Act V, Scene i

Synopsis of Act V, Scene i

The scene now changes again to Sicilia, where the repentant Leontes is still grieving for his dead wife and children. His courtiers try to persuade him to stop blaming himself, but Paulina deliberately keeps him aware of his sins and of the value of the queen he rejected. The courtiers want him to re-marry to produce a new heir, but Paulina reminds him of the words of the Oracle. Following her advice, Leontes agrees that he will never re-marry unless Paulina gives him her permission; she says that she will never do so unless Hermione comes alive again - which of course seems impossible.

Florizel and PerditaA servant comes in to say that Prince Florizel has arrived with his princess, who is amazingly beautiful. Florizel and Perdita enter, and Leontes sees how like his father Florizel is. He is also reminded by the sight of Perdita of what his own daughter might have been, had she lived. Florizel introduces Perdita as his wife, saying she is a Libyan princess, but suddenly a lord enters to say that Polixenes has arrived in Sicilia, asking Leontes to arrest his son who has eloped with a shepherdess. Florizel appeals to Leontes to intercede on their behalf, and he says he will try.

Commentary on Act V, Scene i

Sir, you have done enough, and have perform'd / A saint-like sorrow ... Paid down more penitence than done trespass … Forgive yourself Cleomenes and the other lords do not appreciate the true nature of redemption and grace: for an individual to accept that they are sinful is an essential prerequisite, but no-one can earn forgiveness – grace is the undeserved forgiveness of God. This was a central concept in the Reformation of which Shakespeare's would be well aware. Paulina has realised this from the start – in Act III, sc ii she told Leontes that ‘a thousand knees, ten thousand years together' could not force the gods to show forgiveness. The word ‘grace' has featured throughout the play – see: Spiritual re-creation

Heirless it hath made my kingdom The importance of having a legitimate heir would be well known to anyone in England who remembered the days of Henry VIII, but also to those who were aware of more recent events when the failure of Elizabeth I to marry and to produce a child caused much speculation about who would succeed her. James I, on the throne at the time the play was written and first produced, was King James VI of Scotland before he became king of England. As Elizabeth's cousin, and a Protestant, he was looked upon by many (but by no means all) of Elizabeth's subjects as the obvious heir. (See: The Stuart monarchy.)

True, too true , my lord ... she you kill'd It is part of Paulina's purpose deliberately to keep Hermione, and Leontes' guilt, alive in Leontes' mind.

You pity not the state ... What dangers, by his highness' fail of issue / May drop upon his kingdom As Elizabeth I grew old and was childless, it had seemed possible that the throne of England might be claimed by various possible heirs, and there were many plots – especially by Catholic groups – to seize it. (See: The Stuart monarchy.)

Besides, the gods / Will have fulfill'd their secret purposes; / For has not the divine Apollo said … The play presents the view that human destiny is in the hands of divine forces, represented in this instance by Apollo and his Oracle.

Till his lost child be found? Which, that it shall, / Is all as monstrous to our human reason The miracle of finding that which was lost (as in the biblical parables of the finding of the lost sheep, and the finding of the lost coin - see Luke 15:3-10) is a matter of faith and of grace, and beyond reason. As Paulina tells the Leontes later (in Act V scene iii), ‘It is requir'd you do awake your faith.'

Would make her sainted spirit / Again possess her corpse … and on this stage appear Ironic – although Leontes does not realise it, she will soon do so.

Unless another / As like Hermione as is her picture / Affront his eye The lords (and indeed the audience at this point) think that Paulina is imposing impossible conditions, and almost taunting the king, but of course this is all part of her plan; she wishes him to remain unwed until the time is right to reveal Hermione; Paulina has faith in the Oracle.

The fairest I have yet beheld The outward beauty of Perdita, reflecting her inner, spiritual purity, is frequently stressed. Unlike some earlier Shakespearean drama, where appearance often belies reality, in the Romance Plays inner beauty of soul is reflected by outer beauty. (See: Romance plays.)

O Hermione … so must thy grave / Give way Ironic: Paulina laments that the praise of Hermione's beauty, once unequalled, should now be superseded; she does not realise, however, that this new princess is in fact Hermione's child. (See also: Dramatic irony.)

Go, Cleomenes It may well strike the audience as significant that it is Cleomenes, one of the lords who was sent to the Oracle, who is sent out to fetch in Perdita.

For she did print your royal father off, / Conceiving you Another example of dramatic irony: the audience may remember that Paulina in Act II scene iii pointed out to Leontes ‘the print' of his own features on the child he rejected.

Your fair princess – goddess! The goddess-like qualities of Perdita have been stressed throughout Act IV scene iv. In his next speech Leontes greets Florizel and Perdita as being as ‘welcome … as is the spring to th' earth', reminding us of Perdita's association with Proserpina, and new life, in the sheep-shearing scene.

You, gracious couple As has been seen elsewhere, the quality of ‘grace' associated with Hermione, and with Florizel and Perdita, is one of the most important aspects of the play. (See: Spiritual re-creation.)

By his command / Have I touch'd Sicilia In fact, of course, everything that Florizel tells Leontes at this point is untrue; he has expressly disobeyed his father. His account of Perdita as a Libyan princess is also part of the fiction.
(The audience will almost certainly forgive Florizel this deception, as he is trying to keep his faith with Perdita, and as Polixenes' rage has been so extreme. In any case, the audience knows that Perdita is in reality a princess, even if Florizel does not.)

Welcome hither, / As is the spring to th' earth The young couple represent, even more than Leontes can at this point comprehend, renewal, regeneration and re-creation. (See: The plays and playing.)

The blessed gods / Purge all infection from our air Another healing image, on this occasion associated with the divine powers. See: Disease and healing.

I have done sin, / For which, the heavens (taking angry note) / Have left me issueless Leontes acknowledges his sin, and the fact that sin has brought punishment. Acceptance of his sin is the precursor to forgiveness and redemption. See: Spiritual re-creation.

More on political echoes: Shakespeare's audience may have been aware of another resonance: Queen Elizabeth I was born as a result of Henry VIII's decision to put aside Katharine of Aragon after twenty four years of marriage and to marry Anne Boleyn. Henry purported to believe that Katharine's inability to provide him with a son was due to their marriage having gone against a decree in chapter twenty of Leviticus from the Old Testament of the Bible:

‘If a man shall take his brother's wife, it is an unclean thing … they shall be childless.' See Leviticus 20:21.

Might I a son and daughter now have look'd on, / Such goodly things as you! Ironic – for, although Leontes does not yet know it, Perdita is his daughter and Florizel will be his son (-in-law).

Bohemia greets you ... Where's Bohemia That is, the King of Bohemia – Polixenes.

The heaven sets spies upon us Perdita thinks the gods are against them - but in fact the gods (particularly Apollo, who has spoken via his Oracle) are watching over them and directing their lives.

Is she the daughter of a king? She is, / When once she is my wife Dramatic irony: as the audience knows. Perdita is already the daughter of a king: Leontes himself. (See also: Dramatic irony.)

Investigating Act V, Scene i
  • ‘Welcome hither, / As is the spring to th' earth.'
    • In what ways do Florizel and Perdita bring new life and renewal to the court of Sicilia?
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