The Winter’s Tale Summary
Read the full text of The Winter's Tale with a side-by-side translation HERE.
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 Mamillius (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 Mamillius). 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 Mamillius and Antigonus, who are still dead).
Act 1, Scene 1
Read the full text of The Winter's Tale Act 1 Scene 1 with a side-by-side translation HERE.
- The play opens in a Sicilian palace where Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, has been visiting his childhood friend, Leontes, the King of Sicily.
- Archidamus (a Bohemian Lord) and Camillo (a Sicilian Lord) chat it up about what a great time everybody’s been having at Leontes's court, the Sicilians being such awesome hosts and all.
- When Camillo mentions that Leontes is planning to visit Polixenes on Bohemian turf next summer, Archidamus gets all self-deprecating and says the Bohemians aren’t as awesome at entertaining guests as the Sicilians. The Bohemians will probably have to sneak some sleeping pills into the Sicilians’ drinks so the Sicilians won’t realize what a lousy time they’re having in Bohemia.
- Archidamus and Camillo also discuss the intimate history of the two kings – back in the day, Leontes and Polixenes were super-close. So close, in fact, it was almost impossible to tell them apart. It doesn’t seem like anything could possibly come between these two BFFs.
- Then the conversation, which is already a little awkward, gets pretty uncomfortable. When Archidamus compliments the young prince of Sicily (that would be Mamillius), Camillo says something kind of weird like, “Yeah Mamillius is such a neat kid that he makes all the old people in our kingdom not want to die because they want to live long enough to see him grow up. If it weren’t for Mamillius, there’d be no reason for all the old folks to live.”
Act 1, Scene 2
Read the full text of The Winter's Tale Act 1 Scene 2 with a side-by-side translation HERE.
- Polixenes, who has been at Leontes’s court for nine whole months, thanks his old pal for the hospitality but says it’s time for him to be getting back home – the kingdom of Bohemia’s not going to rule itself.
- Leontes tries, unsuccessfully, to convince his friend to stay, but Polixenes insists there are no words that could ever convince him to remain at Leontes's court. Because Polixenes has so much work to do at home, being forced to stay in Sicily would be like “punishment.”
- Leontes asks his lovely wife Hermione, the very pregnant Queen of Sicily, to convince Polixenes to stay a little while longer.
- Hermione playfully says that, if Polixenes doesn’t stay in Sicily as their guest, they’re just going to have to give him a spanking or hold him “prisoner.”
- After a brief but charming exchange of “I have to go home” and “No, you really don’t have to go home,” Hermione convinces Polixenes to stay on as a guest in Sicily.
- Hermione then asks Polixenes to tell her about her husband’s childhood. Was he a naughty boy? she wants to know.
- Polixenes says that he and Leontes had an ideal childhood together – they were so sweet and innocent, like two little “lambs” that “frisk[ed]” in the sun together – that is, until they grew up and starting having sex with women. (Get your high highlighters out, kids, because that’s important. Check out “Symbols” if you want to know why.) Hermione laughs at this and continues to banter with her guest.
- Leontes, who has been out of earshot, steps in and asks if Hermione has convinced his friend to stay. When he hears that his charming wife has been successful, he’s pretty pleased.
- Polixenes takes Hermione’s’ hand and the pair move out of Leontes's earshot again as Hermione continues to charm and entertain her husband’s friend.
- Suddenly, Leontes (who has been watching his wife and friend engage in harmless banter) turns CRAZY jealous at the sight of Leontes and Hermione chatting it up and touching hands. Of course, Hermione is merely entertaining her husband’s childhood friend and Polixenes is being nice to his friend’s wife, but Leontes interprets their behavior as that of two secret lovers. (Bet you didn’t see that coming.)
- Then Leontes turns to his young son and says “Mamillius, Art thou my boy?” (Translation: “Am I your biological father?”)
- Leontes horses around with his son and calls him cute pet names like “captain” while he keeps one eye on Hermione and Polixenes. Mamillius has no idea what his dad is talking about when Leontes wonders aloud, again, if Mamillius, who looks exactly like his dad, is really his son.
- Hermione and Polixenes look up and notice Leontes is suddenly in a very nasty mood but Leontes plays it off by saying that looking on his young son’s face took him back in time to his own childhood, where everything was peachy.
- Leontes teases his son and encourages his wife to keep entertaining their guest, who Leontes now hates.
- Camillo enters and comments on how great it is that Hermione was able to convince Polixenes to stay in Sicily, which the insanely jealous Leontes interprets as evidence that everyone in the entire court knows that his wife has been screwing around with his friend.
- Leontes starts talking about how Polixenes and Queen Hermione are having a torrid affair. Camillo says he doesn’t believe it and remarks that Leontes is out of control.
- When Leontes, who has gone all Othello on us, insists Hermione has been unfaithful, Camillo realizes he won’t be able to change the king’s mind. Camillo pretends to believe Leontes and agrees to poison Polixenes. But first Leontes promises he won’t hurt Hermione.
- Then Polixenes walks in the room and is completely baffled when Leontes sneers at him before storming off.
- Polixenes is all “What’s his problem?” and Camillo is all “I’m not allowed to tell you.”
- After a lot of pussy-footing around, including an ambiguous rant about how jealousy is like a nasty disease that infects everyone around it, Camillo finally tells Polixenes that Leontes thinks he’s been sleeping with his pregnant wife.
- Camillo also confesses that he’s supposed to kill Polixenes and urges him to scram before Leontes does something even crazier.
- Polixenes is shocked and says that betraying his best friend would be like Judas’s betrayal of Jesus.
- Brain Snack: Judas is a biblical figure who was one of Jesus’ twelve disciples. Basically, he’s the guy who sold out Jesus to the Roman authorities for a bag of money, which you can read all about by going to Matthew 26:14 in the 1560/1599 Geneva Bible (the edition of the bible that Shakespeare probably read from and referred to throughout his literary career).
- Polixenes convinces Camillo to help him escape back to Bohemia.
- Camillo and Polixenes decide not to tell Hermione that Leontes is in a jealous rage (we have no idea why) and they run off to Leontes's ship, which is conveniently docked nearby.
Act 2, Scene 1
Read the full text of The Winter's Tale Act 2 Scene 1 with a side-by-side translation HERE.
- Meanwhile, Hermione hangs out with her Ladies in waiting and her young son, Mamillius.
- Hermione asks her Ladies to entertain her precocious boy (he’s really cute but also a little out of control, so mommy needs a break).
- Mamillius says he doesn’t want to play with the First Lady because she’s always kissing him and treating him like a baby. She, in turn, warns him that he’ll be jealous when the baby is born and none of the ladies want to play with him anymore.
- Mamillius replies that he loves the Second Lady better.
- After the Ladies banter and play with Mamillius for a bit, Hermione asks her son to tell a nice story. Mamillius obliges and says he knows “sad” story about goblins that’s just perfect for “winter” time. (Yep, that’s a reference to the play’s title all right. Check out “What’s Up With the Title?” if you want to know more, but come right back because we’re not done.)
- Mamillius whispers the story into his mother’s ear.
- Meanwhile, Leontes walks on stage with Antigonus and some other Sicilian Lords. Leontes is all riled up because Polixenes has escaped Sicily with Camillo in tow. Leontes is convinced that Polixenes and Camillo are plotting against his life and have been in cahoots for quite some time.
- Leontes turns to Hermione and says he’s glad Hermione never breast fed their son (apparently, Mamillius had a wet-nurse) because Mamillius is already way too much like his mother.
- (History Snack: In Shakespeare’s time, women who breastfed infants were thought to have transmitted their personal traits and characteristics to children through breast milk. Apparently, Mamillius, had a wet-nurse, which was pretty common among royalty and nobility in Shakespeare’s day.)
- Hermione says something like “You’ve got to be joking” and Leontes orders Mamillius to be taken away from his mother and accuses the pregnant Hermione of carrying Polixenes’ baby.
- Hermione denies Leontes's charges of adultery, says only a “villain” would accuse her of such a thing, and tells her husband that he’s making a huge mistake.
- Leontes repeats his accusation of adultery and says Hermione is a traitor, along with Polixenes and Camillo.
- Hermione says Leontes will be sorry when he realizes his mistake and says he owes her an apology.
- Leontes orders Hermione away to prison. Then Hermione blames her husband’s behavior on the alignment of the planets.
- Hermione declares her heart is heavy with grief and begs to be allowed to have her Ladies with her while she’s in jail.
- After Hermione is carted off to the slammer, Antigonus and a Lord try to convince Leontes that he’s making a big mistake.
- Antigonus says he’s so sure Hermione is innocent that he’d cut out his own daughters’ wombs if it turned out that Hermione was having an affair. Antigonus, who is kind of off on a weird tangent, says he’d castrate himself if it turned out that one of his own daughters turned out to be sexually promiscuous. (Yikes! Antigonus is suggesting that, if Hermione is a floozy, then all women, including his own daughters, are promiscuous too. Check out “Gender” if you want to know more.)
- Leontes tells his men to pipe down – if they’re too stupid to realize that Hermione is an adulteress, he no longer needs their services.
- Leontes informs his men that he has sent some guys to Apollo’s temple on the island of “Delphos,” to consult the Oracle to confirm Hermione’s guilt. In the meantime, Hermione is going to rot in jail so she can’t flee Sicily like Camillo and Polixenes.
- FYI: In the play, the sacred island of “Delphos” (a.k.a. Delos) is linked with Delphi, a real Greek town where people often travelled to consult with Apollo’s Oracle. An oracle, by the way, is a wise person who can predict and interpret the future. In Greek mythology, Apollo appointed an Oracle to speak on his behalf since he was always being pestered by folks who wanted him to tell them what the future had in store for them.
Act 2, Scene 2
Read the full text of The Winter's Tale Act 2 Scene 2 with a side-by-side translation HERE.
- Paulina (Antigonus’s wife and a good friend of Hermione) shows up at the prison where Hermione is being held and demands to see the queen.
- The Jailer says gee, he feels really bad and all, but he’s got strict orders that Hermione is to have no visitors.
- Fine, says Paulina, who asks to see Emilia, one of Hermione’s ladies, instead.
- Emilia and Paulina talk while the Jailer stands guard. Emilia informs Paulina that Hermione is doing the best she can, under the lousy circumstances, but she went into labor before her due date and delivered a daughter in prison.
- Paulina is outraged – she proclaims Leontes a lunatic and says she’s going to try to talk some sense into him. Maybe if she shows Leontes his newborn baby, the evidence of Hermione’s innocence will convince him that Hermione is a faithful wife.
- Emilia says that if anyone can convince Leontes, it’s Paulina who, apparently, has a way with words.
- The Jailer seems on board with this scheme, but since he’s not allowed to let the baby leave the prison, he wants to know how the heck Paulina is going to smuggle the infant out of Hermione’s cell.
- Paulina convinces the Jailer that Hermione’s baby should be allowed to leave the prison with her, since, being a newborn baby and all, it’s completely innocent of any wrong-doing.
Act 2, Scene 3
Read the full text of The Winter's Tale Act 2 Scene 3 with a side-by-side translation HERE.
- Back at the Sicilian palace, Leontes paces around muttering about how his “adultress” wife should be burned at the stake.
- A Servant enters with news of Mamillius, who has been pretty sick lately.
- The ever delusional Leontes suggests that Mamillius is ill because he’s so ashamed that his mom’s a floozy.
- Leontes sends his servant away to check on his son and mutters to himself about how Polixenes and Camillo are probably off somewhere laughing at him right now.
- Paulina bursts through the door carrying Leontes's newborn daughter while a Servant and a Lord try to restrain her.
- Leontes has demanded total privacy (turns out he hasn’t been sleeping very well at night) but Paulina insists on showing Leontes proof that he’s been acting irrational and unjust.
- Leontes looks at Antigonus and asks him why he can’t “control” his wife, but Paulina isn’t having any of his nonsense.
- Paulina says she’s come to Leontes as his loyal servant to convince him of his “evils” against the queen, Hermione.
- Leontes tells Paulina to scram, but before the Servant can drag her away, Paulina whips out the baby and shows it to Leontes.
- Leontes calls Paulina a “man-like witch” and accuses her of spying on him.
- Paulina, who seems to be the only one willing to stand up to Leontes, tells the king he’s bonkers.
- Leontes tells his Lords to get the “bastard” out of his sight and screams that Antigonus is hen-pecked by his wife (that’s an insult, in case you were wondering).
- While Leontes rants and raves, Paulina tells him off – she demands that Leontes acknowledge his child and his wife’s innocence.
- Leontes calls Paulina a “callat” (a shrew and/or a tramp) and some other obnoxious names, threatens to have her burned at the stake, and yells at Antigonus for not being able to keep his wife in line.
- Paulina points out how much the baby girl looks like Leontes and says she doesn’t care what Leontes does to her – he needs to take care of his baby and his baby’s mama.
- Leontes orders Antigonus to get rid of the kid, or else. Then Leontes gets all Lady Macbeth on us and threatens to “dash out” the kid’s “brains” with his own hands if Antigonus doesn’t obey him.
- After screaming at the servants, Leontes decides he wants Antigonus to take the little “bastard” out to the middle of nowhere and abandon it to the harsh elements. If someone comes along and saves it, fine. Otherwise, too bad.
- Antigonus agrees to take the baby for a little ride and says he really hopes a bird or a bear will decide to nurse it and raise it as its own. (We know you’re probably snickering at Antigonus right now but this kind of stuff happens all the time in fairy tales, which is kind of what The Winter’s Tale is. Check out “Genre” for more on this.)
- Antigonus leaves with the baby and a Servant enters with news that Cleomenes and Dion have returned from their trip to see the Oracle in “Delphos.” (Remember, Leontes sent some guys to visit the Oracle to verify Hermione’s guilt or innocence.)
Act 3, Scene 1
Read the full text of The Winter's Tale Act 3 Scene 1 with a side-by-side translation HERE.
- On a road in Sicily, Cleomenes and Dion reminisce about what an amazing time they just had during their trip to see the Oracle. The island of “Delphos” is just beautiful this time of year and all the sacred rituals were better than a Michael Jackson concert.
- Oh yeah, Cleomenes and Dion got a sealed letter from the Oracle that they hope will be good news for Hermione.
Act 3, Scene 2
Read the full text of The Winter's Tale Act 3 Scene 2 with a side-by-side translation HERE.
- 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, Mamillius, 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 Mamillius, 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 Mamillius 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 Mamillius’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.
Act 3, Scene 3
Read the full text of The Winter's Tale Act 3 Scene 3 with a side-by-side translation HERE.
- Meanwhile, Antigonus (Paulina’s husband and the guy Leontes's ordered to get rid of the unwanted baby) and a Mariner arrive on the “coast” of Bohemia (what is now called the Czech Republic). (Yeah, yeah. We all know that Bohemia is totally landlocked and has no coast, but Shakespeare either didn’t know or didn’t care.)
- The Mariner looks up at the stormy skies and says the gods seem pretty angry, which is code for “the weather’s pretty lousy.”
- Antigonus tells him to get back on the boat because, after he gets rid of the kid, he wants to get home, ASAP.
- The Mariner tells Antigonus to hurry up and ditch the kid because the weather’s getting even worse. Plus, Bohemia is famous for its dangerous wild animals.
- Antigonus talks sweetly to the baby he’s about to abandon and says he had a dream about Hermione, who appeared to him wearing a white robe and asked him to name her baby “Perdita” (which means “lost one” in Latin) since she’s going to abandoned in a strange land.
- Antigonus puts the baby on the ground along with a scroll (a long roll of paper) that details Perdita’s lineage and history. He also leaves a box full of gold.
- Antigonus announces that he believes Hermione must be dead and then he tries to convince himself that the god Apollo must surely want him to abandon the baby in Bohemia and that Polixenes, the king of Bohemia, is likely the father.
- Antigonus says his “heart bleeds” for the kid, but it’s getting late and he’s got to get back home.
- Antigonus, who seems ready to deliver a very loooong speech, is interrupted by the appearance of…a bear!
- Antigonus says something like “holy smokes” and runs off toward shore while the bear gives chase.
- FYI: What alerts us readers to the bear chase is one of the most famous stage directions in the history of English literature. The stage directions read, “Exit, pursued by a bear.”
- Then an Old Shepherd rambles onto the stage complaining about some teenage hooligans who scared off some of his sheep. Then he spots baby Perdita, who, thankfully, wasn’t eaten by the wild bear.
- The Old Shepherd muses that the unwanted baby must have been conceived in some dark stairwell by a naughty unmarried couple – why else, he muses, would someone abandon such a pretty baby?
- The Old Shepherd’s son, a Clown (sort of a country bumpkin), shows up and tells his dad he’s not going to believe what he, the Clown, just saw. The Clown just came from the shore, where he witnessed a shipwreck (the ship Antigonus and the Mariner arrived on) and a gruesome bear attack.
- The Clown elaborates: While the bear was tearing off some poor guy’s shoulder, the guy yelled out his name, “Antigonus,” and cried for help. Sadly, there was nothing the Clown could do to help him. What’s worse, the bear is still snacking on its victim at this very moment.
- The Old Shepherd and the Clown feel sort of bad about not being able to help the ship-wreck victims or Antigonus, but they decide to go ahead and check out a box of goodies that was left behind with the abandoned baby.
- The Old Shepherd announces that the baby must be a “changeling.” (If you’ve read A Midsummer Night’s Dream, you know that a “changeling” is a child that’s been secretly switched with another, usually by mischievous fairies. We know what you’re thinking. Why does the Old Shepherd think this when he’s got access to the documents that detail the baby’s true heritage? Our best guess? The Old Shepherd and his son probably can’t read, being uneducated peasants and all.)
- The Old Shepherd is pleased as punch when he finds a bunch of gold in the box – he says the fairies must have left it for him.
- Since the Old Shepherd’s so thankful for his good fortune, he wants to perform some kind of good deed. He and the Clown will bury whatever’s left of Antigonus’ body – after the bear is done feasting on him that is.
Act 4, Scene 1
Read the full text of The Winter's Tale Act 4 Scene 1 with a side-by-side translation HERE.
- A character with wings and an hourglass appears on the stage and identifies himself as “Time.”
- Time announces to the audience that sixteen years have passed (since the last scene) and asks us to keep an open mind about the play’s fast-forwarding of events. (FYI: some editions of the play say that fifteen years have passed so don’t get all worked up if your copy says “fifteen” and not “sixteen.”)
- Then Time gives the audience a little update on what’s gone down in Sicily and Bohemia. In Sicily, Leontes, who feels really, really bad about the way his jealousy destroyed his family, has shut himself up in isolation. In Bohemia (where Time is now hanging out), King Polixenes has a son named Florizel, who is all grown up. Also, Perdita (the abandoned baby) has been raised by the Old Shepherd and she’s grown up to be quite a looker.
Act 4, Scene 2
Read the full text of The Winter's Tale Act 4 Scene 2 with a side-by-side translation HERE.
- At the Bohemian palace, Camillo tells Polixenes that he’s homesick and wants to return to his hometown, Sicily, which should be a safe thing to do since Leontes has apparently repented for his bad behavior. (Remember, Camillo fled Sicily with Polixenes when Leontes flipped out sixteen years ago.)
- Polixenes begs Camillo not to go – Camillo’s been a great friend and an invaluable right hand man to the king over the years. If Camillo leaves, it will put an end to their bro-mance.
- Then Polixenes and Camillo talk about how Prince Florizel has been AWOL from the palace lately. Polixenes has had some spies follow his son and has learned that Florizel has been hanging out at the home of the Old Shepherd, a guy who used to be poor but become wealthy overnight. [Hmm. Polixenes sounds like Polonius (from Hamlet), who also spied on his son.]
- Camillo chimes in that the Old Shepherd has a smokin’ hot daughter, which is probably why Florizel is always hanging out over there.
- Camillo and Polixenes decide to take a little trip out to the country to see what Florizel and the Old Shepherd are up to. First, however, they’ll need some disguises.
Act 4, Scene 3
Read the full text of The Winter's Tale Act 4 Scene 3 with a side-by-side translation HERE.
- In Bohemia, near the Old Shepherd’s house, a thief /conman named Autolycus sings a song about summer and springtime, which, for guys like Autolycus, involves stealing and rolling around in the “hay” with various women while the birds sing sweetly in the background.
- The Clown appears on stage talking about how much money he and his father might make off the sheep they’ve been raising. He’s not very bright and he’s having a really hard time adding up numbers, so he turns his attention to what his sister (Perdita) wants him to buy for the upcoming sheep-shearing festival. (For you city folk, that’s a festival that literally revolves around giving haircuts to sheep.)
- The Clown talks about the yummy food and great music one can expect at a sheep-shearing shindig.
- Autolycus, whose name literally means “the wolf itself,” licks his lips and rubs his hands together in an “I’m totally going to take advantage of this chump” kind of way and approaches the Clown.
- Autolycus rolls around the ground as if he’s in pain and begs for help. The Clown takes the bait and listens solemnly while Autolycus lies and says he was beaten and robbed.
- When the Clown helps him off the ground, Autolycus picks his pockets. Then the Clown offers to give him some money.
- Autolycus makes up a story about the guy who supposedly beat and robbed him and gets the poor Clown all riled up before he heads off to the store to buy spices for the sheep-shearing festival.
- As the Clown walks away, Autolycus makes a joke about how he’s going to prey on the “sheep” (chumps like the Clown) at the upcoming festival. Very punny.
Act 4, Scene 4
Read the full text of The Winter's Tale Act 4 Scene 4 with a side-by-side translation HERE.
- At the festival, Perdita (who is dressed up as the Queen of the Feast) and Florizel (dressed up as a young shepherd named “Doricles”) bat their eyelashes and flirt with one another. (FYI –costumes are pretty standard at these kinds of shindigs and, yes, Perdita knows that Florizel isn’t really some poor shepherd boy named “Doricles.”)
- Florizel lays it on pretty thick, describing Perdita as “Flora,” goddess of flowers, which totally embarrasses Perdita, who points out that, in real life, she’s the daughter of a lowly shepherd, while Florizel is royalty. In other words, she’s embarrassed to be dressed up like something she’s not, which is pretty ironic given that Perdita is actually a princess but just doesn’t know it.
- Florizel assures Perdita that she’s the best thing that’s ever happened to him but she worries about what Florizel’s dad (King Polixenes) would think if he knew about their relationship.
- Florizel tells Perdita not to worry and then proceeds to compare himself to a bunch of gods who transformed themselves so they could have sex with women. (Apollo dressed as a shepherd to hook up with Alcestis, Jupiter transformed himself into a bull and carried off Europa, and Neptune turned into a ram before he abducted Theopane.) Unlike these gods, however, Florizel says he’s not just in it for sex – he’ll treat Perdita with “honour.”
- Perdita says King Polixenes might sentence her to death if he finds out about them but Florizel tells her to cheer up and start acting like a proper Queen of the Feast.
- The Old Shepherd shows up with the Clown, Mopsa, Dorcas, Polixenes (in disguise), Camillo (also in disguise), and a bunch of other party-goers.
- The Old Shepherd tells Perdita she’s a lousy Queen of the Feast – she’s supposed to be welcoming and entertaining the festival-goers. The Old Shepherd’s late wife did a much better job when she was alive.
- After being hassled by her old man, Perdita plays hostess-with-the-mostess and welcomes the guests to the festival by handing out flowers.
- Perdita points out that she doesn’t have any “gillyvors” (gillyflowers or, carnations), which she refers to as “nature’s bastards.” (She might be referring to the fact that gillyflowers were thought to have been crossbred with other flowers.)
- Polixenes takes issue with Perdita hating on gillyflowers and argues that crossbred flowers and are superior to plain old carnations. What’s more, he argues that the art of grafting is completely “natural.” (FYI: “Grafting” is a horticultural practice where a plant’s tissue is fused with another plant in order to create a “hybrid.”)
- Perdita and Polixenes continue to argue about cross-breeding flowers. Perdita prefers flowers that are pure and that haven’t been influenced by the “art” of grafting. Polixenes sees nothing wrong with cross-breeding flowers to produce a “nobler” breed. For Polixenes, grafting is a natural process while Perdita sees cross-breeding as “artifice.” Check out “Quotes” for “Art and Culture” if you want to know more about this argument.
- Perdita continues to pass out flowers to the festival guests and Florizel takes the opportunity to tell Perdita how pretty she is.
- Polixenes tells Camillo that Perdita is the “prettiest” poor girl that he’s ever seen. In fact, she seems like she’s too “noble” to be a lowly shepherd’s daughter.
- The band strikes up a tune and everybody parties, country style.
- Polixenes (wearing a disguise) strikes up a conversation with the Old Shepherd, who tells him that his daughter’s boyfriend is a rich nobleman. (The Shepherd has no idea he’s talking to the King of Bohemia, who isn’t thrilled about Florizel’s choice in girlfriends.)
- A Servant enters and announces that there’s a peddler (a guy who travels around selling worthless items) at the door who happens to be a great singer. The Clown lets him in to the party.
- Perdita warns the Clown that the peddler better not sing any songs with dirty lyrics.
- Autolycus (the guy who picked the Clown’s pocket earlier) strolls in, disguised as the peddler with a great voice. He sings a song about how everyone should step up and buy some of his stuff.
- The Clown buys some ribbons and gloves for his girlfriend, Mopsa. Dorcas, who’s a little jealous, makes crack about how the Clown promised to marry Mopsa but hasn’t done it yet. Mopsa retorts that Dorcas slept with the Clown and may be pregnant, to which the Clown says something like: “Geez – whatever happened to modesty?”
- When Mopsa asks the Clown to buy her some more stuff, he complains about being robbed on his way to the market.
- Autolycus (the guy who picked the Clown’s pockets) says something like “Oh, how awful. I hope I don’t get robbed while I’m here.”
- Autolycus, Mopsa, and Dorcas sing a song together about a love triangle and then a group of country dancers show up to entertain the festival-goers.
- Meanwhile, Polixenes approaches his son (Florizel), who doesn’t recognize his disguised father, and asks Florizel about his relationship with Perdita.
- Florizel doesn’t need anyone to twist his arm to talk about his girlfriend – he professes his love for Perdita, which prompts the Old Shepherd to give his daughter permission to marry.
- Before the Old Shepherd can bind his daughter’s hand to Florizel’s (an act of betrothal), the disguised Polixenes steps in and says not so fast – where’s Florizel’s father?
- Polixenes and Florizel argue about whether or not Florizel should tell his dad about his plans to marry Perdita.
- When it becomes clear that Florizel has no intention of sharing his engagement with his dad, Polixenes removes his disguise and goes “Aha! You thought you could get married to some country bumpkin without my permission?”
- Polixenes throws a tantrum and disowns his son, sentences the Old Shepherd to death, and says he’s going to have Perdita’s gorgeous face “scratched with briars and made more homely” than her lowly social status. (Yikes! He sounds a lot like Leontes, don’t you think?)
- Perdita says she knew it was the king in disguise all along and was just about to say something before Polixenes removed his disguise. Now that the jig is up, she’ll have to forget about being queen and go back to milking sheep.
- The Old Shepherd yells at Florizel and Perdita for not telling him that Florizel was the prince. He wanted to retire in peace but now he’s going to be put to death, which totally ruins his retirement plans.
- Florizel says he wants to run away with Perdita – he’s got a ship nearby so they can sail off together.
- Camillo says that, since the prince won’t change his mind about marrying Perdita, he’ll give the kid some advice, which is to sail for Sicily with Perdita, where Leontes will most likely embrace him like a “son.”
- Since Camillo’s still got connections in Sicily, he’ll make sure Florizel and Perdita are outfitted like a prince and princess. Florizel can tell King Leontes that he’s been sent by his father to Sicily in order to see him.
- Meanwhile, Autolycus comes on stage and brags about how he managed to sell all of his junk to the suckers at the sheep-shearing festival. He also managed to pick everybody’s pockets while he was at it, heh-heh.
- Then we get back to Camillo, Florizel, and Perdita. Camillo promises to write letters of introduction for the young couple.
- Camillo spots Autolycus and makes him trade clothes with Florizel so the prince can escape Bohemia without being recognized.
- Camillo advises Perdita to disguise herself as well so she can make it to the ship safely.
- Camillo tells the audience that, after the kids set sail, he’s actually going to tattle on them to Polixenes. His hope is that Polixenes will ask him to tag along while he chases after them. That way, Camillo can finally go back home to Sicily.
- Florizel, Perdita, and Camillo run off, leaving Autolycus alone on stage. Autolycus tells the audience he’s figured out what’s going on but he’s not going to tell the king because that would be way too honest. As a con artist and a thief, Autolycus loathes honesty. (Plus, he’s probably hoping for some kind of reward from the Prince.)
- The Clown and the Old Shepherd show up carrying the bundle that was left with Perdita when she was abandoned as a baby – the Old Shepherd wants to show the King proof that Perdita is a “changeling” and that she isn’t his “flesh and blood” daughter. (Remember, the Old Shepherd doesn’t know Perdita’s a princess – he thinks she was left in Bohemia by a bunch of fairies.) The Old Shepherd thinks that, if he can prove Perdita’s not his biological daughter, he won’t be put to death.
- Autolycus hears all this and decides the bundle may possibly contain something that could prevent the prince from marrying Florizel, so he convinces the Old Shepherd and his son that he’s a courtier and that King Polixenes has boarded a ship.
- Autolycus tells the pair a bit of gossip about Perdita (who pretends not to recognize the Old Shepherd and the Clown). He says he heard that Perdita’s shepherd father is going to be put to death and her brother is going to be tortured. Specifically, the brother’s going to be whipped and then covered in honey before being placed next to a wasp’s nest.
- After he scares the bejeezus out of the two men, he offers to take them to the king and make proper introductions.
- Not wanting to be tortured, the Clown votes to give Autolycus a bunch of gold to take them to King Polixenes.
- The Shepherd hands over some dough and promises to give Autolycus more money after he’s introduced him to the king.
- Autolycus says something like, “Great – you go on ahead to the sea shore and I’ll meet you there.”
- Left alone on stage, Autolycus confides to the audience that he’s the luckiest guy on earth – not only is he going to make a bunch of money by scamming the Old Shepherd and his son, he’s also going to do the prince a big favor (by leading the Old Shepherd to the prince’s ship instead of to the King), which means that Prince Florizel will be indebted to Autolycus.
Act 5, Scene 1
Read the full text of The Winter's Tale Act 5 Scene 1 with a side-by-side translation HERE.
- At Leontes's palace in Sicily, Cleomenes begs Leontes to stop punishing himself for his past sins and to forgive himself. (Apparently, Leontes has been quite penitent for the past sixteen years.)
- Leontes replies that he can’t forgive himself for what he did to Hermione and the kingdom – it’s all his fault that his wife is dead and Sicily no longer has an heir to the throne (Mamillius is dead and Leontes basically threw away his baby daughter).
- Paulina steps up and sweetly reminds Leontes that he’s responsible for killing the perfect woman and warns him that he shouldn’t bother trying to find a new wife, since no woman can ever be as great as Hermione.
- Leontes sincerely thanks Paulina for reminding him that he basically “killed” Hermione by putting her on trial for adultery. Cleomenes grumbles that Paulina is being cruel and he sort of has a point, wouldn’t you say?
- Paulina bickers with Dion about whether or not Leontes should remarry – Dion points out that Sicily is without an heir and the fate of the kingdom is in jeopardy.
- Then Paulina plays the Apollo card, pointing out that Apollo’s Oracle said that Leontes wouldn’t have an heir until his lost child (Perdita) was found.
- Leontes laments that he didn’t listen to Paulina’s wise counsel back when she warned him not to try Hermione for adultery and treason.
- Leontes resolves not to remarry and says that if he got a new wife and treated her well, Hermione’s corpse would come back to life and ask why Leontes treated her like dirt. Plus, Hermione’s reanimated corpse would probably order him to murder his new wife, so remarriage doesn’t seem like such a great idea.
- Paulina agrees and says that if she were Hermione, she would totally come back from the dead and haunt Leontes.
- Paulina makes Leontes swear that if he does remarry, his bride must look like Hermione and Paulina gets to choose her. But, she says, that won’t happen unless Hermione somehow manages to live again.
- A servant enters and announces Prince Florizel’s arrival at the Sicilian court with his “princess” (that would be Perdita) in tow.
- Leontes is baffled and wonders why Florizel has shown up on his doorstep without advance notice. Something must be wrong, otherwise Florizel would have arrived with more pomp and circumstance (and perhaps a letter from his father, Polixenes).
- When the Servant says that Florizel’s princess is a beauty, Paulina gets all huffy and says something like “nobody’s as beautiful as Hermione was.”
- Then Paulina points out that, if Mamillius had lived, he probably would have been happy to see Prince Florizel, since the two princes were born about a month apart.
- Leontes begs Paulina to stop reminding him of Mamillius’s death – every time she mentions it, it feels like Mamillius has died all over again.
- Florizel and Perdita enter and Leontes comments that Florizel’s mom did a good job making him, because the prince looks exactly like a “copy” of his father, Polixenes. Leontes looks at Perdita and proclaims that she’s a “goddess.”
- Florizel lies and says that his father sends Leontes his best regards and wishes he could see his old friend.
- Upon hearing this, Leontes beats himself up for being such a lousy friend to Polixenes (i.e., accusing him of sleeping with his wife and plotting to poison him).
- Florizel lies some more and says he picked up his “bride” in Libya before sailing to Sicily. Ordinarily, he would have brought a huge entourage along with him but he decided to let them sail home to Bohemia to give Polixenes the good news.
- Leontes announces that Florizel’s presence in Sicily is like a cure for sickness and says he wishes he had a son or daughter like Polixenes has. (Yep, that’s ironic all right, especially since Leontes's daughter Perdita is standing right in front of him.)
- Then a Lord enters and rains on everybody’s parade by announcing that King Polixenes has sent word that Leontes should arrest Prince Florizel for running away from home with a lowly shepherd’s daughter.
- The Lord also says that Polixenes has just arrived in Sicily to accost his naughty son. Not only that, but on his way to the Sicilian court, he ran into the Old Shepherd and the Clown, who are crying like babies and begging for their lives.
- Florizel realizes Camillo has betrayed him and he’s not too happy.
- Perdita cries for the poor Old Shepherd and boo-hoos that her marriage celebration is going to have to wait.
- Florizel begs Leontes to speak to his father on his behalf – he loves Perdita and wants to spend his life with her.
- Paulina takes the opportunity to remind everyone, again, that Perdita isn’t nearly as good-looking as Hermione once was.
- Leontes admits that looking at Perdita actually reminds him of his late wife. He says he’s happy to talk to Polixenes on behalf of the young couple.
Act 5, Scene 2
Read the full text of The Winter's Tale Act 5 Scene 2 with a side-by-side translation HERE.
- Somewhere in Leontes's castle, Autolycus speaks with some gentlemen of the court. It seems that, off-stage, the Old Shepherd managed to have a conference with King Leontes, where the shepherd revealed proof that Perdita is not his biological daughter. (Remember, back in Act 3, Scene 3, Antigonus left a document of Perdita’s heritage and some gold when he abandoned her on the Bohemian coast.)
- One of the Gentlemen reports that Leontes and Camillo seemed awestruck, but he couldn’t tell if they were full of “joy” or “sorrow” because everyone was ushered out of the room before he could get any more details.
- A Second Gentleman enters the room and announces that Leontes's daughter “has been found” just as the Oracle predicted. Yippee! He also points out how the events that have recently unfolded seem like an old, made-up “tale,” which is Shakespeare’s way of acknowledging the implausibility of the events in his play.
- A Third Gentleman rushes in and says the Old Shepherd revealed a letter denoting Perdita’s heritage, Queen Hermione’s jewels, and some other things that verify Perdita’s status as Leontes's child.
- King Leontes was also reunited with his old BFF, Polixenes, and sobbed because he was so overjoyed.
- When asked about what happened to Antigonus, the Third Gentleman says that, sadly, he was ripped to shreds by a bear. At the same moment the bear made a snack out of Antigonus, the ship he sailed to Bohemia on sank. Paulina was totally bummed about her husband being bear food, but was psyched that Hermione’s daughter had been found.
- We also learn that, when Perdita found out about her mother’s death, she seemed to cry tears of blood. The reunion was so moving that onlookers sobbed and fainted dramatically.
- The Third Gentleman also reports that, when the princess found out that the famous artist Giulio Romano completed a lifelike statue of Hermione, Perdita rushed to Paulina’s house to see it.
- The Gentleman run off to see the statue, leaving Autolycus on stage to lament that he wasn’t the one to reveal Perdita’s true identity to King Leontes.
- The Old Shepherd and the Clown enter the stage dressed to the nines in some new threads befitting gentlemen.
- The Clown brags to Autolycus that he’s a “gentleman born” because the Prince called him “brother” and said they were all one big happy family. (FYI – this is a big joke since the Clown was obviously not “born” a gentleman.)
- The Clown and the Old Shepherd decide they should behave in a “gentlemanly” manner and agree to put in a good word to the king on behalf of Autolycus.
- Autolycus promises he’ll try to be a better person (instead of a thief) and the three men run off to see the statue of Hermione.
Act 5, Scene 3
Read the full text of The Winter's Tale Act 5 Scene 3 with a side-by-side translation HERE.
- Paulina welcomes Leontes and his friends and family to her home for the big unveiling of the Hermione statue.
- Paulina, who has invited a huge crowd too see the statue of Hermione, proclaims that the statue is so lifelike that she keeps it separate from the rest of her art collection.
- Then Paulina draws a curtain to reveal the figure of Hermione.
- Leontes says something like “Gosh, it sure looks like Hermione but it also looks a lot older than she was when she died – the statue sure does have a lot of wrinkles.”
- Paulina says that’s because the artist is so talented – he sculpted the figure based on what Hermione would have looked like today if she had been alive for the past sixteen years.
- Leontes admires the “warmth” of the statue and chides himself for being such a rotten husband to Hermione.
- Perdita gets down on her knees and asks the statue to bless her.
- Just as Perdita reaches out to kiss the hand of the statue, Paulina yells out for her to stop – the paint’s barely dry on the statue for goodness sake.
- Camillo and Polixenes look over and see that Leontes is in pain – they urge him not to keep beating himself up over his wife’s death. Paulina chimes in that, if she knew the statue would have made Leontes so upset, she never would have shown it. (Yeah right. Paulina is all about making Leontes suffer.)
- Paulina makes like she’s going to close the curtain and Leontes begs her not to – he wants to keep gazing on the statue. Paulina says OK, but if you stare too long you might begin to think the statue is alive.
- Leontes and Polixenes note the statue’s lifelike appearance – it looks as though the statue is breathing and that there’s real blood moving through its veins.
- Then Leontes says holy cow, it looks like one of the eyes is moving!
- Paulina and Leontes discuss how looking on the statue is both painful and pleasurable.
- Leontes decides he’s going to plant a big kiss on the statue’s lips and Paulina tells him to back off or he’ll get wet paint on his mouth.
- Then Paulina says she bets she can convince everyone the statue’s real but they might accuse her of using “wicked” magic. In order for the trick to work, everyone in the room must “awake[n]” their “faith.”
- Paulina calls for some dramatic music and says “Tis time. Descend. Be stone no more.”
- Suddenly, Hermione, who is very much alive, descends from the pedestal while Paulina commands an astonished Leontes to embrace his wife.
- [Note: It’s not entirely clear if Hermione is miraculously brought back from the dead or if she’s been alive the whole time. Some critics argue that Hermione is resurrected in the style of Christ. Others say there’s evidence in the play that Paulina just hid Hermione away 1) so that Leontes wouldn’t hurt her and 2) to teach Leontes a lesson.]
- Leontes shouts oh my gosh – her body’s “warm”! The crowd is utterly shocked at what’s just happened.
- Then Paulina tells Perdita to kneel before her mother and receive her “blessing.”
- Finally, Hermione speaks – she asks the gods to bless her daughter and begins to question Perdita about where’s she’s been for the past sixteen years.
- Paulina says hold on folks, there’s plenty of time for Perdita to tell that story later. (Thank goodness, because we’ve already heard that tale, twice.) For now, family and friends should celebrate the miraculous reunion.
- Leontes promises Paulina that he’ll find her a man to marry before he realizes that, hey, it seems pretty impossible for Hermione to have come back to life – after all, he saw her dead body and spent hours praying at her grave.
- First things first, though. Leontes declares that Camillo and Paulina should get hitched. After that, there’ll be plenty of time to hash out all of these impossible questions.
- Paulina leads the party away and they all live happily ever after (except for Mamillius, who died when his father tried his mother for adultery, and Antigonus, who was eaten by a bear).