Antigonus is less significant in the play than his wife Paulina, but nevertheless he has an important role.

Antigonus and Leontes

Antigonus is one of Leontes' senior counsellors, and the very first words he speaks in the play to Leontes are a warning (and one which proves prophetic) telling him to behave more rationally:

‘Be certain what you do, sir, lest your justice
Prove violence, in the which three great ones suffer,
Yourself, your queen, your son.'

Like his wife, Antigonus is a truth-teller and no flatterer. He plainly tells Leontes so:

‘It is for you we speak, not for ourselves.'

Shakespeare gives him a robust and at times almost earthy style of speech, saying that Leontes must have been deceived by ‘some putter-on', whom Antigonus would ‘land-damn' if he could find him. His assertion that Hermione must be innocent is given in the most down-to-earth manner; saying that he has three daughters (who, incidentally, are never mentioned by Paulina or heard of again in the play), he affirms that no women are pure if Hermione is not, and that

‘If this prove true … I'll geld them all.'

Antigonus and Paulina

Hen-pecked husband?

Antigonus is with Leontes when Paulina appears carrying the new-born Perdita. Leontes has obviously suffered before from her outspokenness, as he instantly turns to Antigonus saying,

‘I charg'd thee that she should not come about me.'

Antigonus confirms that he has passed on the message:

‘I told her so, my lord,
On your displeasure's peril and on mine,
She should not visit you.'

Later he again tells Leontes that he did not ‘set on' Paulina to come to the king, and the other lords confirm this.

Trust and honour

Nevertheless, when Paulina tells the king that she will obey her husband when it is ‘honest' to do so, but that her arrival here is a matter of ‘honour', Antigonus backs her up, saying that there are times when he lets her ‘take the rein' and that he knows she is reliable - ‘she'll not stumble' (though this could also be a pun in the sense that she will not stop her tirade either for want of words).

By supporting his wife Antigonus lays himself open to the charge of ‘traitor' from Leontes, who then gives him a terrible choice:

‘You that have been so tenderly officious
With Lady Margery, your midwife there,
To save this bastard's life ... What will you adventure
To save this brat's life?'

Antigonus' brave answer – ‘I'll pawn the little blood that I have left to save the innocent' – leads to his death. Like Paulina, he takes the route of honour and honesty even though it puts his own life in danger.

In Act V, sc i we see that Paulina still thinks of her husband, whom she calls ‘my Antigonus', though she is sure he is dead. We do not know what she thinks of Leontes' suggestion (in Act V, sc iii) that she should marry Camillo, but it is not an unsuitable match: both are honourable men who put the good of the kingdom above their own safety.

Antigonus and Perdita

In accepting the task of taking the infant Perdita to ‘some remote and desert place', Antigonus is filled with pity for the child: ‘a present death had been more merciful'. What Antigonus does not know is that he is acting as an instrument of the gods, and that, through his death new life will later come to Sicilia.

After Act II, sc iii (when he is given the task of taking the baby and abandoning her) we next see Antigonus in III. iii., when he talks with a sailor on the shores of Bohemia, before the sailor goes back to the ship.

Shakespeare gives Antigonus a long soliloquy in which he recounts a vision of Hermione – dead Hermione, as Antigonus thinks, thus reinforcing for the audience the belief that she has died in the previous scene. Although Antigonus has seen a vision of her

‘in pure white robes, / Like very sanctity',

and although he was so adamant to Leontes that she could not be guilty, Antigonus nevertheless assumes that Hermione has been declared guilty by the Oracle, and put to death, and that the child is

‘indeed the issue / Of King Polixenes'.

He is, however, unfailingly tender to the baby, calling her ‘blossom', ‘pretty' and ‘poor wretch', and telling her that his ‘heart bleeds' for her.

During the course of this soliloquy, Antigonus also reveals that, in the vision, Hermione asked that the child should be called Perdita – allowing the audience to recognise the shepherdess who is queen of the sheep-shearing feast in Act IV scene iv as this same child, sixteen years later. (See: Perdita)

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