Act 1 Scene 2
In Leontes' palace, Polixenes is readying to leave the country after his nine-month visit, and he thanks Leontes for his hospitality. Leontes wants him to stay a week longer, but Polixenes explains that he must return the very next day in order to take care of affairs of state in Bohemia. Leontes insists that he stay, but Polixenes will not be persuaded. Leontes then tells his wife and queen, Hermoine, to talk Polixenes into staying. Speaking with Polixenes out of Leontes' hearing, she soon overcomes Polixenes' objections and he agrees to stay a week longer. Hermoine then gets him to talk about his friendship with Leontes when they were both young. When Hermoine tells Leontes that Polixenes has agreed to stay, Leontes comments that Polixenes did for Hermoine what he would not do at Leontes' own request. He tells her that she has never spoken to better purpose since the day she agreed to marry him. Hermoine replies graciously, and gives her hand to Polixenes. Leontes, in an aside, reacts to this gesture with suspicion. Looking at Hermoine and Polixenes as they talk in a friendly way, jealousy rises in him. He thinks they are being much too familiar with each other. He addresses his son Mamilius, and tries to reassure himself that Mamilius is indeed his own son. He reminds himself that Mamilius resembles him, which should reassure him, yet he makes disparaging remarks about women (they "will say any thing"), and jealousy and suspicion of his wife springs up stronger and stronger with each passing moment. Polixenes and Hermoine inquire whether he is all right, since he looks troubled. Leontes denies there is anything wrong, and after some remarks about how, when he looks at Mamilius, he sees himself as a boy, he asks Polixenes whether he is as fond of his own son as he, Leontes, is of Mamilius. Leontes then says he is going for a walk with Mamilius, and Hermoine should entertain Polixenes. In an aside, Leontes says that he is laying a trap for the two of them. After Hermoine and Polixenes exit, Leontes gives full vent to his jealousy and his conviction that Hermoine has been unfaithful to him. He speaks venomously against the unfaithfulness of all women.
After Leontes sends Mamilius off to play, he speaks with Camillo. Although Camillo's remarks are innocuous, Leontes convinces himself that everyone knows of Hermoine's unfaithfulness. Camillo does not know what his king is talking about. He sees nothing suspicious in the relationship between Hermoine and Polixenes. But Leontes now turns his venom on Camillo, refusing to believe that Camillo knows nothing of what Leontes has convinced himself is the truth. Camillo asks him to explain what he means, and to show him in what ways he has failed the king. Leontes responds with a stream of abuse against his wife. Shocked and angry, Camillo remonstrates with the king. He believes Leontes is utterly wrong about Hermoine. But Leontes continues with his flow of invective against Hermoine and what he sees as her outrageous behavior with Polixenes. He gives his jealous imagination full rein. Camillo begs him to change his false and dangerous opinions about his wife, which brings down more abuse on his head from the ranting king. Camillo asks who she is supposed to have been unfaithful with, and Leontes names Polixenes. Once again, Camillo says that he cannot believe such a thing of Hermoine, but Leontes assures him that he has good reason to make this accusation. Reluctantly convinced (although he will later reveal that he does not believe Leontes' accusations), Camillo offers to kill Polixenes if Leontes will promise to take Hermoine back, for the sake of their son, and to prevent malicious gossip in foreign courts. Leontes agrees, and Camillo says he will poison Polixenes. After Leontes exits, Camillo soliloquizes about the impossible position he has been placed in. He refers to the "good Polixenes," which shows that he does not believe Leontes' charges. The only reason he has to kill Polixenes is obedience to his king, which will win him promotion at the court. But he can find no example in history of anyone flourishing after they had killed a king, and even if he could find such an example, he still could not bring himself to perform the deed. He decides that he must leave the court.
Polixenes enters and comments that he seems to have lost favor with Leontes, and he does not know why. He guesses that Camillo knows something of what is going on, but Camillo will only hint that Polixenes himself is the cause of it. At first he refuses to elaborate, but when Polixenes insists, Camillo confesses that Leontes has ordered him to murder Polixenes. He explains that Leontes believes Polixenes and Hermoine are lovers. Polixenes is shocked by this unexpected assault on his reputation. Camillo tells him it is hopeless to try to convince Leontes that he is wrong. He tells Polixenes that he should escape from the city that night. Camillo also asks to join his service. Polixenes accepts Camillo's advice, fearing the violence of Leontes' jealousy. The two men agree on the necessity of an urgent departure.
In the beginning of this scene, the contrast between Polixenes' ornate language, as he thanks Leontes for his hospitality, and the brevity of Leontes' responses, suggests that all may not be well in Leontes' mind regarding his old friend. (The actor playing Leontes has a chance to emphasize this in performance if he so decides.) But when Leontes' jealousy erupts full-blown in his speech beginning at line 108 ("Too hot, too hot!") it has the flimsiest of apparent causes-Hermoine's dutiful show of affection toward a man who is the guest of her husband. Simply put, it would appear that Leontes has a suspicious, innately jealous nature that needs little real cause to activate it. And once he gives full reign to his jealousy, his thoughts leap about wildly. He suddenly wonders whether Mamilius is really his own son (but perhaps this is not the first time he has had this thought?) and gives expression to hatred and contempt for all women in the most lurid kind of language. He has lost all rationality. When he has allowed jealousy to take him over, he casts around for a reason to justify it, and of course he finds one-did not Polixenes agree to stay longer at Hermoine's request, after he had refused Leontes' appeal? That is all Leontes' fevered mind needs at this point. In his view, she is obviously guilty. The dignity of Hermoine in this scene, as throughout, should make it abundantly clear to the audience that Leontes is wronging her.
The Winter's Tale: Novel Summary: Act 1 Scene 2
Act 1 Scene 2