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Leontes is the king of Sicilia. He is responsible for instigating the action of the play. What is most relevant to his character is his mercurial change of temper. Early in the play he is possessed of an insane jealousy and suspicion towards his wife and his friend. His jealousy arises from no apparent outside factor, but seems fully formed from within himself.
This situation ought immediately to make the audience lose both sympathy and respect for him. However, Shakespeare takes pains to make the audience sympathize with him. Leontes, is not completely a lost soul.
Instead just as quickly as he becomes fervidly jealous, so does he repent mightily. He eventually confesses his sins openly, withdraws from the world and gives up all hope of remarriage. He shows a firm determination to change by keeping a tight rein on his passions. It is through the other characters' respect and forgiveness of Leontes, which consequently allows the audience to accept their evaluation of the situation.
Allegorically speaking, Leontes is like the devil who has entered unbidden into the Garden of Eden. Sicilia, the traditional home of idealized shepherds, is meant to represent a settled universe. Evil disrupts the harmony of existence in this precious garden, the civilized court. Evil must be purged before harmony can be restored. Shakespeare, however does not make Leontes pay materially for his sins. He regains what he has lost. In place of Mamillius he receives Florizel and, with him, the hope of many sons, through his marriage to Perdita. Harmony is finally restored.
As the wife of Leontes, Hermione is a gentle, yet strong feminine character. She disappears from the scene in the third act itself and does not reappear until the last scene. Yet, the charm of her personality is perceived throughout the play. She always behaves with royal dignity and tremendous charm. She is also gifted with a lively intelligence and a fine wit. Consequently, she is able to captivate the attention of Polixenes, even though he longs for his family and his own court. She has the ease of manner, which is born of complete confidence in her husband and in the absoluteness of her innocence.
In the trial scene Hermione speaks mildly to her delusional husband. She first takes his accusations as a joke. Only later does she realize that he is serious. So secure does she feel in his love and affection for her. Nevertheless, she is not totally disillusioned by Leontes. She suggests that evil planetary influence may be the cause of his distemper. She thinks of the comfort of others rather than her own. She comforts her ladies as she is hauled off to prison. Her patience, dignity and virtue underscore the baseness of Leontes' accusations. Hermione defends herself in an extremely interesting way. She does not attempt to deny the charges in a legal manner. In response to Leontes' unwarranted accusations, she appeals to her previous conduct, the well-known evidence of her blameless life and her pedigree. She argues her points with skill. She has complete confidence in her own innocence. Hermione knows that she must have been vindicated by the oracle. She voluntarily withdraws in order that the oracle may be fulfilled.
Hermione is generous and never criticizes him for the death of young Mamillius. Her kindness is apparent in the fact that all members of the court: the unnamed lords, Paulina, Antigonus, Camillo and Polixenes hold her in high esteem. Once again, Shakespeare is revealing his characters indirectly through what other people express about them. Hermione's resolution, courage and integrity endear her to all, yet in some ways she is almost too ideal of a character, with no flaws granted her.
Symbolically, Hermione is significant as the image of womanhood. Gracious, loyal, virtuous, forgiving, in the eyes of everyone but Leontes, she has qualities which make her flawless. Pregnant at the beginning of the play, she gives birth to Perdita, the child who is to be the redemptive character and a figure of youthful fertility for the rest of the play. Hermione's personality is seen reborn in Perdita. Hermione is not merely a symbolic figure; she possesses realistic qualities that strike a sympathetic chord in the heart of the audience. In many ways, she is the most memorable character of the play.
Perdita is in every way a daughter worthy of Hermione. Brought up among peasants close to the soil, she possesses the gifts of natural virtue rather than those of civilized virtue, possessed by her mother. She does not have the education of her mother, but nevertheless, the education she does receive is practical. She displays many rustic virtues--honesty, graciousness, a love of nature, modesty.
Like her mother, Perdita too, is put on trial, during the debate about nature and art with Polixenes. Here, she upholds the aesthetics of nature as indeed she should. She is a child of nature who practices natural virtue. Her innate quality is shown in her natural grace. She dislikes being "prank'd up" like a goddess; it makes her feel that she is play-acting and that it is not natural.
Fearless as her mother at her trial, she argues courteously, but firmly with Polixenes. Here, she is shown as mentally less astute than Hermione yet she is still young and innocent to the ways of the world. She naively proclaims that the same sun that shines on the court also shines on the shepherd's hut yet there is an element of practical truth about her observation. This is a rather bold statement but, in one respect, it indicates the existence of Perdita's royal blood.
Perdita's upbringing, however, has its limitations. Therefore, she is not very successful as the hostess of the sheep-shearing feast. The shepherd remarks that she acts as the one being feasted upon rather than as the hostess. In other words, her natural royalty makes her unsuitable for the pastoral life. At the same time, her rustic virtues need polishing to make her fully royal. Polixenes and Camillo rightly sense that she is greater than what her apparent birth indicates. Nevertheless, she would not be socially acceptable as a wife for Florizel, no matter how virtuous she might be. Lineage is essential, especially where marriage to a king's heir is concerned.
Perdita is portrayed as a youthful foil to Hermione. In that respect, the theme of renewal and the cycle of life is underscored. However, she is a less important character, intellectually and spiritually. She is more fearful in some respects than Hermione yet she also fears the consequences that may befall Florizel with respect to his love for her. Still, she manages to defend herself when necessary.
In the second part of the play, she serves the same symbolic purpose as Hermione. She is symbolic of fertility and goodness. Shakespeare takes pains to identify her with the myth of Proserpine. She is the figure of spring and, in the sheep-shearing scene, it seems as if she and Florizel manage to recreate spring in winter, or at least in late autumn. This is precisely what Perdita does in the last act of the play when as the redemptive figure, she brings Leontes and Hermione together again.
Polixenes is the king of Bohemia and a great friend of Leontes. On the whole, he is not a very fully developed character. Yet he plays a vital role earlier in the play on bringing up the theme of friendship. He is used to indicate what the essential weakness in this particular friendship is. Because its basis is in youth and immaturity, there is a desire that nothing whatever will change it in the future. This hope is, of course, quite vain, especially when each of the friends marries. Polixenes is nothing more than a dramatic contrivance in the first part of the play.
In the fourth Act, however, he begins to come into his own. He is largely used as a foil to Leontes. His suspicion of his son parallels Leontes' suspicion of Hermione. His anger at his son and his debate with Perdita also parallels the behavior of Leontes. He blusters and argues without reason or consistency. He favors art and grafting and his notable comparison with human marriage escapes him because his eyes are blinded by his sentiments. His chief function here is to reveal the fact that Perdita would not be considered a suitable mate for Florizel, despite her gifts of natural virtue. Lineage and financial security were still considered essential qualities in partners in the days of Shakespeare.
On the whole, Shakespeare uses Polixenes to state many important contemporary opinions in the course of the play; on friendship, on nature and art, and on nobility. Consequently, Polixenes is not so much a character as a spokesman for some of the social and intellectual aspects of the play.