Metamorphoses of Women in the Winter's Tale

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The theme of transformation in Shakespeare’s plays is well-documented. Many of these transformations have root in Metamorphoses by Ovid. This sprawling work of fifteen books creates an intricate world of mythology that Shakespeare used as inspiration time and time again. The Winter’s Tale is no exception: references both explicit and implied come from Ovid’s epic. The women of The Winter’s Tale are especially influenced by the stories of Ovid; the characters of Perdita and Hermione seem to pull from many sources, which allow them to become two of the most complex female characters that Shakespeare ever put to page.

Perdita has an obvious correlation with Proserpina, from the stories of The rape of Proserpine and Ceres searches for her daughter in The Fifth Book. Perdita herself proclaims, “O Proserpina, / For the flow’rs now, that, frighted, thou let’st fall / From Dis’s wagon!” (4.4.116-18) She is referencing the fact that she surrounded by flowers, just as Proserpina was when Dis, god of the underworld, abducted her to become his wife. There is further connection with Perdita and Proserpina. Perdita’s invocation of Proserpina comes towards the beginning of Perdita’s first appearance as a grown woman in The Winter’s Tale, which is important for multiple reasons. Proserpina’s descent into the underworld caused Ceres, her mother and goddess of the harvest, to turn the earth into a cold, unwelcome, and desolate land. It is only when Proserpina is allowed to leave the underworld that Ceres allows the earth to become full of nature’s beauty. The beginning of The Winter’s Tale is a place that represents the absence of Proserpina; it is a tragic and untrustworthy world. It is not until the end of Act 3, with the appearance of Perdita (as a child), when the audience begins to notice a shift in tone and mood. Indeed, Act 4 furthers this feeling, which seems to bloom even more when Perdita is shown as a young woman.

Furthermore, the place where Proserpina was abducted, according to Ovid, was Sicily; upon learning this, Ceres “cursed all lands and said they were unthankful everych one, / Yea, and unworthy of the fruits bestowed them upon. / But bitterly above the rest she banned Sicily, / In which the mention of her loss she plainly did espy.” (5.591-94) Clearly, Ceres believes that if the land of Sicily were loyal to her, her daughter would not have been taken from her. Perdita was torn from her home of Sicilia as a baby, which had already shown itself to be an unhappy land. However, there are two points that can be made: first, that Sicilia is punished further by Perdita’s absence, and second, that the land cannot become full of life and happiness until Perdita’s eventual return. The audience only sees a glimpse of the Perdita-less Sicilia, yet it is clear that the kingdom has not changed from the last time it was seen; it appears to be frozen in time, which is another reference to winter. Once it moves back to Sicilia, the play progresses to its eventual happy ending through Perdita’s presence. Although the discovery of Perdita’s true identity is merely reported onstage, Hermione’s return would not be possible without Perdita’s return to her rightful place.

Towards the end of Shakespeare’s play, Perdita’s ties to Proserpina begin to separate; whereas Proserpina is ordered to return to the underworld every six months (which is the mythological explanation of seasons), Perdita is not given such a stipulation, and The Winter’s Tale ends with the idea that this particular winter is over in Sicilia. In addition, it should be noted that Perdita calls her counterpart “Proserpina,” which is her name while with Ceres. Never is she referenced as “Persephone,” which is her name while in the underworld with Dis. Thus, Perdita is only tied to the joyous version of Ovid’s character; she is more of her parents’ Proserpina than she will ever be Florizel’s Persephone. In fact, the play, in terms of the Perdita/Proserpina bond, places...
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