Share this page

Louis Rhead, Paulina Implores Leontes, 1918

The Winter's Tale

Summary of William Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale: King Leontes becomes paranoid about his wife's fidelity; he imprisons her, kills their son, and banishes their infant daughter; years later, a statue comes to life.

Act I

Polixenes, King of Bohemia, is anxious to return home after a nine-month trip to Sicily to visit his lifelong friend, King Leontes. Dismayed, Leontes begs his friend to delay his departure, but is denied. When Leontes's pregnant wife, Hermione, succeeds in persuading Polixenes to stay, Leontes conceives an obsession that his wife has been unfaithful with his friend. This obsession grows until Leontes asks his cupbearer, Camillo, to poison Polixenes. Rather than do so, however, Camillo warns Polixenes. Together they flee the country, leaving Hermione and her beloved son, Mamillius, to face the King's wrath.

Mary Anderson as Hermione, Henry Van der Weyde, 1887
Mary Anderson as Hermione, Henry Van der Weyde, 1887

Act II

Hermione is imprisoned with no evidence against her other than Leontes's suspicions, and it is in captivity that she gives birth to her baby girl. Leontes orders two messengers to inquire at the oracle at Delphi to prove his delusions correct. Paulina, Hermione's friend, takes the infant child to try and persuade Leontes to relinquish his wife and overcome his obsessions. Instead, it infuriates him further. After threatening Paulina, the child, and Paulina's husband, Antigonus, Leontes orders Anitgonus to take the baby into exile. 

Act III

Weak from her childbearing, Hermione is brought to trial where she is vindicated by a message from the oracle. News comes that Mamillius had died from distress at his mother's arrest, and Hermione collapses and is taken away. When Paulina returns with news of her death, Leontes is shocked back to reality and remorse over his actions.

Antigonus has a dream wherein Hermione directs him to leave the baby on a beach in Bohemia. He is subsequently killed by a bear before he can leave. A shepherd and his son find the child and take her home. Time passes.

A sad tale's best for winter:

— The Winter's Tale, Act 2 Scene 1
Winter's Tale 1960
The Winter's Tale, RSC, 1960

Act IV

At the beginning of act 4, Time, personified as a character, explains that sixteen years have passed since the exile of the infant. He mentions that Leontes mourns the loss of his wife and children.

In Bohemia, Camillo asks Polixenes if he can return home. Polixenes denies his request, but mentions how his son, Florizel, has met and fallen in love with a shepherd's daughter, called Perdita. This relationship is far below the social station of the Prince, and Polixenes is not happy. Polixenes and Camillo, in disguise, attend the feast where they are entertained by dancers. The rogue Autolycus also entertains the men, who has previously tricked the Young Shepherd and stolen his purse. When Florizel and Perdita are betrothed, Polixenes reveals himself, denounces Florizel, and threatens the shepherd and his son for allowing Perdita to befriend the Prince.

It is an heretic that makes the fire, Not she which burns in't.

— The Winter's Tale, Act 2 Scene 3

Act V

Camillo, still anxious to see his homeland, helps Florizel and Perdita  to escape and travel to Sicily. They are followed by the shepherds, who in turn are pursued by Polixenes and Camillo. At Leontes's court, Florizel introduces himself and his beloved as ambassadors on behalf of his father. Leontes, still in mourning over his actions, welcomes the son of his former friend and his new wife. Polixenes and Camillo soon arrive, explaining Florizel's escape.

The Winter's Tale, RSC, 1986
The Winter's Tale, RSC, 1986

Music; awake her; strike!

— The Winter's Tale, Act 5 Scene 3

During the following scene, it is reported how Leontes discovers that Perdita is his long-lost banished daughter. With Perdita now a suitable companion for Florizel, everyone is reunited and Leontes and Polixenes mend their past. As the play concludes, Paulina reveals a newly completed statue of Hermione. Everyone, especially Leontes, remarks at how beautiful and realistic the statue looks. Upon Paulina's direction, music sounds, and the statue comes to life. Florizel and Perdita are betrothed, Leontes and his Queen are restored to one another and, as a reward for her care, Paulina is given Camillo to be her new husband.

Visit Shakespeare's family homes

Find out more

Read more play summaries

Shakespeare's Plays

Learn about William Shakespeare

Shakespedia Index
This is where the story began Enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of a working Tudor Farm Relive Shakespeare’s love story Walk in Shakespeare's footsteps The home of Shakespeare’s daughter, Susanna