Act I, Scene i

Synopsis of Act I, Scene i

We meet two courtiers – Camillo, from Sicilia, and Archidamus, from Bohemia, who are discussing the visit currently being made by Polixenes, King of Bohemia, to his old and dear friend Leontes, King of Sicilia. Archidamus gracefully implies that their entertainment in Sicilia has been so hospitable that it will be difficult to match it when Leontes visits Sicilia. They comment on the great affection between the two kings, who grew up together, and also remark on the wonderful qualities of Leontes' young son, Mamillius.

Commentary on Act I, Scene i

Although this scene is spoken in courtly language, full of polite compliments, it nevertheless genuinely stresses the great friendship between the two kings and their courts. However, in view of events in the next scene, it is also full of irony.

If you shall chance, Camillo, to visit Bohemia The name of Camillo, who is to be an important character, is immediately introduced to the audience. (In contrast, although the name Archidamus is given in the stage direction ‘Enter Camillo and Archidamus' in the First Folio, his name is not spoken in the scene.)

More on the actions of Camillo: The idea that Camillo may ‘chance' to visit Bohemia is ironic; later in the play he has to leave Sicilia and flee to Bohemia, when he helps Polixenes to escape. (See I. ii.)

Sicilia cannot show himself over-kind to Bohemia. Kings were often identified with their country; ‘Sicilia', or ‘Sicilia' here means Leontes, and ‘Bohemia' is Polixenes.

More on the irony of the situation: It is deeply ironic that the courtiers should be commenting on the great affection between the two kings immediately before Leontes turns against his old friend. Shakespeare is showing how sudden and irrational Leontes' jealousy is: it is in total contrast to his previous behaviour. (See: Reason and passion.)

Rooted such an affection … branch now Images of growth and nature abound in the play, especially in the second half. (See: Nature.)

The heavens continue their loves! Although they seem to ignore this prayer in the immediate future, the gods and their power over humans become very evident in the play. (See: The gods.)

I think there is not in the world either malice or matter to alter it. The fact that Leontes himself alters this affection by his groundless suspicion emphasises the irrational nature of his jealousy.

You have an unspeakable comfort of your young prince. Although by the end of the play Leontes has not only repented, but has had some of his family restored to him, Mamillius' death, caused by his father's actions, can never be put right. Shakespeare does not allow us to forget that evil has unalterable consequences.

One that, indeed, physics the subject. ‘Physics' here means ‘heals'. Mamillius is seen as having beneficial influence in the state. In all four of the Romance Plays, children are seen as representing innocence and spiritual healing. (See: Children.)

Investigating Act I, Scene i
  • Why do you think Shakespeare begins the play with this discussion?
  • Which important themes and ideas are introduced here?
  • What do we learn of Polixenes and Leontes in this scene?
  • Are these impressions borne out by what we see later?
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