Tools of Characterization
In The Winter’s Tale, names tend to either serve a practical purpose (Clown, Old Shepherd, Lord, etc.) or a symbolic function.
- The name Perdita means “that which is lost,” which is fitting given that Perdita is abandoned in the desert and lost to her biological family for sixteen years.
- Florizel’s name is associated with the flowers of springtime, aligning the prince with romance and renewal, which is exactly what Florizel’s budding relationship with Perdita promises.
- Leontes’s name is suggestive of his lion-like nature – he’s aggressive, angry, and wildly jealous in the first half of the play. (Although, we should point out that Leontes turns into a pussy cat after he repents for his bad behavior.)
- Paulina’s name recalls that of Paul the Apostle (a.k.a. St. Paul). Like the influential apostle, whose epistles appear in the New Testament, Paulina becomes a spiritual guide in the latter half of the play, showing Leontes the error of his ways and leading him to the place where Hermione’s miraculous resurrection occurs.
- Mammilius’s name derives from the word “mamma,” which means “breast” in Latin. The name closely links the young boy with his mother and also the women that act as his caregivers. Leontes knows Mammilius is close to his mommy, which is why he takes Mammilius away from Hermione in order to punish his wife. When Mammilius is separated from his nurturing mother, he becomes ill and dies, just as a nursing infant would if it was taken from its mother’s breast.
Hmm. This one seems easy enough. Leontes throws his pregnant wife in jail, puts her on trial for adultery and treason, and then orders a man to abandon baby Perdita in the middle of the “desert.” Leontes’s actions make him a tyrant for much of the play, don’t you think? It’s not until after he repents (for sixteen long years) that he even resembles a human being. What about Polixenes, the guy who at first appears to be an innocent king? Well, Polixenes acts like a tyrant as well when he finds out that his son is engaged to a country bumpkin – he threatens to have Perdita’s face disfigured and says he’ll have her “father” executed. Yikes!
In The Winter’s Tale the old folks (we’re talking to you, Leontes, Polixenes, and Antigonus) are responsible for all the problems in the world – the fracturing of families and friends, the deaths of loved ones, and others issues that cause suffering and heartache. The youngsters, on the other hand, are responsible for reuniting families and friends and reigniting hope for the future. Witness, for example, Florizel and Perdita, whose young love brings the families together in Sicily just before Hermione returns from the “dead.”