Although Hermione and Mamillius enter together, Hermione immediately turns to her ladies-in-waiting and asks them to take the boy. Mamillius immediately engages the ladies with his precocious wit.
One lady teases Mamillius about how much he will want their company after the new prince is born. The second lady observes that Hermione appears to be filling out rapidly, and she wishes her a speedy delivery.
Hermione asks what they are talking about, then she asks her son to tell her a tale. "Merry or sad?" asks her son. "As merry as you will," Hermione responds. Mamillius decides, "A sad tale's best for winter." Hermione encourages him to try to frighten her with his sprites since he is good at that. Teasingly, he whispers the story to her so that the ladies-in-waiting cannot hear it.
Leontes enters with Antigonus and some other lords, just as Leontes is receiving news of the departure of Camillo and Polixenes. He interprets their sudden departure as verification for his accusations, and he says that he finds the knowledge as odious as seeing a spider in a cup from which he has just drunk.
Since Camillo was with the departing party, Leontes states that there must indeed be a plot against his life and his crown. In addition, he declares that Camillo must have been employed by Polixenes prior to the plan for poisoning; now, he fears what plots their combined knowledge will inspire them to hatch. Puzzled about how they got through the gates, he is informed that Camillo used his keys.
Leontes demands that Hermione give Mamillius to him. Saying that he is glad she did not nurse him, he declares that already she has too much of her blood in him. Astonished, Hermione asks if this is some kind of game. As an answer, Leontes orders Mamillius to be taken out and kept from his mother; cruelly, he adds that Hermione can amuse herself with the child by Polixenes, the one whom she now carries.
Hermione denies that the unborn child is Polixenes' and states that she believes her word should be enough to dissuade Leontes from his jealous accusations. Leontes announces to everyone that they may look at her and find her "goodly," but that they cannot find her "honest"; Hermione, he says, is an adulteress. Hermione reacts cautiously. Had a villain said that, she says, he would have become more of a villain, but Leontes is simply mistaken. In response, Leontes escalates his accusation. Not only is Hermione an adulteress, but she is a traitor in consort with Camillo and Polixenes — and had knowledge of their plan to escape. Gently, Hermione denies the accusations and predicts that Leontes will grieve over his statements when he finally knows the truth. She says that he can make this up to her — but only by declaring his mistake. Leontes, however, is convinced that he has built truth from facts; he orders her to prison and says that anyone who speaks in her behalf will be judged to be as guilty as she is.
Hermione observes that "some ill planet reigns" and decides to be patient until the disorder is corrected. She tells the lords that, although she is not as prone to tears as most females are, she feels an "honorable grief." She asks the lords to judge her feelings but to obey their king. She then requests that her ladies accompany her to prison in order to help her with her pregnancy. Admonishing her ladies not to weep since there is no cause, she advises them to save their tears in the event that she should ever deserve to be sent to prison. As part of her graceful obedience, she tells Leontes that she never wished to see him sorry, but now she realizes that she will see him eventually very sorry.
The king orders them out, and Hermione leaves in the company of her ladies and guards. Immediately, the lords begin to argue against the king's order. Antigonus prophesies that Hermione, Leontes, and Mamillius will all suffer for this act. One lord wagers his life that the queen is innocent. Antigonus pledges to keep his wife in the stables if Hermione is proven guilty, because such a sin would mean that no woman could be faithful. Leontes tells them to keep quiet.
Antigonus says that he is sure that Leontes has listened to a liar, and he says that in addition to his pledge to keep his wife in the stables, he vows to geld his daughters to prevent any issue — if Hermione is proven guilty. Leontes again tells them to be quiet. He says that their senses are dead; only he feels and sees the issues clearly. All honesty, Antigonus says, is dead. Leontes is amazed that his lords do not trust his judgment. At this, one of the lords says that he would prefer to disbelieve his king than to accept this judgment; furthermore, he would prefer to believe in Hermione's honor than in Leontes' suspicions.
Leontes declares an end to all advice; since his lords do not seem to be able to discern truth, he will have to rely on his own "natural goodness" as judge and counsel. Calling upon royal prerogative, he reminds them that he need not seek their advice in the matter because he has all the power needed to proceed. Then he informs them that he has taken a step to curb any possible rashness; he has sent Cleomenes and Dion to Apollo's temple in Delphos, and he promises to abide by the spiritual counsel of the oracle.
When told that he has done well, Leontes quickly adds that he is convinced that he has acted correctly and really needs no more information; he trusts that the oracle will reassure those who cannot now perceive the truth. Meanwhile, Hermione will remain in prison so that she cannot carry out any treasonous plots left undone by the two who fled. Leontes calls on them all to accompany him as he publicly announces the events.
This act's structure is similar to that of Act I. It opens with a sleepy, peaceful pace — which Leontes will soon shatter. Hermione requests a tale from her son, and Mamillius suggests a sad tale as "best for winter." A "winter's tale" means a story to pass the long evening hours of winter, especially a story that its listeners will enjoy when it is retold.
With Leontes' entrance and simultaneous reaction to the report about the escape of Camillo and Polixenes, the season of royal discontent disintegrates quickly into general discontent. Because of the play's title and because of Mamillius' "tale suitable for winter," the situation becomes reminiscent of Richard III's phrase, "the winter of our discontent." In effect, Leontes creates a perpetual winter's death without the hope of spring's rebirth and regeneration. Leontes eliminates the hope of rebirth and rehealing when he rejects his unborn child and when he isolates his son. In these "problem plays," rejection usually leaves only tragedy as the possible consequence of the destructive tyranny that Leontes has initiated. His disease must now progress untreated unless the circumstances change.
As Leontes destroyed his friendship with Polixenes in the previous act, he now destroys his family. Again, note that nothing that exists in their world justifies altering those relationships: illusion motivates Leontes. He alters everything to suit his sense of 'Justice," justice which he metes out unfairly because of misconstrued events.
With his jealous imagination still gnawing at him, Leontes leaps to an even more serious accusation against Hermione — treason. The facts from which he draws this conclusion, however, do not influence others to deduce the same conclusion. A lord reports that he saw Camillo, Polixenes, and Polixenes' attendants rushing to their ships. Immediately, Leontes exclaims: "How blest am I/ In my just censure, in my true opinion!" But Leontes fails to remember his own wicked, recently conceived poison plot! Pausing only to regret the knowledge he now has, he declares, with no further information:
Camillo was his help in this, his pander.
There is a plot against my life, my crown.
All's true that is mistrusted. That false villain
Whom I employed was pre-employed by him. (II.i. 46–49)
As Polixenes predicted, Leontes' jealousy "for a precious creature" is enormous, and because of his powerful position, that jealousy now turns "violent." In fact, Leontes becomes increasingly paranoid. The disruption of his senses (his "nature") seems alarmingly probable. Declaring that sometimes it's better not to know unpleasant facts, Leontes illustrates this "truth" with fevered imagery similar to an unbalanced Lear:
There may be in the cup
A spider steeped, and one may drink, depart,
And yet partake no venom, for his knowledge
Is not infected; but if one present
The abhorred ingredient to his eye, make known
How he hath drunk, he cracks his gorge, his sides, With
violent hefts. I have drunk, and seen the spider. (II.i. 39–45)
This chilling image provides a clue to Leontes' insane — like disturbances.
Later, Leontes decides that Hermione is also involved in the nonexistent plot against him.
I have said
She's an adultress, I have said with whom;
More, she's a traitor, and Camillo is
A fedary [confederate] with her . . . (II.i. 87–90)
To Leontes, the causal sequences of Camillo's departure with Polixenes — immediately after Leontes' accusation that Polixenes committed adultery with Hermione — are proof enough that all three of them are involved in a treasonous plot. Of course, Leontes can provide no reasonable motivation for such a plot, and the audience is well aware that they have seen nothing to substantiate the accusation. Again, probability is maintained because the audience's evidence is firmly, unanimously supported by the arguing lords of Sicilia.
Leontes now escalates the tyranny that he first exhibited when he conspired with Camillo. As in the scene with Camillo, Leontes is suspicious of anyone who will not substantiate his illusions: thus, he unknowingly denies himself the benefit of more accurate, more truthful observations. Leontes refuses to listen to any opposing opinions. He even exhibits a streak of meanness when he pinches Antigonus; then he reveals even more of his evil nature when he forbids anyone to offer an opposing opinion as he sends Hermione to prison. After it becomes clear that the lords will not cease arguing, he calmly declares:
Why, what need we
Commune with you of this, but rather follow
Our forceful instigation? Our prerogative
Calls not your counsels, but our natural goodness Imparts
this; which if you, or stupefied
Or seeming so in skill, cannot or will not
Relish a truth like us, inform yourselves
We need no more of your advice. (II.i. 161–68)
With this speech, Leontes now isolates himself with his insanity.
Confused because no one will accept his "evidence" or authority, his speech disintegrates into short, violent outbursts, sometimes barely coherent.
With everyone and every fact arguing against his actions, Leontes is clearly abusing and misusing Free Will. Hermione, in fact, concludes that "some ill planet" reigns; thus, she resigns herself to being patient until the heavens look with a more favorable aspect upon her.
All of this is the dramatic basis for the major conflict. We have witnessed the jealous, tyrannical Leontes as he flung his distorted illusions against reality. We watched Leontes escalate the willful destruction of his richest possessions. As a protagonist, he has severed his ties with his family and has isolated them; then he escalated his own isolation from the loyal advice of all who could have helped him see the truth. He has isolated himself from all objective communication, and finally he is left with only his own wrong illusions.
Suitably, the setting increasingly becomes a series of confined, isolated fragments. Hermione moves to prison, Mamillius is confined to his quarters, and Leontes places himself apart from anyone who disagrees with him. Characterization is of secondary interest in this scene. Leontes is developed almost as a stereotype to "Human Nature disrupted by Insanity." On the other hand, Hermione's goodness comes close to being unbelievable, were it not for the fact that we see her growing stronger, more self-sufficient, and patient — as do many pregnant women confronted with emergencies. Perhaps her unshakable pureness and goodness are essential in order to motivate all the underlings to argue with their king, but the audience may well wonder whether such a rare creature could actually exist beyond the stage of this play.
The age of Mamillius remains a mystery. Shakespeare portrays him as a spirited, flirtatious, proud and secretive youth — perhaps a young teenager. But his ties to his mother seem to indicate a much younger child. He lives, and soon dies, and he remains largely an inscrutable mystery.