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“Our Perdita is found”: Adoption Trauma and the Search in William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale


“Our Perdita is found”: Adoption Trauma and the Search in William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale


Dr. Naghmeh Fazlzadeh

Adjunct Professor

Department of English Language & Literature

Azarbaijan University of Shahid Madani

Tabriz, Iran



The concept of adoption has long been present in our collective unconscious. This might have been caused by the portrayal of orphans, foster parents and adoptees in popular culture, novels, movies and animations. Most of our generation can well remember those lovely orphans who had later been adopted by both cruel and lovely foster parents. Red-hair Anne Shirley, exquisite Judy Abbott, oppressed Cosette are examples of those lovely adoptees who did shape the image of adoption in our unconscious sphere of psyche. The theme of adoption prevails literary productions in all ages; in works of George Eliot, Charles Dickens and Jannette Winterson to name a few. During the last few decades transcultural and international adoption has been changed into a trend among celebrities all over the world. Together with this, recent laws of adoption and adoptees movements have further pushed the issue under the spotlight. In the process of adoption, both in reality and fiction, everyone seems happy; foster parents for experiencing the feeling of rearing a child when they cannot bear one; society for the welfare of its citizen; author for expressing his/her altruistic sympathy; adoptee’s relatives for shifting responsibility, but among all these satisfied faces are the neglected eyes of the adoptee. What he/she feels about adoption is often neglected. Adoptees are dealing with different sorts of traumas; one of which is the trauma of a lost origin and lost identity. In the present paper, it is intended to trace the adoption trauma in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale through the literary trauma theory by Cathy Caruth. It is argued that Perdita, as a victim of adoption trauma, unknowingly starts a search for her origins in order to heal her traumas.

Keywords: Adoption, Adoptee, Foster parents, Trauma, Search, The Winter’s Tale

When it comes to the plot of an adoption narrative, one might feel that the beginning is missing; as if the author used the technique of in medias res, as if there has never been a beginning, an origin or any reference. However, the concept of adoption per se has a long history. Through the course of this history, the concept of adoption has undergone a lot of changes among diverse mindsets, societies, and cultures. On the other hand, social, cultural, and, political movements of early twentieth century, with their emphasis on the acknowledgement of the rights of underprivileged side of western binaries, established grounds for women and children to raise their voice. By portraying the image of an oppressed orphan, literature once again played its role in giving voice to the silenced traumatized children and psychoanalysis literary theory paved the way far more to study trauma and its aftermath among these silenced victims. Among myriads of tales and stories, William Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale is considered as a great example of canonical literature dealing with the issues such as adoption, birth parents, search for origin, and identity. In the present research, it is intended to study the concept of adoption from the point of view of the adoptee who goes through all the vicissitudes of his/her life by himself/herself. Adoptees are like prisoners doomed for a default consequence of a process in which they have had no role. From the above, it should not be assumed that these desperate individuals have to remain as passive as they used to be; they are urgently expected to start a purposeful search for the origin in order to heal their trauma. Like Perdita, adoptees might feel epiphany once they learned about their root and this will alleviate the belated hauntings of their adoption trauma. Therefore, it is evident that the present paper has to go through the traumatizing effects of adoption, through the perspective of Cathy Caruth, and the effort to heal the symptoms by fighting for conceiving of an identity which was never born and is now long overdue. Here, it is intended to manifest the significant role of narrative in igniting the tendency toward identity construction through looking back at one’s roots.

Adoption is a very elusive term to define; after giving a very baffling prologue about the meaning of the concept of adoption in his book Adoption: A Brief Social and Cultural History, Peter Conn states that “Practices called adoption have ranged from the informal and often temporary care of a child (or adult) to the legal and permanent inclusion of a child into a new family, with several stops in between” (4). To clarify this, one might posit that what Conn means by “stops in between” is the fact that adoptees can play different roles in the families they enter. This assigned role can make them happier or unhappier than they used to be. Shakespeare’s Perdita was among those who has several happy stops while in the custody of the Shepherd. Therefore, one might conclude that adoption is not a matter to be discussed in the small scale of a family life, it is a very comprehensive interdisciplinary assumption with its traces in society, culture, philosophy, anthropology, law, religion and most importantly literature and arts.

Let’s clarify the existence of a possible relationship between literature and adoption by taking a glimpse at one of the most important obstacles on the road of search for root, “sealing record” (Novy 3) which means insufficient information about the root. The insecurity felt by adoptive parents when they think about the possible future encounter of their children with biological parents makes it tricky to reveal the records of former familial bonds. Thus, many chose to be close-mouthed about the origin and this seals the possible records and even tendencies to search. However, literary works and narratives might trigger this tendency by depicting the pleasant outcome of the hero’s successful search. As Novy states, “Truth and fiction, reality and pretense—these oppositions are impossible to escape in considering the literary and historical treatment of adoption” (4).Thus, literature plays the role of an eye-opener in the sealed world of search for origin. No matter what happens to the adoptee at the end of this journey, he/she will at least break the silence about this unmentionable issue, thus relieving his/her trauma. It is noteworthy here that a trauma theory teaches us that “the secrecy and extreme difficulty of telling what has gone on are no less damaging than is the actual deed” (Simon 716). Literary narrative might strengthen the broken and painfully private narrative of trauma and lead the victim to speak the unspeakable. Studying the structure of the adoption narratives, Margaret Homans emphasize the responsibility of scholars in this domain by positing that “the uncovering of adoption at and as the fountainhead of narrative theory should be suggestive for scholars both of narrative and of adoption” (5). The aim of this study is to encourage the victims of adoption trauma to start a search by showing how the Bard’s strong victim, Perdita finds her way to self-construction by searching for her identity because as an adoptee “the babe, Is counted lost forever” (Shakespeare 3.3.32-33).

A flashback to Renaissance period gives us a better perspective on the possible beginning of the concept of adoption in society. Based on what Marianne Novy writes in her 2005 book Reading Adoption, adoption was very rampant in the period; she states that “Adoption was not part of the legal code under that name in Renaissance England, but there were many different ways in which children were raised by people who did not give birth to them. (75)”. There had been frequent practice of the culture of “wet nursing” in which babies experienced “extrusion from the birthing chamber, enforced alienation from the maternal breast, and a journey to the unknown rural environment of a foster family lower in station than its own” (Novy, Reading Adoption 75). Besides that, the high number of mortality of parents and children in England at that time paved the way for the ubiquity of the concept of adoption. These dependent and homeless children needed legal care takers; previously, “many of these children were placed with non-relative families, often in farm communities, with the goal of providing them with a more stable and wholesome life” (Palacios & Brodzinsky 271).  Later, child protection from domestic violence sparkled the concerns for the well-being of children in the society and it established the first adoption laws in society. The history of adoption in America is different and classified into three periods, however, the latest era is the thriving years of the concept because of the movements triggering in society. According to John E.B. Myers “The year 1962 marks the beginning of the third or modern era: the era of government-sponsored child protective services” (449). It was the time when child physical abuse was increasing and medical science and media were struggling to bring the issue under national scrutiny. Several acts were passed and this “fueled expansion of government child-welfare services, including protective services (455). Thus, modern adoption practice emerged in the twentieth century as a result of the above mentioned events and it was developed into numbers of branches of study such as parenthood, custody, orphanhood, illegitimacy, etc. Though the concept of adoption differs from orphanhood, two concepts are mostly discussed interchangeably since there has always been a force to erase biological parents from the life of the adoptee. Even if the biological parents are alive they are considered dead; “The law of most states in the United States, however, tries to make the birth parents not legally dead but nonexistent in relation to the child by erasing their names from the birth certificate once the adoption is final” (Novy, Reading Adoption 7). That such a policy has been affected the tendency to search about the root and origin, is beyond doubt. However, literary works try to brush up the former attitudes toward adoption by portraying the images of the adoptees who dare to look back.

            Before focusing on The Winter’s Tale it is noteworthy to take a look at the general research done so far about adoption and the main theory of literary trauma. Later on, this paper will mix both concepts to study the trauma evident in the Bard’s play. The research about the concept takes two different approaches; a group of researchers study the social, cultural and welfare aspect of adoption and the other group scrutinize psychological aspect of the concept. Mental health issues and protection are central topics discussed by psychologist because “adoption as protection has been at the core of child welfare-inspired research” (Palacios & Brodzinsky 270).  Marianne Novy in Imagining Adoption (2005) states three mythic stories that different cultures used to imagine adoption: “the disastrous adoption and discovery as in Oedipus, the happy discovery, as in Winter’s Tale, and the happy adoption in the novels mentioned [Silas Marner, Anne of Green Gables]” (1). These three are called myths because according to Novy, they “shape feelings, thoughts, language and even laws about adoption” (1). Novy’s assumption further clarifies the mental health effects of adoption on the adoptees adopted in various situations. Studies show that “adopted children, even those placed as infants or at a very young age, are at significant risk for a variety of psychological problems compared to their non-adopted peers” (Palacios & Brodzinsky 272). The aftermath of adoption, might be manifested in form of different symptoms which are found to be clinical in most cases. PTSD is evident among most of adoptees; first and foremost “the adopted … are haunted by the conviction that there is an origin” (Homans 6). For Lifton adoption is kind of psychic wound for the survivor whose situation is similar to that of a survivor of Hiroshima, “We walk around seemingly normal like everyone else, but we've got taboos, guilts, and repressions lodging like radiation inside us" (156). Writing about trauma is writing about a belated, uncanny experience which must be integrated into present and articulated in words. Cathy Caruth, the professor of Humane Letters at Cornell University, is a forerunner in making scholars familiar with the concept of trauma. She edited a book called, Trauma: Explorations in Memory (1995) in which she tried to define trauma in detail and to examine the impact of trauma on psychoanalysis, culture, and society. She compiled the book with the hope of easing the sufferings of trauma victims. In the book, she benefitted from the invaluable ideas of scholars such as Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub on testimony and witness as a crucial part of trauma discussions. She furthered her studies in the book, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (1996), in which she is concerned with the question of reference and representation of trauma. She analyses historical and traumatic narratives in Freud’s works. Importantly, she argues that trauma is incomprehensible at the moment of its occurrence and its impact is felt belatedly at other places. Cathy Caruth defines trauma as “an overwhelming experience of sudden or catastrophic events in which the response to the event occurs in the often uncontrolled, repetitive appearance of hallucinations and other intrusive phenomena” (57). Generally, the victims of trauma are often bewildered between the recurrent haunting of a bad event and the lack of reference to the origin; as if they were absent at the historical moment of the event. An adoptee’s feeling is identical to a traumatized person; in fact adoptee is a trauma victim since “infant relinquishment is not only like trauma (an unremembered yet life-altering event): it has itself been called a form of trauma by such popular theorists of adoption as Nancy Newton Verrier and Betty Jean Lifton” (Homans 7). An adoptee may experience not one but several traumas, first of which is the “primal wound” of separation from birth mother. Newton Verrier argues that

any separation from the biological mother from the moment of birth onwards, whether for relinquishment or merely for medical treatment, produces a "primal wound" that manifests itself in numbed affect, anxiety, depression, lifelong difficulty in trusting others, and in the same "intrusions" and "constrictions" suffered by survivors of wars. (qtd in Homans 8)

Betty Jean Lifton traces the second trauma when comparing him/herself to the children around, adoptee realizes that “he did not grow in his mommy’s tummy” (Lifton 209). And the final trauma is when the child cannot know his birth parents. Though these adoptees can have a good life with their adoptive parents there is always that “relinquished baby” inside them which is ripped off from breast and care of a birth mother. In dealing with this haunting trauma, adoptees create a “ghost kingdom” which is “an alternative place, located in one’s psychic reality. It is a portable Home that adoptees carry inside them” (208). They create their imaginary kingdom; they create birthparents, childhood memories and their real home inside that kingdom.

            The Winter’s Tale is the story of a baby called Perdita who, being considered as a bastard by his father, Leontes, the king of Sicilia is abandoned and later found and raised by a shepherd. As a beautiful young girl she falls in love with Florizel, son of King of Bohemia and then goes back to Sicilia and surprisingly finds his birth parents. Like any adoptee, who struggles to live on despite the nature, Perdita was “lusty and like to live” (Shakespeare 2.2.26). Though she was not welcome, she was born earlier than expected as if she was in a hurry to enter the undesirable world in which she was torn from her origins. When Antigonus, a lord of Sicilia, wanted to leave baby Perdita in the wilderness, he says “Poor thing, condemned to loss” (Shakespeare 2.3.192), as if all adoptees are doomed for a loss from the very beginning by nature. Betty Jean Lifton asserts that “many [adoptees] feel invisible because an essential part of them is unacknowledged” (207). From the time of her birth her being and rights were unacknowledged to the extent that her lullaby was thunder, “A lullaby too rough” (Shakespeare 3.3.55). She was even deprived of her mothers’ breast and affection “My third comfort/ (Starred most unluckily!) is from my breast,/ The innocent milk in it most innocent mouth” (Shakespeare 3.2. 98-100). This denial of the primary needs of an adopted baby is what Homans called “primordial wound” of being separated from biological mother which is discussed earlier in this paper. The victims of trauma are usually surprised by an event for which they were not prepared. The split in mind after a traumatic event is caused by “lack of preparedness to take the stimulus that comes too quickly” (Caruth, Unclaimed Experience 53). This is even worst for the adoptees who are traumatized at the moment of birth. For them, birth is a sort of trauma which is also posited by Freud when he puts, “life itself, is an awakening out of a death for which there was no preparation (54). Perdita was never prepared to enter a world where his father would claim that “this brat is none of mine” (Shakespeare 2.3. 94) thus, her identity and self have already been shattered by this innate wound imposed upon her very young and unprepared mind.

            Victims of such primordial traumas are urgently advised to get professional help to heal the belated symptoms. In order to heal the after-effects of adoption trauma, psychiatrists suggest different methods. Some of them such as Cathy Caruth and Newton Verrier believe that “task for therapy… is to articulate and narrate what at first seem non-narratable” (qtd in Homans 8). Giving a thorough explanation of Caruth’s literary theory, Michelle Balaev asserts that “the origin of traumatic response is forever unknown and unintegrated; yet the ambiguous, literal event is ever-present and intrusive” (151). The contemporary trauma theory based on Freud “emphasizes the necessity to recreate or abreact through narrative recall of the experience” (150). In the last scene of the play, resurrected Hermione asks three pivotal questions from Perdita which sums up the necessity of narrative for the healing of this psychic wound; “Tell me (mine own), Where hast thou been preserved? where lived? How found” (Shakespeare 5.3. 124-126).Therefore, there is a need to find a way to articulate the traumatic experience. This is way more complicated for the victims of adoption trauma. First and foremost, adopted children are forbidden to talk about their adoption. As a real adoptee Marianne Novy writes about the way she feared about disclosing her adoption until her twenty by admitting that “for years after that I still thought of revealing I was adopted as a special gesture of intimacy, like taking off my clothes in someone’s presence” (Reading Adoption 3). Caruth asserts that talking about their loss and lack of origin might heal their symptoms though they might sometimes fabricate stories and their narrative might not be reliable. The focus of present paper is a similar method of therapy which is called search and reunion with birth culture and birth parents which can recreate the lost attachment between self and others. As Balaev clarifies about the disrupting nature of trauma “a traumatic event disrupts attachments between self and others by challenging fundamental assumptions about moral laws and social relationships” (149).The adoptees and their adopted parents “embark on “roots trips" to the scenes where an origin might be reconstructed: to the city, orphanage, street or police station where the child was found” (Homans 4). According to psychiatrists this search starts when the adoptee feels split self and when he/she cannot be successful in daily life or when he/she feels unsatisfied in life. Lifton sees this search “as a quest for the missing parts of one’s narrative, for origins, for meaning, and for a coherent sense of self” (Lifton211). Adopted children feel loss throughout their lives; they feel abandoned and worthless and this leads to loss of self-esteem and self-confidence in the society. They start to feel obscurity and they are usually unknowingly forced to do search just like Perdita who unknowingly starts a “root trip” to Sicilia; this is “a way of being born again, a chance to take control of one’s destiny, of seizing power, of finding oneself” (212). Deprived of the right to choose her biological parents as her family, Perdita chooses to look for them. In a sentence in the third scene of the last act Perdita admits her rootlessness and split identity when she implores the statue of her mother “that ended when I but began” (Shakespeare 5.3.46); as a victim of adoption trauma she feels that her origin ended when she really began to live. To make it clear “origins are felt to be obscured not absent” (Homans 7).These “root trips” might have different happy or tragic outcomes; what happens in Shakespeare is rather happy. At the end of Shakespeare’s adoption stories there are usually “recognition scenes” in which “characters were reunited with long-separated relatives they thought they would never see again” (Novy, Reading Adoption 57). Last lines of the play Paulina describes this happy scene by calling the kings family winners: “Go together, You precious winners all; your exultation, Partake to everyone” (Shakespeare 5.3. 130-132). It is important to add that, search therapy is possible in “open adoption”, like the case of Perdita, where “adoptees are brought up with knowledge of their birth parents from the beginning” (Novy, Imagining adoption 5).

            Many adoptees experience the feeling of belonging to both and none of their biological or adopted parents. They develop a sense of being torn between and being a fake hybrid. In a dialogue between Polixenes and Perdita, Polixenes asks about the art of grafting flowers, which is considered as a violation of nature. When a gardener grafts a rose with a lavender he creates something hybrid which does not thoroughly belong to any species; there is a similar case with an adoptee “There is an art which in their piedness shares/With great creating Nature”(Shakespeare 4.4.87-88). And adoptee is always in conflict with natural order, “the adoptee is doomed to stand outside the natural order of things” (Novy, Imagining adoption 3). This is because of, as stated above, the disruption caused by the traumatic wound at birth. Perdita was distinguishably different from her environment; she was “too noble for this place” (Shakespeare 4.4.158), “this is the prettiest low-born lass that ever /Ran on the green-sward” (Shakespeare 4.4.156). She was very different from other village girls since she was not interested in trifles such as compliment and exaggeration, she “dances featly” (Shakespeare 4.4.177), she was very aware of manners as she cautions the entertainers “Forewarn him that he use no scurrilous wordsin's tunes” (Shakespeare 4.4.212). The traces of nobility were very frequent in Shakespeare’s plays as if he was “fascinated by heredity parent-child resemblance” (Novy, reading Adoption58). Novy further explains that this play is “full of comments about the contrast between the transplanted child and her or his surroundings, and the genetic similarity revealed when she or he meets hereditary family” (58). Another frequent issue occurring in Shakespeare’s adoption plays is “family resemblance”; when an adoptee is displaced there happens a kind of “divided self” (Lifton209). When interviewing an adopted teenager, Betty Jean Lifton confronted a surprising answer when he told her that “I feel there are two me’s. The me that was born, but didn’t live. And the me who was not born, but lived the life I have today” (209).

            This dual life of uncertainty, forces the adoptee to create fantasies and this results in unreliability of narrative when it comes to healing trauma through talking cure. In this regard Margaret Homans posits that “Narratives of trauma and adoption(therapeutic and otherwise) are best understood not as about the unearthing of the veridical past, nor yet again about revealing the past to … "absence at the origin," but about the creation of something new” (7). Bessel van der Kolk and Onno van der Hart maintain the significance of transforming “traumatic memory” into “narrative memory,” a kind of story: “the unassimilated scraps of overwhelming experiences … need to be integrated with existing mental schemes, and be transformed into narrative language” (176). Adoptees often create a story because just like trauma victims they find themselves in clash of knowing and not knowing; as if they were absent at the very moment of their origin, as if they do not remember anything about the historical moment of origin. Thus, they “do better to understand themselves as inventing helpful fictions about those irretrievable historical moments” (Homans9).

            As mentioned in the previous paragraph, it is really difficult and even unreliable to produce a narrative of origin but in order to heal the trauma of adoption the adoptee needs to trace this history. In her paper, “Adoption Narratives, Trauma, and Origins” (2006) Homan concludes that “adoption offers a particularly charged and vivid case of the difficulty both of establishing origins and of doing without them, in a life or in a narrative” (22). Just like any adoptee Perdita has to set off a “root trip” (4) to her home, Sicilia in order to heal her unresolved adoption trauma. Though this trip is usually planned consciously, Perdita unconsciously sets off this journey. She enters Paulina’s gallery “to look upon, the statue of her mother” (Shakespeare 5.3.13-14). In many cases this search “makes origins seem knowable, memorable, documentable” (Homan 4) for the adoptee, he/she can have more control over his/her life and this might alleviate the haunting effects of adoption trauma. That’s why as soon as Perdita hears about her mother she starts the trip, “The Princess hearing of her mother’s statue, which is in the keeping of Paulina” (Shakespeare 5.2. 92-93).

            Adoption trauma victims are always in search of a way to free themselves from the repeated feeling of lack of origin and identity of their traumatic history, they might choose different solutions. However, search for the root is considered as liberating regardless of its later outcomes. The present research was carried on with the aim of emphasizing on the importance of the concept of adoption trauma in life and literary productions. The traumatic significance of adoption was studied through the lenses of trauma theory by Cathy Caruth. Keeping distance from the works about the benefits of adoption for the welfare of the society, this study tries to bring forth the psychological after-effects of adoption for the traumatized adoptees. The work extended to study the way adoption trauma and lack of origin lead to a need to articulate the battle between knowing and unknowing for the adoptees. Despite a very happy adopted life, Shakespeare’s Perdita feels the lack of identity and starts a trip to find out about her root. So, literature as a mirror to life makes individuals to sympathize with such victims in order to prevent the catastrophic consequences of trauma on human society.

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