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SCENE SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
ACT III, SCENE 1
In this brief scene, Cleomenes and Dion - the messengers sent by Leontes to Delphos - discuss their visit to the temple of Apollo. From their conversation it is gathered that the atmosphere at Delphos had been extremely pleasant, the temple serene and beautiful, the priests worthy of reverence and the offering to the great Apollo solemn and ceremonious. Most impressive of all was the thundering voice of the oracle. Both Cleomenes and Dion hope that when the sealed contents of the oracle's verdict is revealed it should prove beneficial to the queen. Hoping that the outcome of their journey be gracious, they take fresh horses and hasten to the court of Leontes.
This scene describing the sweetness of the air of Delphos and the power of the oracle's speech is strategically placed between two scenes that are full of conflict and tension. The prime function of this scene is to transport the audience or readers to an unearthly atmosphere full of graciousness and serenity. It does succeed in giving relief from the mad ranting of Leontes. There is malice prevailing in the court of Sicilia with Leontes at the helm. Neither the queen's dignified denial, Paulina's candid accusation, nor the honorable pleading of the loyal lords has the slightest effect on Leontes. The power to set him right and clear the blur of jealousy has to come from elsewhere and hopefully this will come from the Divine Apollo at Delphos.
SCENE SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
ACT III, SCENE 2
Set in the Sicilian court of justice, Leontes calls for an open trial of Hermione. He admits that he is not happy to begin such proceedings against Hermione who is not only the daughter of a king but his own wife, whom he loved very much, but he wants to be vindicated of the criticism that he is behaving as a tyrant. It is his claim that the open and fair trial would establish the innocence or guilt of the queen.
Hermione is brought in, guarded. She is also accompanied by Paulina and other ladies. An officer reads out the charges against the queen. She is accused of adultery with Polixenes and conspiring with Camillo against the life of her royal husband. She is further accused of aiding Polixenes and Camillo in fleeing Sicilia by night, when the conspiracy had come to light.
Hermione begins by stating that what she is about to say will not be accepted as true because her very integrity is being questioned. When she says "not guilty" it will be considered a lie. Recalling her past she tells Leontes that she has been as chaste and true in the past as she is unhappy now. Now she is being forced to plead for her life and honor in public, though she is a great king's daughter, queen of Sicilia and mother to a prince. As for life, she values it as she values grief, which she would do without. But honor is something to be inherited by her children, and it is only her honor she fights for.
Talking about Polixenes, she says that she loved him only in a manner that becomes a lady like herself, and in a manner which Leontes himself commanded. Not loving or honoring a childhood friend of the husband would itself be considered disobedience and ingratitude. As to the subject of conspiracy, she maintains that she doesn't know the taste of it. As for Camillo, she knows him to be an honest man but has no idea why he left Leontes' court. Leontes refuses to believe her words and accuses her that she knew about his departure and had assisted them.
Hermione, completely baffled by the accusation, replies that he speaks a language she cannot understand. Her life depends on his fanciful thoughts and she would willingly lay it down. Leontes rudely tells her that she has a bastard daughter by Polixenes, which he has cast away. Like her actions, her denial is equally shameless and she should look forward to death. Hermione boldly replies, "Sir, spare your threats." She seeks the very bug that he tries to frighten her with. Life is not worth having, says she, when she has lost her husband's favor, the crown and comfort of her life. She is not allowed to come into the presence of her son, her second joy. Besides, the innocent baby, her third comfort, has also been snatched away from her and left to die. She has been proclaimed a strumpet on every public post. The attention and comfort given to all women at the time of delivery has been denied to her. Finally, she has been rushed to this court before she has fully recovered after childbirth. There is no joy or blessing to induce her to live. Once again she affirms that she does not attach any value to her life, only to her honor. If Leontes is condemning her by forming his judgment on suspicion without proof, it is no law. Therefore, she would like to refer to the oracle and let Apollo be her judge.
Her request is granted and Cleomenes and Dion are summoned with the sealed oracle. They are asked to swear that they have brought the sealed oracle from the Great Apollo's priest at Delphos and they have not broken the holy seal or read the secrets in it. After Cleomenes and Dion have sworn, Leontes orders the officer to break the seal and read it. The officer reads:
"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."
Everyone is happy and relieved to hear the verdict except, of course, Leontes. He claims that there is no truth at all in the oracle and that the trial should proceed.
A servant barges in to announce that Mamillius is dead. He died in fear and grief, due to his mother's plight. This jolts Leontes back to reality - the reality that has been eluding him for so long. He admits that the Great Apollo is angry and the heavens themselves strike him for his injustice.
Hermoine faints on hearing this terrible news. Leontes requests Paulina and the ladies to take Hermione and look after her carefully. Quickly and suddenly Leontes realizes his terrible blunder and says, "I have too much believed mine own suspicion" - something which everyone knew all along.
After Hermione is taken away by the ladies, Leontes begs forgiveness of the Great Apollo for his blasphemy. He promises to win the love of his queen, reconcile himself to Polixenes and recall good Camillo. Now everything is clear as daylight to him. He can see what made Camillo quit the court: the fact that Camillo was ready to lose all his fortunes in Sicilia and venture into the uncertain life in Bohemia shows him to be a man of honor.
Paulina comes in, full of bitterness and grief. She vents her spleen at the king, listing all the damages done by his tremendous jealousy and unyielding tyranny. He has done irreparable harm to Polixenes, Camillo, the newborn infant and the young prince. Now even the queen, "the sweetest, dearest creature" is dead. She tells him that even if a thousand people were to kneel and pray and fast in a barren mountain in winter the gods cannot be moved to cast one favorable look on Leontes. Therefore, he need not repent; he should only despair. Her hysterical outburst of sorrow and anger does not enrage Leontes anymore; now he is a changed man. He feels he has deserved the bitter accusation. One of the lords checks Paulina and she apologizes for her outburst. Now she can see that the king is deeply grieved. She asks the king to forgive her and promises not to speak anymore of the queen or his children or of her own husband, Antigonus - all of whom are lost. She would say nothing. Leontes declares that he prefers her blunt truth to her pity. He asks for the queen and his son to be buried in one grave. On the tombstone may be inscribed, to his perpetual shame, the cause of their deaths. He will visit the chapel where their bodies lie and shed tears of repentance everyday.
This scene which features the trial of Hermione marks the climax of the play. The climax comes right in the center of the middle act as in other well-structured plays of Shakespeare.
The trial begins with the accusation hurled by Leontes and the defense put forward by Hermione. Leontes says that he has called for the open trial to prove the innocence or guilt of the queen. But as far as he is concerned, he is sure she is guilty. All that he wants to prove in the trial is that he is no tyrant. He wants to exonerate himself, which is precisely why he refuses to accept the verdict of the oracle.
Hermione's speech is full of dignity and sad eloquence. Her virtue, steadfast defense of her honor and her fearless speech endear her to all. When the news of Mamillius' death is reported,she faints, earning the sympathy of not only the court but the audience as well.
The change in Leontes is immediate when he hears the news of the death of Prince Mamillius. The illusion leaves him as suddenly as it had come in Act I. The cloud of jealousy is removed not gradually but by a single, powerful blow. The process of reversal has begun and the rest of the play will focus on the consequences of his monstrous actions. He also will feel the pain of his actions and want to be reminded of it when he suggests to Paulina that she continue to remind him of his past misdeeds. This in effect begins the process of repentence, which Leontes undergoes in the next sixteen years. If it were not for Mamillius' death and the subsequent death of his wife, Leontes would continue to act in such a tyrannical manner. Yet the shock of reality has pierced the illusions and set the course of his life. The oracle also hints at the course of action that the play will take by saying that "The King shall live without an heir, if that which is lost be not found."
Paulina's role is becoming more boldly defined. She lets Leontes witness the full inferno of hell when she tells him that the kneeling of a thousand men upon a barren mountain in a perpetual storm for ten thousand years will not redeem him. When she sees the King's grief, she apologizes for her rash speech but she is not going to stop acting the part of his conscience as when she pronounces that she will not remind him of his queen or children.
The fate of Antigonus is yet to be presented but it is hinted here through Paulina's speech. She claims that he has been lost and the king is responsible for that too.