The Winter’s Tale – Act Three plot synopsis: death[s] just offstage…

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 able to convince him. This spurs suspicions in Leontes’ mind, worrying him about being cuckolded by his friend. His lord Camillo admits that Polixenes has bowed to the “good queen’s entreaty” (I.ii.220). 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 a tormented Camillo explains the situation to Polixenes, urging him to flee the country. Polixenes agrees.

The second act begins with Hermione, her ladies, and the boy Mamillius, about to tell them a story. As he begins his story, Leontes enters with Antigonus and other lords, learning that Polixenes has left the country, taking Camillo with him. Of course, this vindicates the king’s suspicions, especially since it was Camillo that tipped off Polixenes. Leontes 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, even saying they’ll sterilize their daughters if this turns out to be true. Leontes has none of it, telling them that he’s dispatched two men to the oracle of Apollo’s temple in Delphos; Leontes believes the accusation, and the oracle is to prove it to other people. 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 decides that Leontes must be called out on his dangerous accusations. Meanwhile, Leontes hasn’t been able to sleep since the accusation. It seems that Mamillius has taken ill as well. In walks Paulina with the baby. When she demands to see the king, her husband tries to stop her…to no avail. She calls herself Leontes’ subordinate, then calls Hermione, “Good queen” to the king’s disbelief. 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. She leaves the baby with Leontes. Leontes berates Antigonus and demands of him 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. News arrives of the servants’ return from the oracle.

Act Three of The Winter’s Tale begins with those two servants Cleomenes and Dion as they discuss their trip to and return back from the oracle at Delphos. There’s a little bit of exposition and reiteration, and little that moves the plot forward. The implication is that the oracle spoke on the side of Hermione, but nothing is certified yet.

The long Act Three, Scene Two opens with Leontes readying the lords for Hermione’s trial. She enters and the accusation is read. Interestingly, Polixenes’ crime has expanded from mere adultery to adultery and conspiracy with Camillo of take the king’s life. Hermione’s crime is “counsel[ing] and aid[ing]” (III.ii.19) them. Hermione speaks in her own defense, proclaiming her innocence and questioning what exactly has given him cause to doubt her. She calls his accusations “a language that [she] understand[s] not” (III.ii.79), saying he has dreamed all these things. He announces that the newborn, the “brat hath been cast out” (III.ii.86), and that she’ll feel the same justice. In such a case, she says, “Apollo be my judge!” (III.ii.115). And Cleomenes and Dion enter, and the oracle’s message is read. Unlike most oracles from the ancient myths, there’s no way to misinterpret this:

Hermione is chaste, Polixenes blameless, Camillo a true subject, Leontes a jealous tyrant, his innocent babe truly begotten; and the King shall live without an heir if that which is lost be not found.
  • III.ii.131-4

The lords and Hermione praise the oracle. Leontes says “there is no truth at all i’ th’ oracle” (III.ii.138), and calls for the trial to continue, but it can’t because a servant enters with news: Prince Mamillius has died. And in that instant, Leontes realizes, “Apollo’s angry, and the heavens themselves / Do strike at my injustice” (III.ii.144-5), 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, call back the good Camillo (even praising how Camillo never wanted to kill Polixenes. It seems that by Mamillius dying, all this can be righted.

Until Paulina returns to announce that Hermione, too, is dead.

The speech is a marvel, and we’ll discuss it (and–more importantly–her continuation of it) later in our discussion.

As she verbally punishes him, Leontes calls for more, for his just deserts. After a lord asks her to stop, she agrees, but only after saying what she won’t do: speak of Hermione, speak of Mamillius, harp on his foolishness. 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).

The last scene of Act Three takes us to the sea coast of Bohemia, where Antigonus has arrived with the baby to abandon it; the ship that brought him awaits his return, but is in the midst of a storm so bad that it seems “The heavens with that we have in hand are angry / And frown upon us” (III.iii.5-6). Antigonus recounts a dream from the night before in which his dead mother appeared to him, in which she named the baby Perdita, and predicted that he will never see his wife Paulina again. He puts down the baby, and some gold to help pay for its raising, and then Shakespeare gives us arguable the most famous stage directions of all time:

Exit, pursued by a bear.
  • III.iii.57 stage direction

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 first sight is described in horror, the second more comically. The father and son then find the gold, and decide to raise the baby. But first they go to bury what remains of Antigonus.

And with that pivot from tragedy to comedy, Act Three of The Winter’s Tale ends.

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