Act 3 Scene 2
Act 3 Scene 2
The trial of Hermoine begins. The indictment is read out, which accuses her of adultery with Polixenes, and conspiring with Camillo against the life of Leontes. Hermoine then speaks in dignified fashion in her own defense. She tells Leontes that he is the man who knows best that her life has been chaste and true. She appeals to his conscience, saying that before Polixenes came to the court, she was in Leontes' good graces, and deservedly so. She claims that her behavior since then has been entirely honorable. After a skeptical comment by Leontes, Hermoine goes on to say that she loved Polixenes as honor required her to do. Not to have done so would have been disobedient and ungrateful to her husband, whose friend Polixenes was. She also denies knowledge of any conspiracy with Camillo, whom she declares an honest man. Leontes cross-examines her, saying that she knew of Camillo's departure and what she was supposed to do in his absence (that is, kill her husband). Hermoine replies that she does not understand what he is saying, and that he is deluded. Leontes responds angrily, declaring her guilt and promising a sentence of death. In reply, Hermoine says that she is not frightened by his threats since she seeks death anyway. Life no longer has any comfort for her, since she has lost his favor-she knows not why-and is denied access to her son, Mamilius. Also, her newborn baby has been as good as murdered, she has been publicly proclaimed a "strumpet," and she has been hurried to this trial when she has not yet fully recovered from childbirth. However, although she prizes life little, she still wants her honor vindicated. She calls upon Apollo to be her judge, and waits for the verdict of the oracle.
Cleomenes and Dion enter, the seal of the oracle is broken, and an officer of the court reads the verdict: Hermoine is chaste; Polixenes is innocent; Camillo is a true subject of the king; Leontes is a jealous tyrant. The final words of the oracle are that the king shall live without an heir "if that which is lost be not found."
Leontes declares that the oracle is false and that the trial should continue. But then a servant enters and reports that Mamilius is dead. Leontes interprets this to mean that Apollo is angry, and he realizes that he has been unjust. Hermoine faints, and Leontes asks that she be taken away and cared for. He expects her to recover. As Paulina and Hermoine exit, Leontes asks Apollo to forgive him for profaning his oracle. He resolves to be reconciled with Polixenes, woo his queen once more and recall Camillo. He regrets that he ordered Camillo to poison Polixenes. He realizes what happened: Camillo, as a good and honest man, told Polixenes of the plot against him, and left his great office in Leontes' court for a court of lesser riches in Bohemia. Leontes acknowledges Camillo's integrity, which makes his own deeds seem even worse by comparison.
Paulina enters, and in a long tirade tells the king that all his bad deeds, in betraying Polixenes, in destroying Camillo's honor, even casting out his own baby daughter, were as nothing compared to the latest calamity: the death of Hermoine. She rails against Leontes and he does not resist her. He knows he deserves all that she is saying of him, and that others will say the same.
A lord rebukes Paulina for speaking so boldly, and she apologizes for her outburst. She sees that Leontes is grief-stricken and that he realizes what he has done. She resolves to speak of it no more, but Leontes says that she spoke the truth. He asks to be taken to the bodies of his wife and son. The two of them will be buried together, and the causes of their deaths shall be made known, to his perpetual shame. He vows to visit their graves once a day and weep.
Like any trial scene, this makes excellent drama, featuring as it does a vengeful husband, an innocent wife, and a divine intervention that completely turns the situation around. By the end of the scene, Leontes has moved from jealousy, false accusation and desire for vengeance to contrition and grief. It is as if he has suddenly awoken from a dream.
In the dock, Hermoine continues to present a complete contrast to Leontes. In spite of her dire situation, she remains in control of herself. She does not blame Leontes or give expression to anger. She is a picture of dignity and strength even when put through great humiliation. As in Act 2, scene 3, it is Paulina who balances Hermoine's stoicism, telling the king in no uncertain terms what she thinks of him.