The Winter’s Tale – Act Five plot synopsis: it’s a miracle (maybe)

Previously… on The Winter’s Tale:

In the court of King Leontes of Sicilia, his friend King Polixenes of Bohemia readies to return to his own country after a nine-month stay in Sicilia. While Leontes is unsuccessful to convince his friend to say, Leontes’ pregnant wife Hermione is. This convinces Leontes that he’s been cuckolded by his friend. His lord Camillo is incredulous, but in an attempt to calm down the king, Camillo tells the king that he will poison Polixenes that night. Leontes leaves, and Camillo bemoans his state. Polixenes joins Camillo on stage, and a tormented Camillo explains the situation to Polixenes, urging him to flee the country. Polixenes agrees.

Leontes, after learning that Polixenes has left the country, taking Camillo with him, tells Hermione that he knows she’s carrying Polixenes’ baby, and orders her to prison. She denies this, but heads off to prison with her ladies, as her pregnancy, her “plight requires it” (II.i.118). In her absence, the lords, led by Antigonus, attempt to reason with Leontes who will have none of it, telling them that he’s dispatched two men to the oracle of Apollo’s temple in Delphos. Outside the prison, Paulina, wife to Antigonus, learns that Hermione’s given birth prematurely to a “daughter, and a goodly babe” (II.ii.26). Paulina presents the baby to Leontes. Leontes says he will allow Antigonus to take the child to “some remote and desert place quite out / Of our dominion” (II.iii.175-6), and abandon it, leaving its fate to Fate. Reluctantly, Antigonus agrees.

At Hermione’s trial, she speaks eloquently in her own defense, proclaiming her innocence. Leontes announces that the newborn, the “brat hath been cast out” (III.ii.86), and that she’ll feel the same justice. Cleomenes and Dion enter, and the oracle’s message is read: it tells the truth on all counts, but Leontes refuses to accept the news, and then a servant enters with news: Prince Mamillius has died. And in that instant, Leontes realizes his error, and Hermione swoons. Paulina and the ladies-in-waiting take Hermione offstage to tend to her. Leontes prays to Apollo to pardon him; he says he’ll reconcile with Polixenes, make up with Hermione. Then Paulina returns to announce that Hermione, too, is dead. Leontes asks to be brought to the bodies, which he says he will bury in a single grave, which he will visit every day as his “recreation” (III.ii.238). On the sea coast of Bohemia, Antigonus arrives with the baby to abandon it. He puts down the baby, and some gold to help pay for its raising, and then is chased off by a bear. A shepherd comes along and finds the baby; his grown son–known only as “Clown”–arrives with descriptions of two sights: a ship off-shore sinking in the storm, and a bear eating a man. The father and son then find the gold, and decide to raise the baby.

The very long fourth act of The Winter’s Tale begins with the choric figure of Time bringing us up to date. We just jumped sixteen years. Leontes “shuts himself up” (IV.i.19), and Perdita grows up in Bohemia, and Polixenes’ son, Florizel grows up, too. We then go to the palace of King Polixenes of Bohemia, where he meets with Camillo. Polixenes is concerned about Florizel, who has been seen mostly at the house of a shepherd, “who hath a daughter of most rare note” (IV.ii.42). The two decide to don disguises and check this out. We meet Autolycus, con-man and pickpocket. When Clown, the son of the shepherd, enters on an errand to purchase items for the sheep shearing feast, Autolycus asks for assistance, saying he’s been robbed. As the “good-faced” (IV.iii.111) Clown attempts to help, Autolycus picks the fool’s pocket. After Clown leaves to go buy spices (without money), Autolycus reveals that he will be attending that sheep shearing to see if he can fleece any of the attendees. We go to the festival, where we meet Florizel and Perdita, young and in love. She knows who (and more importantly, what) Florizel is (even though he’s dressed like a shepherd rather than prince)…of course, she has no idea who she is. The guests come in and she welcomes the disguised Polixenes and Camillo. Florizel gives her high praise in everything from speaking, singing, dancing: everything thing she does. Polixenes is impressed: she “smacks of something greater than herself, / Too noble for this place” (IV.iv.158-9). Gotta love irony. There is more dancing. And Autolycus. In a disguise of his own, he sings a song, and convinces the guests to buy his wares. There’s another song, another dance. At this point, the disguised king asks his disguised son his intentions with Perdita: marriage is the answer. The shepherd wants to start the wedding, but the disguised king asks the disguised prince if he has secured his father’s blessing. Florizel admits that he hasn’t and doesn’t plan to. The shepherd says that the father should know, and when Florizel again refuses, Polixenes takes off his disguise and goes off the deep-end, refusing to call Florizel his son, threatening to hang the shepherd and accusing Perdita of using witchcraft. And telling her that if she attempts to tempt his son again she shall face death as well, he leaves. Perdita is devastated, telling her love to leave, as she knew it would come to this. Camillo asks the shepherd what he thinks, and he says she knew he was a prince, and she should have known better, and now they’ll all be punished for it. And the second father figure leaves. Florizel says that none of this bothers him; he still wants Perdita. Camillo warns him of his father’s anger, but it doesn’t faze the prince in the least. He asks for the old man’s counsel. And after some thought, Camillo comes up with a plan: take Perdita across the sea to Sicilia, where Camillo envisions Leontes will welcome his old friend’s son. The lovers and the old man go off to put the plan into motion.

If the entirety of Act Four of The Winter’s Tale took us to Bohemia, Act Five returns us to Sicilia. At the palace of Leontes, who is being told by Cleomenes that he the king has performed so much penance that even “the heavens” (V.i.5) have forgiven him, and he should now forgive himself. Leontes cannot, and Paulina is not helping, reminding him that “she [he] killed / Would be unparalleled” (V.i.15-6). Dion and Cleomenes desire him to marry again, in “pity” (V.i.25) of their heirless state. She reminds them all of the oracle’s prediction that “King Leontes shall not have an heir / Till his lost child be found” (V.i.39-40). Of course, she also talks of “the gods … [and] their secret purposes” (V.i.35-6). Leontes agrees never to marry until Hermione’s “sainted spirit / Again possess her corpse, and on this stage / (Where we offenders now) appear soul-vexed” (V.i.57-9); Paulina says that he should never marry until his “queen’s again in breath” (V.i.83).

Into this scene comes a servant with news that Prince Florizel, son of Polixenes, has arrived with his “princess–she / The fairest [the servant] ha[s] yet beheld” (V.i.86-7). Leontes realizes that such a visit–without plan–means there’s some kind of emergency involved. Paulina is bothered by the praise from a servant who had seen the dead queen, but the servant stands by his statement. Leontes call for them to be admitted; Paulina reminds Leontes that had his own son survived, he would be “paired / Well with this lord. There was not a full month between their births” (V.i.116-7).

Florizel enters, and is greeted warmly by Leontes, who states that he is sorry that he himself has lost his friend. Florizel moves forward with Camillo’s plan, telling Leontes that he is there on an embassy from Polixenes, who would greet him again as a brother, if he wasn’t so sick to keep him from traveling himself. Which would be great, only a new lord enters with greetings from Polixenes, who has just arrived… “in chase, it seems, / Of this fair couple” (V.i.189-90). Not only is the king here, but so is Camillo, and two poor men–“the father of this seeming lady and / Her brother” (V.i191-2). Florizel feels betrayed, but still tells Perdita that he loves her. Leontes leads them all off to meet with Polixenes.

The very strange second scene of the fifth act is elsewhere in the palace, where Autolycus–who has also made the trip to Sicilia–talks with a gentleman, who delivers a description of the shepherd describing to Leontes the package that accompanied the baby found by him, and thus, “the king’s daughter is found” (V.ii.24). He also tells of her ‘family’ being made gentlemen. Paulina’s steward enters with more exposition: a description of the reunion of Leontes, Polixenes, and Camillo, as well as the delivery of news what happened to Antigonus and his ship. Then there is a recollection of how the news of the death of Hermione affected Perdita.

But the collected party did not return to court. Instead, they decide to take a little field trip. Where? Well, first a bit of Cymbeline-like exposition: There was a statue of Hermione kept by Paulina, one that is so well-crafted that “they say one would speak to her and stand in hope of answer” (V.ii.99-100), and one which Paulina “hath privately twice or thrice a day, ever since the death of Hermione, visited” (V.ii.103-4)… at the building housing that statue. And that is where the reunion parties are going.

In the remainder of the scene, we see the “reunion” of Autolycus and the shepherd and his son, Clown. The balance of power has shifted, and the con-man is now made to recognize the former rustics as gentlemen.

In the final scene of the play, the collected party–both kings, the children, Paulina, Camillo, and assorted lords–goes to that room housing the statue. Paulina unveils the statue of Hermione. Leontes is struck by how lifelike it is…so much so that he desires to kiss her hand. Paulina stops him saying the paint’s not dry. It so affects Leontes (“so far transported” [V.iii.69]), that she wants to draw the curtain again, hiding the statue, but the king stops her. She tells him that either he allows her to draw the curtain “or resolve [himself] / For more amazement” (V.iii.86-7). She tells him that she can make the statue move and take him by the hand. He asks her to continue. She then states, “It is required / You do awake your faith” (V.iii.94-5).

The statue comes alive, descends, and embraces her husband. Perdita kneels before Hermione, who speaks for the first time, asking her how she had “been preserved? Where lived? How found / Thy father’s court?” (V.iii.124-5). Paulina interrupts telling both, “There’s time enough for that” (V.iii.128). Leontes then speaks the final speech of the play. As he takes Hermione as his bride, he “consent[s]” (V.iii.136) that the widowed Paulina marry Camillo. He calls for the two children’s marriage to take place, and for them to then talk of what all has happened in “this wide gap of time” (V.iii.154).

And with this command, The Winter’s Tale comes to an end.

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