We see little of Mamillius in the play; but he is nevertheless an important character, and we have a strong sense of his personality.

Mamillius as the promising heir

We hear of Mamillius in the first scene of the play, before we meet him in the second scene. The courtier from Bohemia, Archidamus, whose conversation with Camillo opens The Winter's Tale, spontaneously congratulates the Sicilians on their heir to the throne:

‘You have an unspeakable comfort of your young prince Mamillius: it is a gentleman of the greatest promise that ever came into my note.'

Camillo agrees, saying that Mamillius is like a tonic to the people of Sicilia:

‘It is a gallant child: one that, indeed, physics the subject, makes old hearts fresh: they that went on crutches ere he was born desire yet their life to see him a man.'

Mamillius' personality

Modern editors follow the First Folio in having Mamillius on stage from the very beginning of the second scene, though he does not speak for some time. Presumably he listens quietly to the conversation of his parents and their guest - and certainly when he does speak it is in terms of respect, calling Leontes ‘my lord' and addressing him using the formal ‘you'. (See: Thee, thou and you.)

However, he is obviously a boy with spirit, for when Leontes teasingly asks him, ‘Will you take eggs for money?' Mamillius replies, ‘No, my, lord, I'll fight.'

When we next see Mamillius, he is with his mother and her ladies (Act II, sc i). Shakespeare depicts him as a young boy (perhaps aged about seven):

  • He is outgrowing such feminine society, calling them ‘crickets' and refusing to share with them the story he tells to Hermione
  • He has firm likes and dislikes, making it plain that he does not like to be treated ‘as if I were a baby still'
  • He is observant of women's use of make-up
  • He is also beyond the age when he can easily be made fun of; instead he can make mocking comments of his own; when told that a lady's eyebrows are blue, he retorts:
‘Nay, that's a mock: I have seen a lady's nose
That has been blue, but not her eyebrows.'
  • He is also able to construct stories – typical boys' stories of ‘sprites and goblins'.

The audience will find him engaging and intelligent, as full of promise as Camillo indicated; and then he is seen no more.

Mamillius' relationship with Leontes

  • In Act I scene ii., we see how much Leontes loves his son – even when jealousy is perverting his view of Mamillius' mother. Leontes does not speak to Mamillius until after the onset of his jealousy, and his first words – ‘Art thou my boy?' – seem to suggest that Leontes wonders whether Hermione has been unfaithful before now. However, Leontes reassures himself by looking at the boy's face:
‘They say we are / Almost as like as eggs'
  • He knows that Mamillius resembles his younger self:
‘Looking on the lines
Of my boy's face, methoughts I did recoil
Twenty-three years, and saw myself unbreech'd,
In my green velvet coat…..
How like, methought, I then was to this kernel,
This squash, this gentleman.'
  • He addresses his son affectionately, calling him ‘Most dear, my collop!' and when Polixenes describes his own affection for his son Florizel, Leontes confirms,
‘So stands this squire / Offic'd with me.'

It is the sudden news of Mamillius' death (in Act III, sc ii) that starts to awaken Leontes from the evil nightmare of jealousy which has gripped him:

  • Moments before he had announced that ‘There is no truth at all i' th' Oracle'
  • Now he concedes that
‘Apollo's angry, and the heavens themselves
Do strike at my injustice.'

Mamillius' relationship with Hermione

Affectionate closeness

In common with most aristocratic ladies of the time, Hermione did not breast-feed her son (in Act II, sc i Leontes comments bitterly, ‘I am glad you did not nurse him') and we only once see Mamillius talking to his mother (in Act II, sc i); but it is obvious that they have a close and affectionate relationship:

  • She invites him to sit down by her, and to tell her a story. He has clearly done so before, as she encourages him by telling him to
‘Do your best
To fright me with your sprites: you're powerful at it.'
  • She draws him into an intimate moment, saying,
‘Come on then,
And give't me in mine ear.'

This is the last exchange we hear between mother and son: moments later Leontes demands, ‘Give me the boy', and has her arrested.

In the trial scene (Act III, sc ii) Hermione is aware not only of her own position but of the effect of her reputation upon her son:

‘for honour,
‘Tis a derivative from me to mine,
And only that I stand for.'

After the love of Leontes, she declares, Mamillius, the ‘first-fruits of my body', is her ‘second joy' in life – and at the news of his death she collapses; Paulina cries out that ‘This news is mortal to the queen.'

The political consequences of Mamillius' death

It is made very clear to the audience in the opening scene of the play that it is ‘an unspeakable comfort' for a kingdom to have an heir, preferably a son, and preferably one who is ‘a gentleman of the greatest promise'.

Through his mad passion of jealousy, Leontes has been responsible for the death of such a son and heir. He has also sent his other possible heir, his daughter, to be abandoned in some wild spot. Hence the Oracle's pronouncement that ‘the king shall live without an heir, if that which is lost be not found'.

In Act V, sc i, we see that the courtiers, apart from Paulina, want Leontes to marry again; without an heir, the kingdom is in danger:

  • This would be a very obvious point to the Shakespearean audience, some of whom would remember the turmoil following the death of Edward VI in 1553, and all of whom would remember the anxiety over who would succeed Elizabeth I in 1603. (See also: Tudor succession: Protestant vs Catholic and the Stuart monarchy.)
  • Dion tells Paulina to consider ‘What dangers, by his highness' fail of issue, May drop upon his kingdom'. Although Paulina is adamant that Leontes should respect ‘the secret purposes' of the gods, the death of Mamillius is more than a personal grief for Leontes; it is potentially a political disaster too.

The moral consequences of Mamillius' death

Of course, Perdita is found, and through her marriage to Florizel unites the two kingdoms. Hermione, apparently dead, comes back to life. But she is too old now to have more children. Leontes may have had one child restored to him, but he once had two - ‘a couple' (as he tells Perdita and Florizel in Act V, sc i) who ‘might thus have stood, begetting wonder'. The end of the play is about restoration and regeneration; but it is also a reminder that, while evil may be forgiven, its effects cannot be wholly undone.

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