At Leontes’ court, Polixenes tells him that he must be getting back to Bohemia, as he has been in Sicilia for nine months. He thanks Leontes for his hospitality, and Leontes asks him to stay longer. Polixenes insists, “my affairs / Do even drag me homeward,” and Leontes tells his pregnant wife Hermione to persuade Polixenes to stay.
At this early stage in the play, all of the characters’ various relationships are functioning well: Polixenes is friendly with both Leontes and Hermione. These friendships don’t (yet) threaten the marital relationship between Hermione and Leontes.
Hermione takes Polixenes aside and tries to persuade him to stay in Sicilia, but he keeps declining. She jokes that if he doesn’t agree to stay, she will have to keep him in Sicilia as a prisoner. Polixenes finally agrees to extend his stay. Hermione asks him about his childhood friendship with her husband Leontes, and Polixenes says they “were as twinned lambs that did frisk i’ th’ sun,” and were so innocent as small children they seemed even free from original sin. But, Polixenes says, they grew older, lost their innocence, and fell in love with their respective wives.
Polixenes is stubborn at first, but Hermione is able to persuade him simply through perseverance. Polixenes' description of Leontes and himself emphasizes both their close-knit friendship and the pure innocence of youth. He goes as far as to contradict Christian doctrine, saying that they were so innocent as children that it was as if they were not even guilty of original sin.
Leontes asks if Hermione has persuaded Polixenes to stay, and she says she has. Leontes marvels that she convinced Polixenes when he could not, and tells her, “thou never spok’st / To better purpose,” except when she pledged her love for him. Hermione and Polixenes hold hands briefly, and Leontes suddenly becomes upset. Turning aside and speaking to himself, he says that Polixenes and his wife appear too familiar, as if there is something romantic between them. He turns to Mamillius and asks if he is really the boy’s father.
Leontes is impressed with Hermione’s powers of persuasion, but also suspicious. In his eyes, the line between fond friendship and romantic affair is beginning to blur, with Hermione and Polixenes holding hands. He jumps remarkably quickly from a slight suspicion to certainty of Hermione’s guilt. His quick assumption of her betraying him is, ironically, an example of his betraying her.
Leontes doubts that he is Mamillius’ father, and is greatly troubled. Hermione and Polixenes ask him why he is upset, and he answers that he is fine, and that his son simply reminded him of himself when he was a young boy. He asks Polixenes if he is as fond of his son as Leontes is of Mamillius, and Polixenes answers that his son is “all my exercise, my mirth, my matter.”
Leontes is now suddenly convinced of Hermione’s infidelity. The strong paternal bond that Leontes and Polixenes describe is threatened by the possibility of Mamillius being an illegitimate child, a son from the wrong father.
Leontes tells Hermione to treat Polixenes well as a guest, and Hermione and Polixenes go off to a garden. Leontes is convinced that his wife is having an affair with Polixenes and laments that he is now a cuckold. He says that there are many men who don’t realize that their wives are unfaithful. He calls for Camillo, and sends Mamillius away.
Convinced of his wife’s dishonesty, Leontes himself behaves somewhat dishonestly, disguising his suspicions and pretending that everything is okay. Based on the (faulty) evidence of his wife’s infidelity, he generalizes in a sexist manner about women’s propensity for cheating.
Leontes thinks that everyone in his court knows about his wife’s infidelity, and asks Camillo if he saw how Polixenes was only persuaded to stay by Hermione. He asks Camillo why Polixenes agreed to stay in Sicilia, but Camillo doesn’t take Leontes’ hint. Leontes says that Camillo must be dishonest, or too cowardly to tell him the truth, or a negligent servant, or a fool. Camillo is confused and asks Leontes to clarify what he’s talking about. Leontes says that his wife is “slippery” and unfaithful to him. Camillo cannot believe this.
Despite only limited evidence, Leontes is now firm in his (paranoid) belief of Hermione’s unfaithfulness. Again, the speed with which he comes to the conclusion of his wife’s betrayal can somewhat ironically be seen as his betraying her and indicative of the way that suspicion can overwhelm a person and become impossible to shake or shrug off.
Leontes says that Polixenes and Hermione whisper together, lean “cheek to cheek,” and touch their noses together. They play together, “horsing foot on foot,” and “skulking in corners.” He sees all this as definitive proof of their affair. Camillo still doesn’t believe it, and tells Leontes to “be cured / Of this diseased opinion.” Leontes tells Camillo, “you lie, you lie,” thinking that his servant is keeping the truth from him.
Leontes interprets all the signs of Polixenes’ and Hermione’s affectionate friendship as evidence of a romantic affair. Camillo is caught between his loyalty to his queen, who he doesn’t want to think of as guilty, and his king, who he doesn’t want to contradict for fear of his loyalty, job, and safety.
Leontes asks Camillo to poison Polixenes. Camillo says he is willing to do this, but still refuses to believe that Hermione has been unfaithful to Leontes. Leontes angrily says that he would not tell Camillo she was unfaithful if he did not really believe it, as Hermione’s infidelity would cast doubt on whether he is really Mamillius’ father. Camillo agrees to kill Polixenes, but asks Leontes not to tell Hermione what he suspects and to act as though nothing is wrong between them, so as to prevent any rumors about her infidelity from spreading. Leontes agrees.
Camillo continues to face a dilemma of loyalties: he must choose between his allegiance to Leontes and Hermione, as well as between his allegiance to Leontes and his knowledge that Polixenes is likely an innocent man. In response to Hermione’s supposed dishonesty, Leontes plans to be dishonest himself, hiding his suspicion from Polixenes and Hermione.
Leontes leaves, and Camillo examines his difficult position: if he is to obey his king, he “must be the poisoner / Of good Polixenes.” Thinking that no one who has murdered a king has ever “flourished after,” he decides that he must not obey Leontes. Polixenes enters and asks Camillo why Leontes seems so upset. Camillo says that he doesn’t know, but Polixenes continues to press him about the matter.
Camillo finally decides that he must disobey his own king in order not to commit the worse crime of murdering Polixenes. He is still trying to be loyal to Leontes, though, as he at first refuses to tell Polixenes what is going on.
Camillo says that there is a “sickness” that has originated in Polixenes himself. Polixenes is confused, but Camillo says he cannot be more specific. Polixenes asks him to explain, and Camillo finally breaks down and says that he has been ordered to kill Polixenes, because Leontes is convinced that he has “touched his queen / Forbiddenly.” Polixenes is shocked and wishes that his blood would turn “to an infected jelly,” if this were true and that his name would be ranked alongside Judas for betrayal.
Polixenes is shocked that his close friend Leontes could suspect him of having an affair with Hermione. This would go against not only his friendship with both Hermione and Leontes, but also his personal sense of honesty. Camillo has “betrayed” Leontes to some degree by telling Polixenes about his suspicions, but this “betrayal” may be justified, as it protects the innocent Polixenes.
Camillo says that there is no oath Polixenes can make that will convince Leontes that he has not had an affair with Hermione. He asks Camillo where Leontes’ suspicion has come from, but Camillo doesn’t know. He advises Polixenes to flee Sicilia and says he will serve him instead of Leontes now. He promises that he is telling the truth and that Polixenes is really in danger.
Leontes is so committed to his belief that Hermione is unfaithful that no evidence or oaths can persuade him otherwise. Polixenes’ only choice is thus to flee Sicilia, effectively severing the close friendship that, not so long ago, seemed unbreakable.
Polixenes says he believes Camillo, because he saw Leontes’ contempt for him in his expression. He says that because Hermione is such a “precious creature,” Leontes’ jealousy will be great. He says that he is afraid for his safety, and he and Camillo leave, preparing to get out of Sicilia.
Polixenes trusts in Camillo’s honesty, seeing Leontes’ expression as proof of his contempt. Camillo is now behaving loyally toward Polixenes, having been forced to betray the irrational Leontes.