Summary Scene i:
The courtiers comfort Leontes, who has never forgiven himself for the deaths of Mamillius and Hermione. Paulina's words to the king include a dose of harsh honesty. Though the other courtiers want him to remarry, Paulina urges him not to do it. She reminds him of Apollo's prophecy, which proclaimed that Leontes would have no heir unless the lost daughter were found. To remarry for the purposes of producing an heir would therefore be futile. She persuades him never to remarry again unless Paulina chooses the bride. Leontes agrees, and Paulina says that if she is to have her way, he will never marry until his queen draws breath again.
A servant announces the arrival of Florizell and his wife. Because the visit is sudden and unexpected, Leontes suspects that Florizell comes because of some accident or disaster. The servant praises Florizell's wife, whom he has assumed is a princess. When he says that the princess is peerless among women past and present, Paulina takes exception to the compliment, because she will not have her old queen, Hermione, ranked second to anyone. The servant apologizes but promises that Paulina, too, will be awed by the girl.
Florizell and Perdita enter, and Leontes greets them with great emotion and warmth. Florizell pretends that Perdita is a princess of Libya, and that they are newly married. But a servant interrupts them, bringing news that Polixenes is in Sicilia. He has come for his son, who fled Bohemia with a shepherd's daughter. The Shepherd and the Shepherd's Son are with him. Florizell correctly infers that Camillo has betrayed him. To Perdita's great alarm, the servant reports that Shepherd and Shepherd's Son were begging the king for mercy, who ignored their pleas and threatened them with great harm. Leontes is not angry about the deception, and he speaks comforting words to the prince. Florizell asks Leontes to speak on behalf of the young couple, and the king promises that he will try to help them.
Summary Scene ii:
The truth about Perdita's parentage has been revealed. We never see the event happen onstage; instead, we hear about it in a conversation between three gentleman and Autolycus. When the Shepherd produced the items that he found with the infant Perdita, which included garments and jewels that belonged to Hermione and letters written by Antigonus, all those present realized the truth. The two royal families and their attendant advisors and friends were overcome by joy and sorrow. Paulina rejoiced to see the oracle fulfilled, but she mourned for the loss of her husband. Leontes was overwhelmed by the miraculous return of his daughter, but it reminded him afresh of Hermione's death. The whole scene, one gentleman promised, would have moved anyone who witnessed it. Leontes, Polixenes, Florizell, Perdita, Camillo, Paulina, and various lords have all gone to Paulina's house. There, a statue of Hermione is nearing completion. They go there to view the statue and sup together.
Alone with the audience, Autolycus says that earlier on the prince's ship he tried to tell Florizell that Perdita was a foundling, but Perdita and Florizell were too busy with seasickness to listen to him. His chances for advancement seem slim, but he takes it all in stride. The Shepherd and the Shepherd's Son enter, now decked out in fine clothes. They are overjoyed at their new good fortune, proclaiming themselves to be gentlemen; kings and courtiers have thanked them and called them brother for taking care of Perdita. Autolycus asks forgiveness for the tricks he played on them, and he also requests that they put in a good word for him with Florizell. The Shepherd's Son promises to be his advocate.
Summary Scene iii:
In Paulina's house, Paulina draws back the curtain to reveal the statue of Hermione. The statue is remarkably lifelike, and it is made to look like an older Hermione, as if the queen had lived and aged these past sixteen years. The likeness of Hermione stirs up deep emotions for Perdita, who has never known a mother. Leontes is moved to great sorrow by the statue, and Paulina offers repeatedly to draw the curtain so as to spare him pain. Paulina then offers to make the statue move, although she fears to do so if any consider this magic unnatural. At the king's urging, Paulina wakes the statue, miraculously restoring Hermione to life. All are amazed. Hermione takes her king by the hand. Paulina presents Perdita to Hermione, and the queen lovingly asks her daughter to tell her everything that has happened while the queen has been gone. Paulina encourages them to go together and enjoy the reunification of their family, while she stays behind to mourn the loss of Antigonus. Leontes tells her to leave her sorrow behind. He wants her to fulfill her vow to take a husband of the king's choosing, just as he agreed to remarry the wife she chose for him. (Although we have heard earlier of Leontes' vow to Paulina to take a wife of her choosing, this is the first time we have heard of her making a similar vow to him.) Leontes chooses Camillo, a perfect match for Paulina. For all the wrongs he committed against Polixenes and Hermione, Leontes begs forgiveness. With Paulina leading the way, the characters exit. Finally, reunited family and friends will share what has happened to them since their separation sixteen years ago.
We return in the final act to the grieving court of Sicilia, still sorrowful for the queen's death and anxious about the stability of their kingdom, which remains without an heir. Act 5 restores stability and solves the problems of both kings without any revolution. The queen and daughter Leontes lost return to him miraculously. For Polixenes, the commoner his son wanted to marry has turned out to be a princess, and no less, she is the daughter of his oldest friend.
The happy ending is fantastic, so full of magic and unlikely coincidences that characters constantly remark that if the events they have witnessed were retold as a story, no one would believe it. A "winter's tale" is a long story to be told by a warm fire, often one full of fantasy and clever invention. But the audience is not being told a story: we are allowed, along with the characters, to witness the wondrous events of the play. The most fantastic event of the show, Hermione's miraculous resurrection, is also one of the most powerful. Shakespeare's audience might have had some anxiety about the magical resurrection of the dead, but Leontes remarks that the effects of Paulina's magic are so wondrous that her craft must be embraced as natural and good. The pagan and pastoral elements of the play also help to deflect the charge of witchcraft. Act 4 immersed the audience in a healing and restorative world of nature and romance. The Greek and Christian stories of regeneration and resurrection have prepared us for this ending, as has the pagan myth of Pygmalion, in which a sculptor's creation comes to life through the aid of the gods. Lines in Act 5 foreshadow the resurrection. When Paulina tells the king that he will never marry until his wife draws breath again, the talk of Hermione's resurrection is a prediction rather than a rhetorical device. And when the gentlemen discuss the revealing of Perdita's parentage, one of them remarks that even those "most marble there changed color" (5.2.96-7). The phrase means that even the most hard-hearted were moved, but the gentleman is also unwittingly foreshadowing the restoration of the one who is literally "most marble," the statue of Hermione. She changes color when the blush of life enters her cheeks again.
In moving towards the happy ending, more than magic is required. Paulina and Hermione join the ranks of other Shakespearean women who work to preserve or restore the status quo. The two women represent vastly different kinds of feminine virtue. Hermione is the passive, obedient wife, who without question takes back the husband who caused the death of herself and her son. Paulina is the sharp-tongued, fearless, and shrewish woman who never shirks from scolding any wrongdoer, even if he happens to be the king. But Paulina, too, is ultimately loyal to Leontes and his throne. Her magic restores his wife to him, and she obeys him when he asks her to marry Camillo. Paulina is strong-willed and admirable, and her counsel is especially needed after the departure of the wise and competent Camillo, but she is no revolutionary. All of the characters of the play remain deeply loyal to the two kings. Camillo obeys his conscience, but once Leontes repents, Camillo longs to see his old master again. Shakespeare presents us with admirable heroes who speak their minds, like Paulina, or obey their consciences, like Camillo; and yet these heroes must work within the system of patriarchy and monarchy. Both heroes are distinguished by their loyalty. Kings err, but for the happy ending to be possible they must be forgiven. The play's joyous ending makes a strong statement about social bonds and monarchy; its vision of what it means to be a good king and a good subject (and also, a good husband, wife, daughter, son, father, and friend) is both optimistic and conservative. The family of Leontes provides a model for a wide array of other social structures and hierarchies, including the families of subjects and the larger family of the nation. Preservation or restoration of these structures, including restoring and protecting patriarchs who abuse their power, is the central struggle of this play.
The prophecy of the oracle gives us a sense that the hand of providence is at work. In delivering a message about truth and God, Apollo's prediction functions as Teiresias the seer functions in the plays of Sophocles: yes, there is a divine plan, and yes, sometimes parts of it are accessible to man. There is truth, something to aspire to, and there is meaning and order. Finally, the prophecy of Apollo has been fulfilled, and Perdita has returned home to be reunified with her father and mother. The play ends with restored order and great happiness. For modern audiences who have grown up under democracy and who also might view the idea of providence with great skepticism, The Winter's Tale can be a strange and even unsettling play. But its faith in existing social structures and the benign hand of the divine also make this play one of Shakespeare's most hopeful and uplifting works. In the reunification of Leontes' family and the new marriage of Perdita, The Winter's Tale leaves us with an optimistic vision of order and renewal.