The Winter’s Tale begins in the court of King Leontes of Sicilia, as Camillo and Archidamus, lords from Sicilia and Bohemia, respectively, bring us–the audience–up to date. Think the two numbered gentlemen at the beginning of Cymbeline, or Kent and Gloucester in King Lear. Archidamus urges Camillo to visit Bohemia, where he’d find a “great difference” (I.i.3) from Sicilia, and Camillo says this may happen “this coming summer” (I.i.5) when the Sicilian king repays the Bohemian king for his kindness in his current visit to Sicilia.
We also get some background on these two kings, “trained together in their childhoods” (I.i.22), who have a friendship that “[n]either malice [n]or matter [could] alter” (I.i.33). If you’re suspicious like me, this seems ominous. Doubling down on this possibly bad future vibe, they speak of Sicilia’s young prince Mamillius, a boy who makes “old hearts fresh” (I.i.38), and makes the old want to live until they see him become a man.
The only other scene in the first act is the very long second scene, coming in at 464 lines. Why does it need to be so long? Memories of Othello’s Act Three, Scene Three come creeping in, for reasons you’ll understand soon.
It begins with the state entrance of your major players (at least for now): King Leontes of Sicilia, his pregnant wife Hermione, their son (the aforementioned) Mamillius, King Polixenes of Bohemia, and assorted lords, including the previous scene’s Camillo. Polixenes talks of the nine months (“Nine changes of the watery star” [I.ii.1]) he has been in Sicilia, and speaks glowingly of his love and friendship with Leontes. But he has decided to head home the next day. Polixenes repeats his decision to leave, staying not even “one sev’night longer” (I.ii.18), despite the urging of Leontes. The Bohemian king begins to say his farewells, and Leontes calls upon his wife to speak.
Hermione then begins to feed Leontes lines and arguments to present before Polixenes. But before he can begin to use them (quite possibly because she knows Polixenes has heard all this anyway), she begins to question Polixenes on his decision to leave. She asks if she keeps him in Sicilia would he feel as if he’s her “prisoner or [her] guest” (I.ii.56). When he admits that he would be her guest, she coaxes from him more descriptions of his and Leontes’ childhood: “We were as twinned lambs that did frisk i’ th’ sun” (I.ii.68). When Leontes then asks Hermione if she’s convinced Polixenes yet, she says, “He’ll stay, my lord” (I.ii.88), even though we really haven’t heard him say this. Leontes proclaims, “At my request he would not, / Hermione, my dearest, thou never spok’st / To better purpose” (I.ii.88-90). She responds with a question as to her husband’s use of “never,” and in a teasing dialog between the two, he admits she did speak to a better purpose once: agreeing to marry Leontes. And all this seems like a scene of wonderful friendship and love.
But when Hermione and Polixenes walk aside to continue their conversation, Leontes, in an aside, states concerns and suspicions: “Too hot, too hot! … paddling palms and pinching fingers … that is entertainment / My bosom likes not, nor my brows” (I.ii.109, 116, 119-20). He fears being cuckolded (the horn reference), so much so that he asks his own son, Mamillius, “Art thou my boy?” (I.ii.121). Even without the boy’s affirmative statement, Leontes sees himself in the boy; and his mind seems more at ease. But then he goes off a rant that makes him question everything, including the “infection of [his] brains / And the hard’nin of [his] brows” (I.ii.146-7).
Hermione and Polixenes return and see that Leontes is “unsettled” (I.ii.148), and his rambling discourse doesn’t help, especially when he asks if Polixenes loves his own son as much as Leontes does Mamillius. Hermione and Polixenes leave for a walk in the garden, and to leave Leontes to his leaps of judgment. Within just under 20 lines, the king has convinced himself that the baby Hermione now carries is Polixenes’ and not his own.
Leontes sends Mamillius off, then questions Camillo if the lord has seen what he has: Polixenes bowing to the “good queen’s entreaty” (I.ii.220). And over the course of the next hundred lines, Leontes lays out his argument for his own cuckolding. The lord 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 the final hundred lines of the scene are spent with Camillo explaining the situation to Polixenes, urging him to flee the country. Polixenes agrees, and the first act of The Winter’s Tale comes to a close.