At a court of justice, Leontes calls for Hermione to enter and be put on trial. He says that he is not being “tyrannous,” because he is giving Hermione an open trial. Hermione is brought forth, and an officer reads out her indictment, which accuses her of committing adultery, as well as conspiring with Camillo in “high treason,” against Leontes.
Hermione says that she is innocent, but doubts that anything she says can convince Leontes. She says that Leontes should know that up until this point she was “as continent, as chaste, as true, / As I am now unhappy.” She says that she is not speaking to save her own life, but rather her honor. She insists on her innocence, but Leontes refuses to believe her.
Hermione says she loved Polixenes “with such a kind of love as might become / A lady like me,” but not in a romantic way. She says that Camillo was an honest man and she doesn’t know why he left Sicilia. Leontes accuses Hermione of knowing about Camillo’s plan to leave Sicilia ahead of time, and says that she also “had a bastard by Polixenes.” He says she deserves death.
Hermione distinguishes between the romantic love she has for her husband and the friendly love she had for Polixenes. Leontes’ suspicions arise from his inability to distinguish these. He accuses Hermione of more and more betrayals, and thinks that the only just punishment for her is death.
Hermione says that she does not fear death, as her life has become a series of dishonorable humiliations and her reputation has been ruined, as she is “on every post / Proclaimed a strumpet.” Hermione says that the oracle will settle this matter and says, “Apollo be my judge!” Cleomenes and Dion are brought in, and they swear that they have brought a sealed oracle from Delphos and have not tampered with it. An officer reads the oracle out loud, which says that Hermione is chaste, Polixenes is innocent, Camillo is “a true subject,” and Leontes is “a jealous tyrant.” It also says that Leontes will live without an heir “if that / which is lost be not found.
Knowing that she cannot persuade her husband, Hermione appeals to Apollo as an ultimate judge of truth. The oracle proclaims the truth, and exposes the unjust tyranny of Leontes, who has himself betrayed his friend Polixenes, his subject Camillo, and his wife Hermione (rather than the other way around). The oracle further reveals the impact of Leontes' rampant suspicions: the loss of his family and his legacy.
Leontes immediately discounts the oracle, saying, “There is no truth at all i’ the oracle.” Suddenly, a servant enters and announces that Mamillius, sick with worry for his mother, has died. Leontes says that Apollo must be punishing him for disregarding the oracle. Hermione faints, and Leontes calls for her to be carried off so she can recover. Paulina takes her away, worrying that she is dying. Leontes begs Apollo for pardon, and admits that he has been wrong. He pledges to “new woo” Hermione and recall Camillo to Sicilia. He admits that he has been jealous and wrong, and that Camillo is an honorable, good man.
Leontes’ commitment to false beliefs is remarkable: not even the divinely inspired oracle can persuade him. However, once Mamillius dies, and Hermione appears to be dying, his love for his wife and son takes over and he realizes the error of his ways. This kind of sudden reversal and realization is characteristic of tragedies, and underscores the grim seriousness of this first part of the play, filled with high emotions and death.
Paulina re-enters and announces that Hermione has died. She berates Leontes, calling him a tyrant, and enumerating all the evil things he has done, betraying Polixenes, Hermione, and his newborn daughter. She says that Leontes has done more wrongs than he can repent for. Leontes agrees and says to her, “thou canst not speak too much; I have deserved / All tongues to talk their bitterest.”
A nobleman rebukes Paulina for speaking too boldly to the king, and Paulina says she has “show’d too much / The rashness of a woman.” Leontes tells her that she spoke truly, though. He calls for the bodies of Mamillius and Hermione to be brought to him, planning to bury them together and visit their burial place every day to weep.
The nobleman chides Paulina for disregarding the loyalty she should show to her king. Leontes plans to spend the rest of his life in lamentation, signaling the pervasive sadness and seriousness of this part of the play.