Archidamus, a lord of Bohemia, tells Camillo, a lord of Sicilia, that should he ever visit Bohemia that he would find great differences between the two countries. Camillo responds that he thinks his king plans an exchange visit during the coming summer.
Archidamus predicts that although their entertainments cannot match Sicilia's, they will manage to express their love. When Camillo protests the apology, Archidamus emphasizes that he knows that his country of Bohemia cannot produce "such magnificence." Archidamus then envisions offering drinks that will drug the visitors; if unable to praise their hosts, they will at least not be able to blame them for inadequate "magnificence."
Camillo then tells Archidamus that Leontes (King of Sicilia) is being so generous because of the great love that he has had for the Bohemian king since childhood. All of the formal, diplomatic gifts that the kings have exchanged during the intervening years of separation have maintained the strong friendship that still binds them. Camillo calls for help from the heavens to maintain this love.
Archidamus comments that no earthly force could be strong enough to alter that love. Then he praises Leontes' son, Prince Mamillius, as the most promising young man he has ever observed. Camillo agrees, claiming that Leontes' elderly subjects remain alive only for the joy of observing Mamillius when he grows to adulthood. Archidamus, more realistically, states that the elderly would find a reason to continue to survive even if Mamillius did not exist.
The conversation between Archidamus and Camillo establishes the two main settings of the play (Sicilia and Bohemia) and introduces the theme of deep and lasting friendship between the two kings. We can also infer that Leontes possesses natural riches far beyond those of Polixenes (the king of Bohemia). The fact that no single main character appears in this scene forces our initial focus onto the contrasting settings; Sicilia is established as being the preferable location.
While Archidamus bemoans the impossibility of matching the hospitality of Sicilia, he introduces a human temptation that will cause great harm throughout the play — that is, confusing reality with illusion. First, he is stymied by reality: "We cannot with such magnificence — in so rare — I know not what to say." Then, he envisions a means to avoid the reality: "We will give you sleepy drinks, that your senses, unintelligent of our insufficience, may, though they cannot praise us, as little accuse us." A little later, Archidamus reverses his vision and returns to reality, when he counters Camillo's claim about Mamillius: "They that went on crutches ere he was born desire yet their life to see him a man." Archidamus doubts that the elderly would die without the inspiration of Mamillius, and he bluntly declares: "If the King had no son, they would desire to live on crutches till he had one."
Archidamus then speaks of the long friendship between the two kings, and he says that he doubts if there is "in the world either malice or matter to alter it." In fact, no reality does exist to alter that friendship, but illusion can, and will, alter it.