At the opening of The Winter’s Tale, the Sicilian King Leontes and his beloved, pregnant wife, Hermione, try to persuade their dear friend, King Polixenes of Bohemia, to stay longer in their royal court. When Hermione proves more successful in getting Polixenes to remain with them, Leontes quickly spirals into a pit of jealousy, convinced that the two have been having an affair and that his wife is pregnant with a bastard. Polixenes flees the kingdom, but Hermione is put on trial for adultery after giving birth to her daughter in the palace jail. Though the oracle that Hermione calls upon to prove her innocence proclaims her to be virtuous, she collapses with grief upon hearing that her young son, Prince Mamillius, has been murdered. She dies and leaves a repentant Leontes to mourn the ruins of his once perfect life. The second half of the play largely takes place in the Bohemian countryside sixteen years later, where we find Perdita, the long lost daughter of the Sicilian king and queen, living the life of a shepherdess, ignorant of her royalty. There she meets Polixenes’ son, Florizel, disguised as a shepherd, and the two fall in love. Polixenes is enraged when he discovers their secret engagement, and threatens Perdita with death. But the two flee to Sicilia, where Perdita is reunited with Leontes, who has been mourning Hermione’s death all the while. Polixenes follows the young lovers, but when he arrives at court and realizes Perdita’s royal lineage, Sicilia and Bohemia make amends. Shortly after, Paulina, Hermione’s lady in waiting, reveals a statue of Hermione to the royal court. Upon seeing her, Leontes relives his grief anew. But, as if out of the power of his remorse, the statue comes to life and Hermione, Perdita and Leontes embrace as a family once again. Though the shadow of Mamillius’s death lingers, The Winter’s Tale is a story of redemption, that embraces joy over despair.
The Winter's Tale guide sections