Leontes, his wife Hermione, Polixenes, Camillo, and a bevy of lords stroll quietly on stage. Polixenes announces that after nine months away from his royal duties, he must return home tomorrow. Leontes urges Polixenes to stay at least another week, but Polixenes insists that he must leave the following day to tend to his duties, although no one could touch him so emotionally as Leontes can.
Leontes then urges his wife to speak. Hermione reassures Polixenes that all is surely well in Bohemia; otherwise, he would have heard by now. Thus, he is free to stay. When Polixenes continues to resist the invitation to stay, Hermione declares that he will stay, either as her guest or as her prisoner. Given that choice, Polixenes agrees to stay one more week.
Polixenes then enters into a reverie of his boyhood with Leontes. Hermione is curious about Leontes at that age. Polixenes recalls that they were both innocent, as alike as lambs. When teased about their loss of innocence, Polixenes graciously explains that neither of them had yet met the women whom they would eventually wed. Hermione then asks if their wives made them sinners or if they had sinned with others.
Noticing the liveliness of their conversation, Leontes calls out: "Is he won yet?" Hermione responds that Polixenes will stay. Leontes congratulates his wife on her power of speaking convincingly, saying that only once before has she spoken so well. Hermione is intrigued and asks when was the other time. Leontes responds that it occurred at the end of their courtship when she said, "I am yours forever." Hermione responds that the first time she spoke well earned her a husband; the second time, a good friend.
Hermione extends her hand to Polixenes, and they walk away from the others. Leontes fumes over every small gesture that the couple makes. He interprets impropriety, and he calls his son over and unleashes a mixture of double entendres with dirty innuendos. Enraged by jealousy, Leontes examines his son for signs of illegitimacy. Recognizing his emotional distress, he proclaims "the infection of my brains/ And hardening of my brows."
Concerned about the change in Leontes' appearance, Polixenes and Hermione ask him if he is all right. Leontes lies, saying that while he was looking at Mamillius, he was reminded of his own "lost" youth. Leontes then asks Polixenes if he is fond of his son. Polixenes describes both the frustration and the pride of fatherhood, but despite them both, he says that his son means everything to him.
Leontes claims that his son means the same to him. He states that he will walk with his son awhile and urges Polixenes and Hermione to walk elsewhere. Hermione says they will walk to the garden where they can be found if Leontes wants them. After watching the couple's actions, Leontes lashes out at his son: "Go play, boy, play. Thy mother plays," adding that she will "hiss" him to his grave. Clearly, the Sicilian king is convinced that his wife is unfaithful — as are most wives — in his estimation.
Noticing Camillo, Leontes asks him for his version of what has happened. Camillo answers that Polixenes would not stay when Leontes asked him to do so, but changed his mind when Hermione entreated him. Leontes thus assumes that Camillo and others are already whispering about his cuckoldry. But when pressed to confirm Hermione's infidelity, Camillo is shocked, and he criticizes his king. After Leontes attacks Camillo's character and his reliability as a witness for not admitting or noticing that Hermione is "slippery" and a "hobby-horse," Camillo retorts: "You never spoke what did become you less than this."
Unable to force Camillo to agree with him, Leontes slips into the role of a tyrant. He orders Camillo to poison Polixenes. Camillo agrees this would be easy enough, especially since he is Polixenes' cupbearer, and he promises to poison Polixenes if Leontes promises to treat Hermione as though nothing has happened — for the sake of their son and for the purpose of forestalling international gossip. After Leontes agrees, Camillo urges Leontes to join Polixenes and Hermione and to seem to be friendly with them. Camillo then reveals to us that he is all too aware what happens to men who would poison a king.
Polixenes enters confused and asks Camillo for an explanation of Leontes' unfriendly behavior; Camillo refers vaguely to a sickness. Polixenes presses Camillo for a clearer explanation, and Camillo finally admits that he has been ordered to poison Polixenes because the king suspects him of philandering with Hermione.
At first, Polixenes wants to confront Leontes, face-to-face, with a denial, but he is persuaded by Camillo that this would be as useless as forbidding "the sea . . . to obey the moon." Finally, Polixenes accepts Camillo's plan for them to secretly slip away in small groups, and he promises Camillo asylum in return. As Polixenes remembers the rarity and purity of Hermione, he fears that Leontes' insane jealousy of Polixenes will result in violence. The two men then exit to begin their hasty escape.
As hinted by Archidamus in the previous scene, nothing that is real in this world is altering the present situation. Incoherence now even afflicts Leontes:
Then 'tis very credent
Thou may'st co-join with something; and thou dost,
And that beyond commission, and I find it,
And that to the infection of my brains
And hardening of my brows. (I.ii. 142–46)
Leontes' jealousy in this scene is the key to the quality of the conflict, the probability, and the development of both plot and character throughout the play. The onset of Leontes' jealousy comes without warning, motivation, or justification. Leontes' first jealous reaction is: "At my request he would not," meaning that Polixenes was not swayed by Leontes' entreaties. This statement is reinforced when Leontes reminds Hermione that she had spoken to equally good purpose when she promised him, "I am yours forever." Significantly, since Hermione and Polixenes are both innocent, they both fail to detect the rivalry and the jealousy which Leontes is now displaying.
To Leontes, everything that the couple does inflames him; he assumes that they are flaunting their attraction for one another.
Most damaging of all to Leontes is his increasing self-seduction by illusion. Observing some innocent courtly handplay, he spits out: "Too hot, too hot!/ To mingle friendship far is mingling blood."
Suspecting even the illegitimacy of his son, Mamillius, Leontes imagines the snickering whispers of everyone about his cuckoldry "Inch-thick, knee-deep, o'er head and ears a forked one!" He tells Mamillius, sarcastically, to go "play," like his mother, and then he indulges in his fantasies, telling himself that many men consort with their wives without realizing that "she has been sluiced in's absence." He concludes that the problem must be widespread because there is no medicine, no protection against it:
No barricado for a belly: know't;
It will let in and out the enemy
With bag and baggage. (I.ii. 204–06)
At this stage, the innocent charm of his son and the reality offered by Camillo can no longer link Leontes with reality. Thus, the Sicilian king sinks further and further into illusion:
Is whispering nothing?
Is leaning cheek to cheek? Is meeting noses?
Kissing with inside lip? stopping the career
Of laughter with a sigh? — a note infallible
Of breaking honesty; — horsing foot on foot?
Skulking in corners? wishing clocks more swift? (I.ii. 284–89)
In vain, Camillo pleads for Leontes to quickly be cured of this diseased opinion" because of its danger.
Here, Leontes turns to tyranny, a transformation that is extremely dangerous because of the power which he commands during his sickness. He commands Camillo to verify the truth of his observations. Camillo refuses. Leontes insists, "It is; you lie, you lie!/ I say thou liest, Camillo, and I hate thee." Stoking his power with anger, he orders Camillo to poison Polixenes. It is no wonder that Camillo perceives himself in a hopeless dilemma and thus turns to Polixenes for help. When Polixenes correctly interprets Camillo's allusion to "a sickness/ Which puts some of us in distemper" (jealousy because of suspected adultery), the Bohemian king clearly understands the hopelessness of the situation:
Is for a precious creature. As she's rare,
Must it be great; and as his person's mighty,
Must it be violent. (I.ii. 451–54)
Affirming the queen's innocence, Polixenes can only wish her well and flee for his life.
The major conflict of the play begins to shape the plot: Leontes has flung himself against reality. He is willing to destroy his richest possessions — the love and loyalty of his family, his best friend, and his court advisers — for revenge.
We can understand Leontes' tyranny because of our knowledge that human nature, when inflamed by jealousy, is often a cause of murder. In addition, Leontes' extraordinary power increases his capacity to murder. Camillo and Polixenes are sufficiently developed as characters to realize that their interpretations of reality leave them helpless before the sick illusion of the king's jealousy. The protests that the audience might feel because their observations of reality conflict with Leontes' conclusions are contained in the protests of Camillo.
Shakespeare's stage and acting directions are superb aids for actors during these scenes. For instance, the friendship between the two kings is keenly illustrated with action: "They have seemed to be together, though absent; shook hands, as over a vast; and embraced, as it were, from the ends of opposed winds." Note, too, Shakespeare's clues for the actions of Hermione and Polixenes are ones that must sufficiently motivate Leontes. Intertwined with the warm sharing of childhood memories, these two must act out an enticing, inciting scene of "paddling palms," "pinching fingers," and laughter cut short. This dramatization increases in significance with the knowledge that Shakespeare altered the truly imprudent behavior of Hermione in his source and substituted, instead, the simple, innocent action of handplay to incite Leontes' jealousy.
Although no truly exciting action occurs in this scene, the dramatic pace quickens with the infusion of the king's perverted emotions. Jealousy and then fear shatter the peaceful, sleepy grace of the first scene.
One other central idea is subtly introduced in this scene. With the seemingly minor theme of youth, Shakespeare begins building the key theme of rebirth — one of those concepts which separates this group of final plays from the tragedies.
As a brief review, remember that Camillo believes that the elderly subjects of Sicilia stay alive merely to experience the promise of Mamillius' youth; remember also the strength of the bonds formed during the innocent youth of the two kings. More specific to the purpose of resolving Leontes' disease, notice references to the healing power of youth, such as "physics the subject" and "makes old hearts fresh." Later, when Perdita emerges as the symbol of spring and rebirth, she will belong to a tradition within the world of the play.