The Winter's Tale | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Winter's Tale | Act 3, Scene 2 | Summary

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Summary

With stern formality, Leontes opens the public trial of Hermione by ordering an officer to read the charges against her. Hermione defends herself eloquently, pointing out that her character, her role as queen and mother, and her loyalty to Leontes make the very fact of the trial seem absurd. Cleomenes and Dion enter and, having pledged their honesty and good faith, deliver Apollo's oracle, which is read aloud. The oracle proclaims Hermione's chastity, Polixenes's innocence, Camillo's loyalty, and Leontes's tyranny. Furthermore the oracle vouches for the legitimacy of Leontes's baby daughter. According to Apollo's prophecy, "if that which is lost be not found," Leontes will remain without an heir.

Despite the courtiers' praise of the oracle, Leontes declares flatly that there is no truth in it. Almost immediately, however, a servant enters to announce the death of Mamillius. Thunderstruck, the king interprets his son's death is because of Apollo's anger at Leontes's own injustice. Paulina urgently implores the courtiers to aid Hermione, who has fallen down in a faint.

Leontes then delivers a speech full of contrition, vowing to Apollo that he will be reconciled to all those he has wronged. Paulina reenters with the shocking news that Hermione is dead. She bitterly blames Leontes for the queen's death, denouncing him as a tyrant. Leontes vows lifelong penance for the sorrows he has caused.

Analysis

Perhaps the most striking feature of this scene is its lightning pace. Within less than a hundred lines, Apollo's oracle exonerates Hermione and Polixenes, a servant reports the death of Leontes's son and heir Mamillius, and Paulina reports the death of Hermione. Leontes regrets his actions even more swiftly than he succumbed to the wave of jealousy engulfing him in Act 1, Scene 2.

In both history and literature, the oracle at Delphi was famous for delivering incomprehensible riddles that required extensive interpretation and debate. The plain, literal language of the decree in this scene emphasizes the obvious truth of Hermione's innocence: even oracles find the issue too ridiculous to discuss.

The death of Mamillius is the pivotal event motivating Leontes's change of heart. At line 150, he pronounces the oracle false; just ten lines later he exclaims that Apollo is angry and "the heavens themselves / Do strike at my injustice."

Hard on the heels of this speech, Paulina reenters, bristling with outrage. Her stinging catalogue of Leontes's faults culminates in another wave of grief as she announces the death of Hermione. Leontes can do no more than vow daily penance for his actions.

How authentic is Leontes's repentance? The symmetry between his sudden capitulation to jealousy in Act 1 and his equally sudden change of heart in Act 3 suggests that Leontes has an extremely impulsive temperament. If we find his sudden jealousy credible, we are likely to credit his equally sudden repentance as genuine. Up to now in the play, he has been scathing in his accusations of others; he is now just as scathing when he recalls his own unjust words and actions. He offers no excuses for his excessive behavior. Instead he frankly and fearlessly confronts his own moral failure.

Paulina's solemn assertion ("I'll swear 't") that Hermione is dead will prove, in the end, to be false, although the audience has no way of knowing this at this point in the play.

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