The Winter's Tale | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Winter's Tale | Character Analysis



Leontes has more than twice as many lines as any other character. Since he becomes paranoid, murderous, and cruel shortly after the play's opening, it is difficult to get any sense of what his character was like originally. His sudden onset of jealousy sets the plot in motion, and his equally sudden repentance for his actions is the background for the play's second half. The resolution of the plot is Leontes's reconciliation with his wife, Hermione, and his long-lost daughter, Perdita.


Polixenes and Leontes grew up together, and for the first part of the play his behavior is courteous and exemplary—a counter to Leontes's paranoia and betrayal. However, later in the play Polixenes grows angry with his son Florizell over the latter's relationship with Perdita and threatens to disfigure her and kill her adoptive father. When the couple flees to Sicilia, Leontes, now the calm and reasonable one, welcomes the pair.


Hermione is courteous, beautiful, and an ideal mother and wife. Accused by Leontes of adultery with Polixenes, she eloquently defends her innocence at a formal trial. The oracle of Apollo at Delphos also proclaims her innocence. At the news of the death of her son Mamillius, Hermione faints and is carried offstage. She is later reported to have died. In the play's final scene, however, Hermione's statue apparently comes to life, and she and Leontes are reconciled, together with their daughter, Perdita.


Camillo disobeys Leontes's order to murder Polixenes, warning the other king and escaping with him to Bohemia. Later on he advises Florizell and Perdita to go to Sicilia and take refuge with Leontes. In the end he marries the widowed Paulina.


Paulina serves as the moral conscience and guide for Leontes. Unafraid to speak out against his tyrannical behavior, she runs great risks of punishment, but in the end she is esteemed for her nobility and honesty. Widowed, she marries Camillo at the end of the play.


Florizell falls in love with Perdita, and their courtship forms a major element of Act 4 of the play. He incurs his father's displeasure for courting a young woman of apparently low social status.


Perdita plays a leading role in the sheep-shearing festival of Act 4, Scene 4. She has a symbolic link with nature and flowers, suggesting a thematic connection with fertility and rebirth. Although she is a shepherdess, Polixenes and Camillo both note that she has a noble appearance. In Act 5 she is joyfully restored to her parents, thus fulfilling Apollo's oracle at Delphos.

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