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SCENE SUMMARIES AND ANALYSIS
ACT II, SCENE 1
The scene opens with Hermione, Mamillius and the ladies in attendance. Mamillius enchants the ladies with his talk and they tell him that his mother will soon give birth to a baby and they would be serving a fine new prince. Hermione asks Mamillius to sit down and tell her a story. He responds, "A sad tale is best for winter" and begins to whisper a story into her ears.
Leontes enters in a fit of rage, accompanied by some lords (including Antigonus). He has learned of the flight of Polixenes and Camillo and feels that the manner of their departure proves that his suspicions are well-founded. What is worse, he suspects Camillo was employed by Polixenes even before he had been employed by Leontes. He is also enraged to learn that Camillo used his authority to have the gates opened.
Leontes orders that Mamillius be taken away from the queen, adding that she could play with the child in her womb, which, he says, is the child of Polixenes. Hermione, shocked by this accusation, denies it but Leontes vehemently calls her an adulteress. He further accuses her of being a traitor who was privy to the escape of Polixenes. Hermione tells Leontes that when true knowledge dawns upon him, he will definitely grieve and repent. But no subsequent confession of error in judgment will undo the damage done to her honor now.
Nothing moves Leontes and he orders that Hermione be taken away to prison. He threatens that whoever pleads for her will be judged equally guilty. Hermione attributes Leontes' behavior to the reign of unfavorable planets. She will wait patiently until the heavens look on them more favorably. She turns to the lords and pleads with them, saying that even though she is not crying, Leontes' words have cut deeply. She asks the king to let her ladies accompany her because in her advanced stage of pregnancy, she requires their help.
After Hermione leaves with her attendant ladies, Antigonus and the other lords try to prevail upon Leontes to revoke his decision. They have no doubts about the honor and innocence of the queen. The king turns a deaf ear to everyone who speaks in favor of the queen. Jealousy drives him to tyranny. He tells them that he does not need to consult anyone in this matter. Antigonus ventures to say that even if the king had been suspicious, he should have expressed it confidentially and not publicly. The king chides him and justifies his own stand. He then informs the lords that for greater confirmation of his doubts he has sent Cleomenes and Dion to the sacred temple of Apollo at Delphos. They are to consult the oracle there and he will accept the divine counsel. When one of the lords appreciates this gesture, Leontes says that as for himself he needs no proof but the oracle will satisfy those who are ignorant. For the present, it is better that Hermione is in prison or else she would try to complete the act of treachery planned by Polixenes and Camillo. (Leontes imagines that Polixenes has planned against his life and crown.) Now he would go and address the people. Antigonus in an aside comments that when the truth is known it will move people to laughter.
The scene reveals that the queen is pregnant and due for delivery soon. The child she is going to deliver is the beautiful Perdita who is to dominate the latter half of the play. Besides, her pregnant state makes the imprisonment of the queen all the more pathetic. Also the coincidence of her pregnancy with the genesis of Polixenes' stay is further proof to Leontes' that the child is not his.
The title phrase "Winter's Tale" features in this scene. Hermione asks Mamillius to tell her a story and he responds by saying "a sad tale's best for winter". This suggests the sorrow that is in store for Hermione, though the child speaks with utmost innocence. "Winter" is suggestive of barrenness, and it is soon that Leontes is about to make his own life barren. With all lost to him soon. This allusion also may be seen as a comment made about the play itself, its storybook qualities that are borrowed from the romance genre that Shakespeare himself liberally borrowed from.
Hermione is the true heroine of this scene. Faced with this appalling charge and the suffering that will ensue, she asks Leontes if it is some kind of game he is playing. While she is claiming her innocence, she also says that he will grieve when "clearer knowledge" dawns upon him. This suggests that she is already concerned about the suffering that is in store for him. She blames his sickness on the planets, "there some ill planet reigns." In fact, it seems she avoids directly blaming Leontes for his anger and jealousy, which not only shows her devout loyalty but also suggests Leontes is a fair and reasonable person. Her address to the lords is equally dignified: even while asking them to judge her with their kind and charitable thoughts, she asks for the king's will to be carried out.
This scene continues to exhibit the progression of Leontes' disease that began in the previous scene. Now that he has broken ties with his best friend, he attempts to isolate himself from friends and family. He rebuffs anyone who refutes his accusations and moves closer to a space where the only truth that matters is the illusion of treachery that he perceives in those he loves most. His state of mind is elegantly elucidated through an analogy: Leontes says that there may be a spider steeped in a cup, and the man who drinks from the cup without the knowledge of the spider's presence remains untouched by sickness. But if he comes to know what he drank, he will suffer from a terrible nausea. As for himself, declares Leontes, he has drunk and seen the spider. That it is an infection of the mind is thus made clear and helps one in comprehending his mental trauma.
There can be no logical explanation for Leontes' jealousy. Hermione attributes it to the influence of the unfavorable planets. Likewise, clarity of the issue will come to him only through a supernatural intervention. Obviously, all the logical suggestions and reasonable advice of the fellow humans have failed and the audience looks forward to the oracle at the temple of Apollo for a cure of this paranoia.