Archidamus, a lord of Bohemia, and Camillo, a lord of Sicilia, talk about their respective countries. Archidamus says that if Camillo were to visit Bohemia he would discover great differences between their countries. Camillo replies that he thinks that his king, Leontes, is planning a trip to Bohemia in the summer. Abashed by how little Bohemia has to offer in comparison to Sicilia, Archidamus imagines himself serving drinks that would make the visitors so sleepy that they would not notice the barrenness of Bohemia. The lords also discuss the lifelong friendship of their two kings, as well as the virtues of the two young princes.
Camillo then joins a group that is composed of the two kings, Leontes and Polixenes, Leontes' family, and some attendants. Polixenes, King of Bohemia, is thanking Leontes for his extended hospitality in Sicilia and insisting that he, Polixenes, must return to his country's responsibilities. When it is clear that Polixenes will not yield to Leontes' entreaties to stay for a longer visit, Leontes urges his wife, Hermione, to join the effort. Hermione succeeds in persuading Polixenes to stay.
Leontes seems delighted that Hermione has convinced Polixenes to stay, but suddenly he reveals that he is jealous of Polixenes. Seeing that Leontes is upset, Hermione and Polixenes ask him what is wrong. Leontes, however, avoids a truthful answer by claiming that he is merely remembering when he was the age of his son. The two kings then compare their love for their sons.
Leontes takes a walk with his son, Mamillius, thinking that this will set up Polixenes and Hermione for a compromising situation. Hermione, however, innocently discloses where she and Polixenes will be, and Leontes indulges in satiric swipes at her imagined infidelity. Then he sends Mamillius off to play, before asking for Camillo's assessment of the relationship between Hermione and Polixenes. Camillo's straightforward responses, however, are twisted by the jealous king, and Camillo protests: The imagined bawdiness which Leontes interprets from his wife's and Polixenes' actions is wrong. The king lashes out at Camillo, and Camillo humbly begs for a reappraisal of his reliability as an observer for the king. When Leontes insists upon a confirmation of Hermione's infidelity, a shocked Camillo criticizes his king.
Leontes then tries to extract an agreement that his list of observed actions (between Hermione and Polixenes) proves that his wife's and Polixenes' affair is a reality. Camillo urges the king to heal "this diseased opinion," but Leontes cannot be convinced. He suggests that Camillo poison Polixenes. Camillo admits that he could do it, but he states that he will never believe that Hermione was unfaithful. Camillo agrees to poison Polixenes if Leontes promises not to reveal what he believes about Hermione. Leontes promises, then joins the innocent couple.
Alone, Camillo speaks of his hopeless position. Approached by Polixenes to explain Leontes' changed attitude, Camillo convinces Polixenes that they must flee together or they will both be killed by Leontes.
Act II opens some time later with an obviously pregnant Hermione resting in the company of her son, Mamillius, and two ladies-in-waiting. When Hermione requests a story, Mamillius suggests a tale about "sprites and goblins," a tale suitable for winter.
As Mamillius begins the story, Leontes and Antigonus enter with a group of attendants. Leontes clearly believes that the hasty departure of Camillo and Polixenes is confirmation of his suspicions about Hermione's affair with Polixenes. He orders Mamillius to be kept away from his mother, and he accuses Hermione of being pregnant by Polixenes. Ignoring Hermione's protests, Leontes orders her to be imprisoned. She bravely accepts her fate and exits with the guards.
Beset by protests from his astonished advisers, Leontes insists that they refuse to see the evidence before them. The king quiets the protesters by revealing that he has sent for an interpretation from the oracle at Delphos.
After the birth of Hermione's baby (a girl), Paulina, the wife of one of the lords of Sicilia, Antigonus, attempts to persuade Leontes to retract his accusations as she presents his beautiful, innocent baby to him. But she selects a poor time to approach Leontes. He has just stated that killing Hermione would allow him to sleep again, and he has resolved not to worry about his sick son lest he be distracted from his commitment to revenge. Paulina refuses to listen to the warnings of her husband and her attendants. Instead, she stubbornly tries to convince Leontes that the baby is his.
Leontes, however, responds as Paulina was warned he would. Her arguments in favor of the queen and baby escalate his tyranny. He then tries to pit Antigonus against Paulina, ordering him to take the bastard child and Paulina away. Antigonus protests that no man can control his wife. When Leontes orders that the baby be thrown into a fire, Antigonus negotiates a chance for the baby to live — if Leontes will spare the baby's life, Antigonus promises to do anything that Leontes requests. Vowing to kill both Paulina and Antigonus if Antigonus fails to obey, Leontes orders Antigonus to take the baby to a remote place and abandon her to Fate. Antigonus doubts that this "fate" is better than a quick death, but he agrees to leave the baby to the mercy of wild animals, and he exits to carry out Leontes' command.
No sooner has Antigonus left than a servant announces the return of the messengers from Delphos.
Act III opens with Cleomentes and Dion talking about the awesome experience that they shared at Delphos. Both men hope that Apollo has declared Hermione innocent, and they hurry off to deliver the sealed message from the oracle.
Leontes orders that his wife be brought in to hear the reading of the oracle's decision, fully expecting that she will be found guilty as charged and, thus, he will be cleared from the stigma of tyranny. Cleomentes and Dion swear that they have brought the message from Delphos without breaking the sea.
The message declares that Hermione, Polixenes, Camillo and the baby are all innocent. It further states that Leontes is "a jealous tyrant" and asserts that "the King shall live without an heir, if that which is lost be not found." Leontes declares that the message contains no truth, and he orders the trial to proceed. Just then, a servant announces that Mamillius has died. Hermione seems to faint, and Paulina announces that the news has killed the queen.
Leontes repents and orders Hermione to be tended to with the belief that she will recover. He then announces his intention to make peace with his old friend Polixenes, to woo Hermione, and to recall Camillo. He declares Camillo a good and faithful servant who was right to disobey his order to poison Polixenes.
Paulina enters, wailing over the death of Hermione and attacking Leontes for his dreadful, tyrannical edicts. She says that the king should embark on a life of repentance as a result of what he has done to his family. Leontes replies that he deserves all that she has said and more. Paulina then expresses regret for her attack because she detects the remorse that the king is feeling. She says she will remind him no more of the death of Hermione and his two children.
Leontes asks that he be taken to view the bodies of his dead wife and son. He declares that they shall share the same tomb, and he vows that he will visit the tomb each day to weep.
In the next scene, we discover that Antigonus and the infant are still alive, for Antigonus is seeking assurance that his ship has indeed arrived at "the deserts of Bohemia." He and a seaman look at the sky and agree that a brewing storm may portend heavenly anger if they abandon the helpless infant; they also agree that they do not like their task. Antigonus promises to hurry.
Antigonus then describes his nightmare to the infant. Her mother, he says, appeared to him in a dream, a figure of sorrow. The dream figure requested that he leave the baby in Bohemia and that he name her Perdita. Then she informed him that because of this task, he would never again see his wife. Antigonus concludes that Hermione is dead and that Polixenes is the father of the baby. After uttering best wishes for the baby and regret for his actions, Antigonus runs off stage, chased by a bear.
A shepherd enters, despairing the wenching and fighting of all male youths between the ages of ten and twenty-three. When he sees Perdita, he assumes that she is an abandoned child born out of wedlock. He pities the baby so much, though, that he decides to keep her. The shepherd then calls for his son, who is identified in the script only as "clown." The boy tells his father about two sights that have shaken him — the drowning of an entire crew of a ship (the one that brought Antigonus and Perdita to Bohemia) and a man (Antigonus) consumed by a bear. The shepherd turns his son's attention to the baby, whom he surmises is, somehow, linked to a fortune. The boy opens the baby's wrappings and discovers gold. Urging his father to take the baby home, the boy is inspired by their sudden good fortune to return and bury the remains of Antigonus.
The Chorus narrates that a bridge in time occurs at the opening of Act IV, and it also summarizes the highlights of an interim of sixteen years. Then, Polixenes and Camillo enter in the middle of an argument about Camillo's decision to return to Leontes after his long sixteen-year separation. Polixcnes warns him that returning could be fatal to Camillo. Besides, he needs Camillo. Camillo, however, wants to return to his native country for he is growing old, and he thinks that he can comfort the now-repentant Leontes.
Polixenes agrees that his penitent "brother" has a sad history, but asks consideration for his own sad lot — that is, having a son who is 11 ungracious." Camillo acknowledges that he has not seen the prince (Florizel) for three days and does not know where the young man spends his time. The king says that he has been informed that Florizel spends a good deal of time at the home of a shepherd who has somehow acquired great wealth. They both guess that Florizel must be attracted to the shepherd's beautiful young daughter. Polixenes persuades Camillo to help him discover what Florizel is up to.
Autolycus then enters, singing a song of hope and high spirits. He identifies himself as a peddler of oddities, and also as one who makes his living by cheating fools. On cue, the "clown" (the shepherd's son) enters, trying to calculate his budget and remember his shopping list for the upcoming sheep-shearing feast.
Autolycus dupes the clown by pretending that he has been beaten, robbed, and then clothed in his despicable rags. The clown is sorry for Autolycus and offers him money. Then he hastens off to buy his supplies. Autolycus chortles about lifting the clown's purse and exits.
The scene that follows focuses on the sheep-shearing feast. Florizel and Perdita flounder in an awkward courtship. Florizel praises Perdita's qualifications as the chosen "queen" of this spring ritual. But aware of Florizel's being a true prince, and the unreality of her title as "queen," Perdita is unhappy. She cautions Florizel about the potential wrath that a liaison between them might arouse in his father. Florizel urges her to remember some of the mythical transformations that love has caused.
As Perdita again urges the prince to be realistic, he swears to honor his love for her above all other things. He then commands her to exhibit cheer for her approaching "guests."
Perdita's "father," the shepherd, chides her for neglecting her duties as a "queen." Therefore, Perdita begins entertaining; first, she greets the disguised Polixenes and Camillo and hands out flowers to them. After the king and his adviser observe Perdita's prudent parries to Florizel's bold courtship, Polixenes observes a bearing and beauty in Perdita that transcend her supposedly low station. Camillo affirms these unusual qualities. The clown moves the festival into action by calling for music and dance, and again, Polixenes remarks upon Perdita's grace. The shepherd says that the young couple love each other and hints that "Doricles" (Florizel's pseudonym) will discover an unsuspected dowry if he proposes to Perdita.
The entertainment continues with a dance of twelve satyrs performed by a group of uninvited amateurs, but throughout these dances, Polixenes observes Florizel and Perdita. Deciding that it is time to part the couple, the king calls Florizel over to ask why he did not bring presents to enliven his romance. The love-struck prince declares that Perdita does not care for such trifles; she wants only gifts that are locked in his heart.
When Florizel declares that no power or wealth could seem worthwhile without Perdita's love, Polixenes and Camillo support the sentiment. The shepherd then asks his daughter if she feels the same way. She says that she does but cannot express it as well.
The shepherd declares the betrothal of the young couple, with the two strangers as witnesses. The disguised Polixenes urges Florizel to consult his father before making such an important decision, but Florizel impetuously and repeatedly refuses. Enraged, Polixenes casts off his disguise and threatens to punish all who participated in the betrothal without consulting him.
Perdita sighs that she was afraid something like this would happen. She urges Florizel to make up with his father and never return to her. The shepherd, in great confusion and despair, berates the young people for the ruin and the wretched death that they have probably condemned him to. But Florizel stubbornly clings to Perdita and tells his father to go ahead and disinherit him.
When Florizel decides to take Perdita and flee in a ship anchored nearby, Camillo stops him, advising him to make peace with his father. Then Camillo begins laying a plot to try and eventually return to Sicilia himself.
Camillo convinces Florizel to marry Perdita so he can present himself with his new bride to Leontes in Sicilia. He predicts that Leontes will welcome the opportunity to be the host for the son of the long-separated "brother," since Polixenes will not respond to Leontes' invitation to end their old quarrel. Florizel agrees that this plan seems preferable to wandering forever as unwelcome strangers in strange lands. Camillo then offers funds from his wealth in Sicilia to properly outfit the royal party.
Act V is set again in Sicilia. Leontes is seemingly much the same man as he was when we last saw him sixteen years before. He is conversing with Paulina and the two lords who brought the message from Delphos, Cleomenes and Dion. Cleomenes is urging Leontes to forget and forgive his evil "as the heavens have done." But Leontes says that as long as he can remember those whom he lost, especially Hermione, he cannot forget his errors.
Paulina, we see, is still feeding Leontes' guilt. Cleomenes and Dion ask Paulina to "stop salting the wounds." She retorts that their wish for the king to heal so that he can marry again counters Apollo's oracle "that King Leontes shall not have an heir/ Till his lost child be found," an event as unlikely as the return of her own husband, Antigonus. She tells Leontes not to wish for an heir.
Leontes encourages Paulina to continue to remind him of Hermione's superior virtues; he believes that taking any other wife would end in disaster. Paulina extracts an oath from Leontes, in the presence of the two witnesses, that he will not marry until Paulina approves. Paulina states that such a time will come only when Hermione is recreated.
A servant enters then to announce the arrival of Prince Florizel and his wife, whom he describes as a woman unsurpassed in beauty and virtue. Leontes cleverly perceives that Florizel's small group of attendants means that this visit is "forced." It is not an official visit, at all. Paulina notes the servant's excessive praise of Florizel's wife. She chides him for such praise when he has written verses that have stated that Hermione could never be equaled. The servant, however, maintains that all will agree with him after they have seen Perdita.
Leontes is thrown into a miserable reminiscence when he sees the young couple. They remind him of his loss of friendship with Polixenes. Florizel claims that his father sent him to reinstate that old friendship; Polixenes, he says, is too infirm to make the trip himself, and he then relates an imaginary tale about his strange arrival. He says that he has arrived from Libya, where he acquired Perdita. He explains the small group that accompanies him by saying that he sent the larger group to Bohemia to report his success to his father. He then requests that Leontes remember his own youthful love as good reason to petition Polixenes' acceptance of Perdita. Leontes, reminded of his love for Hermione, promises to speak for the young couple.
In the next scene, Autolycus questions some gentlemen who possess important news from the court of Leontes. The stories are pieced together to reveal that Leontes now knows that Perdita is his daughter and that he can finally celebrate the return of his lost heir.
Because of Perdita's request to see the lifelike statue of her mother, a celebration dinner has been organized near the statue.
The final scene at Hermione's statue is the setting for the play's "renewal." When they first enter, Leontes is suffering, but Perdita steadfastly stares at the lifelike statue. Paulina then amazes them all by commanding the statue to move. At last, Hermione speaks, and everyone learns that she has remained alive (but hidden) all these sixteen years. As they all exit to enjoy their new happiness, Leontes ends Paulina's loneliness by choosing the good Camillo to be her husband.