The second act of The Winter’s Tale begins with Hermione, her ladies, and the boy Mamillius. Hermione, tired because of her pregnancy, wants the ladies to take the precocious boy away. When the boy talks his way out of it, his mother asks him then to tell a story; answering one of the ladies’ question of what kind of story should it be, the boy’s reply is (for me, at least) ominous: “A sad tale’s best for winter” (II.i.23). Given the title of our play, this sounds like bad news to me. As he begins his story, Leontes enters with Antigonus and other lords. The king is learning that Polixenes has left the country, taking Camillo with him. Of course, this vindicates his suspicions, and in a speech that’s reminiscent of Othello’s, he laments having the knowledge of their relationship (even though there isn’t one). A lord tells the king that it was Camillo that tipped off Polixenes.
Leontes then demands the boy be taken from Hermione, and says, “I am glad you did not nurse him. / Though he does bear some signs of me, yet you / Have too much blood in him” (II.i.56-8). Needless to say, Hermione is dumbstruck. He tells Hermione that he knows she’s carrying Polixenes’ baby, that “‘tis Polixenes [who] / Has made [her] swell such” (II.i.61-2). She denies this, and Leontes rants on how he knows she’s “an adulteress” (II.i.78). They go back and forth, accusation and denial, with him ordering her “to prison!” (II.i.103). She continues to deny the accusation, but finally 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 calm, then reason with Leontes. Antigonus even tries to commiserate with Leontes, telling him,
I have three daughters—the eldest is eleven;
The second and the third, nine and some five;
If this prove true, they’ll pay for ’t. By mine honor,
I’ll geld ’em all; fourteen they shall not see
To bring false generations.
Great. Lords are even saying they’ll sterilize their daughters if this turns out to be true (of course, it isn’t, and they don’t believe it’s true, so it’s a bluff). And when they try to talk Leontes down from the proverbial ledge, he has none of it, telling them that he’s dispatched two men to Apollo’s temple in Delphos; “from the oracle / They will bring all, whose spiritual counsel had, / Shall stop or spur” (II.i.185-7) him. So, there’s a chance tragedy can be avoided. The only problem is that Leontes believes the accusation, and he says that the oracle is just for the other people.
Act Two, Scene Two, takes us to prison where Paulina, wife to Antigonus, and no woman to be trifled with, attempts to see Hermione. She is stopped by the jailer who says he’ll send out one of Hermione’s ladies, Emilia. When Emilia comes, it is with news: Hermione “is something before her timed delivered” (II.ii.25); in other words, she’s given birth prematurely to a “daughter, and a goodly babe, / Lusty and like to live” (II.ii.26-7). With this news, Paulina decides that Leontes must be called out on his dangerous accusations. And she’s just the woman to do it. She asks Emilia if Hermione will allow her to take the baby to see Leontes in hopes “he may soften at the sight o’ th’ child” (II.ii.40). When the jailer voices his concern over how he will be punished if he allows Paulina to take the babe, she answers him with “Do not you fear. Upon mine honor, I / Will stand betwixt you and danger” (II.ii.65-6). Like I said, not to be trifled with.
The third and final scene of the second act takes us back to Leontes and his lords, to whom he complains that he hasn’t been able to sleep since the accusation. It seems that Mamillius has taken ill as well. Leontes, of course, blames the illness on the sins of the mother, and not on the fit his father has thrown. The king sends a servant to see how the boy is, and begins to talk of vengeance–and since Camillo and Polixenes are beyond his reach, he will revenge himself on Hermione.
And in walks Paulina with the baby. When she demands to see the king, her husband tries to stop her…to no avail. Leontes sees her, complains to Antigonus that he had told him “[Paulina] should not come about [him]. / [He] knew she would” (II.iii.43-4). Paulina is a force of nature, and Leontes knows it, and fears her. He asks if Antigonus can “rule” her, and she responds, “From all dishonesty he can. In this … He shall not rule me” (II.iii.47,50). If you think Antigonus might try to intervene, you’d be way off the mark. Instead, he comments how “when she will take the rein I let her run, / But she’ll not stumble” (II.iii.51-2). Gotta love a proud husband.
She calls herself Leontes’ subordinate, then calls Hermione, “Good queen” to the king’s disbelief, even saying, “I say good queen, / And would by combat make her good, so were I / A man” (II.iii.59-61). Leontes orders the men to force her away, but she stands her ground, laying the newborn baby at his feet. He calls her witch; she denies. He calls the men traitors for not forcing her out; Antigonus denies. He claims the child is Polixenes’; she shows him his likeness in the baby’s features. Only after she tells the king to look at the child, does she finally leave. Leontes berates Antigonus for his inability (really unwillingness) to control his wife, accuses him of setting Paulina on to this insubordination. The lords continue to try to reason with the king, but he demands of Antigonus what he would do to save the bastard’s life. “Anything possible” (II.iii.166) is his response.
To save the child’s life from Leontes’ justice, the king allows Antigonus an option: 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, and exits with the child.
A servant enters with news that Cleomenes and Dion, the men Leontes had sent to the oracle at Delphos, have returned after “twenty-three days” (II.iii.197). Leontes calls for an arraignment of Hermione, with the oracle’s answer to decide her fate.
And with that bit of suspense, Act Two of The Winter’s Tale ends.