At the court of Leontes in Sicilia, Cleomenes tells the king that he has “performed / A saintlike sorrow,” has repented enough for causing Hermione’s death, and should now remarry. Leontes is not sure that he can, and Paulina agrees that it would be disrespectful to Hermione’s memory to do so. Dion tells the king that his not being married and not having an heir is dangerous for Sicilia. Paulina says that there’s no one worthy to replace Hermione, and that the oracle from Apollo is being fulfilled, and Leontes will not have an heir “till his lost child be found.”
From the humor and levity of the sheep-shearing festival, the play now jumps to Leontes’ court, which is still dominated by mourning for Hermione and Leontes' lost (and dead) children. Cleomenes and Dion think that enough time has passed since Hermione’s death and that Leontes has shown enough sadness. He is not persuaded by them, though, and instead listens to Paulina, whom he earlier ignored completely.
Leontes tells Paulina that he wishes he had taken her advice so long ago, so that Hermione would not have died. He resolves not to remarry, and says that if he remarried, the ghost of Hermione would come back to him and make him “murder her I married.” He swears to Paulina that he will not marry anyone unless he has her permission. She says she will not Leontes marry until his “first queen’s again in breath.”
Leontes is persuaded by Paulina and agrees not to remarry, choosing to honor his love for his late wife by not trying to replace her. He sees the idea of remarrying as a kind of betrayal of Hermione (who he already betrayed once through his unfounded suspicions).
A servant enters and announces that Polixenes’ son Florizell has arrived with “his princess.” Leontes wonders what has made them come to Sicilia without any prior notice. The servant says that the princess is the most beautiful person he has ever seen. Paulina chides the servant for forgetting the beauty of Hermione and the servant apologizes but insists on the beauty of Florizell’s princess. Paulina says that is a shame Mamillius is not still alive, as he would have “paired well” with Florizell, who is the same age as Mamillius would have been.
Florizell lies to Leontes, but his dishonesty does not have serious consequences. Paulina is fixated on the past, thinking of both Hermione and Mamillius. The comparison of Perdita and Hermione’s beauty is ironic, because Perdita is actually Hermione’s own daughter. By coming to Sicilia, Perdita has unwittingly returned to her rightful, natural place in Sicilia and Leontes’ home.
Florizell and Perdita enter, and Leontes remarks on how Florizell looks exactly like a young version of Polixenes. He welcomes Florizell, and Florizell says that he has come to Sicilia by the command of Polixenes. He says that Polixenes wanted to come see Leontes, but is too infirm to travel. He refers to Perdita as his wife and says that she is from Libya.
Leontes is able to see a young Polixenes again in Florizell, showing how having children can be a way of overcoming the inevitable process of aging. Florizell continues to lie, though he has been forced to by the dire situation his father has put him in.
Leontes tells Florizell he has “a holy father,” against whom Leontes has “done sin.” He wishes he still had his son and daughter, “such goodly things” as Florizell and Perdita. Just then, a lord enters and says that Polixenes is in Sicilia, chasing after his son who has fled with a shepherd’s daughter. Camillo is with him, and on their way to the king’s court, they have found Perdita’s father (the shepherd) and the shepherd’s son, whom they threaten with death.
Leontes laments his former mistreatment of Polixenes, and extends friendship and hospitality to his old friend’s son partially as an attempt to make up for his earlier unjust actions. Meanwhile, it is now Polixenes who is behaving cruelly and unjustly, as he threatens to kill the shepherd.
Florizell admits to Leontes that he and Perdita are not married and not “like to be.” Looking at Perdita, Leontes asks if she is the daughter of a king. Florizell says she only will be when she marries him. Florizell asks Leontes to be his “advocate,” and argue on his behalf to Polixenes. Leontes agrees to try to persuade Polixenes for Florizell, and they leave to find Polixenes.
Even though she has been brought up as a shepherd’s daughter, Perdita’s natural status as a princess shows through her behavior. Whereas Leontes failed Polixenes as a friend, he now seizes the opportunity to be a good friend to Polixenes’ son and advocate on Florizell’s behalf.