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Shakespeare's Characters: Perdita (The Winter's Tale)

From The Works of William Shakespeare. Vol. 12. Ed. Evangeline Maria O'Connor. J.D. Morris and Co.

In Viola and Perdita the distinguishing traits are the same — sentiment and elegance; thus we associate them together, though nothing can be more distinct to the fancy than the Doric grace of Perdita, compared to the romantic sweetness of Viola. They are created out of the same materials, and are equal to each other in tenderness, delicacy, and poetical beauty of the conception. They are both more imaginative than passionate; but Perdita is the more imaginative of the two. She is the union of the pastoral and romantic with the classical and poetical, as if a dryad of the woods had turned shepherdess. The perfections with which the Poet has so lavishly endowed her, sit upon her with a certain careless and picturesque grace, "as though they had fallen upon her unawares." Thus Belphoebe, in the Fairy Queen issues from the flowering forest with hair and garments all besprinkled with leaves and blossoms they had entangled in their flight; and so arrayed by chance and "heedless hap," takes all hearts with "stately presence and with princely port " — most like to Perdita!

The story of Florizel and Perdita is but an episode in The Winter's Tale, and the character of Perdita is properly kept subordinate to that of her mother, Hermione; yet the picture is perfectly finished in every part; Juliet herself is not more firmly and distinctly drawn. But the colouring in Perdita is more silvery light and delicate; the pervading sentiment more touched with the ideal. . . .

The qualities which impart to Perdita her distinct individuality are the beautiful combination of the pastoral with the elegant — of simplicity with elevation — of spirit with sweetness. The exquisite delicacy of the picture is apparent. To understand and appreciate its effective truth and nature, we should place Perdita beside some of the nymphs of Arcadia, or the Chlorises and Sylvias of the Italian pastorals, who, however graceful in themselves, when opposed to Perdita seem to melt away into mere poetical abstractions; as, in Spenser, the fair but fictitious Florimel, which the subtle enchantress had moulded out of snow, "vermeil-tinctured," and informed with an airy spirit that knew "all wiles of woman's wits," fades and dissolves away, when placed next to the real Florimel, in her warm, breathing, human loveliness.

Perdita does not appear till the fourth act, and the whole of the character is developed in the course of a single scene (the fourth) with a completeness of effect which leaves nothing to be required — nothing to be supplied. She is first introduced in the dialogue between herself and Florizel, where she compares her own lowly state to his princely rank, and expresses her fears of the issue of their unequal attachment. With all her timidity and her sense of the distance which separates her from her lover, she breathes not a single word which could lead us to impugn either her delicacy or her dignity.
Mrs. Jameson: Characteristics of Women.


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