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SCENE SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
ACT II, SCENE 3
The scene is set in a room in Leontes' palace. Leontes is nursing his feelings of revenge, ranting to those around him who will listen. He cannot punish Polixenes as he is out of reach, but draws comfort in the thought that the queen is within his power. He hopes that if she is burnt alive, his mind may find some rest.
He calls one of the servants and inquires about the condition of Mamillius. The child has been sick and Leontes attributes this to the suffering that comes from his mother's dishonor. This is ironic, as contrary to what he says, the child must have been shaken by his mother's suffering.
Paulina arrives with the newborn baby and the lords and servants try to prevent her from entering the king's chamber. They say that he has had a sleepless night. But she accuses the lords of being passive and thus encouraging his jealousy. She claims that she has come to cure him and help him to sleep. Leontes is enraged at seeing Paulina. He rebukes Antigonus for having allowed her entrance. Leontes, thoroughly provoked, orders his attendants to throw her out but Paulina, spirited as ever, terrorizes them and proclaims that she will go away herself after completing her mission. She lays the infant before Leontes and says that the good queen has delivered a daughter and has sent her for his blessings. Leontes, mad with anger, calls everyone a traitor. Referring to Antigonus as a henpecked fool, he orders him to take the bastard child and hand it back to his shrewish wife. Paulina rebukes Antigonus more severely and warns him that his hands will be forever cursed if he takes up the princess with the forced stigma that Leontes has hurled upon her. Antigonus dares not touch the baby after this. Leontes comments, "He dreads his wife."
The saucy-tongued Paulina retorts that she wishes that Leontes had dreaded his wife likewise, for then he would call his children his own. Paulina sharply accuses him of being the only traitor that is there, as he alone has slandered the honor of himself, his queen, his son and his baby daughter. She laments that it is a curse that this rotten root of his jealousy cannot be removed. She draws the attention of the king to the resemblance between him and the baby. She hopes that the child who looks so much like the father will not grow up to be jealous like him. Unable to bear it any further, Leontes tells Antigonus that he deserves to be hanged for not being able to control his wife's tongue. Antigonus replies that if hanging is the punishment for henpecked husbands no one would be left alive!
Leontes threatens to burn Paulina. She retorts that it is a heretic who makes the fire and not the one who burns in it. Leontes asks Antigonus to drive Paulina out and remarks that if he had been a tyrant he would not have spared Paulina's life. She leaves, eventually, exclaiming that she needs no pushing. She will leave on her own doing.
After Paulina's exit. Leontes vents his ferocity on Antigonus. Antigonus must take the baby and burn it, and within an hour bring him word that it has been done. If he fails to do so, he will be killed. If Antigonus refuses, asserts Leontes, he would dash out the bastard's brains himself.
The lords kneel and beg of the king not to commit so foul and barbarous a deed. The king relents a little and asks Antigonus if he is prepared to do anything to save the infant's life. Antigonus swears accordingly and Leontes orders Antigonus to take the baby to a remote place, away from Sicilia and abandon it there. Though Antigonus still considers it to be a cruel thing to do, he takes leave with the baby, Leontes comments that he will not rear another man's child.
A servant enters and tells Leontes that Cleomenes and Dion have returned from Delphos and are hastening to the court. Leontes is happy that they have returned so soon and have brought the truth from the Great Apollo. He requests the lords to summon the court so that Hermione has a just and open trial. Leontes is sure that the oracle will confirm his own opinion.
The tension which unfolds in this scene results from the acute distortion of perception on Leontes' part. It is in this scene where 8he reader sees how warped and delusional Leontes is by contrasting him to the more rational figure of Paulina, who shows an unrelenting honesty in Leontes' presence, which is remarkable. She performs the important function of acting as the "conscience" of the king, and it is little wonder that he wants to get rid of her and keep his illusion intact. In a way she is a foil to Queen Hermione. Paulina's unflinching behavior contrasts with the soft and gentle dignity of Queen Hermione. Although Leontes is provoked to more madness by what Paulina says, he is almost quelled by her presence and cannot take action until she leaves. His threats to her remain idle.
It is interesting to note how ineffectual the lords are around Leontes. They continue to pander to his threats by trying to reason with him. Yet Leontes is at his worst in this scene. He is beyond reason and suffers from insomnia, which only exacerbate his already deranged state. He thirsts for revenge and fancies seeing the queen burned. The image of burning at the fire may allude to Joan of Arc and other women who were seen as heretical and threats to an established order. His later threat to burn Paulina as well as the newborn infant, a daughter, reinforces this image of women who have transgressed their traditional roles yet ironically enough it is Leontes who is acting out of order. The references to fire also equates the image with jealousy and revenge; his feelings have burnt out his reason.
The audience is also informed of Mamillius' illness, which will prepare the reader for his death in the coming scene. The scene ends with the news of the arrival of Cleomenes and Dion. Leontes' oppression has become absolutely unbearable and everyone looks forward to the oracle to restore his sanity.