Summary and Analysis
Back in Sicilia, Leontes' subjects are urging him to end his long years of penitence. Cleomenes urges that Leontes "do as the heavens have done, forget your evil;/ With them forgive yourself." But Leontes says that he cannot forgive himself as long as he remembers the virtues of Hermione and feels the absence of an heir. Paulina agrees with him and reminds her king that he killed Hermione.
When Dion suggests that Leontes remarry in order to create another heir, Paulina argues that not only are all women unworthy, but that it's impossible to counter Apollo's oracle. She also counsels Leontes to trust that a worthy heir will appear when needed.
In the presence of witnesses, Paulina extracts Leontes' pledge not to remarry until she selects the time and person; she envisions an older woman who looks exactly like Hermione at a time "when your first queen's again in breath." Suddenly, they are interrupted by a servant who announces that Prince Florizel has arrived with a beautiful bride. Leontes guesses that the visit has been forced "by need and accident."
Paulina attacks the servant's praise of the princess's beauty because she detects disloyalty to Hermione's superior beauty. The servant, however, apologizes but predicts that all will be similarly affected by this beautiful princess:
Women will love her, that she is a woman
More worth than any man; men, that she is
The rarest of all women. (VI.i. 110–12)
During the pause before Florizel's entrance, Paulina reminds her king that Mamillius would have been much like this prince. Leontes lashes: "Prithee, no more; cease. Thou know'st/ He dies to me again when talked of." When Florizel. enters, Leontes notes the young man's resemblance to Polixenes, and he praises the beauty of Perdita, but still, he says, he deeply regrets the loss of so many loved ones. The king then repeats his wish to see Polixenes again, and Florizel spins a tale about being here to represent Polixenes, who is too infirm to come himself. He describes Perdita as being the daughter of Smalus of Libya. Claiming that he sent the major portion of his party back to Bohemia after Perdita's weeping departure from Smalus, the young prince then boldly tells a fabricated story about their strange arrival.
As Leontes expresses his envy of Polixenes' wonderful family, a Bohemian lord enters with Polixenes' request that Leontes arrest the disobedient prince and the shepherd's daughter who married him. This lord says that Polixenes is in the city, but has paused to confront the shepherd and the clown.
Florizel protests, "Camillo has betrayed me." The Bohemian lord confirms that Camillo is with Polixenes. Perdita says that she regrets the suffering of her father and the unlikelihood of her marriage being recognized. Leontes regrets that Florizel angered his father and that Perdita failed to qualify for a royal marriage.
Although Florizel has voiced doubts ("The stars, I see, will kiss the valleys first"), he begs Leontes to petition Polixenes for permission to allow him to keep Perdita as his wife. Leontes' eagerness to cooperate, because of his fascination for Perdita, brings a protest from Paulina; "Your eye hath too much youth in't." The king swears that he thinks only of Hermione when he stares at Perdita.
Although chances for "renewal" once seemed impossible, they now seem resolvable. Leontes is almost to be purged of the sickness that once twisted him. Perdita, the lost heir, has returned, although she has not yet been recognized. And Leontes, by sympathizing with the young couple's spirit of love, begins to take steps that can heal most of his past destruction of the spiritual and natural order.