Polixenes, the king of Bohemia, is the guest of Leontes, the king of Sicilia. The two men were friends since boyhood, and there is much celebrating and joyousness during the visit. At last Polixenes decides that he must return to his home country. Leontes urges him to extend his visit, but Polixenes refuses, saying that he has not seen his young son for a long time. Then Leontes asks Hermione, his wife, to try to persuade Polixenes to remain. When Polixenes finally yields to her pleas, Leontes becomes suspicious and concludes that Hermione and Polixenes must be lovers and that he is cuckolded.
Leontes is generally of a jealous disposition, and he seeks constant reassurance that his son, Mamillius, is his own offspring. Having now, out of jealousy, misjudged his wife and his old friend, Leontes becomes so angry that he orders Camillo, his chief counselor, to poison Polixenes. All Camillo’s attempts to dissuade Leontes from his scheme only strengthen the jealous man’s feelings of hate. Nothing can persuade the king that Hermione is true to him. Eventually Camillo agrees to poison Polixenes, but only on condition that Leontes return to Hermione with no more distrust.
Polixenes notices a change in Leontes’ attitude toward him. When he questions Camillo, the sympathetic lord reveals the plot to poison him. Together, they hastily embark for Bohemia.
Upon learning that Polixenes and Camillo fled, Leontes is more than ever convinced that his guest and his wife are guilty of carrying on an affair. He conjectures that Polixenes and Camillo were plotting together all the while and planning his murder. Moreover, he decides that Hermione, who is pregnant, is in all likelihood bearing Polixenes’ child and not his. Publicly he accuses Hermione of adultery and commands that her son be taken from her. She herself is imprisoned. Although his servants protest the order, Leontes is adamant.
In prison, Hermione gives birth to a baby girl. Paulina, her attendant, thinks that the sight of the baby girl might cause Leontes to relent, so she carries the child to the palace. Instead of forgiving his wife, Leontes becomes more incensed and demands that the child be put to death. He instructs Antigonus, Paulina’s husband, to take the baby to a far-off desert shore and there abandon it. Although the lord pleads to be released from this cruel command, he is forced to put out to sea for the purpose of leaving the child to perish on some lonely coast.
Leontes sends two messengers to consult the Oracle of Delphi to determine Hermione’s guilt. When the men return, Leontes summons his wife and the whole court to hear the verdict. The messengers read a scroll that states that Hermione is innocent, as are Polixenes and Camillo, that Leontes is a tyrant, and that he will live without an heir until that which is lost is found.
The king, refusing to believe the oracle, declares its findings false and again accuses Hermione of infidelity. In the middle of his tirade, a servant rushes in to say that young Mamillius died because of sorrow and anxiety over his mother’s plight. On hearing this, Hermione falls into a swoon and is carried to her chambers. Soon afterward, Paulina returns to announce that her mistress is dead. At this news Leontes, who begins to believe the oracle after news of his son’s death, beats his breast with rage at himself. He reproaches himself bitterly for the insane jealousy that led to these unhappy events. In repentance, the king swears that he will have the legend of the deaths of his son and wife engraved on their tombstones and that he himself will do penance thereafter.
Meanwhile, Antigonus takes the baby girl to a desert country near the sea. Heartsick at having to abandon her, the old courtier lays a bag of gold and jewels by her with instructions that she should be called Perdita, a name revealed to him in a dream. After he does this, he is attacked and killed by a bear. Later, his ship is wrecked in a storm and all hands are lost. Although no news of the expedition reaches Sicilia, the kind shepherd who finds Perdita also sees the deaths of Antigonus and his men.
Sixteen years pass, bringing with them many changes. Leontes is a broken man, grieving alone in his palace. Perdita grows into a beautiful and a charming young woman under the care of the shepherd. She is so lovely that Prince Florizel, the son of Polixenes and heir to the throne of Bohemia, falls madly in love with her.
Unaware of the girl’s background, and knowing only that his son is in love with a young shepherdess, Polixenes and Camillo, now his most trusted servant, disguise themselves and visit a sheep-shearing festival, where they see Florizel, dressed as a shepherd, dancing with a lovely young woman. Although he realizes that the shepherdess is of noble bearing, Polixenes in great rage forbids his son to marry her. Florizel thereupon makes secret plans to elope with Perdita to a foreign country. Camillo, pitying the young couple, advises Florizel to embark for Sicilia and to pretend that he is a messenger of goodwill from the king of Bohemia. Camillo supplies the young man with letters of introduction to Leontes. It is part of Camillo’s plan to inform Polixenes of the lovers’ escape and to travel to Sicilia to find them, thus taking advantage of the situation to return home once more.
The poor shepherd, frightened by the king’s wrath, decides to tell Polixenes how, years before, he found the baby and a bag of gold and jewels by her side. Fate intervenes, however, and the shepherd is intercepted by the rogue Autolycus and put aboard the ship sailing to Sicilia.
Soon Florizel and Perdita arrive in Sicilia, followed by Polixenes and Camillo. When the old shepherd hears how Leontes lost a daughter, he describes the finding of Perdita. Leontes, convinced that Perdita is his own abandoned infant, is joyfully reunited with his daughter. When he hears this, Polixenes immediately gives his consent to the marriage of Florizel and Perdita. The only sorrowful circumstance to mar the happiness of all concerned is the earlier tragic death of Hermione.
One day, Paulina asks Leontes to visit a newly erected statue of the dead woman in Hermione’s chapel. Leontes, ever faithful to the memory of his dead wife—even to the point of promising Paulina never to marry again—gathers his guests and takes them to view the statue. Standing in the chapel, amazed at the wonderful lifelike quality of the work, they hear strains of soft music. Suddenly the statue descends from its pedestal and is revealed as the living Hermione. She spent the sixteen years in seclusion while awaiting some word of her daughter. The happy family is reunited, and Hermione completely forgives her repentant husband. He and Polixenes are again the best of friends, rejoicing in the happiness of Perdita and Florizel.