Act III, Scene ii

Synopsis of Act III, Scene ii

The trial of Hermione begins, with Leontes (her only accuser) as her judge. However, he insists he is not being tyrannous, and will give her a fair trial. Hermione is brought in, and the formal accusation claims that she is guilty of treason as she has committed adultery with Polixenes, has plotted with Camillo to kill Leontes, and has helped them both to escape.

Hermione, speaking in a measured but firm way, points out that she can only deny the accusation, but that, since her words have already been disbelieved, this will hardly help her. However, she trusts in heaven to show her innocence. She reminds Leontes of her blameless past life, and of the disgrace she now suffers. She is not, she insists, concerned to save her life, but to defend her honour. She goes on to point out that it was Leontes himself who asked her to behave hospitably towards Polixenes, and she insists that Camillo was an honest man; she has no idea why he left the court.

Leontes insists that her daughter is Polixenes' child, and he tells her that the baby has been abandoned and left to die. He also threatens Hermione with death, but she retorts that she has no wish to live, having lost her husband's love, being denied access to her son, knowing that her new-born child has been killed, and herself being publicly disgraced. She repeats, however, that her honour is precious to her, and she calls on the Oracle of Apollo to judge her.

The message from the Oracle is read out. It completely vindicates Hermione and condemns Leontes. It also insists that the king will have no heir if the abandoned baby is not found. Leontes denies the truth of the Oracle, but this blasphemy is immediately proved false, as news is brought of the death of Mamillius; Leontes now has no heir. Hermione faints at the news, and is carried out. Leontes now acknowledges his guilt, and confesses to his courtiers that he tried to get the honourable Camillo to poison Polixenes.

At this moment Paulina enters, clearly in great distress and anger. She turns on Leontes, accusing him of a catalogue of tyrannical actions in his treatment of Polixenes, Camillo, Mamillius, and the new baby - but worst of all is that Hermione has now died of grief. She tells Leontes that nothing he can do will make the gods forgive him. However, when Leontes accepts her attack, and acknowledges his guilt, she asks forgiveness for her words even though her husband Antigonus has been lost during his mission to expose the new baby on a foreign shore.

However, Leontes tells her she has done right to speak the truth. He will publicly acknowledge his shameful deeds and their consequences, and will perform daily acts of penance.

Commentary on Act III, Scene ii

Let us be clear'd /Of being tyrannous Ironic, since the audience (and Leontes' court) all recognise that he is behaving tyrannically and unjustly – as the Oracle is later to declare. Leontes here uses the ‘royal plural' to stress his position. (See: The royal plural.)

Since what I am to say… The carefully organised syntax and measured tone of Hermione's speech reflect her dignity and sense of honour -and contrast strongly with Leontes' furious outbursts in the previous Acts.

If powers divine/ Behold our human actions (as they do) Hermione's firm faith in the power of the gods over human life is in marked contrast to Leontes' arrogant and egotistical pride (see hubris).

To prate and talk for life and honour … : for honour / ‘Tis a derivative from me to mine Hermione's insists on the importance of her honour - her moral uprightness and reputation - which affects not only her, but also her children. Not only does she use the word ‘honour' three times in this speech, but many other words of similar meaning which stress her consciousness of her blameless life, such as ‘innocence', ‘patience' ‘continent', ‘chaste', ‘true', ‘merited'.

I was in your grace ‘Grace' here means ‘favour', but the use of the word reminds the audience of its spiritual meaning, used widely throughout the play and associated with the idea Young boys playingof divine forgiveness.

Whose love had spoke … from an infant / That it was yours The boyhood friendship of Polixenes and Leontes, and their childhood innocence, was stressed in Act I.

Camillo was an honest man; / And why he left your court … Ironic, since Leontes (and the audience) knows it was Leontes' order to the honest Camillo to poison Polixenes which drove him to leave. Hermione has no idea that Leontes, even in his jealous rage, could stoop so low.

You had a bastard ... / Thy brat hath been cast out Leontes callously tells Hermione, using cruel and harsh language, that her daughter has been abandoned and left to die.

I am barr'd, like one infectious Another example of the disease / healing imagery, which has already been noticeable in the play. (See: Disease and healing.) Leontes thinks she will infect Mamillius with moral corruption.

The innocent milk in it most innocent mouth The innocence of children – their freedom from sin and guilt – is stressed throughout the play. The loss of a child therefore comes to symbolise loss of innocence. (See: Children; Sin and innocence.)

This place, i' th' open air This suggests that the audience is to envisage Hermione's trial as taking place outside – in a more public forum, thus adding to her disgrace.

No life, / I prize it not a straw, but for mine honour Hermione again stresses that it is her good reputation which she is most anxious to have restored.

Apollo be my judge! By trusting in the Oracle of Apollo to clear her name, Hermione again shows her faith in divine Providence powers.

With eyes / Of pity, not revenge! Hermione is already prepared to show forgiveness rather than seeking vengeance for her harsh treatment. Contrast this with Leontes' violent feelings in Act II scene iii.

The king shall live without an heir, if that which is lost be not found At this moment in the play, Leontes is sure he has an heir – Mamillius. But within the next ten lines his son is to be declared dead. Soon afterwards his wife is also pronounced dead. The only heir is now the lost baby – unless the king re-marries and has another child. By Act V we see his courtiers urging him to do so, but Paulina reminds them of the words of the Oracle: unless the lost child is found, Leontes shall have no heir.

That which is lost The name ‘Perdita' means ‘the lost one'. (For the naming of the child, see Act III, sc iii.)

There is no truth at all i' th' Oracle … this is mere falsehood Leontes' blasphemy in denying the truth and power of Apollo brings immediate retribution: Mamillius' death is instantly announced.

The news is mortal to the queen … she will recover Hermione collapses at the news of her son's death, but at this stage Leontes does not realise that he will soon hear that she too is dead.

I have too much believ'd mine own suspicion … Apollo, pardon / My great profaneness The terrible news about Mamillius, and Hermione's collapse, at last bring Leontes to his senses. He accepts the divine power of the gods, asks for forgiveness, and begins his journey of penitence by confessing to his courtiers how, in his insane jealousy, he not only accused Hermione but attempted to get the good Camillo to commit murder. (See: Spiritual re-creation.)

Most humane and filled with honour … No richer than his honour As with Hermione, the word ‘honour' is repeated, stressing Camillo's integrity and contrasting it with Leontes' evil actions.

How his piety / Does my deeds make the blacker! The balance of ‘piety' with ‘blacker' again stresses the contrast between the king's misdeeds and the integrity of his honest servant. In acknowledging this, Leontes is again moving forward on his long path to redemption.

What studied torments, tyrant, hast for me? Paulina launches into a bitter attack on Leontes, stressing again (as did the Oracle) the tyrannical nature of his actions. She does not know – because she has left the scene with Hermione when the queen was carried out – that Leontes has admitted his guilt and has repented.

What wheels? racks? fires? what flaying? boiling? / In leads or oils? This catalogue of tortures, given in a series of short, scathing questions, immediately indicates Paulina's scorn and bitter rage at Leontes' tyrannical behaviour and its consequences.

Thy most worst The use of two superlative adjectives together stresses the outrage that Paulina feels. In addition, the fact that she refers to him as ‘thou' and ‘thy', omitting the polite and formal use of ‘you' due to his rank (and which she used throughout her verbal attacks on Leontes in Act II) shows her utter contempt. (See Shakespeare's Language: Thee, thou and you.)

Did damnable … kill a king.. casting forth to crows ... devil .. done .. directly .. death ... cleft .. could conceive The run of alliteration on hard consonants suggests that Paulina almost spits out her scornful accusations.

The queen, the queen, / The sweet'st, dear'st creature's dead The whole of this long speech works up to this climax - Shakespeare makes Paulina hold back the terrible news until the end of her tirade.

And vengeance for't / Not dropped down yet Paulina implies that the gods will punish Leontes, and take revenge on him. In fact, his repentance ensures that he is eventually forgiven and redeemed. (See: Spiritual re-creation.)

I say she's dead: I'll swear it. If word nor oath / Prevail not, go and see In his plays, Shakespeare frequently lets the audience know things that the characters on stage do not – in The Winter's Tale, for example, the audience knows that the baby Perdita has been saved. However, he does not reveal until Act V that actually Hermione is not dead. We are never told whether Paulina knows that at this moment, or whether she genuinely thinks, temporarily, that the queen has died. Nor is there any explanation of how Paulina manages to hide Hermione successfully without the rest of the court realising. Such questions are irrelevant; the play is a Romance – a story which does not necessarily deal with realistic portrayal of events.

A thousand knees ... could not move the gods /To look that way thou wert Paulina is right to say that Leontes cannot earn forgiveness. His redemption will come, after bitter penance, through grace – the undeserved forgiveness from heaven. (See: Spiritual re-creation.)

I have deserv'd / All tongues to talk their bitt'rest Leontes' renewed acknowledgement that he deserves to suffer for his evil actions again shows him starting along the path to redemption.

All faults I make, when I shall come to know them, / I do repent Paulina's words show an awareness of the need for contrition after sin – a lesson which Leontes is just beginning to learn.

The love I bore your queen – lo fool again! /I'll speak of her no more, nor of your children In fact, as we see from Act V, Paulina sets out to keep the remembrance of Hermione and of the loss of the children fresh in Leontes' mind for the next sixteen years.

Thou didst speak but well / When most the truth Like Camillo (with whom she is to be paired at the end of Act V) Paulina shows her loyalty by her truth-telling, even though it may be unpalatable.

Tears shed there shall be my recreation The word ‘recreation' is an interesting pun. Leontes means that grief will be his only activity or diversion, but his tears and sense of guilt will also provide his re-creation as they start to bring about the regeneration of his soul. See: The plays and playing.

Investigating Act III, Scene ii

  • Read out loud the speeches of Hermione in this scene. As you do so, assess how Shakespeare creates the sense of unassailable dignity with which he endues the queen.
  • Read out loud the speech of Paulina beginning, ‘What studied torments, tyrant'. What methods does Shakespeare use to create a sense of her outrage and anger?
  • The words of the Oracle of Apollo do not at first change Leontes' mind. What does change his mind?
    • Why is Leontes so affected?
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