Summary and Analysis
Polixenes and Camillo enter; they are in the middle of a discussion. The King of Bohemia has asked Camillo to drop his request to return to Sicilia, but Camillo cannot; he urges Polixenes to allow him to return to his beloved Sicilia because the penitent Leontes has requested him to do so. Camillo is growing old; he longs both to die at home and to ease the sorrows of the Sicilian king. Polixenes pleads with Camillo to stay; he claims that the goodness and administrative skills of Camillo can never be equaled. And as for the grief in Sicilia, Polixenes prefers not to be reminded of it.
Edging toward his own problems, Polixenes asks Camillo if he has seen Prince Florizel recently. The king hints that a living son can create as much grief as a dead one. Camillo has neither seen Florizel nor can he guess where the prince goes. He knows only that the prince is often absent and has been neglecting his court duties. The king, however, does know where Florizel goes. Spies have reported that Florizel has been seen dawdling about the home of a shepherd, whose financial circumstances have mysteriously improved. Camillo recognizes the description of this shepherd: His household is said to include a daughter of unusual rarity.
In order to discover why Florizel visits the shepherd's home, suspecting the lure of the shepherd's daughter, Polixenes wants Camillo to accompany him to the site. There, in disguise, they should be able to extract an answer of some kind from the simple shepherd. Camillo agrees to drop his request to return to Sicilia and accompany Polixenes on this mission.
This scene begins with the central conflict of the subplot. Its complications include Camillo's presence near the persuasive Polixenes, who opposes Camillo's yearning to return home to Sicilia. Another, later conflict, barely sketched here, will be the conflict between the desire of Polixenes, who wants his son to perform filial and royal duties, and Florizel, who wants only to be with Perdita.
Camillo's characterization remains impressive. He behaves superbly as the able and trusted administrator who always exercises independent judgment. As in the first act, he now struggles with a conflict between his desire to serve both kings who want him and his own stronger personal motivation to return home.
Polixenes is developing into a more manipulative and selfish character than we discerned earlier. However, he cannot be mistaken for an evil villain. Like Leontes, he must confront the question of loyal obedience within a family that he loves, but unlike Leontes, he does not permit a few observations to fester until he becomes mad. Before we leave this scene, note that two favorite Elizabethan dramatic gimmicks are promised for the audience's interest — love and disguise.