Summary Scene i:
Hermione sits with her ladies-in-waiting and Mamillius. The child is mischievous and charming, delighting his mother and her ladies with irreverent humor. Leontes enters with Antigonus and various unnamed lords. They are telling him about the flight of Camillo and Polixenes, and their news makes Leontes feel certain that his suspicions were correct. He now believes that Camillo was a double agent working for Polixenes. He has Mamillius taken from Hermione, and he cruelly insults Hermione in full view of the lords and Hermione's ladies. He says that she has committed adultery, and Hermione bears his insults with dignity. When he tells her that she is to be put in prison, she insists that her ladies accompany her because she is pregnant and needs their help. The lords weep as she is escorted out, and she tells them that they would have reason to weep if she were guilty; for the innocent, suffering leads to grace. She brings her women with her as she goes to her prison.
Antigonus tries without success to make Leontes reconsider his suspicions. He professes absolute faith in the queen's virtue, but Leontes remains unconvinced. From Leontes' point of view, the truth of the matter is apparent, and he seeks no counsel from his men in determining whether or not his suspicions are correct; he has been all the more convinced by Camillo's flight. The king announces that he has sent messengers to Apollo's oracle at Delphos to ask about the queen's fidelity. Although he has no doubt as to what the answer will be, the oracle will at least put the minds of his subjects at ease.
Summary Scene ii:
Paulina, courtier and wife of Antigonus, tries to see the queen in her cell, but the guard will not let her pass. Instead, the jailer will allow Emilia, one of Hermione's ladies-in-waiting, to come out and speak for the queen. Emilia reveals that Hermione has had her baby, a healthy daughter. Paulina resolves to take the baby to the king, in hopes that the sight of his daughter will restore his senses to him. The jailer has anxieties about releasing the child, but Paulina convinces him that the baby should not be in prison. She also assures him that she will protect him from harm.
Summary Scene iii:
Leontes, alone, speaks of burning the queen to put his mind at rest. A servant enters, and from their conversation we learn that Prince Mamillius has been sick since his mother's imprisonment. Leontes tells the servant to tend to the boy. He then bemoans the fact that he cannot harm Polixenes, whose kingdom and allies put him beyond Leontes' reach. Since he cannot harm Camillo and Polixenes, he will satisfy himself by dealing with Hermione. Paulina enters, along with Antigonus, servants, and lords. She fearlessly confronts the king, defending the queen's innocence and condemning the king's tyrannical behavior. She refuses to do anything but praise the queen's character. The king mocks Antigonus for being unable to control his wife, but Paulina brushes these comments aside. She tries to convince the king that the infant is his by pointing out the strong physical resemblance between the monarch and the child, but the king remains unmoved. He keeps telling Antigonus to control his wife better, but Antigonus does not bother trying. Paulina leaves the child, hoping that Leontes will soften and come to his senses. The king orders Antigonus to destroy the child. Leontes accuses Antigonus of instructing his wife to behave as she has, which Antigonus denies, with the lords backing his word. The king refuses to believe them. He asks Antigonus what he would be willing to sacrifice to save the child's life, and Antigonus replies that he would give anything. Leontes asks him to swear to do his bidding, in order to save the life of the child, and Antigonus swears. The king orders Antigonus to take the child and leave it in a wild and remote place, to be saved or killed according to the dictates of chance. If Antigonus does not do so, he and Paulina will both be executed. Antigonus is compelled to obey because he has given his word, but he is loath to carry out the king's orders. He goes to it miserably. A servant enters with the news that Dion and Cleomenes have arrived back from the oracle. Leontes announces his attention to have the queen put on trial.
Act 2 opens with the idyllic scene of the prince playing with his mother and the ladies-in-waiting. The charm and happiness of the moment makes the contrast with the jealousy of Leontes all the more jarring. Shakespeare is giving us a glimpse of the normal pattern of their family life, which invites greater sympathy for the queen and prince and gives us a sense of what Leontes is destroying.
Leontes' delusions isolate him from his family and his court. He removes his wife and son from his company, and he continues to believe fervently in Hermione's infidelity even though everyone at court thinks the idea is ludicrous. He is completely alone in his suspicions, insisting on them most violently when someone at court tries to contradict him. These scenes reveal a king who is withdrawing further and further into his own paranoid fantasies. He interprets Camillo's flight with Polixenes as conclusive proof of his suspicions, ignoring the fact that if Camillo, Hermione, and Polixenes were innocent Camillo would do exactly the same thing. The theme of tyranny is present throughout Act 2, as Leontes' throne protects him from the need for rationality, compassion, and listening to counsel.
Paulina is one of Shakespeare's most fearless heroines, defiantly scolding the king and defending her queen. Scene Two shows us that she commands a great deal of respect in Sicilia: Emilia is relieved when she learns that Paulina will plea for Hermione to Leontes, and the jailer defers to Paulina's authority and believes her when she promises to protect him. Directors have a great deal of influence over how Act 2, Scene Three is played. In some productions, Leontes does not take Paulina seriously, and bears her mostly by ignoring her. She is able to get away with scolding him because he does not view her as an equal; this interpretation is consistent with the manner in which he tries to silence her. Notice that Leontes addresses Antigonus, Paulina's husband, rather than her. He criticizes Antigonus for being unable to control his wife, and the scene can be played to make Paulina almost comic. On the other hand, the scene can be played to make Paulina incredibly threatening. Played this way, Leontes addresses her husband because he has no idea how to deal with a strong woman. Both the comic and threatening interpretations of Paulina's character are grounded in her gender. The fact that she is a woman can mean either that she is taken less seriously by the lords or that the men are disabled by her strength.
From the characters' discussion of the oracle, we know that we are meant to assume that the oracle will speak the truth. Interestingly enough, this viewpoint was totally against the religious teachings of Shakespeare's England. Many theological writings of the time had determined that there was no divine inspiration for the oracles of the ancients, but Shakespeare asks us to take the oracle's word as truth. Throughout The Winter's Tale, Shakespeare creates an atmosphere of the fantastic, in part by creating a world in which the mythology of the ancient Greeks is accepted without rational skepticism or Christian prejudice. Significantly, the idea of a dependable oracle also grounds Truth in the play, giving characters a reliable source of judgments and a sure knowledge of divine will. The fantastic qualities of the play and the accessibility of the truth help to disarm the tragedy that Leontes' jealousy might provoke in another Shakespearean drama.