Leontes is the most difficult character to define, since he abruptly changes at various points during the course of the drama. However, it is the fact of his changing – his repentance and his willingness to accept his guilt and need for forgiveness and redemption – which is central to the play. (See: Spiritual re-creation.)

Leontes' sudden jealousy

On his first appearance, (Act I scene ii), we meet a king who is generous to his friend and loving to his wife, with whom he exchanges affectionate comments, reminding her of their courtship. But then suddenly there is a change, as with no apparent motive, he interprets Hermione's banter with Polixenes as evidence of a sexual liaison between them. His aside: ‘Too hot, too hot!' marks the beginning of an inexplicable jealousy.

Shakespeare obviously intends his audience to see this as beyond reason and explanation, since he shows how Leontes' courtiers describe it in terms of disease and madness. (See also: Disease and healing.)

  • Camillo tells Polixenes (in Iii.):
‘There is a sickness
Which puts some of us in distemper, but
I cannot name the disease, and it is caught
Of you, that yet are well.'
  • Paulina too sees Leontes' irrational behaviour as like a disease, telling his servants (in Act II, sc iii):
‘I Do come with words as medicinal as true,
Honest, as either, to purge him of that humour
That presses him from sleep.'

Leontes' changed language

Shakespeare also makes us aware of the sudden change in Leontes by the abrupt alteration in the style of his language.

  • At first, Leontes says little; when he does speak more than a few words, it is in smooth blank verse:
‘Why, that was when
Three crabbed months had sour'd themselves to death,
Ere I could make thee open thy white hand,
And clap thyself my love; then didst thou utter
‘I am yours for ever.' '
  • Within a few lines his speech becomes voluble and staccato, with many mid-line pauses (caesuras) and much harsher sounds, including alliteration on the plosive ‘p' sounds as he describes Hermione and Polixenes as ‘paddling palms and pinching fingers'. (See also Variations from the norm.) Shakespeare also indicates the coarseness of Leontes' thoughts about Hermione, by employing particularly vulgar imagery; for example the the word 'sluiced' implies Hermione's apparent lack of chastity.

Leontes' rage and tyranny

Throughout Acts I and II, Leontes' speech becomes wilder as his jealous rage becomes stronger. He misuses his kingly power to threaten and to intimidate his courtiers. Like many tyrants, he believes he is the only one to see the truth, accusing Camillo (in Iii.) of treachery and Antigonus (in Act II, sc i) of senility:

‘Either thou art most ignorant by age,
Or thou wert born a fool.'

Ironically, at his wildest he declares that

‘in an act of this importance ‘twere
Most piteous to be wild'

and sends two of his servants to Apollo's Oracle – whose truth he then rejects (Act III, sc ii).

Leontes' penitence

This act of hubris and blasphemy, resulting in the death of his son and the apparent death of his wife, brings about another instant change in Leontes:

‘I have too much believ'd mine own suspicion….
Apollo, pardon
My great profaneness ‘gainst thine Oracle!
I'll reconcile me to Polixenes,
New woo my queen, recall the good Camillo'

We then do not see Leontes for sixteen years. When we meet him again (in Act V, sc i) we find that this change, to a guilt-ridden and penitent man, has continued. Cleomenes (one of the courtiers sent to Apollo's oracle earlier in the play) begins Act V by telling the king:

‘Sir, you have done enough, and have perform'd
A saint-like sorrow: no fault could you make,
Which you have not redeeem'd…'

Leontes' acceptance of grace

The final change in Leontes comes with the realisation that, although he has been responsible for the death of his son Mamillius, his wife and daughter have been restored to him, and he has been forgiven. In the last moments of the play he accepts the grace that has been given to him, asks pardon of both Hermione and Polixenes, and, in an act of symbolic harmony, unites Paulina and Camillo.

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