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The Winter's Tale: Plot Summary

From Stories of Shakespeare's Comedies by Helene Adeline Guerber. New York: Dodd, Mead and company..

Act I

When the curtain rises for the first act on an antechamber in Leontes' palace, in Sicilia, we overhear his councillor Camillo talking with a follower of the King of Bohemia. They are discussing the meeting between their masters, who, after having been brought up together, and separated for years, have been enjoying a renewal of their former friendship. They also mention the little prince of Sicilia, Mamillius, who promises to become a fine man, although at present merely an engaging child.

The second scene is played in a state apartment of the same palace, where Leontes enters with his family, guests, and train, and where Polixenes, King of Bohemia, courteously states it is time to bid his host farewell, and return to his own kingdom. Although Leontes warmly urges his friend to prolong his sojourn, his entreaties prove vain, until he turns to his wife, Hermione, suggesting she try her skill. With grace and eloquence, Hermione, at his request, uses such persuasive arguments that Polixenes finally yields, and enters into sprightly conversation with her, describing his happy youth with her husband, and his grief at their long separation.

Meantime, Leontes, perceiving his wife's persuasions have proved more efficacious than his own, exclaims she never spoke to better purpose save when he wooed her, and she consented to become his wife! This praise so elates Hermione that she prizes herself happy in having spoken twice to such good purpose that she earned a royal spouse, and a worthy friend. Her innocent joy, however, kindles the jealousy of Leontes, who suddenly fancies she is speaking too warmly of their guest. With keen suspicion he begins watching wife and guest, pretending meanwhile to play with his boy, and soon concludes they have some secret understanding. This discovery causes him such jealous pangs, that, seizing Mamillius, he questions whether he is his offspring. Although the child's marked resemblance to himself clearly proves his legitimacy, Leontes nevertheless deems his wife faithless, and frowns so portentously that he rouses the wonder of his guest, who asks Hermione what can cause her husband's irritation?

Urged to speak by wife and friend, Leontes pretends to have been dreaming over the past, when he, too, was a mere lad. Then he asks whether Polixenes loves Florizel as dearly as he does Mamillius, whereupon the King of Bohemia enthusiastically declares his boy makes 'a July day short as December,' for him. A moment later, Leontes bids Hermione, if she loves him, show their guest all courtesy, and considers her unsuspecting obedience such hypocrisy that he mutters she is wooing his guest beneath his very eyes. He, therefore, grimly watches them out of sight, speaks roughly to his boy, and murmurs that wives have often proved faithless, and that he is suffering the usual lot of mankind.

Such is Leontes' state of raging jealousy that it disquiets the child ; and when the lad has gone, the king turns to Camillo, his counsellor, and remarks their guest is going to stay. Because Camillo replies he does so only on account of Hermione's entreaties the jealous husband fancies he is already a laughing-stock for the Sicilians. Drawing Camillo apart, therefore, he accuses him of being a coward or faithless, which latter suspicion the counsellor can truthfully deny. Still, knowing his master's nature, he temperately bids Leontes point out in what way he has transgressed, promising to atone for his shortcomings as soon as possible. But, when Leontes expresses suspicions of the honour of guest and wife, Camillo waxes indignant that so noble a lady should be traduced. This causes Leontes to demand angrily whether 'whispering is nothing?' But when he describes the actions of his wife and guest from his jaundiced point of view, Camillo rejoins he is suffering from a diseased imagination, and urges him to cure it betimes, lest the complaint become dangerous.

In his wrath at being misunderstood, Leontes taxes Camillo with lying, adding that he himself has been blind for months, during which his guest and wife have systematically deceived him. Suddenly, he orders Camillo to poison his guest, and thus avenge his honour; so, seeing him determined to dispose of Polixenes, and dreading lest he entrust the task to some one else, Camillo pretends to consent, after providing, as he fancies, for the queen's restoration to favour. Warmly thanking Camillo, and assuring him that by this deed he will win half his master's heart, Leontes adds the grim threat that, in case he does not obey, he will lose his life!

No sooner has Leontes left the room than Camillo muses upon Hermione's sad plight, and his own quandary, being compelled to turn poisoner or forfeit life. Even if others, similarly placed, have stricken down anointed kings, he feels he cannot soil his hands with such a crime, so decides to leave home. Just then Polixenes joins him, remarking that he seems to have fallen suddenly out of favour at the Sicilian court. He relates how Leontes has just passed him, with such looks of scorn that he was barely recognisable. Then, perceiving Camillo is aware of the reason for this strange conduct, Polixenes urges him to reveal all he knows. After some demur, Camillo advises the King of Bohemia to leave Sicilia secretly, because his host intends to slay him for making love to his wife. On hearing this absurd charge, Polixenes indignantly refutes it, and conscious of irreproachable conduct, declares this is 'the greatest infection that e'er was heard or read!'

When Camillo explains that his master has sworn his guest shall die, and has forced upon him a cruel alternative, Polixenes accepts his suggestion that they slip away together at nightfall, and, embarking on his waiting ship, escape from a land where it is no longer safe for them to sojourn. After promising Camillo a warm welcome in Bohemia, Polixencs expresses compassion for the queen, whom, however, he dares not try to defend, lest he increase Leontes' jealous suspicions.

Act II

When the curtain rises on the second act, we see a room in Leontes' palace, where Hermione and her attendants are playing with Mamillius, who, like all the poet's children, is a frightfully precocious lad. The ladies talk to him and before him as if he were grown up, teasing him in particular in regard to the coming brother or sister, who will soon supplant him in his mother's affections. Preferring Hermione to all the rest, the boy finally sits down beside her, and, after stating that 'a sad tale's best for winter,' volunteers to tell one of his own.

He has scarcely begun whispering it, when Leontes angrily enters with Antigonus, — his chief adviser, — and several retainers. He has just heard of the flight of Polixenes, who was seen vanishing behind the pines in Camillo's company, and traced to the vessel now disappearing from sight, and taking them beyond his reach. This report duly confirms Leontes in the belief that Camillo has betrayed him, and was party to his wife's wrong-doing.

Snatching his boy from Hermione's arms, he hisses it is fortunate she never nursed him, and when she wonderingly inquires whether he can be joking, orders the child removed from her custody. Then, after decreeing she shall never see Mamillius again, he sends her off to prison, accusing her of infidelity! Amazed by such a charge, Hermione proudly rejoins that had a villain said so, he would be base indeed, ere she humbly assures her angry spouse he is mistaken. But Leontes, too jealous to hear reason, goes on reviling her, although she realizes he will be sorely grieved when he comes to the 'clearer knowledge,' that he has disgraced her without cause.

Unwilling to listen to her, Leontes banishes her to prison, where she entreats some of her women may accompany her, as she will soon need their care. Having obtained this favour, Hermione goes off to her cell without further protest than that she hopes, for the first time in her life, to see her husband sorry!

Horrified by the scene they have just witnessed, the lords, headed by Antigonus, now implore their monarch not to act rashly, reminding him that he attacks his own reputation as well as that of his wife and heir. When one of them offers to lay down his life in proof of Hermione's innocence, Antigonus adds he will never trust his own consort again, if the queen has failed in her duty. These protests only exasperate Leontes, who insists upon carrying out his revenge in his own fashion, reiterating that the flight of Polixenes and Camillo proves their guilt. When the courtiers feebly suggest he should seek advice on so weighty a question, Leontes says he has sent messengers to Apollo's temple at Delphi, and that their return with a sealed oracle will settle the matter. Hearing this, the lords are reassured, for they feel certain the gods will protect Hermione's innocence.

We are next transferred to the prison, where Paulina, wife of Antigonus, has come to visit Hermione. When she asks for the jailor, he promptly appears, but only with difficulty yields to her entreaties sufficiently to allow her to see one of the queen's attendants. The jailor, in introducing Emilia, announces he will have to be present at their conference, as the king has given orders that the prisoners be constantly watched. In this momentous interview Emilia reveals how her poor mistress, shaken by past emotions, has prematurely given birth to a little daughter, and relates how she welcomed her new treasure with the pathetic cry, 'my poor prisoner, I am as innocent as you.'

The visitor, fully convinced of this fact, now sends word to Hermione, that if she will only entrust the babe to her, she will carry it to the king, in hopes that its innocence will plead for its wronged mother. This suggestion is seized with delight by Emilia, because her mistress has expressed a great desire that some friend should take this very step. With the assurance that she will use all her eloquence to plead Hermione's cause, Paulina sends Emilia back to the queen, and bargains with the jailor to let the babe leave the prison.

The curtain next rises in a room in the palace, where Leontes is brooding over his wife's supposed adultery and his own terrible wrongs. Suddenly, he sends a servant to inquire for his son, Mamillius being dangerously ill through fretting over his mother's disgrace. In fact, the child has been sinking so fast that his father is very anxious; but even while waiting for tidings, he reverts to the bitter thought that Camillo and Polixenes are laughing at him, and grimly adds they should not do so, could he only reach them!

It is while he is rejoicing that his wife, at leasts is still in his power, that a clamour arises in the antechamber, where Antigonus and other lords try to prevent Paulina from entering. Browbeating them all, Paulina forces her way into Leontes' presence, closely followed by her protesting husband. Seeing her appear thus, Leontes discharges his wrath upon Antigonus, reminding him that he ordered Paulina should not be admitted under any pretext. When Antigonus tries to excuse himself under plea he could not prevent it, Leontes indignantly demands whether he is not able to rule his wife. But, without giving her husband a chance to reply, Paulina declares he cannot prevent her doing what honour requires, adding that she has come in the name of the good queen. Because Leontes starts angrily at this adjective, the tactless Paulina insists that, were she only a man, she would fight in Hermione's behalf; then, depositing the helpless babe at Leontes' feet, she reports that the good queen sends his little daughter for his blessing. Starting back from the bundle as if it contained some loathsome object, Leontes furiously orders it removed, thereby rousing Paulina's indignation to such a pitch, that she gives him a vehement piece of her mind. In his paroxysm of rage, Leontes roars that the child is to be removed, while Paulina just as emphatically forbids any one touching it, attacking Leontes and all who try to silence her. But, although she persistently points out the child's resemblance to its father, and although Antigonus intercedes, Leontes refuses to acknowledge his offspring. His match in obstinacy, Paulina reiterates it is his, and leaves the apartment without it.

When she has gone, Leontes vents some of his anger upon Antigonus by ordering him to have the child burned alive under penalty of death. Hoping to free himself from blame, Antigonus calls the other lords to witness how he tried to prevent his wife from approaching the king, and all present exculpate him and intercede for the babe. Because Antigonus volunteers to pawn what little blood he has left to save the child, Leontes promises its life shall be safe provided Antigonus obeys his orders. Thus wringing a solemn oath from too trustful a servant, the cruel Leontes next bids Antigonus carry the babe off to some remote spot, and there abandon it, 'without more mercy, to its own protection and favour of the climate.' Bound by oath to fulfil these commands, Antigonus tenderly picks up the babe, and departs, fervently hoping wolves and bears, — who have occasionally shown tenderness for helpless human beings, — will prove more compassionate to it than its father. While he goes out, Leontes, still a prey to jealous delusions, grimly mutters he 'will not rear another's issue.'

A few moments after Antigonus' departure, a servant announces the return of the messengers from Delphi, bringing Apollo's sealed oracle. Their return, in twenty-three days time, seems nothing short of miraculous to Leontes, who summons all present to witness the trial of his disloyal wife, for he declares he will be just, although his heart will be a burden to him as long as she lives.


The third act opens just as the two Sicilian lords, sent in quest of the oracle, land in their native isle, and comment upon its delightful climate. Their minds are still full of their eventful journey, which, they hope, may prove so successful, that the sealed oracle they bring will free the queen from all suspicion.

The curtain next rises on the court of justice, where Leontes proclaims that, although it grieves him, he has been obliged to summon his wife to account for her conduct. Then, the prisoner appears, still weak and pale, supported by Paulina and other attendants, and an officer reads aloud an indictment accusing Hermione of conspiring with Camillo to slay her husband in order to marry Polixenes. Sadly rejoining it is useless to plead not guilty, since every word she utters is accounted a falsehood, Hermione bids them consider her past life, urging that if she ever said or did anything to give rise to suspicion, she wishes to know it, as she has always been faithful to the husband who accuses her so wantonly. When Leontes contemptuously retorts that criminals of her kind never lack the effrontery to excuse themselves, she rejoins that has never been one of her characteristics, adding that she loved Polixenes only as her duty required, and that her persuasions to him were made at her husband's request. As for Camillo, she warmly defends him as an honest man, and states she cannot conceive why he secretly left court.

When Leontes angrily insists that she knew of Camillo's departure, Hermione fails to understand him, and when he repeats that she is ' past all shame,' she pathetically states she is unhappy enough, having been robbed of her place as wife, deprived of the sight of her son and of her new-born treasure, to call forth no further cruelty on his part. Then, in her desperation, she appeals to Apollo, and, while the messengers are sent for, exclaims that her father, the Emperor of Russia, would pity her were he to see her.

At this juncture, the messengers appear, and solemnly testify that they have been to Delphi, and that the oracle they bring was handed to them, sealed, by Apollo's priest. In the presence of the assembly, an officer breaks the seal, and reads aloud a statement declaring Hermione chaste, Polixenes blameless, Camillo loyal, Leontes a jealous tyrant, the innocent babe his offspring, and decreeing he shall * live without an heir, if that which is lost be not found.' In their relief at Hermione's acquittal, the lords give spontaneous thanks to Apollo, but Leontes, still too angry to credit the oracle, hotly declares it is a falsehood.

He is just ordering the trial to proceed as if no oracle had been given, when a servant rushes in, reporting that Mamillius has died, news which causes the father to realize that Apollo is angry, and the poor mother to swoon from grief. Vowing this last blow has killed her mistress, Paulina gladly obeys Leontes when he bids her bear the queen away and try and revive her.

Brought by calamity to his senses, Leontes now humbly begs Apollo's pardon for failing to respect his oracle, promises to be reconciled to Polixenes, to recall Camillo, — whose reputation he clears by revealing how basely he tried to induce him to poison his guest, — and to 'new woo' his queen. Scarcely has Leontes finished this recantation, when Paulina staggers in full of woe, to announce that Leontes' cruel behaviour has slain his wife! In reviling him, she pitilessly sets forth how many lives have been blasted by his jealousy, for she rightly ascribes to him not only the death of his son and that of his wife, but the exposure of his daughter. Unable to believe Hermione dead, Leontes forces Paulina to repeat her tidings and describe the tests which proved life extinct. Then, conscious of deserving the severe punishments Paulina ruthlessly calls down upon him, Leontes displays such grief that even this accuser pities him and begs his forgiveness, declaring she reviled him so hotly only because of her love for his wife and children. In his grief, Leontes begs to be taken where the corpses lie, vowing one grave shall hold them both, and that he will water it with his tears, for he is now a thoroughly repentant, broken-hearted man.

The curtain next rises on the desert coast of Bohemia, where Antigonus has just arrived with the unhappy babe he must abandon in obedience to the king's orders. Besides, in a vision which visited him on shipboard, Hermione herself bade him call the babe Perdita, and expose her in Bohemia. Convinced by this apparition that Hermione is dead, and that Perdita is Polixenes' daughter — since she has been sent to his realm, — Antigonus lays down the babe, and has barely bidden it a touching farewell, when a huge bear comes toward him. Antigonus and this bear have scarcely rushed out of sight, when a shepherd appears, grumbling that youths should be suppressed between the ages of ten and twenty-three, as during that time they are prone only to mischief. While talking thus, he stumbles across the abandoned babe, whom he deems the illegitimate offspring of some youthful couple.

While he is investigating his find, his son, — who is dubbed a clown in the play, — rejoins him, crying he has just beheld two awful sights, a bear devouring a stranger, who only had time to cry his name was Antigonus, and a ship sinking in a tempest before his very eyes! Then his father calls his attention to the babe, who is robed in rich garments, and has jewels and gold enough beside her to make them rich as long as they live. The father finally concludes to take the foundling home, while the son goes off to ascertain whether the bear has finished dining on Antigonus, and whether he has left any remains to be buried.

Act IV

The fourth act opens with the apparition of Father Time, who proclaims that sixteen years have elapsed since the previous events, and that another turn of his glass will reveal how Leontes has repented of his jealousy, and how his daughter has grown up in Bohemia, where she is now beloved by Prince Florizel, although he deems her naught but a shepherd lass.

The curtain rises on Polixenes' palace, just as he IS conversing with Camillo, who is anxious to return to Sicilia, now that he no longer need fear Leontes' wrath. During his sojourn, in Bohemia, CamiUo has been Polixenes' chief adviser, so he consents to postpone his return home, on hearing the King of Bohemia still needs his aid. It transpires that Polixenes is troubled by a report that his son is in love with a shepherdess, and that, disguised, he wishes to attend the sheep-shearing festival with CamiUo, and thus discover whether the prince is seriously entangled.

We next see a road near the shepherd's cottage, along which strolls Autolycus, the peddler, singing a merry song. When it is finished, he murmurs that, having been born under the planet Mercury, he is justified in stealing all he can. Autolycus is the archtype of a merry rogue, and no sooner sees the clown, than he deems him a likely subject for his mischievous arts. Meanwhile, the clown is laboriously trying to calculate how much his fleeces will bring, and to remember all the articles his adopted sister bade him purchase for the sheep-shearing festival, where all their neighbours are to be entertained.

As the clown draws near, Autolycus grovels on the ground; loudly calling for aid. When the innocent rustic compassionately approaches, he is implored to remove the sufferer's clothes, but avers that, dirty and ragged as they seem, they are better than none. The rogue, however, rejoins that he has been robbed and beaten, his good apparel taken from him, and nothing but rags left to cover him. Not only does the gullible down believe every word Autolycus says, but gently helps him to rise, little suspecting that while he does so his pocket is cleverly picked. After comforting Autolycus, — who tells a most extraordinary tale, — the clown goes off to do his errands, while the rascal congratulates himself upon having robbed him, and having learned about the sheep-shearing feast, where he will be able to practise some of his arts. He, therefore, leaves the scene, singing how 'a merry heart goes all the day, your sad tires in a mile-a.'

We are now transferred to the shepherd's holding, where Prince Florizel, in guise of a rural swain, is wooing Perdita, who playfully tries to turn aside his compliments. When she states, however, that she trembles lest his father should discover them by accident, and resent all this secrecy, Florizel avers that the gods, themselves, assumed disguises, and quotes instances where deities transformed themselves into beasts. Besides, he is so earnest in his wooing that he tells Perdita, if he cannot be hers, he will never marry at all, and implores her not to look sad when so many guests are coming, but to wear as cheerful a countenance as if this was to be their wedding day.

A host of shepherds and shepherdesses now come trooping in, the disguised Polixenes and Camillo among them. Ushering in his guests fussily, the old shepherd chides his adopted daughter for not being everywhere at once, like his wife on similar occasions, and bids her welcome the strangers. With modest grace, Perdita offers the strangers flowers, and Polixenes, seizing this opportunity, begins to converse with her, pointing out that different kinds of flowers do not blend together successfully. Although only half understanding his veiled allusions, the maiden lovingly discourses about her garden, disclosing, while doing so, the delicacy and purity of her mind. Her talk not only enraptures Florizel, who hovers close beside her, but wrings from Polixenes the admission that she is 'the prettiest low-born lass that ever ran on the green sward," and that all she says and does, smacks 'of something greater than herself, too noble for this place.' This opinion is shared by Camillo, who happily dubs Perdita a 'queen of curds and cream,' ere the music strikes up and the young people present engage in a dance.

Meanwhile, their elders step aside to watch this performance, the old shepherd garrulously informing Polixenes that the swain with whom his daughter is dancing is deeply in love with her, and slyly adding that he does not think there is 'half a kiss to choose who loves the other best.' He also hints that the man who marries Perdita will be far better off than he expects, little dreaming that the youth he points out is Prince Florizel, and that his interlocutor is the king.

At this point, a servant enters, enthusiastically describing a peddler who has just arrived with choice wares. When this vendor is ushered in, he chants the list of the goods he has for sale with all the gusto of the bom bagman. Shepherds and shepherdesses crowd around him, chattering among themselves, calling out for various articles of apparel, and especially for ballads, for which they seem to have a particular fancy. Then, discovering one for three voices, set to a tune they know, they gaily sing it, ere the peddler renews the enumeration of his wares.

It is in the midst of this lively hubbub that the servant proclaims the arrival of a party of Satyrs, who enter dancing gaily, and indulge in mad jumps which excite great admiration among the spectators. Taking advantage of the general confusion, Folixenes now addresses his son, — who does not recognise him, — and remarks that when he was young, he lavished tokens upon his lady-love, whereas the young man has bought naught for Perdita. The prince proudly rejoins that his beloved 'prizes not such trifles as these,' but looks to him for gifts 'lock'd up in his heart.' Then, seizing Perdita's hand, he calls the stranger guest to witness that he loves this fair damsel, who satisfies his every fancy. Polixenes admits that this declaration of love sounds genuine, and, hearing Perdita timidly confess she fully returns it, the old shepherd suggests that the young couple be betrothed, promising to bestow upon his daughter a portion equal to the swain's.

The contract is about to be sealed when Polixenes interferes, reminding them it will not be legal imless the young man's father consent. Still protected by his disguise, he asks whether Florizel's father is incapable or childish, only to hear the prince boast his sire enjoys better health and strength than most men of his age. When Polixenes suggests, that in that case, this father might feel offended should his son mate without consulting him, a discussion arises whether the match should be postponed. When the prince, however, insists upon an immediate betrothal, Polixenes suddenly reveals himself, declaring he will never allow this marriage, and angrily threatening to have Perdita's beauty marred, so she may no longer bewitch his offspring. It is breathing such terrifying threats that he leaves the scene.

The king having gone, Perdita wails that, although strongly tempted to remind Polixenes that 'the self-same sun that shines upon his court hides not his visage from their cottage but looks on all alive,' she will now return to her 'ewes and weep.' Meantime, the shepherd, upon whom it has dawned, at last, that the prince has been wooing his daughter, steals out to meditate over the disgrace which threatens him, while Florizel assures Camillo he is not at all afraid of his father. Deeming it wiser, Florizel, Perdita, and both shepherds avoid the king's sight until 'the fury of his highness settle,' Camillo suggests that they flee to Sicilia. By this time he feels satisfied that Perdita must be some fair princess, and declares that, when her birth becomes known, no further objection will exist to their union. For that reason he urges flight, offering all necessary aid, and pledging himself to use his influence to bring Polixenes to a better frame of mind. Overjoyed with the prospect of escaping from his father's wrath, and especially of securing Perdita against the terrible fate threatening her, Florizel consents to depart, although he wonders how he will be received in Sicilia, when he appears there without such a train as befits his rank.

While Camillo and the prince indulge in an aside, the peddler appears, gleefully soliloquising upon the fashion in which he has picked pockets and fleeced the rustics, the sheep-shearing having proved a profitable field of action for him. As he concludes, Camillo states he will pave the way by letter for Florizel's arrival in Sicilia, and that King Leontes will doubtless plead his cause with Polixenes. Then, becoming aware of Autolycus' presence, Camillo suggests that he and the prince change garments, which they immediately do, and that Perdita, in disguise, hurry down to the seashore to embark. Although be fancies Polixenes will pursue the fugitives, Camillo intends to accompany him, as this will give him the desired opportunity to bestow good advice upon him and revisit his native land, for whose sight he has 'a woman's longing.'

The rogue, after listening attentively to all that is said in his presence, and watching Florizel, Perdita, and Camillo depart, shrewdly concludes the prince is meditating some iniquity, which he will further by keeping it secret. Then, the shepherd and his son re-enter, the youth urging his father to tell the king that Perdita is only a foundling and thus divert royal wrath from their heads. Overhearing them state they are bound for the palace to exhibit the garments found with Perdita, the rogue, who has uttered sundry asides, suddenly volunteers to accompany the rustic pair thither. They gladly accept this offer, as his clothes proclaim him a man of wealth and influence, a delusion he diligently fosters. But, after wringing from the simpletons the admission that there is a secret connected with Perdita which they alone can reveal, the rogue so intimidates them with descriptions of the tortures awaiting them, that they consent to follow his advice. He, therefore, proposes to smuggle them secretly on board of the prince's ship, and there, — for a consideration, — to arrange that their confession be graciously heard. This bargain concluded, Autolycus sends the shepherd and his son on ahead, and follows them, exclaiming Fortune will not allow him to be honest.

Act V

The fifth act opens in Leontes' palace, where one of his lords tells him that, after long years of penance, he should do as the heavens have done,' and forgive himself. Leontes' sadness, however, is too deep-seated for such consolations, so he assures this courtier that, remembering Hermione's perfections, and his wrongs toward her, no joy remains for him in this world. This sad admission is overheard by Paulina, who rejoins that even if Leontes were to take the perfections of all the women in the world and mass them together, he could never create so perfect a wife as the one be killed, a statement which renews his remorse.

When a courtier suggests that, as the king has no heir, he should cease mourning, and marry some new companion with whom he might spend happy days, Paulina, displeased by his advice, again urges no woman would equal Hermione, and that such a move would be vain, since the oracle asserted Leontes would have no heir until the lost child were found. Because the king has not forgotten his wife, and wishes he had followed honest Paulina's advice sooner, he now swears he will never marry, until he can find a woman so like Hermione that he cannot detect any difference between them.

They are still conversing, when the announcement is made that Prince Florizel, son of Polixenes, has landed in Sicilia with his princess, and begs to be received. This unexpected arrival amazes Leontes, who is further surprised to learn the prince is accompanied only by his wife, a princess whom the messenger enthusiastically describes as 'the most peerless piece of earth that e'er sun shone bright on,' thereby rousing Paulina's ever ready jealousy on Hermione's behalf.

The moment seeming inauspicious for dwelling upon the perfections of his dead wife, Leontes proposes to forget his own griefs by welcoming the newcomers. He, therefore, bids some of his courtiers go and get them, and when Paulina murmurs that Prince Florizel and Mamillius were just of the same age, sorrowfully exclaims, 'thou know'st he dies to me again when talk'd of.' A moment later Florizel and Perdita are ushered in and warmly greeted by Leontes, who concludes the prince's mother was a faithful wife, as his strong resemblance to his father leaves no doubt in regard to his parentage. Then, bidding his guests welcome, Leontes warns them they have come to a sorrowful court, for he has lost two children, who, had they lived, would have been just their age. When he proceeds to inquire for Polixenes, Florizel states how his father sent him first to Africa to secure his princess, then hither to Sicilia to visit bis friend, his suite meanwhile returning to Bohemia.

Leontes has just invited the young couple to linger with him as long as they please, when a lord hurries in, bringing greetings from Polixenes, and summoning Leontes to 'attach his son, who has his dignity and duty both cast off,' by fleeing from Bohemia with a shepherd's daughter. On hearing these words, Leontes eagerly inquires where the King of Bohemia may be, and is amazed to learn he has just landed in Sicilia, but is detained by a sudden encounter with Perdita's father and brother.

Concluding Camillo has betrayed him. Prince Florizel reviles him, while Perdita, who has been silent hitherto, wails that spies have been set upon them to prevent the celebration of their marriage. These words revealing that they are not yet united, Leontes inquires whether Perdita is really the daughter of a king. As Florizel only rejoins she will be when she is his wife, Leontes informs the youth he has been undutiful, and regrets his choice is not 'so rich in worth as in beauty.' At these words Florizel implores the humbled Perdita to remember that, although Fortune pursues them, their love is unalterable, and, turning to Leontes, begs him to plead in their favour, for his father will grant any favour his friend asks. Fascinated by Perdita, Leontes exclaims he would fain ask for her himself, when Paulina hastens to remind him that the queen at Perdita's age was even more lovely. Insisting that Perdita strangely reminds him of his dead wife, Leontes volunteers to go and meet Polixenes, for he now feels equally friendly toward him and toward his son.

It is in front of Leontes' palace that a dialogue next takes place between Autolycus and a gentleman, the peddler eagerly asking whether his interlocutor was present when the shepherd related his story, and exhibited what he had found in the bundle with the abandoned babe. The courtier whom he questions admits that the king and Camillo were amazed, and when another of his companions appears, eagerly inquires of him whether any further discoveries have been made. The newcomer joyfully proclaims that the oracle is fulfilled, for Leontes' daughter is found, — news which Paulina's steward soon confirms, stating that Hermione's mantle and jewels were easily recognised, as well as the letter signed by Antigonus. When asked whether he witnessed the meeting between the two kings, the courtier regrets having missed it, as the good steward informs him it was a grand sight, the encounter between the father and daughter having been touching in the extreme. After describing the thanks lavished on the shepherd, — who saved the babe from death, — he repeats the clown's account of Antigonus' death and of the wreck of his vessel, which explains why Paulina never received any tidings of the husband she mourned so faithfully. Still, it is said, the reunion was not unmarred by sorrow, for when Perdita learned how her beautiful mother died, she wept freely, and expressed a keen desire to know what she looked like when alive. Then only Paulina revealed she had a statue of Hermione, painted by Julio Romano, of such life-like fidelity that it might be mistaken for the living queen. As both father and daughter seemed anxious to view it, Paulina invited them and all the court to visit it in her country house on the morrow.

While the rest now leave, the peddler lingers upon the scene, congratulating himself upon having brought the old shepherd and his son to Sicilia, but regretting that seasickness prevented an earlier revelation of their secret, as he would then have reaped the benefit of Florizel's gratitude. While he is soliloquising, he is joined by the shepherd and his son, the latter glorying in the title of gentleman, which has just been bestowed upon him, and in regard to which he accepts the peddler's mock homage.

The last scene is played in the chapel of a deserted house, which Paulina has secretly visited twice a day for years. The royal party are ushered in, while the king is thanking his hostess for all she has done for him and his, and expressing eagerness to behold her wonderful statue. After assuring him that this work of art is so lifelike it has to be kept apart, Paulina draws aside a curtain, and reveals the living Hermione, standing on a pedestal, as if she were a statue. Such is the effect produced, that silence reigns, and it is only when invited to express his opinion that Leontes, full of remorse, implores the image to speak, were it even to chide him. Then he pronounces it a perfect likeness of his queen, although somewhat older than when he last saw her. Hearing this, Paulina avers the sculptor wisely represented Hermione as she would have been had she lived among them until now.

While lost in contemplation of this wonderful likeness, Leontes murmurs Hermione looked thus when he wooed her, and that he is more remorseful than ever for his vile suspicions. Meanwhile, Perdita, also overcome by the sight, craves permission to kiss the statue's hand, but Paulina objects that the colors are not yet dry, and that hence it cannot be touched. While Camillo and Polixenes are offering consolations to the grieving Leontes, Paulina tries to draw the curtain, saying that the statue has so impressed them that presently they will imagine it is moving. But Leontes beseeches her to let him gaze upon his wife's image a while longer, exclaiming that the blood seems to circulate in its veins, and that its lips and eyes are alive. When Paulina again tries to hide her masterpiece, he restrains her, declaring he must embrace his wife, although Paulina forbids. Then, seeing she cannot entice him away, the hostess suddenly exclaims if he is sufficiently prepared for a great surprise, she will, by lawful magic arts, induce the statue to descend from its pedestal and take him by the hand.

Eager for such a revelation of magic power, Leontes urges her to make use of it; so, after soft music has been played, Paulina bids the statue step down among them. At her command Hermione advances toward them, silently offering her hand to Leontes, who no sooner touches it than he discovers it is warm! A moment later, his beloved wife is clasped in his arms, and Paulina assures the wondering Polixenes and Camillo that Hermione is indeed alive, although she has been deemed dead so many years.

The recognition between husband and wife over, Paulina urges Perdita to claim her mother's blessing, which blessing Hermione joyfully bestows, stating she has lived in hopes of seeing this beloved child, as Paulina has sustained her courage by constantly repeating Apollo's oracle.

The faithful Paulina now urges her guests to leave her and enjoy their happiness, for she alone still has cause to grieve, having just learned how her husband was devoured by the bear.

Unwilling that any one should sorrow while he is joyful, Leontes bestows Paulina upon the faithful Camillo, knowing two such worthy people will be happy together. Then, turning toward friend and wife, who dare not look at each other, he humbly begs their pardon for having suspected them of wrong-doing, welcomes his new son-in-law, and departs with all present, remarking that they will question each other at leisure, and thus make up the gap of time 'since first we were dissever'd.' With these words the curtain falls.

How to cite this article:

Guerber Helene Adeline. Stories of Shakespeare's English History Plays. New York: Dodd, Mead and company, 1912. Shakespeare Online. 20 Oct. 2000. (date when you accessed the information) < >.

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