The Winter's Tale

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Loyalty, Fidelity, and Honesty Theme Analysis

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Loyalty, Fidelity, and Honesty Theme Icon
Friendship and Love Theme Icon
Youth, Age, and Time Theme Icon
Seriousness, Levity, and Humor Theme Icon
Evidence, Truth, Persuasion, and Belief Theme Icon
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Loyalty, Fidelity, and Honesty Theme Icon

Issues of loyalty, fidelity, and honesty are crucial to the play’s main plot points. Camillo’s exile from and return to Sicilia, for example, are based on his presumed disloyalty and actual loyalty to his king Leontes. And Hermione’s perceived lack of marital fidelity is what causes Leontes to order for her death. There is a variety of different kinds of loyalty in the play, all doubted at various points: fidelity in marriage (as between Hermione and Leontes), trust in friendship (as between Leontes and Polixenes), and loyalty to one’s family (as between Florizell and his father Polixenes).

Several characters in the play think that they are upholding the importance of loyalty or punishing disloyalty, only to find that they are in some way doing the exact opposite. Leontes thinks that he is championing the importance of marital fidelity and honesty when he tries to arrange for the deaths of Hermione, Polixenes, and Perdita, but in turning on his own family and dear friend he actually displays a lack of loyalty to them. His paranoia and descent into obsessive jealousy is a betrayal of both his wife Hermione and his childhood friend Polixenes. Later in the play, Polixenes similarly tries to enforce an idea of honesty and loyalty, when he stops his son from trying to marry Perdita without his knowledge. He thinks Florizell is being a dishonest or disloyal son, but Florizell is only being honest to his feelings of genuine love for Perdita. And as Polixenes’ insistence on the matter drives his own son away from his homeland, his behavior can perhaps even be seen as a form of paternal disloyalty. As Leontes and Polixenes both demonstrate, upholding loyalty and honesty is not always a straightforward matter. Thus, Camillo, one of the few characters to be honest and virtuous throughout the play, faces a difficult dilemma when ordered by Leontes to kill Polixenes: he can either kill an innocent man and remain loyal to his king, or betray his king in order to remain loyal to a larger idea of virtue. Similarly, Antigonus is forced to abandon the helpless infant Perdita in Bohemia out of loyalty to Leontes’ commands.

Throughout the play, then, those who attempt to uphold loyalty most vigorously end up committing the play’s most heinous acts, while those who actually behave with true fidelity and honesty (Camillo, for example) must commit apparent acts of betrayal. Thus, while the play revolves around the importance of various forms of loyalty, it shows that such matters are never simple: loyalty can be a matter of perspective, and must be balanced against other forms of honesty, duty, and virtue.

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Loyalty, Fidelity, and Honesty ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Loyalty, Fidelity, and Honesty appears in each scene of The Winter's Tale. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Loyalty, Fidelity, and Honesty Quotes in The Winter's Tale

Below you will find the important quotes in The Winter's Tale related to the theme of Loyalty, Fidelity, and Honesty.
Act 1, Scene 2 Quotes

Too hot, too hot!
To mingle friendship far is mingling bloods.
I have tremor cordis on me: my heart dances;
But not for joy; not joy. This entertainment
May a free face put on, derive a liberty
From heartiness, from bounty, fertile bosom,
And well become the agent; 't may, I grant;
But to be paddling palms and pinching fingers,
As now they are, and making practised smiles
As in a looking-glass, and then to sigh, as 'twere
The mort o' the deer; O, that is entertainment
My bosom likes not, nor my brows! Mamillius,
Art thou my boy?

Related Characters: Leontes (speaker), Polixenes, Hermione
Page Number: 1.2.139-151
Explanation and Analysis:

When Polixenes and Hermione return from their side conversation, Leontes asks if his friend has yet been convinced; upon learning that Hermione has been successful, Leontes tells her that the only time she spoke to better purpose was the day she pledged her love for him. Leontes doesn't appear to be upset that his wife was able to persuade Polixenes when he was not, even though Polixenes assured Leontes (as in the quote above) that no other tongue could possibly convince him more easily.

When Hermione gives Polixenes her hand, however, Leontes suddenly snaps. He is immediately possessed by jealousy, based only on the evidence of brief hand holding. In an aside, he exclaims, "Too hot, too hot!" The gesture is excessive, and to him seems absolute proof of his wife's guilt. He believes the two seem too familiar, and describes in detail the way they are holding hands, "paddling palms and pinching fingers," all the while making "practised smiles" like they might make in a mirror to appear genuine. Such "entertainment" does not sit well with Leontes, who has worked himself into such a jealous frenzy that at the end of these lines he questions if his son Mamillius is even his own.


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Ha' not you seen, Camillo, —
But that's past doubt, you have, or your eye-glass
Is thicker than a cuckold's horn, —or heard, —
—For to a vision so apparent rumour
Cannot be mute, —or thought, —for cogitation
Resides not in that man that does not think, —
My wife is slippery?

Related Characters: Leontes (speaker), Polixenes, Hermione, Camillo
Page Number: 1.2.329-335
Explanation and Analysis:

Leontes has sent Polixenes and Hermione off on a walk; he is now utterly convinced of his wife's infidelity, and believes that everyone in court has known all along. Leontes asks Camillio why he thinks Hermione was able to convince Polixenes to stay, trying to draw the truth out of him. When the confused Camillo does not play along, Leontes speaks the excerpted lines, wondering if Camillo really has not seen what is so plain to him.

He asks, "have you not seen, Camillo"—but stops himself since it is so obvious that he must have seen, unless his "eye-glass / Is thicker than a cuckold's horn." (A cuckold is a term for someone whose spouse cheats on them, often described as wearing figurative horns.) If he hasn't seen, Leontes says, he must have at least heard about the infidelity, since rumors must spread from "a vision so apparent." Leontes goes as far as to say that simply thinking about it will yield the truth, and only a man who does not think would disagree with his conclusions. The single vision, grounded in sight, of the pair holding hands has thus spread to the ear and to thought and become evidence that amounts to absolute proof that Hermione is "slippery."

Is whispering nothing?
Is leaning cheek to cheek? is meeting noses?
Kissing with inside lip? stopping the career
Of laughing with a sigh? —a note infallible
Of breaking honesty —horsing foot on foot?
Skulking in corners? wishing clocks more swift?
Hours, minutes? noon, midnight? and all eyes
Blind with the pin and web but theirs, theirs only
That would unseen be wicked? is this nothing?
Why, then the world and all that's in't is nothing;
The covering sky is nothing; Bohemia nothing;
My wife is nothing; nor nothing have these nothings,
If this be nothing.

Related Characters: Leontes (speaker), Polixenes, Hermione
Page Number: 1.2.346-359
Explanation and Analysis:

To Leontes' assertion that Hermione is slippery, Camillo responds that Hermione is innocent, and that Leontes has never said anything less appropriate than such a false accusation. But Leontes is absolutely convinced, obsessed, and infuriated. Already certain, he looks back on examples of the close friendship between Hermione and Polixenes and retroactively attributes sexual undertones and signs of infidelity to them.

He begins "Is whispering nothing?" suggesting that the two have been known to whisper. He continues listing their supposed behaviors, questioning if any of them could really be nothing. Being close physically? Meeting noses? Kissing? Laughing together? The list goes on to include a romantic desire for time to speed up (note that the obsessed Leontes breaks time down into its deviations and specific hours), and the desire for all eyes to be blind but those of the supposed lovers, so they can act freely while remaining unseen. He asks is all of this nothing?

If so, Leontes concludes that the world and all that it contains is nothing, that the sky is nothing, Bohemia is noting, Hermione is nothing, nothing is nothing if these signs are not proof of what he knows to be true. Leontes has be come so thoroughly convinced that he feels like the fabric of the world and his very reality would cease to exist with the loss of this core belief.

Act 2, Scene 1 Quotes

Come, sir, now
I am for you again: pray you, sit by us,
And tell ‘s a tale.

Merry or sad shall’t be?

As merry as you will.

A sad tale’s best for winter: I have one
Of sprites and goblins.

Related Characters: Hermione (speaker), Mamillius (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Seasons
Page Number: 2.1.28-34
Explanation and Analysis:

This playful interaction between mother and son also shows the play's self-awareness and the tie of emotion and genre to the seasons. The pregnant Hermione asks her son Mamillius to tell her a tale (note Tale in the play's title), and the boy asks if it should be a happy or sad story. Hermione requests "merry," but Mamillius says that "A sad tale's best for winter," and plans to tell her instead of sprites and goblins.

Within these lines we see the genesis of or a reference to the play's title, the Winter's Tale. We also get a glimpse into the seasonal force of genre which dictates the play's action. This play is commonly categorized as a "problem play," since it is so difficult to place into the group of Shakespeare's Tragedies, Romances, Histories, or Comedies. Much of the plot so far is dark and tragic, hinging on jealousy and death threats. The tragic first three acts of the play fittingly (according to Mamillius) take place during winter—they tell a sad tale. But the final acts, which take place in the spring and summer, begin with absurdity and contain more comic elements, including a happy conclusion that ends with marriage (though a tinge of tragedy lingers, too).

Act 2, Scene 3 Quotes

Mark and perform it, see'st thou! for the fail
Of any point in't shall not only be
Death to thyself but to thy lewd-tongued wife,
Whom for this time we pardon. We enjoin thee,
As thou art liege-man to us, that thou carry
This female bastard hence and that thou bear it
To some remote and desert place quite out
Of our dominions, and that there thou leave it,
Without more mercy, to its own protection
And favour of the climate. As by strange fortune
It came to us, I do in justice charge thee
On thy soul's peril and thy body's torture
That thou commend it strangely to some place
Where chance may nurse or end it. Take it up.

Related Characters: Leontes (speaker), Paulina, Antigonus, Perdita
Page Number: 2.3.211-224
Explanation and Analysis:

The dramatic exchanges of this scene preceding the excerpted speech can be summarized thus: Paulina's plan to present Leontes with his newborn daughter and thereby exonerate Hermione fails miserably. Leontes calls Paulina a traitor, and calls her husband a traitor too, one who should be hanged for his inability to control Paulina. Members of the court try to intervene and save the child, but Leontes, believing to act with justice, behaves like a tyrant and refuses to hear them.

In this speech he makes his final decision regarding the life of the child, of Paulina, and of Antigonus. Beginning with "mark and perform it," meaning listen and do what I say, Leontes starts by saying that if Antigonus does not obey he and his "lewd-tongue wife" (whom Leontes for now has pardoned) will be executed. We can note that the tyranny that has been building in the scene has reached its climax, as Leontes has now switched grammatically into using the formal, royal "we," giving this speech the air of an official decree and reminding us that, though he is maddened by jealousy, he is still a king.

The instructions are as follows: take the baby away and bring her to a remote place outside of Leontes' kingdom; leave the baby there without help, so that its survival is completely dependent on chance. Leontes conceives of this as complete justice, failing to see a problem with the unnatural rejection of his own daughter.

Act 3, Scene 2 Quotes

Since what I am to say must be but that
Which contradicts my accusation and
The testimony on my part no other
But what comes from myself, it shall scarce boot me
To say 'not guilty:' mine integrity
Being counted falsehood, shall, as I express it
Be so received. But thus: if powers divine
Behold our human actions, as they do,
I doubt not then but innocence shall make
False accusation blush and tyranny
Tremble at patience.

Related Characters: Hermione (speaker)
Page Number: 3.2.23-33
Explanation and Analysis:

In this long speech, Hermione proclaims her innocence, though she knows that her testimony will not be able to convince Leontes of the truth. Her testimony and language alone must change Leontes' mind, and she knows that her integrity is counted as falsehood. In other words, she knows that her testimony will not be believed, because her very integrity is under attack in the accusation. However, she remains proud, honorable, and hopeful, and she strives to tell the truth. Hermione appeals to divine powers, saying that if they happen to be observing (as she knows they do), then she knows that her innocence will end this false accusation and make "tyranny / Tremble at patience." This powerful, emotional language introduces an impressive performance in which she will compare the level of her current sadness to her consistent level of faithfulness.

For Polixenes,
With whom I am accused, I do confess
I loved him as in honour he required,
With such a kind of love as might become
A lady like me, with a love even such,
So and no other, as yourself commanded:
Which not to have done I think had been in me
Both disobedience and ingratitude
To you and toward your friend, whose love had spoke,
Even since it could speak, from an infant, freely
That it was yours. Now, for conspiracy,
I know not how it tastes; though it be dish'd
For me to try how: all I know of it
Is that Camillo was an honest man;
And why he left your court, the gods themselves,
Wotting no more than I, are ignorant.

Related Characters: Hermione (speaker), Leontes, Polixenes, Camillo
Page Number: 3.2.65-81
Explanation and Analysis:

Hermione has made her first speech of the trail, but Leontes still does not believe her. Here, Hermione gives another speech in which she attempts to differentiate romantic and platonic love. She says that she loved Polixenes "as in honour he required, / With such a kind of love as might become / a lady like" her. In other words, she loved Polixenes as a friend, as a king deserves to be loved, and furthermore as Leontes, a dear friend to Polixenes, commanded her to.

Hermione goes on to say that if she hadn't loved Polixenes in this way, it would have been actual disobedience and ingratitude, opposing the nonsensical, jealously-based infidelity she is accused of. Hermione has no idea why Camillo left court or what is going on; she maintains that she truly is innocent.

Her claim here that her friendship was non-romantic and ordered by her husband is both clever and unique. By framing the love as a duty to her husband, she masterfully reverses the accusation and seems to act as a faithful wife should. If Leontes were not so possessed by jealousy, it is possible that her argument would have worked. But its uniqueness is also a reason it might seem unbelievable. Her notion of a non-romantic friendship between man and woman would have been uncommon, perhaps even revolutionary during the Renaissance.

O, think what they have done
And then run mad indeed, stark mad! for all
Thy by-gone fooleries were but spices of it.
That thou betray'dst Polixenes,'twas nothing;
That did but show thee, of a fool, inconstant
And damnable ingrateful: nor was't much,
Thou wouldst have poison'd good Camillo's honour,
To have him kill a king: poor trespasses,
More monstrous standing by: whereof I reckon
The casting forth to crows thy baby-daughter
To be or none or little; though a devil
Would have shed water out of fire ere done't:
Nor is't directly laid to thee, the death
Of the young prince, whose honourable thoughts,
Thoughts high for one so tender, cleft the heart
That could conceive a gross and foolish sire
Blemish'd his gracious dam: this is not, no,
Laid to thy answer: but the last, —O lords,
When I have said, cry 'woe!' the queen, the queen,
The sweet'st, dear'st creature's dead,
and vengeance for't
Not dropp'd down yet.

Related Characters: Paulina (speaker), Leontes, Polixenes, Hermione, Camillo, Mamillius, Perdita
Page Number: 3.2.201-222
Explanation and Analysis:

In this stunning speech, Paulina chastises the King at length for his folly and the damage it has wrought. The "they" she refers to in the first quoted line are Leontes' jealous and tyrannical actions, which have caused terrible things to happen, all of which she will outline below.

Leontes betrayed his dear friend Polixenes over "nothing" (note the irony of this term returning after Leontes' earlier speech involving nothing). Leontes would have poisoned Camillo's honor, since he ordered him to commit regicide (kill a king). He cast off his daughter, a cruelty Paulina says surpasses even a devil, and caused the death of his tender son. But the climactic speech ends with a crushing final blow: Hermione too is now dead.

Paulina's fury is a staggering display of emotion and power over the king. This reversal of the natural order shows two traditional dichotomies flipped: subject over king and woman over man. What's more, a few lines later Leontes will say "Go on. Go on. / Thou canst not speak too much." He gives her leave, embracing his anguish and believing himself deserving of bitterness from all tongues.

Act 4, Scene 4 Quotes

Mark your divorce, young sir,
Whom son I dare not call; thou art too base
To be acknowledged: thou a sceptre's heir,
That thus affect'st a sheep-hook! Thou old traitor,
I am sorry that by hanging thee I can
But shorten thy life one week. And thou, fresh piece
Of excellent witchcraft, who of force must know
The royal fool thou copest with, —

O, my heart!

I'll have thy beauty scratch'd with briers, and made
More homely than thy state. For thee, fond boy,
If I may ever know thou dost but sigh
That thou no more shalt see this knack, as never
I mean thou shalt, we'll bar thee from succession;
Not hold thee of our blood, no, not our kin,
Far than Deucalion off: mark thou my words:
Follow us to the court. Thou churl, for this time,
Though full of our displeasure, yet we free thee
From the dead blow of it. And you, enchantment.—
Worthy enough a herdsman: yea, him too,
That makes himself, but for our honour therein,
Unworthy thee, —if ever henceforth thou
These rural latches to his entrance open,
Or hoop his body more with thy embraces,
I will devise a death as cruel for thee
As thou art tender to't.

Related Characters: Polixenes (speaker), Shepherd (speaker), Florizell, Perdita
Page Number: 4.4.490-518
Explanation and Analysis:

Polixenes has discovered that his son plans to marry Perdita without his knowledge. Infuriated, he removes his disguise and tells his son to "mark" his divorce, indicating that he does not approve of (and is in fact disgusted by) the marriage. What's more, he refuses to refer to Florizell as his son, threatening to disown him and remove him as heir to the throne. In this angry speech Polixenes then threatens to hang the Shepherd and to have Perdita's face "scratch'd with briers." 

We have seen many inversions take place in the shift from the first half of the play to the second. Now, it is Polixenes who becomes excessively enraged with his child, threatens death, and abuses his power; Polixenes has replaced Leontes as the tyrant (though he does not here slip into the royal "we" as Leontes did when making his decrees, a possible indication that they will not be carried out, or are not as serious as the order to abandon Perdita, which we know did take place).

Ha, ha! what a fool Honesty is! and Trust, his
sworn brother, a very simple gentleman!

Related Characters: Autolycus (speaker)
Page Number: 4.4.711-712
Explanation and Analysis:

These lines are spoken as a soliloquy by Autolycus. While it may appear from the beginning of his speech that he is going to offer a philosophical treatise on honesty and trust, Autolycus proceeds to enumerate the cheap items he sold during the festival. He brags about how much money he made selling junk, and also says that he has picked pockets and stolen from his customers. While the speech can be read in terms of the lack of trust that pervades the play, and the dishonesty and disbelief that have caused both the tragic and comedic outbursts from kings (one echoing the other), this speech also serves as simple comic relief, a classic feature of drama. While the others make plans to resolve the tension, the audience is given a humorous interlude by Autolycus.

Act 5, Scene 1 Quotes

Your mother was most true to wedlock, prince;
For she did print your royal father off,
Conceiving you: were I but twenty-one,
Your father's image is so hit in you,
His very air, that I should call you brother,
As I did him, and speak of something wildly
By us perform'd before. Most dearly welcome!
And your fair princess, —goddess! —O, alas!
I lost a couple, that 'twixt heaven and earth
Might thus have stood begetting wonder as
You, gracious couple, do: and then I lost—
All mine own folly —the society,
Amity too, of your brave father, whom,
Though bearing misery, I desire my life
Once more to look on him.

Related Characters: Leontes (speaker), Polixenes, Florizell, Perdita
Page Number: 5.1.157-171
Explanation and Analysis:

This scene returns to Sicilia, and shows Leontes repenting still for his errors that led to Hermione's death. He contemplates remarrying, but says that he will never do it. A servant announces that Florizell has come with his princess unannounced; Paulina remarks that it is shame that Mamillius is not alive, since he would have been the same age as Florizell now. The lines here are Leontes' greeting to the young Bohemian prince.

He begins by saying that Florizell's mother was surely true to wedlock, immediately referencing his own error and accusation of Hermione (either by accident or design). He affirms Florizell's parentage by saying that the young prince is a "print" of his father, and that if he (Leontes) were young, he would call the prince "brother" and think he was Polixenes himself.

Leontes then greets the princess and calls her a goddess. Unknowing of either her true or false lineage, Leontes is pleased with the pair. He then returns to repenting his own folly and all that he has lost, and tells Florizell that he hopes to make amends with Polixenes someday. Here we see that time has made Leontes more wise, reserved, calm, and repentant.

Act 5, Scene 3 Quotes

O, peace, Paulina!
Thou shouldst a husband take by my consent,
As I by thine a wife: this is a match,
And made between's by vows. Thou hast found mine;
But how, is to be question'd; for I saw her,
As I thought, dead, and have in vain said many
A prayer upon her grave. I'll not seek far—
For him, I partly know his mind —to find thee
An honourable husband. Come, Camillo
And take her by the hand, whose worth and honesty
Is richly noted and here justified
By us, a pair of kings.

Related Characters: Leontes (speaker), Hermione, Paulina, Camillo
Page Number: 5.3.170-182
Explanation and Analysis:

These are almost the last lines of the play. Paulina has made her dark reflection on her loss and consigned to lose herself in sorrow, but Leontes' joy at reuniting with his daughter and wife (despite his son still being dead) is enough to give a final push towards happiness and comedy. As king, he grants Paulina his permission to take a new husband, saying he wants to repay her for finding his wife again. He doesn't need to look far to find her a husband, suggesting she wed Camillo, "an honorable husband" whose "worth and honesty is richly noted" by the pair of kings, Polixenes and Leontes.

The play concludes with Leontes asking for forgiveness, and with the union of Polixenes' and Leontes' bloodlines through the marriage of Florizell and Perdita. The natural order is restored and even augmented by this new marriage. The friendships are repaired, and honesty is reaffirmed. Despite its strange, problematic beginning and some of its absurdities, the play ends on a classically light, comedic note.