The Winter's Tale | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Course Hero, "The Winter's Tale Study Guide," September 26, 2017, accessed September 21, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Winters-Tale/.

The Winter's Tale | Plot Summary

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Summary

Act 1

Leontes, the king of Sicilia, has been hosting his lifelong friend Polixenes, the king of Bohemia, for the past nine months. Observing his friend and his wife, Hermione, Leontes is suddenly taken by fits of jealousy. He believes that he has been cuckolded and that his wife is pregnant with a bastard child. He consults Camillo, a nobleman in his court, who correctly sees Leontes's aggravation as delusional and tries unsuccessfully to reassure the king. Leontes persists, ordering Camillo to poison Polixenes. Camillo warns Polixenes of the plot on his life and aids the Bohemian king and his attendants in escaping, abandoning his life in Sicilia.

Act 2

Outraged at the betrayal, Leontes accuses Hermione of aiding Polixenes and of adultery. Growing more delusional, he accuses her of taking part in a plot against his life. He has her arrested and taken to prison.

While living in prison, Hermione gives birth to a girl. The lady Paulina takes the girl to the king's court in the hope that seeing his daughter will soften Leontes's heart. Instead Leontes orders the baby to be burned alive. When Paulina's husband, Antigonus, offers to redeem the baby's life with his own, Leontes agrees—but then orders Antigonus to take the child and abandon her in the wilderness.

Act 3

Leontes holds a trial regarding his wife's supposed adultery and treason. At the trial the oracle of Apollo is consulted, which proclaims Hermione's innocence and prophesies that Leontes will remain without an heir "if that which is lost be not found." Leontes declares the oracle false. Immediately thereafter a servant reports that Leontes's son, Mamillius, has died. Hermione then collapses and is carried off stage; Paulina, furious, bursts into the room to report that Hermione, too, has died. Leontes, distraught, repents and vows to do penance for his wrongdoings.

Antigonus takes the child, who he names Perdita, to the coast of Bohemia, where he follows Leontes's order and abandons the child in the wilderness. Shortly thereafter Antigonus is killed by a bear, and the ship he took is wrecked in a storm, killing the sailors. The Shepherd finds Perdita, along with riches and a letter explaining her origin left by Antigonus, and raises her as his daughter.

Act 4

After 16 years pass Perdita is being courted by Florizell, the son of Polixenes. The king of Bohemia has become aware of his son's dalliance, so he and Camillo go in disguise to meet the girl in question and her Shepherd father at the sheep-shearing festival. Perdita expresses her fear that the king will forbid their relationship because of her lower status. Florizell protests that he will not be stopped, insisting on making a formal betrothal on the spot. Polixenes, disguised, asks the youth to delay this action and speak with his father first. When Florizell refuses, Polixenes reveals himself, forbids the marriage, and storms away.

Camillo, wanting to return home to Sicilia and also wanting to help the young lovers, devises their escape to Sicilia, where he believes the penitent Leontes will shelter them. Meanwhile the thief Autolycus, disguised as a courtier, convinces the Shepherd and the Clown to pay him to intercede with Polixenes.

Act 5

In Sicilia Leontes has committed his life to penance and has sworn to Paulina that he will not remarry without her consent. He happily receives Florizell and Perdita, and he offers to speak for them to Polixenes, who arrives shortly thereafter. In action narrated by various gentlemen, the truth comes out that Perdita is Leontes's lost daughter. This clears the way for Florizell and Perdita to marry, now that they are considered of equal status.

Upon these happy reunions, Paulina invites the kings and their progeny to view the statue of Hermione that she has commissioned. They all marvel at the lifelike statue, although Leontes remarks that it seems much older than his wife was when she died. The statue seems to miraculously come to life. The play closes as the king and his wife are reunited and Leontes invites Camillo to take the widowed Paulina as his wife.

The Winter's Tale Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action

Introduction

1 Leontes suspects his wife and Polixenes of adultery.

Rising Action

2 Leontes orders Camillo to murder Polixenes.

3 Camillo aids Polixenes, and they escape to Bohemia.

4 Leontes accuses Hermione of adultery and imprisons her.

5 In prison Hermione gives birth to a baby girl.

6 Paulina shows the baby to Leontes; he rejects the child.

7 Apollo's oracle names Hermione innocent, blames Leontes.

8 Antigonus abandons the baby Perdita by Leontes's command.

9 Sixteen years later, Perdita and Florizell are betrothed.

10 Polixenes forbids his son to marry the Shepherd's daughter.

Climax

11 Camillo helps the couple escape to Sicilia.

Falling Action

12 Autolycus is hired to explain Perdita's heritage.

13 In Sicilia, Leontes, now penitent, meets the couple.

14 Perdita is recognized as the lost Sicilian princess.

Resolution

15 The statue of Hermione miraculously comes to life.

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