Leontes enters with a group of lords and servants — captives, really, who must listen to his ravings. He complains, first, that his inability to punish the traitors is causing him to suffer from insomnia. The "harlot king" — Polixenes — is out of reach, but at least Hermione is under control; now, if he could permanently free himself of her threat, he says, he believes that he might at least rest a little. He considers burning his wife.
When a servant reports that Mamillius may be finally recovering from his illness, Leontes says that the boy's problem is guilt about his mother's dishonor. The king then sends the servant to check on the prince and begins to rage about the power and the distance which make it impossible to revenge himself upon Polixenes and Camillo. He imagines at this moment that they are probably laughing at him.
At this moment, however, Paulina enters with the baby. When warned that the king has not slept and should not be approached, Paulina argues for the queen and for the truth that shall set the king free.
Leontes suddenly explodes at Antigonus for not controlling his wife. Paulina retorts that Antigonus can control her dishonesty, but not her honesty. Paulina pronounces herself a physician and a "counsellor." She champions Leontes' "good queen" and presents him with his baby.
Leontes reacts with a tantrum. He orders Paulina and "the bastard" removed. No one obeys, and so Leontes denounces all in the room as "traitors." Antigonus and Paulina both object to the charge. Paulina retorts that Leontes is cursed by his own slanders. Again, Leontes ridicules Antigonus as being henpecked. He then orders the baby and Hermione to be thrown into a fire. Paulina calls upon all present to mark the baby's resemblance to Leontes. In a frenzy, the king calls for Antigonus to be hanged because he cannot control his wife's speech. Antigonus replies that nearly all the husbands in the kingdom would have to die — if that is the punishment for a man who cannot control his wife.
Leontes then threatens to burn Paulina. She retorts: "I care not;/ It is an heretic that makes the fire) Not she which burns in't." Careful to state that she is not accusing Leontes of being a tyrant, Paulina berates him for his "cruel usage of your queen,/ Not able to produce more accusation/ Than your own weak-hinged fancy"; she says that he is "ignoble" and "scandalous to the world." Leontes orders Paulina to be taken out of the chamber, then he defends his reputation by claiming that if he were a tyrant he would have killed her.
As she is pushed from the chamber, Paulina gives the baby to Leontes and tells everyone that humoring Leontes only makes his madness worse. Freed from Paulina's attacks at last, Leontes penalizes Antigonus for not controlling his wife by ordering him to burn the baby within the hour, or Antigonus and all his family will die. Should Antigonus refuse, Leontes promises to "dash out" the brains of the baby. Antigonus and all the lords swear that Antigonus did not send Paulina to attack Leontes. The king, however, declares them all liars.
The lords kneel and beg Leontes to repay their past loyal service by refusing to carry through his terrible plan. At first, Leontes contends that it will be better to burn the baby than to later resent her. But he gives Antigonus a chance to offer something in exchange for the baby's life. Antigonus offers anything "that my ability may undergo/ And nobleness impose." He even offers what "little blood" he has "to save the innocent."
Leontes presents a sword on which Antigonus is to swear that he will do anything ordered. Antigonus does so. Telling Antigonus to listen carefully because failure at any point will forfeit his own life and Paulina's, Leontes orders the old man to carry "the female bastard" to a remote place far from Sicilia where the baby must be abandoned. This action will leave the baby's life to Fate and circumstance. (Ironically, it will also offer the baby a chance for survival.)
Antigonus promises to do the king's bidding although instant death might be more merciful, he says. As he picks the baby up, he calls for "some powerful spirit" to instruct wild birds and beasts to nurse her and to bless this tiny innocent who is used so cruelly. As soon as Antigonus exits with the baby, Leontes mutters, "No, I'll not rear/ Another's issue."
A messenger announces the return of Cleomenes and Dion from the oracle at Delphos. All are amazed at the brevity of the twenty-three–day round trip. Leontes takes this as a sign that the oracle's message will support the truth that only he has deduced. He confidently orders the lords to prepare a "just and open trial" for Hermione during which the "truth" of his public accusations will be verified.
Conflict never abates in this scene. Tensions build as everyone on stage contributes to the many attempts to resolve the complications. Leontes, however, continues to speak for illusion, while all the others speak for reality.
Leontes, the only character blinded by illusion, wants to throw Hermione, Paulina, and the baby into a cleansing fire. Already desperate from lack of sleep and absence of resolution, he cannot tolerate what is thrust at him by Paulina. In desperation, he orders her hauled from the chambers. That leaves only the baby to punish. He cruelly orders that the baby must be abandoned in a desolate spot where Fate may decide whether or not she lives or dies. These compromises on the lives of Paulina and the baby weaken the illusion that Leontes craves, so he looks forward to the proof that he believes will be contained in the oracle's message.
Paulina characterizes herself as a physician and counselor, one who has come to heal the torments caused by Leontes' illusions. She urges the king's advisers to realize that their tolerance of his moods only exacerbates the problem. Leontes, of course, finds Paulina intolerable. She increases his frenzy, and she cures nothing. However, she does prove that her brave confrontations with truth at least can curb the king's tyranny, for he cannot exercise his cruel orders until Paulina is removed from the scene.
Unfortunately for the king's family and his subjects, none of the lords follow her example. They continue to appeal to a reasoning power that no longer operates within him. In a final attempt to resolve Leontes' mad conflict, they kneel and beg for him to reward their past faithful service by sparing the life of the baby. Antigonus desperately promises to do anything to spare the baby's life. Their begging, however, inspires only more tyranny.
All the focus on the baby, however, does cause Leontes to change his order about her fate, but he does not really alter his cruel tyranny, and he manages to punish Antigonus for supporting his brave and loyal wife, as well as conceiving a cruel death for the innocent baby.
At this point, Leontes seems hopelessly desperate. He is insanely irrational; he wants revenge because he needs control. Instead of gaining control, however, every step he takes increases his own frenzy and diminishes all chances for help. Only by accepting reality, including his own contributions to the events, can Leontes regain emotional control of himself and his court.
Although the honesty of Camillo, Hermione, and Paulina prevent total mad tyranny, Leontes' frenzy increases. Leontes' "nature" can no longer tolerate any limits. He trusts no judgment but his own; thus, he blurts out: "You're liars all." The Elizabethan notion of the Order of the Universe that Leontes should be absolutely duty-bound to imitate has disintegrated before his mad illusions.
Only the oracle's message offers hope for resolution of the conflict.