Act II, Scene i

Synopsis of Act II, Scene i

Trial of Hermoine by the Propella Theatre CompanyHermione, heavily pregnant, is with her son, Mamillius, and her ladies-in-waiting, when Leontes arrives – just as he is hears the news that Camillo has fled with Polixenes. Leontes assumes that this proves the guilt of Polixenes and Hermione, and that Camillo was complicit. Leontes directly and publicly accuses Hermione of adultery with Polixenes, and, in spite of her protestations of innocence, has her taken away to prison.

Various Sicilian lords try to plead for the queen, and one of them, Antigonus, is particularly vocal in trying to get Leontes to see his mistake. Leontes insists he is right, but says that in any case he has sent two of his men, Cleomenes and Dion, to the Oracle of the god Apollo at Delphi to learn the truth.

Commentary on Act II, Scene i

Take the boy to you: he so troubles me Although this sounds peevish, it is clear from the following lines that the tone of the scene until Leontes' entrance is one of gentle family intimacy between the boy, his mother and her ladies. Hermione's apparent annoyance in this line merely establishes her physical tiredness and discomfort in advanced pregnancy: her condition makes Leontes' actions even more appalling for the courtiers - and for the audience.

You'll kiss me hard and speak to me as if / I were a baby still Shakespeare has already started to sketch out the character of Mamillius in the previous scene. This comment, so typical of a young boy, adds to the audience's sense of his credibility as a character, so that he is memorable even though he is never seen again after the first section of this scene.

A sad tale's best for winter This line, which also gives the title of the play, indicates that this scene takes place in winter, whereas the scenes in Bohemia in Act IV take place in spring. This may suggest that, just as winter comes before spring, so grief and suffering may have to be experienced before there can be regeneration. (See: Birth and growth.)

Come on then, and give't in mine ear The audience's last picture of mother and son together is one of close, happy and trusting intimacy – very soon to be destroyed by Leontes.

SpiderI have drunk, and seen the spider Spiders were believed to poison the drinker if he was aware of its presence. The idea of being poisoned is ironic, since Leontes has poisoned his own mind with irrational passion. The image also reminds the audience that Leontes had treacherously wanted Camillo, acting as Polixenes' cup-bearer, to poison his drink.

Bear the boy hence Although the audience does not realise it at this point, Mamillius will never be seen again; he soon dies, heart-broken at his mother's disgrace. Even though Leontes repents, he can never completely undo the evil results of his sinful actions.

You, my lord, / Do but mistake Hermione retains her dignity. She will not scream or rage, nor does she forget her husband's position as king, but she does very strongly and steadily insist on her innocence. He, on the other hand, abuses her and publicly denounces her.

You have mistook A harsh pun, as he accuses her of taking the wrong man.

You scarce can right me thoroughly, then, to say / You did mistake Hermione is right; Leontes' jealous rage results in the death of his son and the loss of his wife and daughter for sixteen years. He will have to suffer for his sins and prove himself truly penitent before they are restored. (See: Spiritual re-creation.)

I must be patient till the heavens look / With an aspect more favourable Hermione's acceptance of her suffering is a sign of her spiritual grace and is in stark contrast to Leontes' wild and irrational jealousy. The word ‘patient' comes from the Latin for ‘to suffer'.

I have that honourable grief lodg'd here Hermione's sense of honour – her moral innocence and integrity - is very important to her. It is the keynote of her speech when she is put on trial (Act II scene ii).

This action I now go on / Is for my better grace Hermione sees her suffering, although undeserved, as bringing potential spiritual reward. (See: Spiritual re-creation.)

It is for you we speak, not for ourselves Antigonus, like Camillo, is a loyal servant and one who will not flatter Leontes by agreeing with him when he is in the wrong.

You are abus'd and by some putter-on Ironic; Antigonus thinks Leontes must have been deceived into suspecting his queen, but the real ‘villain' is the king himself.

That will be damn'd for't Antigonus speaks more truly than he knows; Leontes will have to undergo long penance for his sins against his wife, children and courtiers. (See: Spiritual re-creation.)

What need we / Commune with you. Our prerogative / Calls not your counsels Leontes uses the royal plural to stress his superiority and his complete power; he does not need to consult anyone else. (See: The royal plural.) (See: Divine right of kings)

In an act of this importance, ‘twere / Most piteous to be wild Deeply ironic, since Leontes' jealousy is totally ‘wild'.

I have dispatch'd in post / To sacred Delphos, to Apollo's temple (‘In post' means ‘in haste'.) Leontes' appeal to Apollo is made after he has already decided the case i.e. he is already usurping the role of the gods even before his rejection of the oracle when it arrives. Although there have been explicit references to the Bible and to Christianity earlier in the play (e.g. the discussion of original sin and of Judas Iscariot's betrayal of Christ in Act I scene ii), Shakespeare blends these with the presence of many references to pagan gods in the play. Both Christian and pagan references suggest the presence and the power of divine forces in human life. (See: The higher powers.)

Investigating Act II, Scene i
  • Look back over Act I scene 2 and this scene – the two scenes in which Mamillius appears. What character has Shakespeare established for him?
    • Why is it important for the audience to remember him with affection, and as an innocent?
  • Read again the speeches of Leontes and Hermione, from Leontes' ‘You my lords, Look on her' to Hermione's exit. How do Shakespeare's language choices reflect Leontes' violence and Hermione's dignity?
  • Antigonus is to have a crucial, though unwilling, role in the outcome of events. What do you make of his character in this scene?
    • How does Shakespeare present him, and by what means?
    • Consider how an actor might portray him.
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