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SCENE SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
ACT I, SCENE 2
The scene is set in the palace of King Leontes. King Leontes enters with Queen Hermione, his friend Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, Prince Mamillius, Camillo and attendants. Polixenes says that it has been nine months since he had left Bohemia. It is time for him to take leave of Leontes. Leontes coaxes him to stay for a week more, but Polixenes insists on leaving the following day.
Leontes turns to Hermione and asks her to persuade Polixenes to stay. Hermione suggests that Leontes should have assured Polixenes that all is well in Bohemia. She accordingly takes the initiative to persuade Polixenes to extend his stay. She tells Polixenes that when Leontes visits Bohemia she will allow him to extend his stay by a month, even though she loves him and would not be able to stay without him for long. She continues to persuade him by adding a mock threat that if he did not consent to stay as a guest, she would make him her prisoner.
Polixenes declares that he would rather be her guest than her prisoner. He politely adds that it is less easy for him to offend her than for her to punish him.
Now that Polixenes has agreed to extend his stay, Hermione requests that he tell her about some childhood experiences. She would like to know about the pranks that the two friends played together. Polixenes recalls their innocent and happy boyhood. He and Leontes were like a pair of merry lambs playing about in the sun. It was a life of untainted innocence. They did not know sin nor thought anyone was capable committing it. Hermione asks if they have since then fallen from their old state of innocence. Polixenes replies that during their happy boyhood days they had not yet met the women they were to marry. The queen carries on the banter, wondering at the same time if Polixenes would stretch the argument further, and refer to the two queens as devils. The queens would be able to defend themselves once the kings assure them that they have "sinned" first with them and only with them.
Leontes calls out to Hermione and asks if Polixenes has agreed to stay on and Hermione confirms that he has. Leontes cannot help commenting to himself that the unrelenting Polixenes had refused to be persuaded when he had requested him. However, he congratulates Hermione for her effectual persuasion: she has spoken well now just as she had done once before. The last time she spoke well was when after a courtship of three months she had told Leontes, "I am yours forever". Accepting Leontes' compliments, Hermione says that her effective speech won her a royal husband first and now it has earned her a friend for a few days. So saying she gives her hand to Polixenes and with that gesture, Leontes' jealousy and suspicion begins to smolder. He can feel a terrible pang in his heart as he interprets the friendly hostess movements as being adulterous. He quickly turns to his son Mamillius and asks, "Art thou my boy?" Mamillius innocently replies that he is. Leontes consoles himself that the son resembles him, but he considers himself a cuckold and Mamillius as the son of a cuckold.
Leontes' face betrays agitation and Hermione and Polixenes notice the change of his expression though they cannot guess the reason. They ask Leontes if he is upset by something. Leontes covers up his perturbation by saying that looking at Mamillius reminded him of his own childhood days. He then ask Polixenes if he is as fond of his own young prince as Leontes is of his son. At the mention of his son Polixenes effusively describes how his young boy means the world to him.
Leontes declares that he loves his son in a similar fashion and now he would like to go for a walk with him. Hermione should attend to Polixenes and show utmost hospitality towards him, for after Hermione and Mamillius, he is dearest to Leontes. Hermione says that she and Polixenes will be in the garden. As they leave, Leontes reveals in an aside that he is only baiting them and they do not know it: he is allowing them to go with each other so that he may confirm his suspicions. Watching them from a distance, he fumes at the manner in which Hermione looks at Polixenes and the way he holds her arm.
Leontes' mind is sick with suspicion and he is certain that Hermione and Polixenes are in love. He turns to his son and says, "Go, play, boy, play, thy mother plays". Leontes is sure that he has been turned into a cuckold. After asking Mamillius to go and play, Leontes turns to Camillo and interrogates him: how is it that Polixenes had finally decided to stay? Camillo replies that only upon the queen's request had the King of Bohemia agreed to stay. This confirms what Leontes now feels that the two are having an affair. In a fit of frenzy, Leontes imagines that everyone is viewing him as a cuckold.
He tells Camillo that the queen is an infidel and the shocked Camillo retorts that he will not stand by and listen to maligned remarks about the sovereign Queen. He advises the king to get himself cured of such a diseased opinion, but Leontes is not ready to listen to anything contrary to his inference. He orders Camillo to poison Polixenes. It should not be difficult as Camillo is his cup- bearer. When Camillo pleads his queen's case again, Leontes turns to him in tyrannical fury and claims that he would not have accused her without proper grounds: he is not so unbalanced that he would wantonly bring disgrace upon himself and his son. Camillo agrees to poison Polixenes on the condition that Leontes will love and honor the Queen as before. He must do this for the sake of the prince and for the sake of avoiding any scandal about the queen. Leontes agrees and Camillo leaves after requesting that Leontes show a pleasant face to Polixenes and Hermione.
After Leontes' exit, Camillo reveals in a soliloquy that he is in a fix; he can neither obey nor disobey his master Leontes. If he poisons Polixenes, he will ascend in the court, but he knows only too well the consequences of murdering a king.
Polixenes enters now, wondering at the sudden change in Leontes. Polixenes feels he is no longer welcome and asks Camillo for an explanation for the sudden change in Leontes' behavior. He tells Camillo that the king wears an expression of contempt and avoids him. Camillo, already quite nervous, replies, "I dare not know" instead of the customary, "I do not know". Polixenes suspects that something is amiss and forces Camillo to disclose the truth. Camillo admits that a 'sickness' has broken out, and Polixenes is the cause of it, though he has not been affected by it. Camillo reveals that Leontes has ordered him to kill Polixenes, as he suspects Polixenes has committed adultery with the queen.
Shocked to hear so terrible a charge, Polixenes proclaims his innocence. But Camillo tells him that it is easy to forbid the sea than to change Leontes' mind which is past all counseling. The only sensible thing to do would be to leave the country unannounced. He could secretly organize the retinue in smaller groups in order to flee Sicilia. Camillo also offers to go with Polixenes and serve him for now he cannot hope to live or make his fortunes in Sicilia anymore.
Polixenes agrees to the suggestion and declares that his ships are ready, as he was to leave Sicilia earlier before the queen had persuaded him to do otherwise. He remarks that since the queen is a precious creature, the king's jealously must be colossal. Moreover, being a mighty king his revenge is likely to be more violent, especially as he feels himself dishonored by a close friend. He promises to show Camillo the respect due to a father and they flee immediately.
This scene introduces one of the vital contrasts in the play: the innocence of childhood is contrasted with the malignancy of adulthood. Polixenes narrates to Hermione how as young boys he and Leontes exchanged "innocence for innocence." But even as he is recalling those carefree, innocent days, the seeds of jealousy start to sprout and gain ground in Leontes' mind.
The dialogue of Leontes with his young son Mamillius, further reinforces this contrast. He asks Mamillius, "Art thou my boy? Art thou my calf?"; "Go play boy, play: thy mother plays", and so on. But the child, unaware of the stinging nature of these questions, answers innocently. His innocence illustrates emphatically Polixenes' remark about childhood: "We knew not the doctrine of ill-doing, nor dreamed that any did." Shakespeare poignantly contrasts childhood with adulthood, innocence with sin.
Yet the sin here is equivocal in the case of Hermione and Polixenes. There is no evidence to suggest they are having an affair other than the harmless flirtation that exists between men and women. Yet the scene provides a masterly depiction of the intense emotions of suspicion and jealousy. It is pointless for the audience to search for motives, since this passion is beyond logic and it strikes Leontes like a pestilence. In fact, many of the adjectives to describe Leontes' mood focus on metaphors of infection and disease. Leonte's mind has been blighted. Every movement of Hermione and Polixenes, every gesture or word seems to confirm to him that his suspicions are well founded. A word such as 'satisfy' is interpreted only in the most lascivious manner. He sees nothing but innuendo in the conversation between his friend and wife. Yet it exists only in illusion.
Feelings of ignominy surface, when he sees himself as being a cuckold and what is worse that everyone knows it. This paranoia exerts itself in badgering his son with questions about his paternity such as when he asks Mamillius, "Art thou my calf?" Leontes' jealous passion is brilliantly brought out through a complex use of language. It is worthwhile to contrast Leontes' earlier speeches with his latter ones. His opening speech is short and crisp as he tells Polixenes, "stay your thanks awhile and pay them when you part". But as soon as he is struck by jealousy his speech becomes complex, discordant, and incoherent, a reflection of his mind which appears to be shortcircuiting.
The scene is also remarkable for its dramatic irony. Hermione speaks to Polixenes requesting him to stay only because her husband has desired her to do so. Her very attempt to please her husband is interpreted as a ploy to keep him in Sicilia. A further irony results when Polixenes begins to recall their days of innocence and Leontes' response is to become furiously jealous.
Camillo is presented as being faithful to his monarch, Leontes, but also virtuous. He sees that the king is out of line and demands that he come to his senses. He is not a sycophant but a man of moral courage in his own right.
This scene brings about a dramatic change of character in Leontes. It is not until the end of the scene that other characters get wind of his state of mind. While seemingly innocuous on the outside, a conversation between friends suddenly becomes nightmarish and unreal with Leontes' murderous jealousy about to erupt.