The Winter's Tale | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Winter's Tale | Act 5, Scene 1 | Summary



Back in Sicilia, Leontes gathers with Cleomenes, Dion, and Paulina. For 16 years, Leontes has kept his vows of penitence for his destruction of her family. Paulina convinces him to swear never to marry again without her permission. A servant announces the arrival in Sicilia of Florizell and Perdita, who are then welcomed by Leontes. As they converse, news comes that Polixenes has arrived in Sicilia to prevent his son's marriage to the supposed daughter of the Shepherd. Impressed by the young couple's devotion to each other—and attracted to the beautiful Perdita—Leontes declares he will intervene with Polixenes on their behalf.


Perhaps the most curious aspect of this scene is Paulina's extraction of a solemn oath from Leontes never to remarry without her assent. Paulina's ability to compel this oath testifies to her great moral authority, even as it shows Leontes's profound regret for his actions. It also points ahead to the recovery of Hermione—Paulina may be trying to shield Leontes from bigamy.

This scene also emphasizes the issue of royal succession. In Act 4, Scene 4 Polixenes had already revealed his concern with this topic when he threatened his son Florizell with disinheritance if the young man continued to court Perdita. In Act 3, Scene 2 Apollo's oracle at Delphos had mentioned succession in the context of Leontes's punishment for his actions, warning that the king would remain without an heir "if that which is lost be not found." And in Act 1, Scene 2, Leontes had demonstrated his emotional involvement with the issue of legitimacy in his comments about his son Mamillius. Leontes's subtle and unknowingly incestuous appreciation of Perdita, which earns a rebuke from Paulina—"Your eye hath too much youth in 't"—points to another problem of legitimacy and legacy, and gestures to the possibility of tragedy. If you don't know who your child is, you may end up sleeping with her. This incestuous attraction was a larger part of the plot in Shakespeare's source, Pandosto.

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