience and cool and hurls at the
monarch wild accusations :
Nor I nor any
But one that is here, and that is himself; for he The sacred honour of himself his queens. His hopeful sons, his babes, betrays to slander, Whose sting is sharper than the swords.
Harsh but well-meaning
Paulina is bold and harsh. At places she crosses limits and is told by courtiers to behave. But she is honest and has no ill-will against her lord. Leontes’ injustice and cruelty to his virtuous queen makes her lose her temper, and utter un-civil words, but in her heart she is only planning that repentance should change Leontes and the old life of affection and love between the King and the Queen can come back. Paulina alone knows that the Queen is alive and waits only till penitence makes him a new man. So even in her accusation there is loyalty and respect for the couple. She does not mean any offence or ill-will and ultimately in Act V Leontes is convinced of her goodness. When Dion and Cleomenes propose to King Leontes to remarry. Paulina reminds Leontes of the oracle and makes him declare that he will never marry again. He praises Paulina for her good advice. She knows that Hermione is alive and so she will be able to bring them together. She requests for visiting her house for witnessing a life-size statue of Hermione. The statue-scene ultimately brings in forgiveness and reconciliation and unites Leontes with his wife, daughter and friend. In return King Leontes is so pleased that he proposes the marriage of Camillo with Paulina to end her loneliness. The play on account of Paulina’s plan and determination brings back happiness to the royal couple—Leontes and Hermione. Thus the plays comes to a happy end.