Act II, Scene iii

Synopsis of Act II, Scene iii

Leontes, in soliloquy, is brooding over his imagined wrongs; he feels that he would be easier in his mind if Hermione were dead. A servant brings news of Mamillius, who is ill, distressed at his mother's disgrace. Leontes would like to take revenge on Polixenes, but feels that the King of Bohemia is too powerful a ruler to make this possible. However, Leontes can take revenge on Hermione.

Leontes and PerditaAt this moment, Paulina enters with the baby. Leontes is furious, and angry with her husband Antigonus, who, Leontes says, should have controlled her. Paulina insists that her task is to tell the king the truth, and in doing so she will do him good. He tells her to go, taking the child with her, but Paulina will not let herself be forced out. She points out to Leontes how much the baby resembles him. He threatens to have her burnt at the stake, but none of his threats deters her. As she goes, she leaves the baby, telling Leontes to look after it. He, however, says he will have it burnt, but in response to appeals by his lords he decides on another course of action, equally cruel: Antigonus must take the child to some remote place, out of Sicilia, and there abandon it. Antigonus reluctantly agrees.

A servant then enters to tell Leontes that the ambassadors he sent to the Oracle of Apollo have returned. Leontes is pleased; he says Hermione shall have a fair trial – but he assumes that she is guilty and he will condemn her to death.

Commentary on Act II, Scene iii

If / The cause were not in being … / Given to the fire For the first time Leontes thinks of killing Hermione - having her burnt at the stake for treason: as king, he has such absolute power.

How does the boy? The audience now learns that Mamillius is ill; Leontes blames Hermione for this, but it is his own irrational accusation which is the cause.

Nor / Shall she, within my power. Enter Paulina [carrying a baby] Shakespeare juxtaposes the climax of Leontes' jealous determination to have vengeance with Paulina's entrance; the playwright shows that she could not choose a worse moment.

A gracious innocent soul As in previous references to Hermione, especially in Act II, sc ii, the description of Hermione as innocent and gracious is much more than conventional politeness: she represents a spiritual purity which Leontes, in his mad jealousy, rejects.

I / Do come with words as medicinal as true … to purge him Leontes' jealous passion is a kind of disease; an acceptance of truth is part of the healing process which Paulina offers. (See: Disease and healing.)

I knew she would Paulina's outspoken nature and her forceful character are obviously well known at court.

When she will take the rein I let her run; / But she'll not stumble Antigonus knows that his wife likes to have her own way – but he also knows that she is honest and morally upright, and will choose the right course.

Your most loyal servant, your physician Again, Paulina says that in offering truth she is bringing healing. (See: Disease and healing.)

I come from your good queen ... / Good queen, my lord, good queen: I say good queen … the good queen (for she is good) Paulina's determined repetition leaves no doubt as to her opinion; she forcefully overrides Leontes' suggestion that the term ‘good' is inappropriate.

Witch … bawd … bastard … crone ... callat … brat … hag … lozel Leontes' scurrilous and abusive language reflects the corruption which has overtaken his mind.

And thou, good goddess Nature, which hast made / So like to him that got it The child has inherited the father's looks: the different roles of nature and nurture (i.e. upbringing) are examined in some depth in the play, especially in Act IV scene iv. (See: Ideas of nature.)

Look to your babe ... Jove send her / A better guiding spirit Although Paulina has no knowledge of this, we see later that the heavens – for example Apollo, through his Oracle, seem to have a care of the child.

This purpose, / Which being so horrible, so bloody, must / Lead on to some foul issue. We all kneel Shakespeare makes it abundantly clear that Leontes alone must bear the guilt of his action; all his courtiers warn him against it.

I'll pawn the little blood which I have left / To save the innocent Yet again the child as representative of innocence is stressed. Antigonus' words are truer than he knows; he does save the child, but loses his life.

Not only be death to thyself, but to / Thy lewd-tongu'd wife During this scene Leontes has threatened death to his own wife, his daughter, Antigonus, and now to Paulina too. He is indeed behaving like the tyrant that Paulina has called him earlier in the scene.

Poor thing, condemn'd to loss! A play on the name by which the child will be known: Perdita, which means ‘the lost one'.

The great Apollo suddenly will have / The truth of this appear Ironic; Leontes assumes the truth will prove that Hermione is a ‘most disloyal lady'. In fact, the Oracle does the opposite, and condemns Leontes.

Investigating Act II, Scene iii


  • Shakespeare uses juxtaposition to great effect in the structure of the scene. Look at the arrival of Paulina and of the news of Cleomenes and Dion
    • How do these change the mood and the course of the action?
    • Begin to make a list of other significant moments of juxtaposition in the structure of the play (See also The structure of the play: Juxtaposition.)
  • Make a list of key words used by Paulina in this scene (e.g. honour, honest, good, innocent)
    • Compare them with Leontes' violent and abusive vocabulary.


Related material
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.