Leontes expresses his grief to the lords and officers who enter the scene of the trial. Describing the accused Hermione as the daughter of a king, his wife, and also as someone who is "too much beloved," he urges the beginning of an open trial which can both clear him of all charges of tyranny and can determine Hermione's guilt or innocence.
After an officer opens the trial by announcing Hermione's personal appearance, the queen enters with Paulina and her faithful ladies-in-waiting. On Leontes' command, the officer reads the indictment. Hermione is formally "accused and arraigned of high treason" for committing adultery with Polixenes, conspiring with Camillo to kill Leontes, and then both advising and aiding "them, for their better safety, to fly away by night."
Hermione responds that, so accused, she can do little but deny the accusations. She realizes that a plea of "not guilty" will serve little purpose since her integrity has already been "counted falsehood." Instead, she builds this hypothesis into her argument:
If powers divine
Behold our human actions, as they do,
I doubt not then but innocence shall make
False accusation blush, and tyranny
Tremble at patience. (III.ii. 29–33)
She calls upon Leontes to remember, as the one who best can, her years of true and faithful behavior. Hermione cites her credentials the daughter of a great king, and the mother of a "hopeful prince" and in contrast to the humiliation of pleading publicly for her life and honor, she says that as much as she values life and honor, she willingly risks both by requesting specific proof from Leontes in this public forum, to cite even one incident from her life before — or during Polixenes' visit, which justifies the charges.
Leontes mutters about the general impudence of criminals. True, agrees Hermione, but she cannot agree that the generality applies to her. You just won't admit it, answers Leontes. Hermione says that she admits only the facts. First, she loved Polixenes in a way suitable to their rank and honor, as Leontes had commanded her to do. Refusal to do so would have been classified as "disobedience and ingratitude" toward both him and his childhood friend. Second, she has no experience in treason. She knows only that Camillo was an honest man. If the gods know no more about his departure than she does, even they must be able to guess why.
Again, Leontes responds with generalities. Hermione despairs of understanding him. "My life stands in the level of your dreams) Which I'll lay down."
Leontes rants, "Your actions are my dreams." Again, he voices his jealousy, disguised as a legal charge: Hermione has a bastard daughter by Polixenes; thus, she is past shame or truth. As surely as the infant was cast out, shamed because no father would claim it, so shall Hermione suffer the pangs of justice. The easiest of her punishments will be death.
Hermione requests respite from Leontes' taunts. The death threat with which he tries to frighten her is the very thing she now wants. Life holds no comfort now that her most worthwhile achievement, his favor, is clearly lost, although the reason for the loss is not clear. Also lost is her second joy, the company of their son, and her third joy, the innocent baby daughter who was murdered before she was weaned.
Hermione then lists other experiences that now make death attractive to her. She has suffered from public accusations about her immorality and from the cruel denial of care during childbirth, for which women of all classes yearn. Finally, before she has recovered from childbirth, she has been rushed to this open-air public trial. Accordingly, what lure of life should cause her to fear death?
However, as willing as Hermione is for Leontes to proceed with the death sentence, she still yearns for the honorable memory that she deserves:
If I shall be condemned
Upon surmises, all proofs sleeping else
But what your jealousies awake, I tell you
'Tis rigour and not law. (III.ii. 112–15)
In a ringing challenge to all who judge her, she exhorts: "Apollo be my judge!"
One of the lords agrees that her request is just, so he calls for the oracle's message.
During the bustle of officers leaving the trial to fetch Cleomenes and Dion, Hermione expresses how much she yearns for the presence of her dead father, the Emperor of Russia, so that someone would regard her with "pity, not revenge."
An officer then swears in Cleomenes and Dion, who attest to the condition of the untampered, sealed message from Delphos. Leontes orders the breaking of the seal and the reading of the message. An officer reads: "Hermione is chaste; Polixenes blameless; Camilio a true subject; Leontes a jealous tyrant; his innocent babe truly begotten; and the King shall live without an heir, if that which is lost be not found." The lords and Hermione praise Apollo.
Leontes asks: "Hast thou read truth?" The officer confirms it. Then, Leontes declares, "There is no truth at all i' th' oracle./ The sessions shall proceed; this is mere falsehood."
A servant bursts in to announce, reluctantly, that Mamillius has just died from anxious conjecture about his mother's fate. Leontes cries out: "Apollo's angry; and the heavens themselves/ Do strike at my injustice."
Hermione faints. Paulina examines her, then commands Leontes to watch as Hermione dies. Leontes orders that Hermione receive tender care until she recovers. Remorsefully, he confesses that he has "too much believed mine own suspicion." After a party carries Hermione out, Leontes beseeches Apollo to forgive his profanity of the oracle. In a burst of clarity, Leontes promises to earn again the love of Hermione and to restore Camillo to office. Recognizing the damage done by his jealous quest for revenge as well as the probability that Camillo fled because of Leontes' command to poison Polixenes, Leontes praises the glowing honor of Camillo: "How he glisters/ Through my dark rust!"
Immediately after Leontes' confession, Paulina enters, consumed with hysterical grief. She confronts the "tyrant": the consequences of Leontes' jealousy should cause him to flee in despair. Paulina then catalogs the harm caused: betraying Polixenes, dishonoring Camillo for refusing to poison Polixenes, casting his baby daughter to the crows, and causing his young son to die. And now, the good, sweet queen has died.
When a lord protests the news, Paulina swears to it and then boldly challenges any of them to bring Hermione to life. Paulina berates Leontes. For this death, repentance is useless; only unending despair can be his future.
Leontes urges her to continue. He feels that he deserves every syllable of her bitter, unceasing criticism. A lord chastises Paulina for the bold speech which he deems unsuitable under any circumstances, and Paulina apologizes finally for showing "the rashness of a woman" when she observes Leontes' grief. "What's gone and what's past help/ Should be past grief." Again, she requests punishment but, this time, for her error since she caused him to grieve about a matter that he should forget. Paulina asks for the king's forgiveness and promises to stop reminding him about their dead queen, his dead children, or her own lost husband. Clearly, Leontes prefers her truthful speech to her pity. He asks Paulina to lead him to the bodies of his son and wife. After he views them, Leontes wants them to share the same grave, which shall be marked by the shameful causes of their deaths. He promises daily, penitent visits to the chapel where they will be buried.
In this scene, Leontes speaks of the contrasts between his reputation for tyranny and Hermione's reputation for noble innocence. Although he claims that he wants the guilt or innocence of Hermione to be proven, obviously the only way that Leontes can be found innocent of the accusations of tyranny would be to prove Hermione is guilty. Determining her guilt or her innocence, however, is a potentially exclusive proposition. Leontes is using a single motivation — jealousy — to prove Hermione guilty in order to prove that he has acted correctly from his sense of "natural goodness." Therefore, Apollo's message will be unacceptable.
The trial itself dramatizes the conflict between "reality" and Leontes' "nature," but this is not a matter of guilt or innocence. This is clearly illustrated in an exchange between Hermione and Leontes. In despair after trying to elicit facts, Hermione says, "My life stands in the level of your dreams." Leontes retorts: "Your actions are my dreams."
Within this structure, the climax of the scene cannot occur with Apollo's message because Leontes must push for his original motivation. Neither facts, as requested by Hermione, nor truth, as delivered from Apollo, will dissuade Leontes.
Leontes is not yet ready for redemption. Although his tyranny has been curbed, he has not earned trust from Hermione and Paulina, who must feel certain that Leontes is now stable enough to be trusted. Hermione has already asked Apollo to control Leontes' sick illusions, and Apollo said that "the king shall live without an heir" (leaving murder of future children a distinct possibility), emphasizing if (not when, if), "that which is lost be not found." This message clearly cannot reassure the ladies.
So, this critical scene sets up the turning point of the plot by requiring the important subplot of rebirth through the healing power of youth. Only then will Order be restored to the Universe.
While the plot is maturing, characterization is also developing. For example, Leontes must suffer for his monumental mistake. He realizes that fact as soon as Mamillius dies: "the heavens themselves/ Do strike at my injustice." Consequently, he realizes that after he destroyed his family and kingdom, he began to destroy the natural Order of the Universe. Realizing that altering the Order will not be treated lightly, the king encourages Paulina to remind him of why he suffers throughout his long years of penance.
This realization helps focus on the major motivation for Leontes; that is, he needs to renew his love for his wife and child. Thus, this motivation overrides the one which opened this scene — that is, his vow to prove Hermione guilty. Although the message from Apollo does not change Leontes' jealousy, the news of his son's death shocks him into a realization that he has been wrong and that he has done great harm. This shock climaxes when Paulina announces Hermione's death. Trapped midway between reality and illusion, and shocked by the tragic consequences of his tyranny, Leontes pledges a morbid expression of deep atonement:
Once a day I'll visit
The chapel where they lie, and tears shed there
Shall be my recreation. So long as nature
Will bear up with this exercise . . . (III.ii. 239–42)
Thus, Leontes must yet learn the full dimension of love and how to express it.
Paulina devotes her life to speaking for the honor of the queen. Interestingly, she seems to recognize the power of subtlety because unlike her previous confrontation with Leontes, here she quickly asks forgiveness for her boldness and rashness with no intention of quitting needling him, as she promises to do.