The Winter’s Tale abbreviated

The play opens in Sicilia, where Leontes, Sicilia’s king, is hosting his long-time friend, Polixenes, the king of Bohemia.  These two men have been good friends since they were boys.  The settings for this story include both Sicilia and Bohemia, but one can’t let the geography get in the way.  This is a tale told based on a very long ago fable, long before Shakespeare’s time, we believe. 

Leontes and his queen Hermione have one child, a young son, Mamillius, and we’re told the boy “is a gentleman of the greatest promise.”  The play begins with Leontes doing his best to encourage Polixenes to extend his stay; Polixenes insisting he must leave, saying, “My affairs drag me homeward.”  Hermione actively (too actively as it turns out) joins in her husband’s effort to encourage Polixenes to stay a little longer as their guest.

The geography, as we say, of all the places identified in this play is a little murky, but you just go with it.  Leontes asks his wife “Is he won yet,” Hermione by now having pretty much taken charge of the effort to have Polixenes extend his visit. She responds “He’ll stay my lord.”  But the way Hermione goes about her persuasive appeal to Polixenes so unsettles her husband that he quickly becomes irrationally jealous of what he believes has become a too-close relationship between his wife and Polixenes, saying to himself “she does too playfully touch his hand.” (Jealousy, Act 1, Scene 2)

Leontes calls forward his principal courtier, Camillo, and berates him for being “not honest, a coward, a fool.”  Leontes has become upset with Camillo for not seeing and not telling him about what he irrationally believes has become an adulterous relationship between Polixenes and his wife. (Fear, Act 1, Scene 2) Having little choice, his well-being pretty much dependent on the king, Camillo agrees to Leontes’ demand that he kill Polixenes.  Camillo says since “I am his cupbearer; I will poison him.”  Realizing that he “faces ruin whether or not he poisons Polixenes” Camillo defects to Polixenes, telling him that Leontes believes that Polixenes has “touched his queen forbiddenly” and that the king’s instructions to him are “to murder you.” (Resignation, Act 1, Scene 2) After sizing up this dilemma and how it might play out for both of them, Polixenes and Camillo and their entourage beat a hasty retreat out of Sicilia. 

We soon learn that Hermione is pregnant. She asks Mamillius to “sit by us, and tell ‘s a tale.”  The boy offers to tell a “merry tale” saying “a sad tale’s best for winter.”  Leontes soon confronts his wife directly, calling her an “adult’ress,” saying “’Tis Polixenes had made thee swell thus.”  Leontes sends her to prison. (Wife to Husband, Act 2, Scene 1)  She has a daughter there in prison.  All along she has graciously defended herself and her honor. Leontes lashes out at his lords, a number of them having questioned his judgment, his having sent his pregnant wife to prison on the flimsiest of evidence. (Anger, Act 2, Scene 1)  Soon after the child’s birth, Paulina, Antigonus’ wife and Hermione’s lady-in-waiting, takes the baby to Leontes, believing she can win him over. (Pride, Act 2, Scene 3)  Antigonus is a key aide to Leontes.  When Paulina presents him with the baby, Leontes cries out “This brat is none of mine” and turns to Antigonus saying “Thou, traitor, hast set on thy wife to this.”  A startled Antigonus denies any impropriety, saying “I will do anything possible” to save the child.  Leontes takes him up on it, saying “Thou wilt perform my bidding.”  Leontes then instructs Antigonus to take away the baby girl and to “bear it to some remote and desert place and there leave it.” 

Leontes sends Cleomenes and Dion, his other courtiers, to Delphos on a special assignment to visit the temple of the oracle Apollo; the objective being for them to return with the oracle’s instructions on how he should deal with what he believes to be his wife’s infidelity.  Cleomenes and Dion return with the oracle’s instructions, but we’ll get to the oracle’s insights a little later.  Meanwhile, Leontes instructs his lords to “summon a session to arraign our most disloyal lady.” 

Hermione is brought before the court and calmly and beautifully defends her honor. (Honor, Act 3, Scene 2) But being deaf to her comments, Leontes says “As you were past all shame, so thou shall feel our justice, in whose easiest passage look for no less than death.”  Hermione responds “Sir, spare your threats.”  Cleomenes and Dion enter with officers of the court, an officer saying that these two men “have brought this sealed-up oracle and have not dared to break the holy seal nor read the secrets in ‘t.”  Leontes says “Break up the seals and read.”  We learn that Apollo has proclaimed Hermione “chaste” and “Leontes a jealous tyrant.”  Leontes cries out “There is no truth at all i’ th’ oracle.” (Wife to Husband, Act 3, Scene 2) We then learn that Mamillius has died, causing Hermione to collapse.  She is carried away by officers of the court, causing Leontes to acknowledge that perhaps he has overplayed his hand.  Paulina rushes onto the stage, severely and publicly criticizing Leontes; reporting to all that Hermione has died. (Disclosure, Act 3, Scene 2) She then promptly apologizes to the king for her impulsive outburst.

By this time Antigonus has taken the baby to what might be called the outback, leaving the all bundled up child and a box of gold in the “deserts of Bohemia.”  As he places the baby and the box on the ground a bear happens by and chases him, running him down, killing him. A shepherd finds the child and picks her up saying “I’ll take it up for pity.” (Observation, Act 3, Scene 3) The Shepherd’s son, having seen the bear maul Antigonus, arrives, opens the box of gold, and says to his father “If the sins of your youth are forgiven you, you’re well to live. Gold, all gold.”  With the child in one hand and the gold in the other, the Shepherd yells out to his son “This is fairy gold, boy, and ‘twill prove so. Let my sheep go. Come, good boy, the nearest way home.”  The Shepherd’s son soon joins his father, but first leaves to bury Antigonus.

Father Time then enters to let us know that sixteen years have elapsed between acts three and four, and that we should keep our eye on Florizell, Polixenes’ son, and on the beautiful young Perdita “now grown in grace equal to the wonder she inspires in others.”  (Fantasy, Act 4, Scene 1)

Being a little homesick, Camillo, having by now been in Bohemia for sixteen years, tells us that he wants to return to Sicilia saying “the penitent king, my master, having sent for me.”  But Polixenes, needing Camillo’s help, persuades him to stay in Bohemia, concerned as he is that his son Florizell is spending too much time with the Shepherd’s daughter, who, it is said, has “from very nothing grown into a fortune beyond description.”  Polixenes and Camillo make plans to disguise themselves and visit the Shepherd.

On his way to the market “to buy for our sheep-shearing feast” the Shepherd’s son meets the “rogue” Autolycus who convinces him that “a once servant of the prince” has robbed him, beat him and “put on him these detestable things.”  Autolycus then picks the Shepherd’s Son’s pocket.  He lets us know he too will be at the sheep-shearing event.

The sheep-shearing feast begins.  Florizell and Perdita are on stage, Florizell disguised as Doricles.  The two of them realize that she being a shepherd’s daughter and he being a king’s son may well lead to some conflicts, but he says “I’ll be thine or not my father’s.”  The Shepherd and his son enter.  Polixenes and Camillo enter, both disguised.  All are having a good time, singing and dancing.  But as the feast progresses, Polixenes decides that he’s had enough fun and aside says “’Tis time to part Florizell and Perdita.” 

The Shepherd says “I give my daughter to him.”  Florizell responds “Contract us ‘fore these witnesses.”  A still disguised Polixenes interrupts, asking of his son “Have you a father?”  Florizell replies, “I have, but what of him?”  It goes downhill from there, Polixenes angrily removing his disguise, making some choice comments and exiting.  Florizell tells a no-longer-disguised-Camillo in confidence that he and Perdita plan to soon sail away. (Love, Act 4, Scene 4) Camillo comes up with a plan. He suggests to Florizell that they “make for Sicilia” and that he’ll help the two of them get there.  Later, a smooth-talking and disguised Autolycus enters.  Camillo provides him with some cash.  Autolycus, the ultimate con-man, and Florizell willingly exchange clothes. Camillo, Florizell and Perdita exit.  Autolycus says to himself “I understand the business. I hear it.”  He also says he plans to continue his “knavery.”

The Shepherd and his son carry a “bundle and a box” as they move forward on their way to see Bohemia’s king.  The Shepherd’s Son says “There is no other way but to tell the king she’s a child left by the fairies and none of your flesh and blood.”  Autolycus (now dressed as Florizell) emerges and convinces the poor Shepherd and his son that the two of them will be “stoned” and “flayed alive.”  He advises them “the king is not at the palace. He is gone aboard a new ship.”  The Shepherd’s Son says of charming Autolycus “he seems of great authority.”  The Shepherd offers him money.  Autolycus says “Well, give me the half.”  When the Shepherd and his son exit, Autolycus tells us “I will bring these two blind ones aboard the prince’s ship.” 

In Sicilia, Leontes, Paulina, Cleomenes and Dion are having a candid discussion about Hermione, the king’s lack of an heir, and Apollo’s declaration that “There shall be no heir to the king till his child be found.”  Leontes agrees with Paulina that he must “never to marry but by her free leave.” (Counsel, Act 5, Scene 1) Prince Florizell and Perdita enter, she described by the servant as “The most peerless piece of earth that e’er the sun shone bright on.”  But each time the men mention how attractive the princess is, Paulina reminds them of the beautiful Hermione.  Leontes warmly greets Florizell and says that against your father “I have done sin.” (Courtesy, Act 5, Scene 1) They learn that Polixenes also has recently arrived in Sicilia, is upset with his son, and that he has had the Shepherd and his son arrested.  Perdita cries “O my poor father.”

A gentleman enters exclaiming “The oracle is fulfilled; the king’s daughter is found!”  Another gentleman enters and tells us how “joy waded in tears” when the two kings greeted each other. (Joy, Act 5, Scene 2) When asked about Antigonus, one of the gentlemen says “He was torn to pieces with a bear” but that the Shepherd’s Son has “a handkerchief and rings of his.”  The same gentleman tells us that when Paulina saw the now grown-up Perdita she “lifted the princess and locked her to her heart.”  Paulina and the princess leave to “see her mother’s statue, many years in the doing by that rare Italian master, Julio Romano.”  The others also walk into the other room to see the reported replica of the late queen.  Paulina pulls back the curtain “to reveal Hermione as a statue.”  All is quiet as Paulina says “I like your silence. It the more shows off your wonder.”  Perdita and Leontes want to touch the statue, but Paulina cries “Patience, the color’s not dry” and “You’ll mar it if you kiss it.”  Finally Paulina says “Music, awake her!”  Hermione stirs.  Leontes says “O, she’s warm.”  Hermione embraces Leontes.  Perdita kneels. Paulina says “Go together, you precious winners all.” (Pride, Act 5, Scene 3) As the play ends Leontes suggests to Paulina that Camillo will make her a trusted and worthy husband.