Summary Scene i:
Scene One is a short conversation between Archidamus, a Bohemian courtier, and Camillo, a Sicilian courtier and trusted friend of Leontes, King of Sicilia. Archidamus praises the generous hospitality he has been treated to in Sicilia, apologizing for any inadequacies Camillo might experience should he travel to Bohemia. Camillo talks about the friendship between Leontes and Polixenes, King of Bohemia. The two rulers were raised together since boyhood, although now their responsibilities as kings keep them apart. Both courtiers agree that Prince Mamillius of Sicilia shows great promise.
Summary Scene ii:
Enter Leontes, Hermione, Mamillius, Polixenes, Camillo, and Attendants. Polixenes proclaims his intent to return home. He has been staying as a guest in the court of Leontes for nine months, and he fears that troubles may start at home if he stays away much longer. Leontes tries, without any success, to convince Polixenes to stay a short while longer. At Leontes' request, Hermione, Leontes' queen, tries to convince Polixenes to stay. She is eloquent and persuasive, and Polixenes gives in. She then asks to hear more stories from the kings' boyhood days together. Polixenes paints a picture of innocence and pure friendship in days before the two men knew anything of women. Hermione is extremely affectionate to Polixenes, treating him with great love because he is her husband's best and oldest friend.
In asides to the audience, Leontes reveals that he is insanely jealous of Polixenes and Hermione. He is convinced that they are secretly committing adultery, although he has no hard evidence on which to base his suspicions. In full view of the others, he asks his young son Mamillius questions loaded with double meanings about whether or not the child is his boy. When Hermione and Polixenes ask if Leontes is feeling well, he replies that he is only unsettled because Mamillius reminds him of himself in the days of his own childhood. Leontes asks if Polixenes' son back in Bohemia is as dear as Mamillius, and Polixenes speaks of the great love he has for his own boy. Hermione, Polixenes, and the Attendants exit, leaving Leontes to continue his strange, angry conversation with his uncomprehending son.
Mamillius exits, and Leontes, in an aside, speaks of how the tryst between Polixenes and Hermione must be obvious to everyone. He questions Camillo, who is clearly unaware of the king's suspicions. The king, convinced that Camillo is either stupid or playing dumb, grows increasingly irate. When he finally tells Camillo of what he suspects, the advisor is horrified and does not believe it. Leontes' grows increasingly furious, and Camillo, seeing the king's conviction, seems to give in. At Leontes' expressed desire to see Polixenes dead of poison, he offers to carry out the task. His condition is that Leontes' keep the queen in her present status, and do nothing to stain her honor. The king agrees, and Camillo affirms again that he will poison Polixenes.
The king leaves, and Camillo reveals to the audience that he is horrified by the task set before him. He is a loyal courtier, but he believes Polixenes and Hermione are innocent. He resolves not to do it. Polixenes enters, disturbed by his most recent brush with Leontes. He asks Camillo about the change in the king's manner, and Camillo initially refuses to give a straightforward answer. When Polixenes continues to entreat Camillo, worried that his safety might be at risk, Camillo tells him the truth. He agrees to help Polixenes, using his authority as Leontes' most trusted advisor to ensure a safe escape for Polixenes and all of his men. Camillo says that he will serve at Polixenes' court, since in helping Polixenes he can no longer stay in Sicilia. Polixenes' ship has been ready for departure for days, and Polixenes assures Camillo that he will remember this service.
Scene One establishes characters and situation. We learn that the kings of Sicilia and Bohemia have been good friends since childhood, and that Sicilia has a young prince who shows great promise. Although Archidamus is not particularly important as a character, Camillo is one of the play's most important characters. From his praise of his king and his prince, we see that he is a faithful and patriotic courtier, full of love for his position. He is an ideal advisor, happiest when he has a good ruler to serve.
In Scene Two, Shakespeare gives us a deep psychological portrait of Leontes. Directors control the level of the flirtatiousness between Hermione and Polixenes in productions of The Winter's Tale, but an important part of the characterization of Leontes is that his fears are not grounded in any real impropriety. The less proof he has, the more crazed he becomes. Although people at court speak often of how much Mamillius resembles him, he persists in the delusion that the child's paternity is questionable. And when his most trusted advisor insists that Hermione is innocent, his rage shows unequivocally that he will not have his delusions questioned. He dwells obsessively on the idea of being a known cuckold, a man whose wife is an adulterer, although Camillo's responses indicate that no one at court views the king that way.
A recurring theme in many of Shakespeare's plays is the conflict between marriage and friendship. In The Winter's Tale, Shakespeare continues to play with this familiar theme, although in a more oblique manner. The boyhood days of Leontes are mentioned with some prominence in Scene Two, and the discussion of the old days becomes a counterpoint to his current jealous rage. Polixenes stresses their boyhood days as pre-sexual, days before they knew women and the duties of marriage. Hermione chides that she and Polixenes' wife must be devils, because they have lured the men out of these days of innocence. Her joke has serious undertones. The introduction of women into the lives of Polixenes and Leontes puts an end to the days without responsibility. In Scene Two, we watch Leontes return to the days without responsibility in two parallel ways: he remembers the days of his youth, and he puts aside responsibilities as a man, husband, father, and king in favor of jealousy and rage. Manhood brings power, but Leontes' masculinity is fragile; it is something that can be lost, and its integrity depends on keeping his wife faithful. For that, he only has her word. Once suspicion becomes paranoid delusion, Leontes' manhood is threatened. He imagines his oldest friend as a rival, a rival who seeks to be more of a man than Leontes by conquering Leontes' wife.
Three closely connected themes come play themselves out in Scene Two. The responsibility of kings, the threat of tyranny, and the connection between the king as head of the family and the king as head of state (patriarchy, "rule of the father," in all senses of the word): these are important themes not only in The Winter's Tale, but in many of Shakespeare's plays. These three themes are often at work when a Shakespearean ruler transforms himself from good king to bad king, good father/husband to bad father/husband, good man to bad man.
By indulging in his groundless paranoia, Leontes transforms himself from good king to bad king, and a large part of this change comes because of his failure to live up to his roles as husband and father. Marriage brings with it great duty, and as Shakespeare depicts it, a king's duties as husband and father are inseparable from his duties as head of state. In his indulgence in jealousy and paranoid fantasy, the king separates himself from his duties. The responsibility of kings is a common Shakespearean theme; one of those responsibilities is to produce an heir and raise that heir into adulthood. Having produced an heir, Leontes shirks his duty to be a good father. Leontes questions the paternity of Mamillius, and so absolves himself of the responsibility to provide for the boy's safety, happiness, and wellbeing. Leontes' outrageous behavior will eventually cost him the life of his heir Mamillius, as well as the loss of his second child, Perdita.
When Leontes' looks into his son's face and claims that he sees himself in the days of his youth, he is explaining his strange behavior dishonestly, but the words of his response emphasize his longing to return to a world without duty. A tragic aspect of Leontes' fall is that he cannot regain the happiness of his boyhood by reenacting its irresponsibility. The consequences are not freedom, but tragedy. His delusions include a terrible betrayal of his boyhood friend.
His obsession makes him unable to rule effectively as king. Part of kingship is the ability to benefit from the counsel of wise advisors like Camillo, and here we watch as Camillo's rational advice does little but drive Leontes further into his delusions. In ordering the assassination of Polixenes, Leontes orders an act that is barbaric and potentially harmful to his state. Poisoning Polixenes will not be without repercussions for his country; the connection between the state's health and the king's personal affairs becomes clear when Camillo tells Leontes that he must not sully Hermione's honor. Hermione must be kept as queen to protect Sicilia from scandal and loss of honor among her allies. Camillo's suggestion is not only about saving face; he is concerned for the security of his country. (Significantly, Leontes will later ignore this advice and try Hermione publicly, showing further that his jealousy and failure to be a good husband compromises his ability to be a good king.) The death of Polixenes while he is a guest in Sicilia would have massive repercussions for Leontes' kingdom; his act is not only a violation of friendship, but of his important duties to his people.
Camillo, the faithful advisor, is a man of conscience. He has a powerful sense of duty; his training and talents are geared towards aiding a king to rule effectively, but he does not allow his loyalty to override his sense of right and wrong. The conflict between duty and conscience is an important theme in The Winter's Tale, and Camillo's resolves to serve his sense of right and wrong before any king. Camillo's decision ultimately makes the play's happy ending possible. His choice is the first in a series of events that protects The Winter's Tale from the momentum towards tragedy set up by Leontes' jealousy.