The Winter’s Tale is a cautionary play about the damage jealousy can wreak on families and friendships; however, it is also a play about how someone can be redeemed from their mistakes made in jealousy.
King Leontes of Sicilia is trying to talk his best friend Polixenes, king of Bohemia into extending his trip a little bit longer. However, Polixenes has been away from his kingdom for almost a year, so he is resolute in leaving. Leontes sends his pregnant wife, Queen Hermione, to try to convince Polixenes to stay. To Leontes’ surprise, Hermione is successful very quickly. He begins to suspect that something more is going on between the two, and orders one of his attendants, Camillo, to poison Polixenes. Camillo warns Polixenes of the plot, and the two men flee the city. Leontes publicly accuses Hermione of carrying another man’s child and throws her in prison for treason, where she gives birth to a baby girl. Leontes sends two messengers to the Oracle at Delphi to determine if the baby is his. When Hermione’s servant Paulina brings the baby to the king to try to calm him down, he orders her husband Antigonus to abandon the child somewhere far away from Sicilia. Antigonus brings the child to a deserted beach on the Bohemian coast, names her Perdita, and leaves her in a basket with gold and other valuable items. He is chased off stage and (presumably) killed by a bear, and a shepherd finds the girl and brings her home where he raises her for the next 16 years.
The Oracle at Delphi declare that Hermione and Polixenes are innocent, and that Leontes will have no heirs until his daughter returns to Sicilia. Leontes then learns his son, Mamilius has died of a “wasting sickness”, likely caused by the stress of the allegations and imprisonment of his mother. On hearing the news of her son’s death, Queen Hermione faints, and then later dies. The king is a wreck and feels great guilt for his actions.
In Bohemia, King Polixenes’ son, Prince Florizel, has fallen in love with the daughter of a shepherd named Perdita. He and Camillo attend the betrothal ceremony in disguise and then reveal their identities angrily. Polixenes forbids the betrothal, but with Camillo’s help, Florizel and Perdita, along with the Shepherd and his son the Clown, escape to Sicilia where they are welcomed by a guilt-ridden and depressed Leontes. They hide Perdita’s identity at first, but then Polixenes arrives and the Shepherd reveals how he found Perdita. Leontes realizes that she is his daughter, and there is great celebration. They travel to Paulina’s house, where a great statue of Hermione has just been completed. Upon seeing it Leontes breaks down into tears, but then, magically, it begins to come to life. Leontes is reunited with his wife and daughter, and Paulina and Camillo become engaged.
Date Published: 1623
Major Themes: Jealousy and Guilt; Social Classes; Redemption
Famous Quote: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”