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Home :: Archive :: 2010 :: March ::
Art and Nature in The Winter's Tale

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 21.0115  Tuesday, 16 March 2010

From:         Brian Bixley < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
Date:         Friday, March 5, 2010 2:07 PM
Subject:      Art and Nature in The Winter's Tale

I know, from some reading of the secondary literature surrounding TWT, that the dialogue between Perdita and Polixenes is often regarded as being central to the themes of the play. I believe I understand, more or less, what it is that is being said, that Perdita represents 'Nature' and is hostile to what she sees as degradations of the natural world, including those brought about through 'Art' - human intervention - but that her arguments are trumped by those of Polixenes when he says that Art can improve upon Nature, without corrupting Nature, because the interventionists are themselves part of the natural world.

That seems straightforward. Yet I experience a kind of cognitive dissonance when I read the passage (4.4.79-103, Oxford World's Classics, ed.Stephen Orgel), a dissonance which I feel from my reading of those secondary sources is shared by others. It all makes good sense, and yet . . . I understand what is being said, but I am not quite able to grasp the steps of the argument, that there is something which doesn't quite fit, that the argument, the logic on which it is erected, is somehow flawed. 

The problem lies, I believe, with the conflicting botanical metaphor(s) that run through the passage, though in some commentators the confusion begins earlier. For example, Robert Egan in Drama Within Drama, writes of Perdita as 'the seed, the "blossom" (3.3.45) that is indispensable to nature's regenerative cycle'. But Perdita cannot, in a useful way, be metaphorically both the seed and the blossom. The blossom, a flower, produces seed when it is pollinated and fertilised. Later, one assumes, Perdita will be so fertilised by Florizel, and she will then produce 'seed' (children) who will exhibit characteristics derived from their parents, though the children will be in many ways dissimilar. In the plant world, the offspring of species will resemble their parents, but they will not (necessarily) be identical. Any sowing or self-sowing of the seed of 'carnations' and 'gillyvors' (forms of Dianthus caryophyllus) will normally produce a wide range of colours and even flower shape. New cultivars or varieties can then be created by careful selection of those offspring that carry the qualities sought by the propagator.

When Perdita says that she will have not have 'nature's bastards' in 'our rustic garden', what can she mean? 'Bastards' are hybrids, and are sometimes encouraged by gardeners because of 'hybrid vigour'. There are two ways in which hybrids may be created; they may be spontaneous, i.e., created without human intervention, or they may be deliberate, i.e., created by a human hybridizer. Nothing, one imagines, could be more natural than the hybrids that turn up in one's garden without the connivance of the gardener. Anyone who grows columbines knows all about that. If Perdita wants no intervention, she should be cheering for 'nature's bastards', not scorning them, and in most gardens, she will be getting them whether she wants them or not, which is about as 'natural' as one can be. 

She then goes on to say that she "cares not to get slips of" the natural bastards, which makes good sense if the natural bastards are plants that she really does not want. She doesn't tell us how she propagates the plants she does want. If she wants no, or almost no, variation in the plants that she wishes to keep and perhaps increase in her garden, she needs to take slips - cuttings, vegetative propagation - or make divisions, because, until tissue culture came along, those were the only ways she could be sure of not getting bastards. But to take cuttings or make divisions is surely, from Perdita's perspective, unnatural? The only way for her to keep her garden pure is by direct intervention. 

And then things become more perplexing. In order to illustrate his argument that 'that art which you say adds to nature, is an art that nature makes', Polixenes tells us 'we marry a gentler scion to the wildest stock,/ And make conceive a bark of baser kind/ By bud of nobler race'. But is this relevant to the Perdita/Florizel situation? What Polixenes (or rather WS) appears to believe is that a marriage between the 'gentler scion' and 'the wildest stock' will 'mend nature - change it rather', that it will produce something that is different from the parents.

What is a scion? It is 'any shoot or bud removed from one plant for the purpose of joining it to another in budding or grafting,' that is, typically, a shoot of a tree or a shrub whose qualities we wish to preserve is grafted on to the root stock of another tree that is hardier or more vigorous, in order to encourage the growth of the scion. But Polixenes is surly not arguing for a bigger, sturdier Florizel, which is what he will get if Florizel (the gentle scion) is grafted on to a wilder stock. If Florizel is grafted on to Perdita who is, though Polixenes doesn't know it, a 'gentle' rootstock, Florizel is unlikely to be improved, and any offspring from seed or cuttings will have the characteristics of the scion and not of the stock and scion combined. 'Florizel' may be almost an anagram for 'fertilize', but no fertilization takes place during the process of grafting!    

Stephen Orgel writes: 'Polixenes' view (is) that the hybridizer's art is learned from nature and acts as its agent to improve it'.  But Polixenes never speaks of hybridization, only of 'marrying a gentler scion to the wildest stock', which is grafting.** Grafting is not only a different process from hybridising, it does not give rise to 'hybrid vigour', which is what Polixenes clearly intends to endorse, except in the rare cases of chimaera, where 'the stock tissue becomes mingled with that of the scion'. WS may have known lots about some kinds of chimaeras, but it is unlikely that he knew about the horticultural versions. 

Is it a surprise, then, that when we read this celebrated passage, we experience a sense of disconnection?  

Brian Bixley

** There is plenty of additional evidence for this confusion. For example, this from Pafford, the Arden edition: "There were many treatises on grafting, and their popularity is shown by the fact that L. Mascall's A Booke of...how to Plant and Graffe, etc. went through at least six editions between 1572 and 1596. The Georgics (especially Bk. ii) would also be well-known. Bacon speaks much of such experiments in Sylva Sylvarum (published 1626, written after 1620), e.g. 'Take Gilly-Flower Seed of one kinde of Gilly-Flower...And sow it; and there will come up Gilly-Flowers, some of one colour, some of another.' " Bacon is, of course, correct, but this is not grafting but (inadvertent) hybridising.

Or Robert Egan who, in Drama within Drama, writes that "Perdita has, like a flower grafter..." One does not "graft" flowers.  

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