Mamillius is the precocious young Prince of Sicily and the son of Leontes and Hermione. He’s a cute kid but he’s also a handful, as he spends most of his time horsing around, declaring that he’s a big boy and not a “baby,” and saying smart things to his parents and caregivers. At one point, he famously remarks that a “sad tale’s best for winter,” which is probably the play’s most self-conscious comment about the title of The Winter’s Tale (you can read all about that in “What’s Up With the Title?”). Mamillius becomes ill when his father throws his beloved mother in jail and he dies off-stage while Hermione stands trial for adultery.
When Mamillius dies (and his baby sister is abandoned in the Bohemian “desert”), the kingdom of Sicily is left without an heir to the throne, which was a pretty frightening prospect given that crowns were supposed to be passed down lineally from parent to child. FYI: Shakespeare wrote The Winter’s Tale (some time between1609-1611) just a few years after the death of the childless (and heirless) Queen Elizabeth I (b.1533-d.1603), so seventeenth-century audiences would have been aware of what’s at stake politically in the play.
Mamillius’s death is clearly the tragic consequence of Leontes’s wild jealousy and brutal tyranny. Even though Leontes is eventually reunited with his wife and long lost daughter (Perdita), Shakespeare reminds us that Mamillius never gets to experience the “happily ever after” that his parents and sister enjoy in the play’s final moments. In fact, when Prince Florizel arrives at Leontes’s court, Paulina reminds everyone that, if Mamillius had lived, he would have been about the same age as the Bohemian Prince (5.1.12). This has some pretty major implications for the play’s restorative ending – even though families and friends have been reunited and the promise of marriage and renewal looms in the future, the permanence of Mamillius’s death stands as evidence that not all tragedies can be salvaged. Check out “What’s Up With the Ending?” if you want to know more about this.
You may have noticed that Mamillius is frequently associated with women (and their breasts) in the play. Because Mamillius is so young, he’s pretty close to his mother and her ladies in waiting. (In Shakespeare day, all little boys spent most of their time with the women. They also wore dresses until they were old enough for big-boy pants.) This drives Leontes crazy because 1) he suspects Hermione of infidelity and 2) even though Mamillius looks like a “copy” of his dad, Leontes spends a lot of time looking at his son and wondering if he, Leontes, is the boy’s biological father.
In a jealous snit, Leontes says to Hermione, “I am glad you did not nurse him. Though he does bear some signs of me, yet you have too much blood in him” (2.1.3). In Renaissance England, it was believed that breast milk could transmit a mother’s (or a wet-nurse’s) characteristics and traits to a nursing infant. Leontes is basically saying that Mamillius is already too much like his mother as it is, so he’s glad Mamillius never went anywhere near Hermione’s breast milk – otherwise, who knows how the kid may have turned out?
The funny thing is, Mamillius’s name derives from the word “mamma,” which means “breast” in Latin. Why does Shakespeare choose such a name for this character? Well, as we said, the name closely links Mamillius with his mother and also the women that act as his caregivers. While Hermione may not have breastfed Mamillius, mother and child clearly share a unique bond – so close, in fact, that when Leontes throws Hermione in prison and refuses to let Mamillius see his nurturing mother, the young prince becomes ill and dies (sort of like an infant would if it was taken from its mother’s breast). This is the ultimate punishment for Hermione, who doesn’t recover from the blow for sixteen years.