Florizel and Perdita’s Relationship: Analyzing Act IV, Scene IV
Florizel and Perdita are depicted in The Winter’s Tale as the epitome of young love. Whilst the majority of the play is surrounded by heartache, pessimism and paranoia, Florizel and Perdita’s relationship serves as a reminder of hope and happiness as they are seen as a breath of fresh air against a backdrop of hate and jealousy. Within Shakespeare’s play, it is clear to see that both characters deeply love each other as they openly talk about it together and the audience get to see how Florizel views Perdita through his endless and poetic compliments.
Whilst Perdita is dressed in ‘unusual weeds’, adorned with flowers and dressed as Queen of the Feast, Florizel, who is dressed as a young shepherd named Doricles, remarks that she looks like ‘no shepherdess, but Flora’. So although both of them are fully aware of the class difference and the implications a love like theirs could bring, Florizel tells her that she no longer looks like a shepherdess of a lower class but instead looks like a goddess. Interestingly, the goddess Flora, whom he refers to, in Roman mythology is the deity of flowers and the season of spring so not only is Shakespeare showing that in Florizel’s eyes Perdita is a goddess but he is also emphasising their youth through the connotation of spring. We get the sense that the pair are truly a breath of fresh air as their innocent, youthful love is most likely rather endearing to the audience. Furthermore Florizel continues his compliments associated with divinities as he says ‘this your sheep-shearing is as a meeting of the petty gods’, so he is effectively saying that she is so beautiful that even the gods are below her and are ‘petty’ in comparison. Whilst some may argue that the complements are over-the-top and exaggerated this shows an aspect of love that relates to perception. The audience clearly see from the start that Perdita is the light of his life and he views her as so beautiful that even divine beings cannot compete with her. Their youth and young love could be seen as rather charming.
Shakespeare continues to emphasise the charming and likeable nature through Perdita’s responses as she has such an appealing quality of humility that the audience begins to see why Florizel fell in love with her in the first place. After Florizel’s poetic lines Perdita responds by saying ‘to chide at your extremes it not becomes me: O, pardon, that I name them’ so she isn’t going to argue but does tell him that she is far less than the complements gives her, she even goes as far as to call them ‘extremes’ showing how modest she is. Her modesty is further emphasised by the way she refers to him as ‘my gracious lord’, ‘your high self’, and ‘the gracious mark on the land’ and through doing so she shows that she is conscious of the fact that he is of a higher social class than she is, and of course there is dramatic irony because the audience knows that there would be no need for her to give him these titles if she only knew her background. In fact, Perdita refuses to accept the high praise given to her, and even makes a joke about how Florizel is dressed with ‘a swain’s wearing’ and she ‘most goddess-like pranked up’ so it’s as if they have swapped position. Therefore although she obviously is very aware of the circumstance, she feels no trepidation towards making light of it and further shows how comfortable she is around Florizel. However all her self-deprecating comments make it clear to see how her perception of herself as a ‘poor lowly maid’ is juxtaposed with Florizel’s view of her being better than goddesses, especially as she becomes embarrassed at the constant praise from someone who she thinks is above giving such lovely compliments as says ‘I should blush to see you so attired’.
Despite their sweet exchange of compliments they also show the side of love that involves fear because Perdita is petrified of what Polixenes will think if he caught his ‘noble’ son ‘vilely bound up’ to someone as lowly as she is, in fact she even says ‘I tremble’ showing the extent of her fear. This fear was not at all unfounded because in Shakespearean times someone of nobility marrying a commoner for love was completely unheard of. The majority of royal marriages were arranged and it was not uncommon for those of noble rank to be betrothed very early on in their childhood due to the fact that royal marriages were not about love but instead had economic, social and political reasons as its motive. Hence why someone like Perdita who is completely unaware of her nobility, is very apprehensive about them being together because she feels as though she does not fit the part of a princess, rather she refers to her clothes as ‘borrowed flaunts’ as if they are a façade to cover over her reality of not being someone of nobility and that although she looks beautiful in them they don’t change the fact that others will not view her as good enough to marry the prince. Later on she shows how scared she is of the consequences of the relationship when she considers the sacrifices they may have to make, Florizel ‘must change this position’ and possibly abdicate as heir to the throne, or as she say, she would have to pay with ‘my life’. So her conclusions of abdication or even death are a strong example of the complexity and uncertainty that comes from love.
But Florizel also demonstrates the romanticism that comes from love as he takes Perdita’s cynical outlook and uses it to reassure her by taking the roman gods as an example. He says that ‘the gods themselves, humbling their deities to love, have taken the shapes of beasts upon them’ so if Jupiter, Neptune and Apollo (all who were very prominent and powerful gods in mythology) could change their form and adapt themselves for the sake of love, then why can’t he do the same, especially considering that he is far more lowly that the deities. In fact Florizel views these transformations as a ‘piece of beauty’ because of the motivations behind it. He continues to try to instil confidence in Perdita by saying that they are better than those gods because he has better virtues, and is ‘so chaste’ that he doesn’t want to just sleep with her, on the contrary he says ‘my desires run not before mine honour, nor my lusts burn hotter than my faith.’ What really shows the romanticism of the couple is the fact that he as a prince could have any woman he wanted without marrying her because he is in the position of authority to do so, but in stark contrast he shows that he is devoted to their relationship and wants to marry her first even if it means making sacrifices. When the context is considered, we can see that Florizel views her somewhat as his equal and treats her with respect which could be seen as a foil for Leontes as he did not give Hermione the respect and dignity she deserved and also he previously made a disparaging comment about being a ‘flax-wench’ inferring that all country women had loose morals. However, from Florizel’s words we see that he is looking past the class difference, treats the woman he loves well as he promises to be ‘most constant’ and faithful to her and as a couple they are proving Leontes’ stereotype wrong.
Towards the end of the passage Florizel’s hopefulness and resolve is seen further. After Perdita has aired her concerns and pessimistic conclusions, he says not to think these ‘forced thoughts’ that to him feel unnatural, so as not to ruin the happy occasion. He also states ‘I cannot be mine own nor anything to any if I be not thine’ making it very clear to Perdita that she is the only one for him and that he is useless without her, which shows how humble he is (just like Perdita). He then leaves the conversation on an optimistic note when he tells Perdita to ‘lift up your countenance as it were the day of celebration of that nuptial which we too have sworn to come’, in effect saying that she should look as happy as she would if it were their wedding day that he has promised will come. This assurance and unwavering resolve to make Perdita his wife is actually very similar to the tenacious attitude of Leontes because both men were dead set on a certain path and refused to be persuaded off of it. So his desire to stay ‘constant’ to Perdita no matter what obstacles will inevitably face them makes the young lovers hopeful and quite resilient, thus bringing hope to the audience after the previously depressing and dramatic events.
Some may say that their relationship serves as an idealised form of love, and that it’s what others strive for. It’s not hard to see why many would agree with this because their relationship is like a breath of fresh air in the context of the rest of the play. This is clearly seen when the couple arrive in Sicilia, Leontes says that they are like ‘the spring to th’earth’ after such a long ‘winter’ of pain, suffering and regret. In fact he goes even further as he says that they ‘purge all infection from our air’ as if they renew everything, ridding the hate from the story. They appear to have a symbolic value as they are seen as the genesis of a new era of love and at the very least; the previous distress and misery can be partially put aside to make room for the hope of a new chapter. So not only does their relationship make them, and those around them happy but they also serve as a symbol of hope, as if no bad can come of their marriage. This type of pure and innocent love that radiates from the couple makes their relationship idealised because in reality no relationship is ever flawless and the joy that is spread simply from being in the couple’s presence could easily make the relationship seem fanciful and not feasible from a more pragmatic viewpoint.
The other remarkable thing about their relationship is the constancy that comes from Florizel’s unwavering resolve to marry Perdita. We have seen a demonstration of how passionate he is about the woman he loves from the passage, but his steadfastness is carried on even when disaster strikes for the pair. When he is forced to reveal that they are not married and Leontes asks if she is ‘the daughter of a king’, Florizel’s staunch resolve to marry her is visibly seen in his direct reply of ‘she is, once she is my wife’. Once again showing how little he cares about her status in society. Furthermore, when Leontes questions if their marriage is a good idea and begins to side with Polixenes, Florizel yet again makes the claim that ‘power no jot… to change our loves’ clearly showing Leontes that he will not be changing his mind which of course strikes a chord with the king, especially since the two men have shown a similar unswerving devotion to an idea before. However, it is worth noting that Florizel is not the only one constantly defending their relationship but Perdita has her say too. Camillo shows his cynicism towards love when he states that ‘affliction changes’ it, she responds by saying ‘I think affliction subdues the cheek but not take in the mind’. So she too shows a similar devotion to Florizel when she explains that true love does not alter when in the face of challenges, although may suppress happiness for a while, it wouldn’t change ‘the mind’ or in other words their dedication to each other. Clearly this is no mere fling, but instead they show that they are both wholeheartedly devoted to the marriage despite any opposition that may come their way. Some might say that this optimism and steadfastness is not realistic, at least in the long term. So whilst many may yearn to be with someone forever, it is not always possible, hence why the couple could be seen as idealised because their idea of eternal love is what the majority of couples strive for.
Their relationship also defies expectation, politics and class difference throughout all the time the two are seen as a couple. As stated before, in reality a Prince wouldn’t have been allowed to even comprehend marrying someone of a lower class but because Shakespeare portrays them as a foil to Hermione and Leontes’ relationship in a somewhat idealised fashion, Florizel states his eternal love for her before knowing her real background and the revelation of who her actual parents were, is made just in time for them to get married and so that Polixenes can no longer object. Following this line of thought, the way their relationship works out seems almost too perfect. Granted they have encountered difficulties but after the gentlemen explain that Perdita has been verified as Leontes’ lost daughter, not only can they eliminate the issue of nobility from their relationship but if they got married it would also consolidate a political alliance between both Sicilia and Bohemia making them a perfect match. Their fathers would be able to reunite and ignite an old friendship once again, making the couple and their families happy as Leontes and Polixenes’ reunion was said to be very emotional ‘for their joy waded in tears’. Leontes could now freely ‘embrace his son-in-law’. As moving as the gentlemen’s poetic recollection of the encounter is, it does emphasise the unattainable aspect of their relationship as the phrase you can’t please everyone springs to mind. Their union seems to do the exact opposite and tick the boxes from the secular/political point of view, sentimental issues aside, which really shows how idealised their circumstances turn out to be because after all of their anxiety absolutely everything eventually works in their favour.
On the other hand, other critics may feel that to call them ‘idealised’ is a bold claim. After all they have to contend with a lot of terrible things and a completely ideal relationship is often portrayed as somewhat paradisiacal. Shakespeare would have wanted the audience to perceive not only the individual characters as complicated but also their interactions and relationships with others as complex rather than completely cliché or two-dimensional. An example of this is seen when Polixenes breaks his disguise and reacts to the couple getting engaged without his blessing. Polixenes’ rage mars the couple’s previously blissful relationship as he calls Perdita’s adopted father an ‘old traitor’ and threatens to hang him whilst he hurls the accusation at her that she is a ‘fresh piece of excellent witchcraft’. His anger crescendos as he makes the claim that he will ‘have thy beauty scratched with briars’ as he wishes to destroy her good looks and inflict pain on her for making his son fall in love with her. This theme of witchcraft and enchantment is taken further when he calls her a ‘knack’ meaning that she is nothing more than a little trinket but the word also has connotations with deceitfulness, so in effect he is saying that she has almost tricked Florizel into wanting to marry her as if she has put a spell on him. So this scene, despite being followed by Florizel’s poetic declarations of unwavering love for Perdita, shows that their relationship was far from ideal. Granted everything works out in the end, but not before Florizel’s father can threaten innocent people with death and hurl derogatory names and accusations towards his son’s future bride saying that she is ‘unworthy’ of him. The union of the two actually causes them so many problems and results in Polixenes forewarning her that he will ‘devise a death as cruel for thee as thou art tender to’t’. So the constant intimidation condemnation from Polixenes hardly makes the couple’s lives easy, in fact it makes them resort to running away to Sicilia in order to be together.
Moreover, we see from the passage that there is a lot of fear and apprehension in their relationship. Of course, the two are devoted to each other but that doesn’t stop Perdita from being very scared about their future. After Polixenes’ outburst, Perdita is forced to tell Florizel to ‘be gone’ because she knew ‘what would come of this’. It’s as if the experience has shaken her out of the fantasy she was living in and she states that she’ll ‘queen it no inch farther, but milk my ewes and sheep’. Her dream starts to crumble around her and she now has to stop pretending that their relationship would have ever worked out. In the passage also, we have seen her show this kind of trepidation when she doubts Florizel’s ability to keep to his word and says ‘Your resolution cannot hold when ‘tis opposed, as it must be, by th’power of the King’ so once again her realistic outlook shows as she acknowledges that no matter how strong their love is, nor Florizel’s resolve, neither of them are really any match for the King. Due to the divine right of Kings Polixenes would be free to act in whichever way he pleased and do whatever he wanted to Perdita (and her family) if he found out about her relationship with his son. Therefore they seem to, at least partially, live in this fear that they will be outed so that would have taken a toll on them, highlighting another reason why their relationship may not have been perfect. Perdita is the prime example of showing feelings that any other normal human would have in her situation, she is frightened of what Polixenes would do but also frightened of losing Florizel. Being caught between this dilemma allows Shakespeare to highlight her humanity and fear, so she too has her weaknesses and isn’t always as valiant as you may expect from a typical idealised relationship.
The problems with their relationship are also highlighted through what Florizel says to her. We have seen how romantic he is and the extent of his love for her, however there are a few things he says that have a second connotation or different meaning that may show a different side to their ‘idealised’ relationship. An example of this is found when he calls her ‘good falcon’. Falconry was often associated with royalty so he may just be making a sweet comment about the inevitability of her becoming his wife and thus becoming royalty through marriage. This of course shows his ever strong resolve to look past her lower status and marry her. However, whilst Falcons are graceful, beautiful and powerful, which could be all the qualities her is attributing to Perdita, they also have the connotation of being restrained creatures. Falconry involves training and control which could be alluding to his own views that she would be somewhat subservient to him and he would have dominance over her. Nevertheless, it would be unwise to see this quote without context because in Shakespearean times there was a distinct inequality between sexes so you could write this comment off as Florizel being a victim of his era and this ideology may have been ingrained in him from an early age, however due to the fact that Shakespeare is seen by many experts as somewhat of a proto-feminist you could argue that the link with falconry was intentional and is a hint that despite the love they have there will always be underlying problems in a relationship, even if that is inherent sexism. Therefore Shakespeare may be showing that the lovers are not as idealised as one may think they are on first glance.
In the crucial scenes of Act IV, Shakespeare paints a complex picture of Florizel and Perdita’s love, highlighting romanticism, perception, humility, fear and the staunch resolve they have to get married no matter what comes their way. Whilst their relationship is idealised in many ways as has been discussed there is no doubt that there are problematic elements. It is true that there are many perfect aspects that many people strive for with their love but in my opinion, it is no accident that Shakespeare adds death threats, terror, distress and underlying issues into the mix. One could argue that the issues they have to face makes them even more idealised because it showcases in the way in which they deal with them and the manner in which everything eventually works out perfectly; however, while Shakespeare may use the couple as a bit of relief from the drama before, he also would likely have wanted them to be viewed as complicated characters with an interesting relationship, thus justifying why difficulties are added to their story.
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