The play begins in Sicilia, where king Polixenes of Bohemia is visiting his close friend Leontes, the king of Sicilia. One of Polixenes’ noblemen named Archidamus speaks with Leontes’ nobleman Camillo about Leontes’ beloved young son Mamillius and the hospitality with which Leontes has welcomed the visiting Bohemians. At Leontes’ court, Polixenes tells Leontes that he must leave and return to Bohemia. Leontes cannot convince Polixenes to extend his visit, but when Leontes’ (pregnant) wife Hermione asks Polixenes to stay, he agrees. Polixenes tells Hermione about how close he and Leontes were as children, like “twinned lambs that did frisk i’ th’ sun.” Suddenly, Leontes begins to suspect that the friendly affections traded between Hermione and Polixenes are romantic in nature. He wonders if he is even really the father of Mamillius. Polixenes and Hermione leave, and Leontes calls in Camillo. Leontes is absolutely convinced that his wife is having an affair with Polixenes, and orders Camillo to poison Polixenes. Leontes leaves, and Camillo considers his difficult position. He finally decides that he cannot kill Polixenes, even if this means disobeying his own king. Polixenes enters and Camillo eventually tells him about Leontes’ suspicion and desire to have Polixenes killed. Polixenes and Camillo plan to flee for Bohemia together. Elsewhere in Sicilia, Hermione is playing with Mamillius. Leontes enters and learns from a lord that Camillo and Polixenes have left together for Bohemia. Leontes interprets this as confirmation of Polixenes’ guilt, and he berates Hermione for being unfaithful. He suggests that Hermione is actually pregnant with Polixenes’ child. Hermione insists that she is innocent, but Leontes has her thrown in jail.
Paulina, a Sicilian noblewoman, visits Hermione in jail and learns that Hermione has given birth to a daughter. Paulina takes the child to Leontes in the hopes that the sight of the infant might soften the king, but Leontes is still convinced that his wife has cheated on him, and that both Camillo and Polixenes have conspired against him. He claims that the newborn girl is a bastard child and says both Hermione and the baby should be thrown into a fire to be executed as punishment for her infidelity. Paulina calls Leontes a tyrant, and says that the baby is clearly his. Leontes angrily tells her husband Antigonus to keep control over his wife. He orders Antigonus to take the newborn child away and abandon it in “some remote and desert place.” Meanwhile, Leontes has sent two men—Cleomenes and Dion—to Delphos to get an oracle from Apollo declaring Hermione guilty or innocent. Cleomenes and Dion now return to Sicilia, both hoping that the written oracle they have brought “seal’d up” from Delphos will prove Hermione innocent. Leontes holds a public trial for Hermione, accusing her of cheating on him and conspiring against him with Polixenes. Hermione insists that she only loved Polixenes as a friend and says that she defends herself against Leontes’ accusation not in order to save her own life, but in order to save her reputation and honor. The oracle from Delphos is read aloud and it proclaims that Hermione and Polixenes are innocent, Camillo is “a true subject,” and Leontes will live without an heir if “that / which is lost be not found.” Leontes disregards the oracle and still believes his wife to be guilty. Suddenly, a servant enters and announces that Mamillius, who has been seriously ill, has now died. Hermione faints and Paulina takes her away, worried that the troubled woman is dying. She soon returns and announces that Hermione has died. Leontes finally realizes the error of his ways, and admits that he has been wrong. He plans to bury Mamillius and Hermione together and mourn them every single day.
Antigonus and a mariner land on the coast of Bohemia, where Antigonus plans to abandon Leontes’ infant daughter. He has seen a vision of Hermione in a dream, who told him to call the child Perdita (Latin for “she who has been lost”) and leave her somewhere in Bohemia. Antigonus abandons Perdita and is chased off-stage by a bear, which mauls him to death. A shepherd enters, finds Perdita, and decides to bring her home with him. The shepherd’s son enters and says he has seen a man (Antigonus) get eaten by a bear and a ship (the one on which Antigonus traveled) get wrecked in a violent storm.
Father Time comes on stage and announces that the play will now jump forward 16 years. The shepherd has raised Perdita as his daughter in Bohemia, while Leontes continues to mourn his wife and dead children in Sicilia. At the court of Polixenes, Camillo asks the king whether he can return to Sicilia. Leontes has apologized for driving Camillo away, and Camillo wants to return to his homeland. Not wanting to forgive Leontes, Polixenes refuses to allow Camillo to go to Sicilia. He asks Camillo if he has seen his son Florizell recently, who has spending much time at a shepherd’s cottage. He asks Camillo to accompany him to this cottage in disguise, so they can figure out what the prince is up to. Out in the countryside, a trickster named Autolycus sees the shepherd’s son walking along, preparing to buy things for an upcoming sheep-shearing festival. Autolycus shouts out in pain and pretends that he has been robbed by someone named Autolycus. The shepherd’s son takes pity on him and offers him money. Autolycus declines, but steals his wallet. At the sheep-shearing festival, a great number of shepherds are all dressed up in costumes. Florizell is in attendance, dressed as a shepherd named “Doricles,” as are Camillo and Polixenes, described as herdsmen. Everyone celebrates the festival with garlands of flowers, songs, and dancing. Polixenes learns from the shepherd who adopted Perdita that Perdita and “Doricles” are love. Autolycus arrives at the festival and sells little trinkets (while also picking people’s pockets). Polixenes approaches Florizell in disguise and asks him about Perdita. He learns that Florizell plans to marry Perdita without his father’s approval, and Polixenes reveals who he really is. He effectively disowns Florizell, says that the shepherd will be killed, and threatens to have Perdita’s face “scratched with briars.” Polixenes leaves, and Camillo advises Florizell to flee his angry father and go to Sicilia, hoping that Polixenes will follow Florizell there and he will have an opportunity to go back to his homeland. Florizell exchanges clothes with Autolycus, so as not to be recognized, and leaves with Perdita to find a ship to go to Sicilia. Meanwhile, the shepherd and his son think that the only way to save their own lives is to tell Polixenes that Perdita is not really the shepherd’s daughter (so that her behavior is not his fault). Autolycus pretends to be a nobleman (since he is now wearing the prince Florizell’s clothes), and says he will take them to the king. In actuality, he sneakily plans to lead them to Florizell.
At Leontes’ court in Sicilia, Cleomenes and Dion attempt to persuade him that he has repented enough for Hermione’s death and should remarry. Paulina, though, insists that he cannot possibly repent for the wrong he did his wife, and should not remarry. Leontes promises not to marry anyone without Paulina’s approval. A servant enters and announces that Polixenes’ son Florizell has come from Bohemia along with “his princess.” Florizell enters and pretends that he and Perdita are married, and that he has come to Sicilia by the order of Polixenes. Just then, a lord enters and says that Polixenes is in Sicilia, seeking his son, who has fled Bohemia with a shepherd’s daughter. Florizell admits that this is the truth, and asks for Leontes’ help. Leontes agrees to plead on Florizell’s behalf to Polixenes. Elsewhere in Sicilia, Autolycus learns from several gentlemen, that Leontes, Polixenes, the shepherd and his son, Florizell, and Perdita all met in Leontes’ court. There, the shepherd revealed the bundle in which he originally found Perdita. This bundle had Hermione’s mantle in it, as well as a letter from Antigonus, proving Perdita to be Leontes’ long-lost daughter. Everyone rejoiced, although the shepherd’s son also announced that Antigonus was killed by a bear, so Paulina found herself divided between joy for the return of Perdita and sadness at the death of her husband. After settling these matters, everyone decided to go to Paulina’s house to visit a statue of Hermione. After the gentlemen from whom Autolycus learns all of this leave, the shepherd and his son enter, both dressed in noble clothes. Autolycus asks the shepherd’s son to give him “good report to the Prince,” and the shepherd’s son promises to vouch for him if he should promise to be an honest man. Autolycus promises to be honest and good.
Leontes, Polixenes, Florizell, Perdita, Camillo, and Paulina all go together to see the statue of Hermione. Paulina reveals the statue, and Leontes is stunned at how lifelike it is. He even thinks that it seems to have aged appropriately in the sixteen years since it was made after Hermione’s death. Leontes is greatly moved by the sight of the statue, and thinks that it appears to breathe and have veins carrying actual blood. Paulina tells everyone to prepare “for more amazement,” and says that she can make the statue move. She calls out for the statue to awake, and it starts to move. Paulina tells everyone not to be afraid, and assures them her spell is “lawful.” The now living Hermione embraces Leontes and is happy to see her daughter Perdita. Paulina encourages everyone to go somewhere to rejoice at their good fortune, while she laments the death of Antigonus. Leontes tells her not to be sad, and suggests that she marry Camillo, who he now knows is an honest, good man. He suggests that she join them all as they go to tell each other about what each person has done in the sixteen years since Hermione’s supposed death, and everyone leaves the stage together.