Hermione gives Mamillius to two attendant ladies to watch over him. The ladies comment on how large the pregnant Hermione has gotten, and say that they eagerly await “a fine new prince.” Hermione asks Mamillius to tell her a “merry” tale, but Mamillius says, “a sad tale’s best for winter,” and plans to tell her a frightening story with “sprites and goblins.” He starts to tell his story, when Leontes and a nobleman named Antigonus enter.
The innocent young child Mamillius delights his mother. The discussion of what kind of tale is appropriate for winter relates the play’s own sense of propriety in terms of genre: in this first half of the play (set in winter), it is most like a serious tragedy. But in act 4, when it is spring, the play will move toward a “merry” comedy.
Leontes is looking for Camillo and Polixenes, but one of his lords informs him that the two have both fled Sicilia. Leontes takes this as confirmation of Polixenes’ guilt. He compares the pain of being cheated on to drinking from a cup with a poisonous spider in it, saying that one is safe so long as one does not know about the poisonous spider, but that in this case he is aware of the poison. He says that Camillo has betrayed him, as well
Leontes is so stubborn in his false belief regarding Hermione, that he interprets everything as more proof of her infidelity. He laments how he has been betrayed and calls Camillo disloyal, when Camillo has actually behaved in an upright, honest way by helping the innocent Polixenes.
Leontes sends Mamillius away and tells Hermione that she is likely pregnant with Polixenes’ child. Hermione denies this, but Leontes does not believe her. He guesses that the guards and lords around him know about Hermione’s affair and imagines that they cannot call Hermione an honest lady without “shrugs, these ‘hum’s and ‘ha’s.” Hermione insists that her husband is mistaken, but Leontes will not be convinced by her.
Given the importance of innocent, young children in the play, the idea that Hermione is pregnant with an illegitimate child makes her supposed betrayal of Leontes even worse. Leontes is convinced of Hermione’s infidelity and his paranoia extends to thinking that everyone in his court knows about it and is laughing at him.
Leontes calls Hermione an adulteress and “a bed-swerver.” Hermione denies it and says that he will be grieved when he realizes that he has made false accusations against his own wife. Leontes orders for Hermione to be thrown in prison. Hermione tells the lords around her that she is “not prone to weeping, as our sex / Commonly are,” and will endure prison until “the heavens look / With an aspect more favorable.” She tells everyone not to cry, and to save their tears for when she has actually done something wrong.
Leontes stubbornly thinks that he is carrying out justice by punishing Hermione, when he is actually betraying her (by not trusting her) and behaving in an unjust way. Hermione bravely moderates her response to this serious injustice, refusing to cry.
Hermione and her ladies are led off to prison. Antigonus begs Leontes to reconsider, as he is harming Hermione, Mamillius, and himself by doubting his wife’s honor. Antigonus and another noble lord say that they are sure Hermione has been faithful. Antigonus says that if Hermione can’t be trusted, then no woman can. He says that Hermione turns out to really be “honor-flawed,” he will “geld” (i.e. spay) his three daughters so that they cannot produce illegitimate children.
Again, Leontes thinks that he is carrying out justice by putting his wife in prison, though he is actually behaving as an unjust tyrant. He is also betraying his wife and son, both of whom he is harming. Antigonus tries to persuade Leontes that Hermione would be the last woman ever to cheat on her husband, but Leontes remains firm in his false belief.
Leontes discounts the worries of Antigonus and the other nobleman, and remains sure of Hermione’s infidelity. He sees Camillo’s flight from Sicilia as more proof of the affair. He says that he has sent someone to the island of Delphos, though, to get an oracle from Apollo for “greater confirmation” of what has happened.
Leontes cannot be persuaded to change his mind. Nonetheless, he has sent for an oracle to be certain. The oracle represents an absolute authority that should be able to persuade anyone of the truth.
Leontes says that he is already sure that his wife cheated on him, but the oracle’s word will “give rest to th’ minds of others,” who don’t believe that Hermione has been unfaithful. He says that he has imprisoned his own wife so that she doesn’t run away like Polixenes. As Leontes leaves, Antigonus comments to himself that the “good truth” of the matter would actually provoke the king to laughter.
Leontes is certain of his beliefs, but wants to be just and assure his citizens of what he already thinks true with the oracle. Antigonus’ comment suggests both that all this is a misunderstanding, and that the truth of the matter should be cause not for tragic seriousness, but for comic levity.