Summary Scene i:
Cleomenes and Dion, the courtiers dispatched by Leontes to the oracle at Delphi, speak with wonder about the ceremony they witnessed at the shrine. They hope that the oracle's judgment will help Queen Hermione.
Summary Scene ii:
The trial of Hermione. With dignity and restraint, Hermione defends her chastity and condemns the injustice that has been done to her. Leontes remains as stubborn and angry as ever, attacking and threatening Hermione while she counters him eloquently. An officer breaks the seal on the message from the oracle and reads: Hermione, Polixenes, and Camillo are innocent and Leontes is a jealous tyrant. The oracle also predicts that Leontes will be without an heir unless the lost daughter is found.
The court is delighted, but Leontes denounces the words of the oracle as false. But then a servant enters, bringing terrible news: Prince Mamillius is dead, killed by anxiety about his mother's fate. Leontes believes that the gods have killed the child as punishment to the king, and finally he realizes that he has been in error. Hermione swoons, and is helped out of the room by Paulina and several officers. Leontes is now fully penitent, asking the gods' forgiveness and promising to make amends. Paulina reenters and lashes out at the king, condemning his tyranny and jealousy. Hermione is dead. Paulina continues to rebuke the king harshly, but when she sees his grief and penitence she regrets her roughness. Leontes says that he will have queen and prince buried in the same grave, and he will grieve for the rest of his days.
Summary Scene iii:
Antigonus, carrying the baby, enters with a mariner. They have set down on the shores of Bohemia, and the sailor is nervous because the sky is threatening. He fears the gods are angry with them because of what they are doing, and he warns Antigonus not to wander too far or too long, because this land is famous for its wild beasts. After the sailor exits, Antigonus tells the baby that he saw Hermione's spirit last night in a dream. The ghost wept and then told him that the child's name is Perdita, because she is lost. Hermione's ghost also informed Antigonus that because of his hand in the child's abandonment, Antigonus will never see his wife again. Antigonus believes that the dream is a sign of Hermione's death. He has either come to believe or forced himself to believe Leontes' suspicions, and so he is abandoning the child in the wilds of Bohemia, the land of her supposed father. He leaves the child with a bundle and a box. He regrets his task, but he feels bound by his oath. Then he suddenly exits, pursued by a bear.
A Shepherd wanders onstage, complaining about young people and looking for two lost sheep; instead of finding them, he stumbles onto Perdita. He believes she must be the unwanted illegitimate offspring of two servants, and he resolves to take care of her. His son enters, having just witnessed two fantastic scenes. On the sea, a ship was swallowed up by the waves, and on land, a bear killed and began to devour a nobleman. The Shepherd's Son has no idea who these victims were, although the audience knows immediately that he is talking about Antigonus and the ship that carried him from Sicilia. The Shepherd feels pity for the dead, but he also has great hope for the child that he has found: "Thou met'st with things dying, I with things newborn" (3.3.119-20). The Shepherd and his son find that the box left with the baby is full of gold, and he now believes that the child is a changeling, a child left by fairies. The Shepherd's Son announces his intent to return to the scene of the bear attack so he can bury whatever is left of the nobleman's body.
We see in the exchange between Cleomenes and Dion that the people of Sicilia have a great deal of respect and love for Queen Hermione. When put on trial, she is an exemplar of a specific kind of strength. Although the setting is pagan, her forbearance and resolve follow Christian models of virtue, particularly passive and feminine virtue. She wishes that her father, the emperor of Russia, might see her, but to provide comfort rather than a means to revenge. Her suffering is almost completely passive; she trusts to the gods to provide testimony on her behalf, and chooses to nobly endure suffering rather than try to escape or more actively oppose the king. At the end of the play, when she is miraculously restored, she takes him back without question. One of The Winter's Tale's important themes is the drive to preserve and restore order, with that order being embodied in patriarchy, the king, and the royal family. Ironically, women like Hermione and Paulina are often the key preservers of this patriarchal order. Hermione's virtue comes in part through her sense of her place; although she criticizes Leontes' treatment of her, she is ultimately obedient to her husband. When on trial, she points out that the love she showed Polixenes was consistent with what Leontes himself commanded, and this obedience to her husband's will is part of why people praise her. Although Leontes behaves like a tyrant, no character tries to remove the king from his throne. The action of the play is to repair the damage caused by Leontes' jealousy, but note what characters are not willing to do: Camillo flees, Hermione endures, and Paulina, though she criticizes the king, will eventually restore his wife to him. Unlike tragedy, where a man of high position falls because of excesses or flaws in his character, here that momentum is totally disarmed. A happy ending is possible because so many characters, though critical of Leontes' tyranny, are ultimately loyal to him and work tirelessly to restore to him what he himself has destroyed. When obedience to Leontes becomes impossible because of the dictates of conscience, loyalty to his office and position remains. Paulina confronts him fearlessly, but even she tells the lord who bars her way that she comes to bring Leontes comfort and sleep. And once she sees that Leontes is remorseful, she forgives him even though he has caused the death of Hermione and Mamillius, and eventually causes the death of Paulina's husband. Camillo, who of all the king's beloved most directly disobeys him, must immediately replace his old master with a new one. Camillo is incomplete without a monarch to serve. And even Camillo, in the end, will long to return to Sicilia and the king that he could not obey with a clear conscience.
The king's recognition of his error and his subsequent remorse come about as suddenly as did his jealousy. Though we are meant to take the word of the oracle as truth, Leontes initially does not. The much-awaited word of the oracle is quickly brushed aside, and it is the death of his son moments later that suddenly convinces Leontes that he has been wrong. The king believes that he is being punished by Apollo. But why should he interpret the boy's death this way, when moments earlier he was convinced that he was not Mamillius' true father? It is possible to argue that Mamillius' death convinces him of the oracle's accuracy because it fulfills the prediction that Leontes would go without an heir until the retrieval of his daughter. And yet that explanation seems unconvincing, because Leontes' remorse comes so quickly after he hears the news of Mamillius' death; there seems to be no time to realize that the oracle's prophecy is being fulfilled. Leontes himself certainly never explains his reversal this way. He comes around because he interprets the boy's death as retribution from the gods, even though other explanations seem more plausible.
Shakespeare's portrayal of Leontes' remorse is not about a triumph of reason. Instead, the king's reversal is a canny and penetrating depiction of the power of guilt, which, in this case, is strong enough to break down Leontes' delusions. Although until now he has persevered in his fantasies with the single-mindedness of a madman, there are signs earlier in the play that some part of him recognizes the truth. In Act 2, Scene Three, he hears the news about Mamillius' illness with some degree of concern, and he instructs the servant to make sure that the child is given proper care. Is this compassion normal for Leontes? In that same scene, he orders his infant daughter to death by exposure to the elements and thinks happily of setting fire to his wife: clearly, he is not feeling any strong need to treat anyone with compassion or mercy. Yet some concern remains for his boy. In Act 3, his sudden remorse betrays some knowledge Leontes must have of his wife's faithfulness. He can only interpret Mamillius' death as punishment if he believes that the child is his. Mamillius' sudden death from sickness, caused by the boy's anxiety, which in turn was caused by the king's treatment of Hermione, finally sticks to Leontes' conscience. Sorrow and then guilt set in, accomplishing what the words of the oracle could not. Leontes has deliberately persevered in his delusions, isolating himself from love of his wife and son, from compassion, and from his court. Guilt returns him to them.
A close look at Antigonus and Camillo illuminates the important theme of conflict between loyalty and conscience. Shakespeare sets up strong parallels between Camillo and Antigonus, making each man an alternate version of the other (Hu 1). The difference is that Camillo follows his conscience. Although he has told his king that he will commit murder, instead he chooses to help the intended victim to escape. Antigonus, on the other hand, sticks to his oath and leaves an infant to what seems to be a certain death. The gods do not validate his choice: although the ghost of Hermione seems to recognize that Antigonus acts under extreme pressure (remember that he obeys the king to protect his own life and the life of his wife, Paulina), the gods still punish him for his role in Perdita's abandonment. Self-deception has been necessary for him to be able to do what he knows is wrong: although he previously defended Hermione's virtue, in Scene Three he seems to have accepted that Perdita is a bastard. To ease his conscience, he has convinced himself that Leontes' absurd suspicions are the truth. Shakespeare calls attention to Antigonus' failure through the character's name. It is a male form of "Antigone," the great heroine of Sophocles' drama who defies the king and dies for her beliefs (Hu 5). Although Sophocles' play was not performed for the English audiences of Shakespeare's time, the story was known, and Antigonus' ignoble and comic death becomes all the more embarrassing in light of Antigone's glorious martyrdom.
His comic death at the hands of an angry bear is a rich moment. Many critics have pointed to his death as the play's moment of transformation from tragedy to comedy and romance. The Shepherd calls attention to Scene Three as a time of contrasts and cycles. His son finds death, but the Shepherd finds life; the rest of the play will move towards repairing the damage that Leontes has caused. Bears hibernate during the winter and then emerge during spring, acting out the death and rebirth alluded to by the shepherd. The fact that Perdita is found by shepherds also has obvious Christian connotations. Like the good shepherd of Christ's parables, the Shepherd is looking for his lost sheep. He finds the infant instead, and immediately the old man feels compassion for the child. Shakespeare synthesizes Christian and pagan worldviews to create a new myth of death and rebirth in The Winter's Tale, and miraculous death and rebirth is one of the play's most important themes. The next act is set in the countryside during a time of feasting, and the pastoral setting is a welcome change from the oppressive atmosphere of the tyrant-ruled Sicilian court.