Act I, Scene ii

Synopsis of Act I, Scene ii

Polixenes tells Leontes that it is time for him to return to Bohemia. Leontes begs him, unsuccessfully, to stay longer. Leontes then asks his queen, Hermione, to add her voice to his persuasion. She playfully teases and cajoles Polixenes, and eventually he agrees to stay – but Leontes is immediately and wildly jealous. Why, he asks himself, would Polixenes stay at Hermione's request and not his own? Can it be that she has been having an affair with Polixenes? Leontes even starts to wonder whether Mamillius is his own son.

Leontes then seems to overcome his fit of jealousy, and talks to Polixenes about the young Bohemian prince; Polixenes describes how much he loves his son. Leontes urges Hermione to treat Polixenes with love and kindness – but when she goes out into the garden with him, Leontes' jealousy breaks out again, more strongly even than before.

Leontes speaks to Camillo, who has been present throughout the scene. Leontes tells Camillo of his suspicions about Hermione and Polixenes. Camillo is shocked, and speaks up for Hermione, telling the king how wrong he is. He is even more shocked when Leontes asks him to poison Polixenes, threatening Camillo with death if he refuses. To calm the king's immediate anger, Camillo agrees, but later tells Polixenes of Leontes' unfounded suspicions and of his evil intentions. Since Camillo has charge of the palace keys, he arranges to help Polixenes to escape, and to go with him to safety in Bohemia.

Commentary on Act I, Scene ii

Nine changes of the watery star The ‘watery star' is the moon; nine months have passed since Polixenes arrived in Sicilia. Later, we discover that Hermione is in an advanced state of pregnancy; Shakespeare is showing that the length of Polixenes' stay makes it physically possible for him to be the father.

Hath been / The shepherd's note There is no need for Polixenes to say that shepherds have counted the changes of the moon; but there is a reason for Shakespeare to do so - the simple, innocent world of the shepherds is to make a strong contrast in the second half of the play with the atmosphere of Leontes' court created by the end of this scene. Shakespeare is already preparing us for this contrast – as he has already done by introducing growth and nature imagery in scene i. (See: Nature; Birth and growth; and The Pastoral tradition.)

Time as long again There have already been several references in the play to time passing. The significance of time becomes more and more apparent, culminating in the actual appearance of Time as a character in Act IV scene i. (See: Time.)

What may chance / Or breed upon our absence Polixenes is anxious about what may be happening in Bohemia while he is away. However, the choice of the word ‘breed' starts a number of images of birth picked up later by Leontes. (See: Birth and growth.)

Our absence … to make us say Polixenes may be referring to all his courtiers by the use of ‘our' and ‘us', but it is more likely that he is using the royal plural. (See: The royal plural.)

To tell, he longs to see his son, were strong This is the first time we have heard about Polixenes' son, Florizel, who is to feature as an important character in the second half of the play. Hermione's point, that longing to see his son would be a good reason for Polixenes' going, introduces the theme of parent/child relationships which is to be of central significance. (See: Parents and children.)

I love thee not a jar o'th' clock behind / What lady she her lord. Shakespeare stresses Hermione's deep and genuine love for Leontes before we see her starting her playful persuasion of Polixenes.

Force me to keep you as a prisoner Hermione is joking with Polixenes – it is horribly ironic that she will soon herself be kept as a prisoner by her own husband.

Two lads that thought there was no more behind / But …to be boy eternal (‘Behind' here means ‘still to come'.) Polixenes stresses the youthful innocence of himself and Leontes when they were boys. Children as representative of innocence feature in all the Romance Plays (see the end of scene i.) (See: Children.)

Twin lambs, photo by Sudorculus, available through Creative CommonsWe were as twinn'd lambs that did frisk in the sun Lambs are often used as symbols of innocence, especially in the Bible. In The Winter's Tale, they are representative of the innocent pastoral world of the shepherds in which Perdita grows up (see Act IV). (See: The pastoral tradition.)

We knew not / The doctrine of ill-doing … / We should have answer'd heaven / Boldly ‘not guilty', the imposition clear'd / Hereditary ours Polixenes is referring to the concept of original sin – the belief that since the Fall of Adam and Eve into sin in the Garden of Eden, all humans beings have a propensity to sin. Polixenes means that, apart from this inevitable blemish, he and Leontes as boys were free from evil, and could have stood innocent before God at the Last Judgement. (See: Sin and innocence.)

At my request he would not This is perhaps the first note of suspicion – though he speaks lovingly in the next line.

What! Have I twice said well? … / Cram's with praise Hermione's playful conversation and her gentle teasing of Leontes establish her nature for the audience; she is clearly a loving, innocent and good-humoured wife. Leontes' jealousy is therefore seen as all the more outrageous and, indeed, inexplicable.

O would her name were Grace! Polixenes has seemed to imply that women have led them into temptation; Leontes has said that she spoke once before to ‘better purpose'. Hermione playfully says that she hopes it was the opposite of temptation – an act of grace. The idea of grace – especially in its meaning of ‘the love and forgiveness of God' or ‘an act of divine influence'– is an important concept in the play. (See: Spiritual re-creation.)

‘Tis Grace indeed Hermione acknowledges that her love of and acceptance of Leontes as her husband was indeed an act of goodness. These passages appear to refer to the medieval and Catholic idea of marriage as a sacrament, ie. ‘a means of grace'; this has a particular significance for the ending of the play in multiple marriages.

Too hot, too hot! In immediate and totally irrational contrast to Hermione's loving words to him, Leontes suddenly grows suspicious when Hermione takes Polixenes' hand. In this soliloquy, he expresses his passionate fears.

Paddling palms and pinching fingers The alliteration of the plosive ‘p' sounds immediately suggests to the audience how Leontes spits out these words in passionate – though at the moment suppressed – violence.

Nor my brows Traditionally, a cuckold – that is, a betrayed husband – would grow horns on his forehead. Hence the unfortunate nature of Hermione's later comment to Leontes that he seems to have ‘a brow of much distraction'.

They say it is a copy out of mine Leontes wishes to reassure himself that Mamillius is really his son. This implies that he is beginning to wonder whether Hermione has had earlier affairs.Cattle with horns, photo by Roland zh, available through Creative Commons

We must be neat As ‘neat' could mean ‘cattle' as well as ‘tidy', and as Leontes is starting to think about the horns of a cuckold, he corrects his choice of word.

How now, you wanton calf! Art thou my calf? Leontes here addressed Mamillius as both ‘you' and ‘thou'. ‘You' is the more formal term when used to a single person. ‘Thou' and ‘thee' would be used to a child, or to a close friend – or to a social inferior. So it may be that the use of ‘thou' here shows Leontes changing to a more affection tone. Hermione addresses Leontes as ‘you' because he is the king. Leontes and Polixenes each address the other as ‘you' because both are of high rank. In this scene, Leontes usually addresses Hermione as ‘thou', indicating their close relationship. (see: Thee, thou and you.)

Can thy dam? May't be? … How can this be? The speech is full of fits and starts, and self-questioning. Leontes appears to be thinking the situation through, and he feels he is coming to logical conclusions, but in reality he is convincing himself of his own poisonous Cuckoldfantasies.

Hardening of my brows… A brow of much distraction Unfortunately Hermione chooses to comment on Leontes' worried ‘brow' just as he has convinced himself that he is a cuckold.

He's all my exercise, my mirth, my matter Polixenes' love of his son is stressed here, but in Act IV we see that it is, like Leontes' love of Hermione, liable to show itself as possessive and violent. The relationship between parents and children is an important issue in the play. (See: Parents and children; Children.)

Cures in me / Thoughts that would thick my blood The innocence of Florizel, as with Mamillius in Act I scene i, is described as having a healing influence. (See: Disease and healing.)

How thou lov'st us, show in our brother's welcome Leontes apparently urges Hermione to treat Polixenes with all kindness – but objects when she does so. (Leontes here uses the royal plural to speak of himself.)

O'er head and ears a fork'd one The ‘fork' refers to the horns of the cuckold which Leontes is now convinced he has become.

Go play... thy mother plays, and I / Play too There are various meanings of ‘play' here; Leontes tells Mamillius to amuse himself; he comments that Hermione is flirting; and he sees himself as having to pretend to be friendly towards Polixenes. (See: Language in action; The plays and playing.)

So disgrac'd a part Leontes means that Hermione has behaved disgracefully, but in fact this is an unintentional pun on his part. It is he who is dis-graced – that is, lacking grace – which will only be restored when he has fully repented. (See: Language in action; Spiritual re-creation.)

Sluic'd and his pond fish'd The unpleasant, onomatopoeic sound of ‘sluic'd' reflects the crude nature of Leontes' perverted imaginings here.

Physic for't there's none … have the disease ‘The disease' that Leontes means is the faithlessness of women; but in reality the disease is his own jealousy. Although Leontes says that there is no remedy (no ‘physic'), the healing power of innocence represented by children has already been suggested earlier in the play. (See: Disease and healing; Children.)

He would not stay at your petition Ironically, Camillo by his innocent observation inflames the situation; Leontes thinks that his wife's behaviour is already the subject of court gossip.

‘Good' should be pertinent Camillo spontaneously refers to Hermione as good – an epithet which Leontes rejects. Later, in Act II scene iii, Paulina repeatedly and insistently refers to Hermione as ‘the good queen', insisting on her innocence.

Satisfy? Camillo uses the word innocently, meaning that Polixenes has agreed to Hermione's request. But Leontes seems to read a sexual connotation into the word.

Most gracious mistress The association of the word ‘grace' with Hermione is significant. She comes to represent the divine grace, or undeserved forgiveness, which Leontes later needs so urgently. (See: Spiritual re-creation.)

My chamber-counsels, wherein, priest-like, thou / Hast cleans'd my bosom Leontes has trusted Camillo implicitly, and has spoken to him in confidence as he would to a priest in confession.

Is whispering nothing? Is leaning cheek to cheek? … If this be nothing This series of sharp questions, culminating in a series of ‘nothing', reflects Leontes' mounting passion of totally irrational jealousy.

All eyes blind … but theirs This is ironic: it is Leontes who is in fact blind to the truth – that his wife and Polixenes are innocent.

Good my lord, be cur'd / Of this diseased opinion Another image of disease and the necessity of healing. (See: Disease and healing.)

If I had servants ... that bare eyes / To see (Bare means ‘carried', or ‘had') Again, Leontes thinks he alone sees the truth.

Without ripe moving to't? Would I do this? A terrible irony – Leontes is indeed acting without any motive except his own insane jealousy.

To give mine enemy a lasting wink In asking the honest and faithful Camillo to poison Polixenes, Leontes shows the depths of his own depravity.

I'll give no blemish to her honour, none In fact, once Camillo escapes with Polixenes, Leontes openly accuses Hermione of being unfaithful, and has her imprisoned.

A master … in rebellion with himself Shakespeare frequently uses the image that a man is like a kingdom; the head is the ruler, and the passions those who need ruling. Here, Camillo sees that Leontes' passions are rising up and over-ruling his reason. (See also: The nature of humanity.)

Guy FawkesHad struck anointed kings The idea that those who strike anointed kings will perish would be a particularly apt comment for Shakespeare's audience, who knew the fate of those who had tried to kill King James I in the Gunpowder Plot. (See: Divine right of kings.)

There is a sickness As earlier in the scene, jealousy is depicted as a virulent disease which infects those who come near. (See: Disease and healing.)

You have touch'd his queen / Forbiddenly. ‘Forbiddenly' comes at the end of Camillo's words, hanging in the air and so striking the audience– as well as Polixenes – most forcibly.

My name / Be yok'd with his that did betray the Best! Polixenes here refers to Judas Iscariot who, as recounted in the Gospels of the New Testament, betrayed Jesus Christ – ‘the Best'. See, for example, Mark 14:43-46.

Avoid what's grown than question how ‘tis born Here, growth imagery refers to Leontes' unnatural jealousy, but for much of the play, especially in the second half, growth is associated with nature and regeneration. (See Themes and significant ideas: Nature; and Birth and growth.)

The gracious queen Again the term ‘grace' is associated with Hermione. (See: Spiritual re-creation.)

Investigating Act I, Scene ii

This is a very long and important scene. So much happens in it that will affect the rest of the play.

  • Go through Act 1 sc 2, noting where there are changes of mood and turning-points in the action
  • Start making a list of all the references in the play to disease and healing
  • Start making a list of all the references in the play to grace
  • Shakespeare's play Othello also depicts a man suffering from extreme and irrational jealousy; it is worth comparing the two.
    • Compare the breakdown in Othello's language as he is manipulated by Iago into violent jealousy, especially in Act IV scene 1.
    • Compare the innocence, and the devoted love for their husbands, of Desdemona (Othello's wife) and Hermione
    • Compare images of eyesight – like Leontes, Othello thinks he has the ‘ocular proof', the visible evidence, of his wife's infidelity
    • Contrast the self-induced jealousy of Leontes with the way Othello is tricked by Iago.

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