The Winter's Tale Act 2, Scene 3 Summary & Analysis
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Alone, Leontes says that he can find no rest “nor night nor day.” He says that it is a sign of weakness to be so affected by his wife’s crime, and wonders if he could find some peace if his wife were “given to the fire,” and burned to death as punishment. A servant enters and informs Leontes that Mamillius, who has been ill, is improving. Leontes says that the news of Hermione’s “dishonor” made Mamillius sick so that he “threw off his spirit, his appetite, his sleep, / And downright languished.”
Leontes ponders what the just punishment for his supposedly guilty wife is. Hermione’s apparent infidelity is compared to a kind of sickness, as if her dishonor could infect Mamillius. Ironically, though, it is Leontes’ own overhasty presumption of his wife’s guilt and stubborn cruelty that seems to be afflicting his court like a harmful sickness.
Leontes thinks that Camillo and Polixenes are probably laughing at him from afar, but he tells himself not to think of them, and to take his revenge out on Hermione instead. Paulina arrives with the newborn child. Antigonus and a servant try to prevent her from going to see Leontes, but she tells them that she brings news that will make Leontes feel better.
Leontes is as distraught over his friends’ imagined betrayal of him as he is over his wife’s supposed infidelity. He thinks that he is justified in taking revenge on Hermione, when he is actually behaving rather tyrannically.
Leontes hears Paulina talking and asks Antigonus if he cannot “rule her,” as he has ordered for no one to come disturb him. Paulina tells Leontes that she comes from his “good queen,” and shows him Hermione’s newborn daughter. Leontes is furious and orders for Paulina to be taken away. He calls the baby a bastard and tells Paulina to take it away.
Leontes extends his assumption of his wife’s guilt to a general sexist belief that women need to be “ruled” by their husbands. Not even the sight of his innocent newborn daughter can persuade Leontes to change his stubborn mind, as sight of the baby just reminds him of the infidelity he is certain his wife engaged in.
Leontes refers to his wife as a traitor, and Paulina says that the only traitor is the king himself, who slanders both his wife and his children. Leontes says that the baby is Polixenes’ child, and says that it should be thrown into the fire along with Hermione. Paulina insists that the baby resembles Leontes and must be his child. Leontes responds that Antigonus should be hanged for not being able to stop Paulina from talking, and Antigonus says no husband can stop his wife from speaking her mind.
In Leontes’ mind, the child is out of its place, here with the wrong father, and is an unjust violation of the natural order of his and Hermione’s family. His suspicions have driven him to cruel, unjust behavior, as he speaks of murdering his own newborn child. Paulina understands the irony that Leontes, so paranoid about betrayal, is the only one actually behaving as a traitor.
Paulina calls Leontes a tyrant and he again demands that Antigonus take his wife away. Paulina says there’s no need for her to be dragged away, and leaves of her own accord. Before going, she once again tells Leontes that the infant is clearly his child. After she leaves, Leontes calls Antigonus a traitor and says he has made his wife attempt to persuade him. He orders Antigonus to take the baby away immediately and burn it in a fire, or else Antigonus himself will be killed.
Paulina is the only Sicilian brave enough (and loyal enough to Hermione) to speak out against Leontes’ unjust, tyrannical behavior. She tries to reason with him, seeing the child’s resemblance to Leontes as proof of its legitimate father. Leontes forces Antigonus to choose between disobeying his own king or killing an innocent child, who has done nothing wrong.
Antigonus promises that he did not arrange for his wife to come to Leontes, and some other attendant lords vouch for him. Leontes calls them all liars. One of the lords insists that they are loyal and begs the king to reconsider killing the baby. Leontes says he does not want the bastard child to grow up and falsely call him father. He asks Antigonus what he will do to save the baby’s life, and Antigonus vows that he will do whatever is in his ability to prevent the child’s death.
Leontes’ paranoia about betrayal extends now from his wife Hermione and friend Polixenes to his entire court, whom he calls liars. For Leontes, it would be unjust for his illegitimate daughter to grow up under the wrong father. Leontes takes advantage of Antigonus’ loyalty in making him vow to do whatever he orders.
Leontes orders Antigonus to take the baby away and abandon it in “some remote and desert place,” where “chance may nurse or end it.” He threatens to kill Antigonus, and Paulina, if he does not do this. Reluctantly obeying his king, Antigonus carries the baby off and prays that wild creatures may take pity on the child and let it live.
Operating under the delusion that he is carrying out justice, Leontes continues to behave like an unjust tyrant. Similar to Camillo earlier, Antigonus faces a dilemma between loyalty and virtue, as he is ordered to abandon a completely innocent child.
After Antigonus leaves with the child, a servant enters and announces that the men Leontes sent to Delphos have returned. Leontes comments on how quickly they have journeyed to the oracle and back, and says that the truth will soon be known. He orders for Hermione to be brought out of prison to a “session,” where she will have “a just and open trial.” He says that his heart “will be a burden,” so long as his unfaithful wife lives.
The oracle again functions as a sign of absolute truth and authority. By consulting the oracle and having an open trial, Leontes insists that he is behaving justly. He claims that his heart hurts because of the infidelity of his beloved wife, but it is he himself who is betraying and hurting a loved one.