In a literary work such as a play or novel, exposition refers to the part of the plot that is laid out in the early sections and provides the necessary background information about the work’s setting, characters, and situation. In a play, exposition is generally provided through dialogue but may be delivered by a single character in a monologue or aside.
Act 1 of The Winter’s Tale establishes that the setting is the Sicilian court of King Leontes. This act identifies the main characters and some important minor ones and reveals key aspects of their relationships, which include marriage and friendship. The expository part also establishes the primary theme of jealousy and its relationship to loyalty and deception. The concluding scene of the act shows how Lord Camillo is torn between different kinds of loyalty and how the evil consequences of unfounded jealousy can destroy even the oldest friendship.
The expository part of the act begins with a conversation between Lord Archidamus of Bohemia and Lord Camillo of Sicily, which explains the long-term friendship between their respective kings, Polixenes and Leontes. In the next scene, as Polixenes prepares to return home, the conversation between the kings provides background on the events of the nine months that he has been staying with Leontes. Through Polixenes’s subsequent conversation with Leontes’s wife, Hermione, the audience learns more of the deep friendship between the men.
Another key element of the exposition is to contrast the loving relationship between Leontes and Hermione to the men’s friendship; this provides a reason for Leontes’s subsequent jealousy. Leontes is torn because he believes that the two people closest to him have both betrayed him by having an affair. He delivers this information in an aside, in which the character’s thoughts are spoken aloud for the audience’s benefit.
Further information concerns the trusting relationship between Leontes and his loyal follower Camillo. The limits of loyalty are demonstrated when Camillo agrees to kill Polixenes but then informs him of the plot. Through this pair of exchanges, the audience learns that Leontes has come unhinged. Camillo, recognizing his master’s “sickness,” must betray his king in hopes of supporting the well-being of his country. This decision leads him to inform Polixenes of the murder plot and to agree to escort him and his company to safety.