The Winter’s Tale begins in Sicily, where King Polixenes of Bohemia visits his childhood friend King Leontes and his wife Queen Hermione. They reminisce and joke until Leontes is overcome with jealousy: “Too hot, too hot!” he says to himself when watching his wife and friend together. He even wonders if his son Mamillius is really his. A convinced Leontes plots to kill Polixenes and arrest Hermione, who is pregnant.
Though Polixenes escapes with Camillo, a Sicilian nobleman, Hermione is arrested. Leontes insists on throwing a pregnant woman in prison and forcing her to stand trial after giving birth to her baby, which he refuses to believe is his. He orders to “take it [the baby] hence / And see it instantly consumed with fire.” No one believes that Hermione is unfaithful, so Leontes is persuaded to let it be abandoned in “some remote and desert place.”
Mamillius, separated from his mother, grows sick and dies. Hermione collapses, and she is also reported dead. Realizing his mistake, Leontes repents his madness—for sixteen years. Time divides the play and transitions the audience into the next section, which takes place sixteen years later. Leontes still grieves, but Perdita, the abandoned baby, has been discovered and raised by shepherds in Bohemia.
The second half of the play is comedic, featuring singing, joking, dancing, and romance. Perdita and Polixenes’s son Florizel are in love, much to the king’s chagrin. We also meet the charlatan Autolycus, who steals and sings songs. Camillo, who has been with Polixenes since their escape, convinces Florizel and Perdita to run away to Sicily, where Polixenes is forced to follow. There, Leontes reunites with his friend and eventually discovers that Perdita is his long-lost daughter.
The noblewoman Paulina, who has staunchly defended Hermione and condemned Leontes for sixteen years, decides that it is time to unveil a lifelike sculpture of Hermione. The remarkable statue appears to come to life. In fact, it is Hermione herself, who has apparently been alive but in hiding. This reconciliation unites the play’s tragic first half and comedic second half in a bittersweet conclusion.