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Louis Rhead, Paulina Implores Leontes, 1918

The Winter's Tale

Synopsis and plot overview of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale

TL;DR (may contain spoilers): 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.

The Winter's Tale Summary

The jealous King Leontes falsely accuse his wife Hermione of infidelity with his best friend, and she dies. Leontes exiles his newborn daughter Perdita, who is raised by shepherds for sixteen years and falls in love with the son of Leontes' friend. When Perdita returns home, a statue of Hermione "comes to life", and everyone is reconciled.

More detail: 2 minute read

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 Polixenes refuses. When Leontes's pregnant wife, Hermione, succeeds in persuading Polixenes to stay, Leontes becomes suspicious that his wife has been unfaithful with his friend. His obsession grows until Leontes asks his cupbearer, Camillo, to poison Polixenes. Rather than do so, Camillo warns Polixenes. Together they flee the country, leaving Hermione and her beloved son, Mamillius, to face the King's wrath.

Dressed in a flowing robe, she stands on steps framed by pillars, her right hand on her left shoulder. She looks indeed like a statue.
Mary Anderson as Hermione, Henry Van der Weyde, 1887

Act II

Leontes imprisons Hermione with no evidence against her other than his own suspicions. In captivity 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 free his wife and overcome his obsessions. Instead, it only infuriates him further. He threatens Paulina, the child, and Paulina's husband, Antinogus. Leontes orders Antigonus to take the baby into exile. 


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

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

A sad tale's best for winter:

— The Winter's Tale, Act 2 Scene 1
The Winter's Tale. Perdita giving “Hot lavender, mints, savory, marjoram, The Marigold that goes to bed wi’ the sun” to Polixenes and Camillo.
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, Leontes's old cupbearer, asks Polixenes if he can return home. Polixenes denies his request. He mentions how his son, Florizel, has met and fallen in love with a shepherd's daughter named 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 dancers entertain them. When Florizel and Perdita are betrothed, Polixenes reveals himself. He 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 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.

Leontes, white-haired and in a blue velvet jacket, has his hand on the shoulder of a younger lady in a blue silken dress, who is taking the hand stretched out by someone at a lower-level out of the picture.
The Winter's Tale, RSC, 1986

Music; awake her; strike!

— The Winter's Tale, Act 5 Scene 3

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.

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