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The Winter's Tale: Synopsis

Owen Jones and Henry Warren, drawing from Scenes from The Winter's Tale, mid-19th century

Polixenes, King of Bohemia, visits his longtime friend Leontes, King of Sicilia. Leontes, unable to convince Polixenes to extend his stay, asks his wife, Queen Hermione, to persuade him. Her success in this causes Leontes to believe that she has been unfaithful. In anger, Leontes instructs Camillo, one of his courtiers, to poison Polixenes. Camillo is reluctant, but finally agrees to kill Polixenes on the condition that Leontes restore his trust in Hermione. Leontes agrees. Camillo, however, cannot do the deed and flees with Polixenes to Bohemia.


Leontes is enraged and orders Hermione to be arrested for treason, declaring her unborn child is illegitimate. He ignores Antigonus and the other lords’ protestations, but admits that he has sent ambassadors to bring back judgment regarding Hermione’s fidelity from the Delphi Oracle. Meanwhile, the queen has given birth to a baby girl. Paulina, Antigonus’ wife, takes the princess to Leontes hoping to soften him. He refuses to accept the baby as his and orders Antigonus to leave the baby in the wilderness to die.


At her trial, Hermione expresses her desperation that the three things she cares for most – Leontes’ love, her son Mamillius, and her newborn daughter – have all been taken from her. The ambassadors return from Delphi and proclaim Hermione’s innocence. They also deliver a prophecy that Leontes "will live without an heir if that which is lost be not found." A servant rushes in, bringing news of Mamillius’ death. Hermione faints. Leontes, stricken by grief, promises to make amends to all whom he has wronged, when Paulina enters saying the queen has also died. The King vows to do penance everyday for the rest of his life.


Antigonus reaches Bohemia with the baby, whom he has named Perdita . He sets her down, along with some gold, but is then chased away and killed by a bear. A shepherd discovers the baby, and his son witnesses Antigonus’ demise. The shepherd takes the baby home to raise as his own.


Sixteen years pass. Polixenes is concerned because his son, Prince Florizell, has been spending time among the shepherds. At a sheep-shearing festival, Florizell and Perdita profess their love for each other. However, his princely status concerns her. Polixenes and Camillo, at the party in disguise, converse with Perdita and notice an unexpected nobility in her bearing. Florizell asks Perdita to marry him. Polixenes advises Florizell to ask his father for permission, but Florizell refuses. Polixenes then reveals his identity, and orders Florizell never to see Perdita again. Camillo advises the couple to flee to Sicilia and present themselves to Leontes. The couple sets off, disguised.


In Sicilia, several lords comfort Leontes in his grief. Florizell and Perdita arrive in Sicilia, and the lovers receive Leontes’ blessing. Polixenes and Camillo arrive shortly thereafter, and Leontes advocates to a furious Polixenes on behalf of the young lovers. When the shepherd reveals how he found Perdita as a baby, the kings realize that she is in fact Leontes’ daughter and is now a perfectly suitable marriage partner for Florizell. The reunited Polixenes and Leontes marvel at the fulfillment of the Oracle’s prophecy and promote the shepherd and his son to the status of gentlemen.


The reunited royal family goes to Paulina’s house to see the lifelike statue of Hermione that has just been finished. Leontes is moved by her beauty, and Perdita asks her blessing. Miraculously, Paulina summons the statue to life. Hermione steps down from the pedestal into Leontes’ arms, and welcomes her long-lost daughter. Everyone is overjoyed.


Next: The Romance Plays
  Did you know?

The source of The Winter’s Tale was a novel by Robert Greene entitled Pandosto, first published in 1588. In the novel, the main character is motivated by passionate jealousy to drive his friend away and banish his baby daughter. As a result of this, Pandosto’s wife and son die. The main differences between Greene’s novel and Shakespeare’s play are that Pandosto’s jealousy is more progressive and substantiated, whereas Leontes’ behavior is sudden and irrational. Shakespeare also adds the sheep-shearing scene, the statue scene, and numerous characters including the figure of Time. Finally, Shakespeare gives the play a happy ending with Hermione and Perdita both returning to Leontes. Greene’s novel ends as a tragedy.

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