The Winter's Tale | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Winter's Tale | Act 2, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

Accompanied by her ladies-in-waiting, Hermione converses with her young son, Mamillius. When she coaxes him to tell the group a story, he answers that he has a sad tale for winter that features sprites and goblins.

Leontes enters, distraught to have learned of the sudden, clandestine departure of Polixenes and Camillo. He regards this development as proof of his suspicions. Leontes's delusions, however, have expanded beyond a belief in his wife's guilt of adultery: ominously he declares that there is a plot afoot against his life and his crown.

Confronting his pregnant wife, Leontes publicly accuses Hermione of adultery and orders her to be taken to prison. Hermione meets her husband's fury with remarkable dignity and forbearance: "There's some ill planet reigns. / I must be patient till the heavens look / With an aspect more favorable." Leontes's courtiers, including Antigonus, oppose him vigorously, but Leontes refuses to listen. Although he claims he needs no further confirmation, he announces that he has dispatched envoys to Apollo's oracle at Delphos for counsel.

Analysis

The banter among Hermione, Mamillius, and the ladies-in-waiting provides background for the play's title, The Winter's Tale. By now we suspect that the plot of this story will contain more than a trace of sadness, and perhaps some elements of danger. At the same time the first part of this scene points to the seasons, one of the drama's pervasive motifs. Finally, the brief scene's structure points in a metatheatrical, or self-conscious, way at one of the notable features of Shakespeare's dramaturgy in The Winter's Tale: the play's combination of narration with dramatic action. (See especially the later discussion of Act 5, Scene 2.)

The scene sharply contrasts female society—a place of safety, connectedness, and play, in which "sad tales" are a pleasant pastime rather than a harsh reality—with the appearance of Leontes and his male courtiers. Their intrusion marks the beginning of danger and the true, devastating "winter's tale" of the play.

The portrayal of Leontes in this scene adds a deeper layer of paranoia to his depiction in Act 1. He claims that his crown and his very life are at stake, and in a sweeping accusation he asserts, "All's true that is mistrusted." Clearly Leontes is no longer seething just about personal betrayal; he now believes that there is a widespread conspiracy against his rule.

After Hermione is escorted to prison, Leontes's dialogue with Antigonus and another lord supplies further glimpses of the king's swelling irrationality. Even though his counselors strongly object to the condemnation of Hermione, Leontes refuses to budge. The most he will grant is his willingness to consult Apollo's oracle at Delphos—although there again, he allows complacently, such confirmation is scarcely necessary: "Though I am satisfied and need no more / Than what I know, yet shall the oracle / Give rest to th' minds of others." Thus Shakespeare suggests that Leontes's suspicion and fury have merged with megalomania.

Shakespeare's geography in The Winter's Tale has prompted considerable critical comment. "Delphos," for example, appears to be a conflation of the island of Delos, Apollo's birthplace in traditional myth, and Delphi, the location of his oracle in the Peloponnesus.

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