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Meanwhile, in a courtroom in Sicily, Leontes makes a big speech about how he’s merely seeking “justice” by putting his wife on trial.
Hermione enters the courtroom and an Officer reads an indictment – Hermione is accused of adultery with Polixenes (which is treason against King Leontes) and conspiring with Camillo to kill Leontes.
Hermione stands up and delivers an eloquent and dignified speech about how she knows that, even if she were to plead “not guilty,” Leontes wouldn’t believe her. She’s hoping and praying, however, that divine justice will prevail. She also pleads with Leontes to consider the fact that she’s a queen, the daughter of a king, the mother of a prince, and the loving wife Leontes used to love – before he went crazy with irrational jealousy, that is.
Leontes is all “whatever” and Hermione points out that she did nothing wrong when she was kind and loving toward Polixenes. As the wife of Polixenes’ childhood friend, she was obligated to be sweet to him. In fact, Leontes asked her to be nice to his friend. As for conspiring with Camillo, she doesn’t know anything about that.
Leontes says Hermione had a love child with Polixenes, so he’s had someone get rid of the “brat.”
Hermione points out the injustices she’s suffered: she’s lost her position as queen, she’s been rejected by her husband, she’s been barred from seeing her first-born child, Mammilius, and her second-born child has been taken away from her and is probably dead. Plus, Hermione wasn’t even allowed the “childbed privilege” (she wasn’t allowed to rest and recuperate in private after giving birth, which has left her physically weak).
History Snack: Hermione is referring to what’s called a “lying in” period. A mother’s right to rest and recuperate in seclusion (only her closest women friends, relatives, and servants were allowed to hang out in her private chamber) after giving birth was a huge deal in Shakespeare’s England, so it totally stinks that Hermione was deprived of this important right.
Then Hermione demands to hear what the Oracle had to say about the matter.
Cleomenes and Dion (our happy tourists) enter the courtroom fresh from their vacation in Delphos and deliver a sealed letter from the Oracle.
The Officer reads the super-secret letter, which goes like this: “Hermione is chaste, Polixenes blameless, Camillo a true subject, Leontes a jealous tyrant, his innocent babe truly begotten, and the King shall live without an heir if that which is lost be not found.” (Most of this is pretty self-explanatory and it’s not hard to figure out what the last part of the letter means. Leontes isn’t going to have an heir if the baby he threw away isn’t found, which means that Mammilius, who has been pretty sick, probably isn’t going to live much longer.)
Everybody except Leontes yells “blessed be the great Apollo!”
Leontes proclaims the Oracle to be a big fat liar.
Then a servant runs into the courtroom and announces that Mammilius has died because he was so afraid something terrible would happen to his mother.
Hermione falls to the ground.
Leontes announces that Apollo’s angry because he doubted the Oracle and Paulina yells at Leontes that Hermione is dying.
Leontes orders someone to take the queen somewhere and try to revive her.
Then Leontes prays to the god Apollo and begs forgiveness for doubting the Oracle and for unfairly accusing his wife and his friend of infidelity.
Paulina announces that someone should cut the laces on her bodice. Translation: Paulina’s on the verge of fainting because things are so awful – plus, it doesn’t help matters that her bodice is so tight that she can hardly breathe.
Paulina catches her breath and lays into Leontes for being such a tyrant. She taunts him by saying that maybe he should torture her (by flaying her, boiling her, or putting her on the “rack”) like he’s tortured his innocent family. She calls him a fool for betraying Polixenes’ friendship, ruining Camillo’s honor, and causing Mammilius’s death.
Then Paulina drops a bomb – she announces that Hermione has died.
Paulina says she hopes Leontes never repents for his sins because she wants him to spend the rest of his life in a state of despair.
Leontes, who seems to recognize the implications of his jealousy and tyranny, announces that he deserves every single thing Paulina has to say.
A Lord steps in and tries to get Paulina to pipe down.
Paulina announces that she’s sorry for speaking so harshly to Leontes and asks forgiveness for being such a mouthy and “foolish” woman. (Paulina is probably being sarcastic here, but some actors and literary critics argue that she’s being sincere, so we’ll leave it to you to decide.)
Leontes says Paulina’s right to chastise him and he’s going to seek repentance by visiting the dead bodies of his wife and son every day.