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Leontes, the king of Sicilia, is the protagonist of the play. As the play opens, he is a happy man, blessed with a noble queen, Hermione; an affectionate childhood friend, Polixenes; a promising child Prince, Mamillius and loyal courtiers. However, he becomes unduly possessed by overwhelming jealousy as he suspects an illicit relationship between his friend and his wife. Jealousy drives him to tyranny and he loses all his friends. He even disowns his infant daughter and abandons her. After he has wreaked havoc on his life, he undergoes a great sense of remorse once he realizes the nature of his sin. After a long period of penitence and atonement, he regains all that he had lost.
The real antagonist of the play is the evil passion of jealousy and suspicion that dominates Leontes. Once he is possessed by this, he antagonizes all his loved ones and detroys the order of his kingdom as well as the universe. He plans to poison his friend, arrests and tries his virtuous queen, separates his son from his mother, and orders that his baby daughter be burnt or abandoned. Not that he is happy doing any of these cruel things: he himself undergoes acute suffering and spends sleepless nights because of this consuming jealousy.
The climax in The Winter's Tale comes with the news of Mamillius' death. During the trial of Queen Hermione, Leontes says that there is no truth at all in Apollo's oracle. As soon as he says so, a servant comes to report the death of Prince Mamillius. The news nearly breaks Leontes' heart and grief brings him back to his senses. This is the turning point of the play. As in all Shakespearean drama, the climactic moment occurs in the midst of the middle act (Act III, Scene 2), neatly dividing the two halves of the play.
Reconciliation is the outcome of The Winter's Tale. The play is a dramatic romance and the outcome is neither wholly comic nor tragic. Leontes is forgiven by all those whom he has inflicted much agony. Remorse on his part and forgiveness on the part of Hermione and Polixenes brings about the reconciliation.
SHORT PLOT/SCENE SUMMARY (Synopsis)
The story opens at a chamber in the palace of Leontes, King of Sicilia. Camillo, a Sicilian lord and Archidamus, a Bohemian lord discuss the long standing friendship between the Sicilian king, Leontes and the Bohemian king, Polixenes. Polixenes has been the guest of Leontes for the past few months. Archidamus praises the excellent hospitality extended by the Sicilian king. The lords also discuss Mamillius, the gallant, well-loved and promising child of Leontes.
At the end of a long stay, Polixenes wants to return to his country. But Leontes entreats him to stay on for some more days. When Polixenes insists on taking leave, Leontes asks his wife, Queen Hermione to persuade Polixenes to stay. The Queen succeeds where the King had failed and Polixenes agrees. When the Queen asks Polixenes to recount the childhood friendship between him and her husband, Polixenes recalls their happy and innocent childhood. Leontes, seeing them happily conversing, learns that Polixenes has consented to stay and in a moment he is possessed by a fit of overpowering jealousy. He suspects Polixenes and Hermione of having an adulterous relationship. Every innocent gesture of theirs is interpreted as adulterous by his monstrously suspicious mind. When he orders his loyal lord Camillo (who is Polixenes' cup-bearer) to poison Polixenes, Camillo pleads the queen's innocence in vain. The scrupulous Camillo does not carry out the king's orders, but instead he warns Polixenes about the danger to his life and helps him to flee Sicilia by night. He too leaves Sicilia with Polixenes.
When Leontes learns of their escape, he becomes ferocious. He imagines that Hermione has aided and assisted their flight. He accuses Hermione of treachery and adultery while she is playfully talking to Mamillius. Surrounded by her waiting women, it becomes evident from the conversation that Hermione is in an advanced stage of pregnancy. Leontes takes Mamillius away from Hermione, and has her arrested. Hermione, appalled by the accusation, vehemently denies it and tells him that he will grieve when true knowledge dawns on him. The lords plead with the king to revoke his decision, for they can see the virtue and innocence of Hermione. Jealousy drives Leontes to tyranny. He declares that anyone who pleads for her will be judged equally guilty. He also says that he has dispatched Cleomenes and Dion to the temple of Apollo at Delphos to consult the oracle. He is sure the oracle will confirm his suspicions.
While in prison, Hermione delivers a baby girl. Paulina, wife of one of the nobles (Antigonus) offers to take the baby to the king. She feels that the sight of the innocent baby will bring about a desirable change in Leontes. She is a bold, outspoken woman and refuses to be intimidated by the king's temper. The king dismisses her and orders that the baby be burnt. The lords kneel for mercy for the newborn and Leontes ultimately orders Antigonus to take the baby to a remote spot outside the kingdom and leave it there.
Cleomenes and Dion return from Delphos with the oracle. The king orders an open trial for Queen Hermione. At the court of justice, Hermione is charged of adultery and conspiracy. Hermione answers the charges with great dignity. She declares that she has no desire to live for she has lost her husband's favor and has been separated from her children. She values only her honor, not her life. She is innocent and prefers to be judged by the great Apollo. The sealed oracle is opened and read out in the court. It surmises Hermione to be chaste and Leontes, a jealous tyrant. The oracle also says that the king shall live without an heir if "that which is lost be not found". Leontes dismisses the oracle as false. As soon as he says this, a servant comes to report the death of Prince Mamillius, who had been unwell for some time but now is dead, unable to bear his mother's disgrace. This terrible news brings Leontes back to reason and he realizes he has been monstrously unjust. Hermione collapses and is taken out of the room. The king orders that she be treated well. He decides to beg forgiveness for his actions but Paulina comes back to say that the queen is dead. Paulina gives a hysterical outburst to her grief, holding Leontes responsible for Hermione's death. Leontes, now full of grief, tells Paulina that he will visit their graves to weep everyday.
The scene shifts to Bohemia. Antigonus comes to the shores of Bohemia with the infant, names it Perdita, and leaves her along with some identifying articles and a bag of gold. After he does so he is pursued and killed by a bear. The ship he had come by gets wrecked in a storm, killing the crew. A shepherd who is looking for lost sheep finds the baby. He is soon joined by his son, the clown. They find gold kept alongside the baby and thinking the baby a changeling, they keep the gold and take the baby home.
Perdita grows into a beautiful maiden in the cottage of the shepherd. Prince Florizel, the son of Polixenes, falls in love with her. Polixenes and Camillo find that Florizel does not involve himself in princely exercises but frequents a shepherd's cottage. They also learn that the shepherd has a charming daughter, too graceful to be a shepherdess. They decide to disguise themselves and visit the shepherd's cottage.
At the shepherd's cottage, the sheep-shearing festival is on and Perdita is playing the graceful hostess, welcoming everyone and distributing flowers. Florizel, who is humbly dressed, professes his love for Perdita in glowing terms. Polixenes, disguised, inquires of Perdita's father about the youth, the apparent shepherd. The shepherd replies that the youth's name is Doricles and that he is very much in love with Perdita.
Autolycus, a delightful and musical rogue, who had earlier picked the purse of the clown, now comes as a peddler, selling knick- knacks and singing ballads. The clown offers to buy some for the shepherdesses. The king asks Florizel why he did not buy any gift for his beloved from the peddler. Florizel says that she cares only for his love, not for trifles. The shepherd is about to conduct the betrothal of the young couple when Polixenes asks Florizel if he has a father and why he is not there to witness the engagement. Florizel replies he does not wish to inform his father about the engagement now. Polixenes is provoked and throwing off his disguise, objects to the betrothal. He makes his exit after chiding his son and warning Perdita and the shepherd against encouraging Florizel.
Florizel is unmoved by the threats. He assures Perdita that nothing can alter his love. He tells Camillo that he proposes to sail away with Perdita. Camillo advises him that if he insists on sailing away it is better to go to Sicilia rather than to an unknown land. Camillo is eager to get there and Florizel can visit the court of Leontes, king of Bohemia. Camillo actually plans to inform Polixenes of Florizel's escape and revisit Sicilia in the company of Polixenes.
The shepherd and the clown are frightened by the king's anger. They propose to confess to the king that Perdita is not the shepherd's own child. They also plan to show Polixenes the bundle that was found with Perdita; the contents of which may reveal the secret of her birth. Autolycus accosts them and pretending to be a courtier finds out that they are planning to see the king. He tells them that the King has left on a voyage, as he was unhappy about the Prince's decision to marry a shepherdess. In fact a terrible punishment is in store for the shepherd. By now, the shepherd and the clown are thoroughly frightened and Autolycus, in his desire to help the prince, manages to put the clown and the shepherd on board the ship in which Florizel and Perdita are sailing to Sicilia.
The scene once again shifts back to Sicilia. Leontes is still in deep remorse and the lords urge him to remarry to enable an heir to the kingdom. But Paulina asserts that there is none like Hermione and the king should not marry until Paulina can find him someone like her. Leontes is informed of the arrival of the Bohemian Prince and the Princess. As he is in the process of receiving them, word comes from Polixenes that the prince should be arrested. However, thanks to the contents of the bundle, it is ultimately revealed that Perdita is Leontes' long lost daughter. Leontes and Polixenes are reconciled. Perdita's royalty is recognized. Leontes is torn between grief and joy: joy at finding his daughter and grief for the loss of Hermione. Paulina takes them all to her chapel, where she claims to have a lifelike statue of Hermoine carved by a skillful artist. All go there to see the statue. In fact it is not a statue but Hermione herself, who has been under Paulina's care for sixteen years. As music is being played, Hermione who has been standing like a statue comes down from the pedestal, embraces her husband and blesses her daughter. Leontes urges the loyal Paulina to accept Camillo for a husband. The play ends on a note of reconciliation and general happiness.