The Winter’s Tale opens in a Sicilian palace, where Polixenes (the King of Bohemia) is visiting his childhood BFF, Leontes (the King of Sicily). After a nine month visit, Polixenes is ready to head back home to Bohemia, but Leontes’s devoted wife, Hermione, convinces Polixenes to stay a little bit longer. (We should point out that Leontes asks his wife to convince Polixenes to stay, and you’ll see why this is important in a moment.) As Leontes watches his wife and best bud chat it up, Leontes suddenly becomes wildly jealous and suspects that his very pregnant wife is having a torrid affair with Polixenes – Leontes is certain that Hermione is carrying the man’s love child. Leontes quickly arranges to have his old pal poisoned, but when Polixenes catches wind of Leontes’s plot to have him off’ed, Polixenes flees with a Sicilian guy named Camillo to his home in Bohemia.
Leontes is furious, so he throws his pregnant wife in the slammer, where she gives birth to a daughter (later named Perdita). Paulina, a good friend of Hermione and the only person willing to stand up to the jealous king, takes the newborn to Leontes and attempts to talk some sense into him. But, alas, King Leontes refuses to acknowledge that he is the baby’s daddy. To make matters worse, Leontes orders one of his men, Antigonus, to take the little “bastard” for a ride out to the Bohemian “desert,” where baby Perdita is left to the harsh elements. (Yeah, we know there’s no “desert” in Bohemia but sometimes you just have to go with the flow.)
Meanwhile, Leontes puts Hermione on trial for adultery and treason (despite the fact that Apollo’s Oracle announces Hermione is totally innocent and warns that the “king shall live without an heir” if Perdita, who is in the process of being disappeared, is not found. During Hermione’s trial, a servant enters with news that Prince Mammilius (the precocious young son of Hermione and Leontes) has died because he’s been so upset about the way Leontes is treating his mother. When Hermione hears the news, she falls to the ground and, soon after, we’re told she is also dead. Leontes realizes what he’s done and has a sudden change of heart – he immediately falls to his knees and begs forgiveness from the god Apollo for being such a rotten husband, father, and friend, which is nice to hear but is pretty much a day late and a dollar short.
Meanwhile, Antigonus reaches the coast of Bohemia (yeah, we know there’s no “coast” in landlocked Bohemia either, but again, we just have to go with it). Antigonus dumps off baby Perdita and…is promptly eaten by a hungry bear! (We’re not even kidding.) Luckily, an Old Shepherd happens along and finds baby Perdita, along with a bundle of riches and some documents that detail the kid’s royal heritage. (Remember this, because it’s important later.) The Old Shepherd and his country bumpkin son (the Clown) decide, what the heck, let’s keep the cash and raise the kid as our own.
A figure called “Time” appears on stage and announces that sixteen years have passed and the audience should just sit back, relax, and enjoy Big Willie Shakespeare’s show. (FYI: Flash-forwards were kind of a big no-no on the English Renaissance stage so, Shakespeare’s being kind of innovative and irreverent here. Check out “Setting” if you want to know more about this.)
At a Bohemian sheep-shearing festival (a big, spring/summer party that uses sheep haircuts as an excuse for everyone to celebrate the nice weather and for young people to hook up), we learn that Perdita has grown up to be the prettiest girl in Bohemia (which is why she gets to be Queen of the Feast) and is going steady with a gorgeous young prince named Florizel, who just so happens to be the son of King Polixenes. (Yep, that’s Leontes’s ex-best friend all right. You probably see where this is going.) There’s just one hitch – King Polixenes doesn’t know his son is dating a lowly shepherd’s daughter. (As you can see, nobody knows Perdita’s true identity – not even Perdita.) When Polixenes finds out, he tries to put the kibosh on the young couple’s engagement. Florizel, throwing caution to the wind, defies daddy’s wishes. What’s a father to do? Why, threaten to have Perdita’s face disfigured and declare he’s going to have the Old Shepherd executed, of course. (Hmm. Is it just us or, does Polixenes sound a lot like the tyrannous Leontes here?)
Florizel and Perdita run off to Sicily, where Leontes has been beating himself up for the last sixteen years (with the help of Paulina, who has seen to it that Leontes never, ever, ever forgets that he’s responsible for the deaths of Hermione and Mammilius). Polixenes and his entourage chase the couple to the Sicilian court. Before Polixenes can break up the couple and make good on his promise to scratch up Perdita’s pretty, young face, the Old Shepherd and the Clown arrive at Leontes’s court with the letters that verify Perdita’s identity. (Remember the bundle of cash and documents Antigonus left with baby Perdita before he was eaten by a bear?)
Big sigh of relief – now the royal couple can get hitched and Sicily will finally have a royal heir to take over Leontes’s reign when the old man dies. Plus, Leontes and Polixenes can be best buds again.
But wait, there’s more. Paulina invites the entire crew to her place, where she unveils a statue of Hermione. Everyone oohs and ahs over how lifelike the statue is when suddenly and miraculously the statue is…not a statue at all but a very alive Hermione. Hurray! Leontes and Hermione reunite as husband and wife. Leontes then announces that Paulina should get hitched to Camillo (since Paulina’s late husband was eaten by a bear on account of Leontes and all).
And they all live happily ever after (except for Mammilius and Antigonus, who are still dead).