Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using The Complete Works of Shakespeare Updated Fourth Ed., Longman Addison-Wesley, ed. David Bevington, 1997. Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of his commentary, except as otherwise noted.
Overall Impression: This was a moderately enjoyable play to read, rather bleak in its action, its language not highly memorable and seeming to go over rather familiar territory, but certainly more satisfying than, say, Timon of Athens.
Per Bevington: This play is evenly divided between a bleak tragedy and comic romance, illustrating tragicomedy. The jealousy in the court of Sicilia produces a spiritual climate of winter. The innocent victim in the first half Polixenes becomes the tyrant in the 2nd half, and there are other symmetries. There is a new preoccupation with humanity's tragic folly, a world-weary and pessimistic view. Leontes is undone by his own fantasies, lacking even an Iago to produce them. There is a revulsion against sexual behavior. Order is inverted to disorder, sanity to madness... The story's sense of naïve improbability is accentuated by the fictitious coast added to Bohemia, Hermione's being brought back to life, the reunion with Perdita, etc.
Per Alan Grob (lecture c. 1965): The play was written when WS was writing for the small indoor theater Blackfriars, in which there was much pageantry and music. He was taking up the genre popularized by Fletcher and Beaumont, tragicomedy, which "wants death but brings no one to it". The time setting is mixed, suggesting pre-Christian Greece whereas Autolycus is a standard Elizabethan rogue and shepherd scenes are Arcadian. It is dramatically crude, not showing adequately motive for Leontes' actions etc. Myth plays a large role. Leontes' jealousy and punishment causes an illness of society, not just himself. WS's later plays are the most mythical of all. A principal myth here is death and regeneration. Examples of this include the Fisher-king who suffers from a wound with disrupts his society and which cannot be healed and leaves him sterile until some deed or act of restoration is performed. Myths make reference to natural schemes or cycles such as the end of harvest, coming of winter, spring, etc. The myths also have a Christian connection—death and resurrection, etc. The story of Hermione is a reenactment of the myth of Proserpina, who returns from the world of the dead when spring returns to Sicily. Perdita is akin to a goddess associated with spring. Comedy requires restoration in the real world, the normal world of human behavior. The play ends with innocence restored and loss of innocence redeemed. "It is a simple story that requires imagination and lives by its own laws, with no validity outside of itself."
Sicilia, court of Leontes. Archidamus, a lord of Bohemia, invites Camillo to visit Bohemia. Camillo comments on the longstanding bond of friendship between King Leontes and Bohemia's King Polixenes. Archidamus praises Leontes son, Mamillius.
Same. Leontes converses with Polixenes, who has been away from home for 9 months and wishes to return home. Leontes wants him to stay longer and encourages his queen Hermione to encourage Polixenes. She graciously extends a warm invitation to him to stay on and succeeds where Leontes did not. But Leontes interprets this as too hot and instantly becomes irrationally jealous. He calls to his son and seems to begin to question whether the boy is actually his, appears unsettled, and begins to fish for verification from Polixenes, implying Hermione's unfaithfulness. She and Polixenes leave to the garden and Leontes' jealousy rises. He suggests to Lord Camillo that he has been unfaithful to him, that his wife has been a hobby horse, etc. Leontes is angry that Camillo does not agree with his assessment, and wants Camillo to poison Polixenes. Camillo decides he must flee the court. Polixenes returns as Leontes leaves and is disturbed to see the king's changed countenance. Camillo tells Polixenes the king wants him murdered, as he suspects his adultery with the queen. Camillo convinces him to flee and decides to flee with him.
Sicilia, the court. Hermione talks with Mamillius and waiting women. She calls for a tale, and Mamillius suggests "a sad tale's best for winter".
Leontes confers with men and learns Polixenes has fled with Camillo, seeming to confirm his worst suspicions about Camillo's complicity in the alleged affair with Hermione. He angrily takes Mamillius from Hermione and accuses her of being an adulteress, that her current pregnancy is by Polixenes—all of which she denies. He sends her off to prison.
Lord Antigonus appeals to him to retract this accusation, and other lords also defend her. Leontes has dispatched Cleomenes and Dion to seek a ruling from the oracle at Delphos [Delphi]. He suspects Hermione might be planning treachery on him and orders her confined.
Sicilia, prison. Paulina, wife to Antigonus, insists on seeing and consoling Hermione, but the jailer only allows Hermione's lady Emilia to come out. She says Hermione has given birth to her child prematurely, a daughter who is also a prisoner like her now. Paulina laments the king's lunacy.
Sicilia, court. Leontes has not slept well. A servant tells him the boy Mamillius has been sick. Leontes is repelled at his own thoughts of vengeance on his son.
Paulina enters with Hermione's daughter and Antigonus etc. over the objections of others. She audaciously berates the king for his false accusations and shows him his new daughter. Leontes demands she be removed and denounces the child as Polixenes'. He threatens her, but she is undeterred. He has her removed, and accuses her husband Antigonus of conspiring with her. He demands the baby be burned up in a fire, else he will knock its brains out. Antigonus insists he has not conspired with his wife, and the other lords defend him against these accusations, to no avail. Leontes relents and allows the child to live, but insists Antigonus take it to a remote and deserted place out of his dominions and leave it to its fate.
Cleomenes and Dion have returned from the oracle after 23 days absence.
Sicilia, on the way to court. Cleomenes and Dion comment on the pleasant climate on the "island" of Delphos [incorrectly assuming Delphi to be on an island] and the impressive appearance of Apollo's oracle, etc.
Sicilia, a place of justice. Hermione is led in and Leontes has the charges against her read, high treason and adultery, conspiring with Camillo to kill him, etc. She denies this and defends herself. She loved Polixenes but only to an appropriate amount. Leontes tells her her bastard daughter has been thrown out. She does not fear his threats or the thought of dying, having been deprived of her crown and his favor as well as her daughter, and having been accused that she is a strumpet, etc. Cleomenes and Dion enter and the oracle is read: "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." Leontes angrily denies the truth of the oracle.
A servant enters and announces that Mamillius is dead—the queen faints. Leontes decides that Apollo must be punishing him for his injustice, that he has been carried away by his own jealousy. Paulina says the news has been mortal to the queen and Hermione is carried away.
Alone, he asks pardon of Apollo, saying he will reconcile with Polixenes, will woo his queen anew, recall Camillo, etc.
Paulina enters, and says the Queen is dead and accuses him of being a tyrant. A lord chastises her for her boldness, and she resolves to speak no more of the Queen, or of her husband whom she has lost. Leontes wants to see the bodies of the Queen and son and will have them buried in a single grave.
Bohemia, the seacoast [nonexistent]. A mariner accompanies Antigonus, who carries the infant, then the mariner leaves. Antigonus recounts how the sorrowing mother Hermione came to him in a dream the previous night and suggested he take the babe to Bohemia and name her Perdita because she is the "lost one". She prophesied to him that he will never see Paulina again. He lays the infant down with a box containing gold and jewels, and a fardel [bundle consisting of a bearing cloth and mantle in which the baby is found]. He expresses regret about the infant's fate and mother's fault: "My heart bleeds; and most accurst am I / To be by oath enjoined to this." He exits pursued by a bear!
A shepherd enters and finds Perdita. His son the Clown enters and says Antigonus is being eaten by the bear, and that his ship has sunk in a storm. The shepherd thinks the child is a changeling (i.e., one left by fairies), but they admire the gold and take the child up.
(Locale not stated). Time serves as the chorus, moving the action 16 years forward. King Polixenes' son Florizel and Perdita have grown to beauty and grace.
Bohemia, court of Polixenes. Camillo wants to return to his homeland in Sicilia and has been sent for by the penitent king. But Polixenes does not want to hear of "that fatal country" and does not want him to go either. They discuss the repentance of the king, then the frequent visits of Florizel to the shepherd's house. They decide to disguise themselves to see what Florizel is up to there.
Bohemia, a road on the way to the shepherd's. The rogue and thief Autolycus sings a song. He passes himself off as a tinker. He has previously served Prince Florizel and recounts to himself his criminal activities. Clown enters, and Autolycus feigns great poverty, saying he has been robbed. He picks the pocket of Clown and names "Autolycus" as the man who robbed him. Left alone, he prides himself on another successful theft.
Bohemia, shepherd's cottage. Florizel confers with Perdita before their holiday celebration begins. He has had her dress in holiday attire as Flora and he is dressed as a shepherd, "Doricles". She fears that his father the King will soon discover their secret courtship. But he reassures her, and says "my desires / Run not before mine honor, nor my lusts / Burn hotter than my faith." They have sworn their engagement.
The guests arrive including Shepherd, Clown, two shepherdesses Mopsa and Dorcas, and the disguised King Polixenes and Camillo, etc. The Shepherd chastises Perdita for her shyness, recalling his multi-talented deceased wife who could entertain so well. Perdita welcomes Polixenes, etc. as her "father" has encouraged her to do, and gives them flowers. She talks about the naturalness of their rustic flowers, but the King extols the virtues of specially bred and grafted flowers, which can improve on what is found in nature [not sure what the exact meaning of this is]. She gives them "middle summer" flowers and regrets not having any spring flowers to give to Florizel, suitable for his youth. She soliloquizes on Proserpina, flowers, etc. and wants to strew Florizel with flowers "like a bank for Love [Cupid] to lie and play on". He expresses his love to her and she is modest to her "Doricles".
Polixenes comments to Camillo on her beauty despite her lowborn status, that she "smacks of something greater than herself, too noble for this place." Music and dancing. Polixenes inquires of Shepherd who Doricles is. Shepherd thinks he has worthy lands and loves his daughter, but does not know he is the king's son. Shepherd hints that "she shall bring him that / Which he not dreams of."
Servant announces the arrival of the peddler Autolycus. He peddles his wares, sings ("Lawn as white as driven snow..."), etc. A servant announces a group of 12 dancers dressed as satyrs, to dance a "gallimaufry [jumble] of gambols", and they proceed to dance.
Polixenes resolves it is time to part the young lovers. He addresses Florizel and wonders why he bought nothing from the peddler for Perdita. He says she does not prize such trifles, only the gift of his heart, which he has "given already, but not delivered." He extols her and takes her hand, professing that "were I crowned the most imperial monarch, / Thereof most worthy, were I the fairest youth / That ever made eye swerve, had force and knowledge / More than was ever man's, I would not prize them /Without her love." She in turn expresses her love. Shepherd agrees to give her to him and will make her portion equal his. Florizel boasts that he will have more than can be dreamed of [i.e., when his father is dead]. Polixenes inquires if he has a father, but Florizel says he will not know of the marriage. Polixenes presses the point, and chides Florizel's attitude of excluding his father. Still Florizel insists his father will not be informed. Polixenes reveals his identity, and denounces his son for wanting to marry into a shepherd's family. He threatens to mar his beauty with briars, to bar him from his inheritance, and to free him from the enchantment of Perdita, threatening her with death if she receives Florizel again. Perdita laments the deception Florizel insisted on against his father, and about which she had warned him. Shepherd is mortified to learn that his daughter's suitor is the son of the King, and curses his daughter for not informing him.
Florizel, left with Perdita, is warned by Camillo to stay away from his angry father. Florizel spurns his father's inheritance and pledges to not see him anymore, to run away to sea with Perdita. Camillo cannot dissuade him.
To himself, Camillo sees that this may serve his own purposes [i.e., to go to Sicilia] while he saved Florizel from danger, etc. He says he will help them by pointing them to where they will be well received, at Leontes' court in Sicilia. He advises them to say they were sent by Polixenes. He will have them royally outfitted accordingly.
Autolycus gloats on how he has sold all his trinkets, taken the best purses, though prevented from taking them all only by the commotion the king caused. Camillo has Autolycus change garments with Florizel and has Perdita go into hiding wearing a hat until they sail.
To himself, Camillo resolves to tell the king of the escape and where they are headed, so that King will want to go to Sicilia with Camillo.
Autolycus has overheard the plan for the escape, but decides not to report this to the king. Clown and Shepherd enter with the fardel and box of treasure. Clown wants to tell King of Perdita's origins, that he is not her father, so that he will be relieved of responsibility for her actions. Shepherd agrees to tell the king all he knows. But Autolycus stops them, now dressed in Florizel's [courtly?] clothes, insists he is a courtier, and wants to know what they carry and the details of what they plan to divulge. Eventually he persuades them to give him the gold. Autolycus sneaks off as the duped men consider themselves blessed to have his assistance. Autolycus sees an opportunity for his own advancement, and resolves to bring the two men aboard the ship [preventing them therefore from going to the king], and to come aboard it himself.
Sicilia, royal court. Cleomenes urges Leontes to give up his period of penitence, but he is still consumed with guilt. Pauline again speaks without reserve, reminding him he killed Hermione. Cleomenes chastises her for her frankness. She knows the men are counseling the king to wed again, but she says there is none worthy of this, respecting the deceased queen. She reminds Leontes that he cannot have an heir until the lost child is found. He agrees with her, and promises to never marry again but on her approval, and she says this will be "when your first queen's again in breath."
A gentleman announces the arrival of Florizel, and Leontes wonders that he arrives with so little fanfare or attendants. Pauline reminds him that Mamillius was about the same age as Florizel. Florizel and Perdita enter with others. Leontes remarks that Florizel's mother was true to her husband, noting the similarity in his features to Polixenes. They greet the king as if they were sent by Polixenes, and claim to be returning from Libya and to have sent their attendants on ahead to Bohemia.
A lord arrives announcing that Polixenes is coming and wants his son detained. Florizel concludes that Camillo has betrayed him. Florizel acknowledges that he and Perdita are not yet married and appeal to Leontes to be their advocate. Leontes is staring at Perdita and seems to see Hermione in her. He agrees to try to help them.
Sicilia, court. Autolycus talks with gentlemen about how the fardel was opened which revealed to Leontes and Camillo the true identity of Perdita (it contained the mantle of Queen Hermione, her jewels, and Antigonus' letters). The oracle is fulfilled, the king's daughter found. The kings have had a joyful reunion. They learn Antigonus was eaten by a bear, bringing about a "noble combat that twixt joy and sorrow was fought in Paulina!" [i.e., she is torn between the joy of the oracle fulfilled and the sorrow of her husband's death]. The shepherd has presented to her what remains of her husband's belongings. Perdita has learned of the death of her mother. They have left to see the new statue of Hermione that Pauline has had made. It is in her "removed" house that Paulina has visited 2-3 times a day since Hermione died. Autolycus ponders how he could have done things differently...
Shepherd and Clown enter dressed in finery now as gentlemen, and Autolycus marvels that he has done good for them against his will. He asks them to pardon him for his faults committed on them.
Sicilia, Paulina's house. Leontes is still filled with remorse as they come to see the statue of Hermione. Paulina prepares them for how lifelike the statue appears. On viewing her, Leontes notes how wrinkled she appears, and Paulina says the excellence of the sculptor has allowed for the 16 elapsed years. Leontes feels ashamed. Perdita kneels and asks for Hermione's hand to kiss. But Paulina restrains her, saying the paint has not yet dried. She taunts the king a little further, saying the statue appears so lifelike it seems to move... Finally she makes it move indeed, and Hermione takes Perdita by the hand. Paulina assures them she is not using evil magic, music plays, and the statue descends to be stone no more. Leontes touches Hermione and she embraces him. Paulina instructs Perdita to ask her mother's blessing. Hermione speaks to Perdita, saying that the oracle had given her hope to remain alive, thinking she might someday see her daughter again. Paulina says there is time later for the telling of their tales, and wants them to take their celebration to everyone. She will be left to contemplate her widowhood. But Leontes assures her she should take a new husband, and matches her up with Camillo. Leontes asks pardon of Polixenes and Hermione, introduces Hermione to her future son-in-law betrothed to Perdita, and asks Paulina to lead them away to hear each other's stories at their leisure.