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The Noble Women of "The Winter's Tale"

J S Penna, a retired editor and lover of English and American literature, pauses to muse on great works she appreciates.

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

Hermione and Perdita

This article assumes the reader is already familiar with the play A Winter's Tale by William Shakespeare. No attempt will be made to summarize the plot. The sole purpose of the article is to discuss the famous speeches of Hermione (the Queen of Sicily) and of Perdita (her daughter, abandoned as a baby due to the false accusations of the king, and reared in ignorance of her noble birth). Shakespeare's major female characters are seldom one-dimensional and often noble—Hermione and Perdita are no exceptions.

Hermione's Speech

Hermione's speech in defense of her innocence against her husband's charges of adultery provides insight into her character. It is the speech not only of an innocent woman falsely charged, but the speech of a queen: royal, dignified, just, and virtuous. Her statements are direct from the heart, yet at the same time not overly emotional but rather sensible.

The speech itself details why losing her life (under the present circumstances) would not a loss to her. A life lived in ignominious disgrace—and for a wrong not committed—is no life at all, even if her life were to be spared.

Hermione says she knows that she has lost Leontes' favor: this is the first joy gone from her life, a joy that made life meaningful. It is a psychological truism that besides self-respect, humans need the security of the respect of others. Hermione no longer has this esteem from her husband.

Hermione's "second joy"—her firstborn, her son Mamillius—she is barred from seeing, and her "third comfort"—her newborn daughter—has been cast out to die. So it is that the love and/or company of the three people dearest to her is denied to her. And in such a life, there is no joy.

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As if this were not enough to bear, Hermione has been roughly handled, refused her due as a newly delivered mother, and seen herself publicly slandered before even being tried. When she is tried, it is a sham—the final indignity. Her queenly nature responds in dignity to the threat of death by welcoming it as a queenly end—her due and choice in contrast to the sorrows she would endure by continuing to live.

Perdita's Speech

Perdita's speech is equally noble, especially since she has been reared in a humble home, by shepherds who take pity on the baby left to die.

In the lines immediately preceding 116, she has addressed her fellow shepherdesses. She then proceeds to describe some of the flowers more commonly associated with maidenhood--just as she had previously catalogued flowers symbolic of old age (Polixenes) and middle age (Camillo). And yet, she covers not even maidenhood alone, for in lines 113-114 she is actually addressing her beau Florizel, whose very name suggests the idea of flowers.

The important idea here, then, is that of youth (rather than of maidenhood alone). Accordingly, the flowers catalogued are those most associated with early spring, when winter (the symbol in the play of all that is old, worn, senile, and filled with blood-madness) has been conquered. Youth is bright (daffodils), adventuresome ("that come before the swallow dares"), sweet, and bold. The "crown imperial" figures in the commentary, which further brings out the idea of youth's natural grace: even to the sense of the royal.

Perdita's reference to Proserpina is also significant, conveying the important idea of the seasons. According to myth, Proserpina was captured and held captive underground by Dis (as Ovid called him, or Pluto); Ceres, her mother, mourned for her and the earth did not bring forth its fruit. After a bargain was struck, Proserpina was allowed to spend half the year with her mother; Ceres rejoiced, and the land was fruitful during spring and summer. When Proserpina returned to the underworld, her mother and the land mourned. Thus, the fragile, early flowers the maiden let fall at her kidnapping were harbingers of the hope of spring to come, while yet in the shadow of winter . . . which also must come.

Nevertheless, youth is a time of rejoicing, and spring, which in literature is often synonymous, is symbolic of resurrection, and renewal.

Continuing Popularity

The Winter's Tale remains popular even today in various adaptations, despite some of its improbable plot twists. No doubt the integrity of characters such as Hermione and Perdita has contributed to the play's popularity through the centuries.

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