What happens in The Winter's Tale?

In The Winter's Tale, King Leontes plots to kill his friend, King Polixenes of Bohemia. Leontes imprisons his wife and orders that his newborn daughter be left to die in the woods. Much later, he realizes the consequences of his actions. In the end, Leontes and Polixenes reconcile.

  • Leontes suddenly becomes jealous of his friend, Polixenes. He attempts to kill Polixenes, but is foiled by the would-be poisoner, Camillo, who warns Polixenes of the danger.

  • Leontes imprisons his wife Hermione, who bears him a daughter, Perdita. Leontes orders that Perdita be left in the woods. Her fate is unknown for many years.

  • Leontes' wife and son both die. Sixteen years later, Perdita falls in love with Camillo, and a remorseful Leontes gives them his blessing to marry.

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Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 2,002 words.)