This is considered a comedy, though for me this is really a play of two halves, the first verging on tragedy, the second becoming more typical of the Bard’s comedies.
Essentially, the tale is one about unfounded jealously, and the destruction it can cause, and the power of remorse and redemption.
Leontes is the king of Sicily, and he is hosting his great friend Polixenes, the king of Bohemia. After nine months of just hanging out, Polixenes is ready to turn for home and his son, until Leontes urges Hermione (devoted wife of Leontes) to prevail upon him to stay on.
As these two converse, Leontes is suddenly seized by a surge of jealousy, and becomes convinced that his heavily-pregnant wife is in fact having an affair with his best friend, whose child she is now carrying! Incensed beyond rational thought, Leontes arranges with a lord called Camillo to have Polixenes poisoned, but he tells Polixenes of the plot, and the two escape back to Bohemia.
Utterly enraged, Leontes incarcerates the pregnant Hermione, who gives birth in prison to a daughter, Perdita. Hermione’s close (and brave) friend Paulina takes the infant to Leontes, to attempt to change his heart, but to no avail. In fact, Leontes orders “the little bastard” to be taken to the “desert” of Bohemia, and left there to die, exposed to the elements. Lord Antigonus is the man charged with this terrible deed, and he is the husband of Paulina.
While this is happening, Hermione is then put on trial for adultery and treason, the penalty for which would be death. Even though all the evidence supports the innocence of his wife, even to the extent of Apollo’s Oracle opining that she is innocent, the king is not for turning. When a servant arrives with the tragic news that his son, Prince Mamillius, has died from sorrow over the treatment of his mother, the Oracle’s warning about being left heirless hits Leontes hard. Worse, Hermione drops dead after hearing the news of her son.
All this causes the madness to fall away from Leontes, and he realises the errors he’s made, and he remorsefully begs forgiveness from Apollo.
Antigonus reaches the coast of Bohemia (Shakespeare’s grasp of geography may not have been spot-on in this play – Bohemia had neither a coast nor a desert – it was roughly equivalent to where the Czech Republic is located today!), and abandons Perdita. The most famous stage direction in all of Shakespeare’s canon is here, when Antigonus “exits, pursued by a bear” (who shortly thereafter sits down to lunch on Antigonus).
An Old Shepherd and his son, the Clown, find the baby Perdita, along with a horde of gold and documents which attest as to her birth and family, and decide to raise the child as their own. “Time” then appears, to tell us that sixteen years have now passed since these events.
So – not many laughs in the first part of this play!
Sixteen years on, the locals are having a sheep-shearing festival, and Perdita is the Queen of the Feast. The Festival is being hosted by the now-prosperous Old Shepherd. She is happy in her life, and is betrothed to Prince Florizel, who is the son of…King Polixenes. Theirs is a secret engagement, for the king would refuse the engagement were he to discover it. A prince could never marry a commoner, right??? 😀
Polixenes inevitably does find out, and he and Camillo (now his servant) attend the Festival in disguise. When the betrothal is publicly announced, they reveal themselves, but the young prince defends his love and refuses to break off the engagement. Polixenes threatens a terrible punishment on Perdita, including facial disfigurement along with having her “father” the Old Shepherd executed, in response to which the young lovers escape to Sicily.
The couple are followed all the way to Leontes’ court by Polixenes. Leontes is still full of remorse over his actions sixteen years ago, and Paulina is a constant reminder of what he did. He welcomes in the young couple, as Florizel claims his father sent him on a diplomatic mission. However, Polixenes soon arrives to dispel that notion, so Leontes listens to what Polixenes has to say. However, the proceedings are disrupted when the Old Shepherd and the Clown (whose lives had improved immeasurably since finding the riches on the beach along with Perdita) arrive, bearing the documents which prove Perdita’s true origins and identity.
There is great rejoicing, as now the lovers can get married. Also, because Perdita has been found, the Oracle’s warning is no more, and Leontes now has someone who will inherit his kingdom. Leontes and Polixenes are also reconciled.
Paulina invites the wedding party to her home, where she reveals a very lifelike statue of Hermione. As the guests wonder over it, the statue comes alive, and Hermione is restored to life! The play ends very happily with Leontes and Hermione once more husband and wife, and Paulina gets engaged to Camillo.
Leontes: The paranoid king, he convinces himself his wife is having an affair. He is consumed first with jealousy, then remorse. Unlike Othello (review to come), he gets the chance to redeem himself. However, he is very misogynistic, and (convinced of her betrayal) seems to resent Hermione destroying his friendship with Polixenes more than their marriage.
Polixenes: Initially the injured innocent in the play, he reveals his own brutal nature through his threatening of Perdita and the Old Shepherd. He doesn’t really repent of this behaviour: he only gives the blessing when he realises Perdita is a true princess. So I don’t feel all that sorry for him.
Perdita: Young, beautiful and in love – to find out she is a true princess is the icing on the cake! She is the young innocent that allows Leontes to reclaim his humanity, and so she offers hope for the future.
Florizel: He is the epitome of the knight in shining armour. He stands up for his lady-love, and is willing to renounce all to be with her. Similar to Perdita, his youth, energy and optimistic nature imbues the Sicilian court with new hope, and lightness.
Hermione: Unjustly accused, and having just given birth in a prison, she remains a strong character who articulately refutes all allegations. She seems typical of Shakespeare’s heroines, and is treated very sympathetically.
Paulina: A strong and loyal friend to Hermione, she is fearless about constantly reminding Leontes of his wrongdoings. Leontes doesn’t like her (calls her a “gross hag”, for example). She is an extremely courageous character, more than any of the males.
Camillo: A lord with a conscience, he cannot kill Polixenes, and leaves Sicily to become his servant. He wins the confidence of the two kings, and for his role in the reconciliation, is allowed to marry Paulina (which, given how much Leontes doesn’t like her, could be a two-edged sword).
Redemption: Tale is a play where everyone can get a second chance, regardless of how terrible the “crime” has been. There is a price to be paid e.g. for Leontes, the sixteen years lost in remorse, and the death of young prince Mamillius.
Friendship: This play pivots on the theme of friendship, specifically male bonding. Leontes and Polixenes believe their innocent friendship would have lasted forever, but for discovering women and sex, which ultimately destroyed it. Camillo gets very close to both kings. However, unlike the female friendship between Hermione and Paulina, these guys are not very loyal to each other, and are much more competitive.
Scholars have long argued that this play is really about King Henry VIII, and his trial and execution of Anne Boleyn.
This play is the first to use the word “dildo”
Famous Everyday Phrase Coined/Popularised:
“Bag and Baggage”
“Though I am not naturally honest, I am sometimes so by chance”
“O, she’s warm”
“What a fool honesty is”