Act II’s power comes from three sources:
- Leontes’ further descent into paranoia and madness, his rule sliding into tyranny,
- Hermione’s calm submission to her fate, certain that the truth will be revealed and absolve her of any wrongdoing, and
- Paulina’s role as the lone voice of reason, calling on Nature to favorably resolve the perversion of justice the King has caused.
Scene i takes place in Leontes’ palace, beginning with Hermione, son Mamillius, and attending ladies. While it would have been apparent in Act I to theatergoers that Hermione was pregnant, here is the first mention of that fact. Polixenes’ stay had been mentioned as lasting nine months, which takes on added significance (and again, would have been apparent earlier). After some playful banter between Mamillius and the attendants, the boy starts a tale at the request of his mother. He is interrupted before he gets very far, probably meant to foreshadow both the interruption of his life as well as the King’s penance (“There was a man-- … / Dwelt by a churchyard” II. i. 29, 30).
Leontes feels justified in his conviction that he had been cuckolded when he finds out that Polixenes and Camillo have fled Sicilia, although he wishes he didn’t “know”.
How blest am I
In my just censure! In my true opinion!
Alack, for lesser knowledge! How accurs’d
In being so blest! There may be in the cup
A spider steep’d, and one may drink, depart,
And yet partake no venom (for his knowledge
Is not infected); but if one present
Th’ abhorr’d ingredient to his eye, make known
How he hath drunk, he cracks his gorge, his sides,
With violent hefts. I have drunk, and seen the spider. (II. i. 35-45)
This is wonderful imagery, describing how ignorance protected him from the venom of jealousy. And even though he had directed Camillo to “bespice” Polixenes’ drink, Leontes is the one who saw “the spider” and has descended into madness. (The spider motif must have been common. Stephen Greenblatt mentions in the biography Will in the World that John Rainolds, scholar and dean around Shakespeare’s time, commented on the danger of acting in schools. Since actors were always male, there might be a call in the play where the hero and heroine might kiss, which would be like the kiss of “certain spiders”: “if they do but touch men only with their mouth, they put them to wonderful pain and make them mad.”) Leontes makes himself known in the room by separating Mamillius from Hermione, decrying that his son has her blood in him and the unborn child belongs to Polixenes. Leontes’ gibes at his wife grow stronger until he commands she be sent to prison. Hermione responds as if these comments and actions are “sport”, unable to believe are serious. Her responses are lightheartedly at first, growing stronger in her denials until she tells her husband that when he finds out the truth he will be grieved. Even so, at this point, she says that all can be righted if Leontes admits his mistake.
After being ordered to prison, Hermione still remains collected, saying she feels grief but knows with patience she will be cleared. Several lords, especially Antigonus, defend the Queen but this only seems to make Leontes angrier. Finally he quiets them by saying he had sent two lords to the Oracle at Apollo’s temple to reveal the truth. It is clear he believes the Oracle will support him and will “Give rest to th’ minds of others” (II. i. 191). That Leontes believes confirmation of the Queen’s adultery will calm his subjects shows how far his reasoning has left him.
Scene ii is short, setting up the subsequent scene. The reader/theatergoer does not find out that it is 23 days after Scene i until later. Paulina, Antigonus’ wife, visits the jail and finds out from one of the Queen’s attendants that Hermione went into labor early due to the “frights and griefs”, giving birth to a girl. Paulina, thinking that Leontes will “soften at the sight o’ th’ child,” proposes to present the baby to him. She finally convinces the jailer that the baby, unborn at the time of the Queen’s sentence, may be given her freedom.
Scene iii continues the buildup of tension in the play. We find out that Mamillius has taken ill, Leontes believes because of “the dishonor of his mother”. Leontes’ madness is firmly established as he mutters about plots and vengeance and reveals his insomnia. His son’s illness appears to be a contributing factor as well. Paulina arrives with the baby, several lords in tow including her husband Antigonus. She probably could not have chosen a worse time to see the King as he rambles with his paranoid fantasies. Leontes is upset with Antigonus’ inability to control Paulina, threatening him with hanging. Antigonus replies that the King would not have any subjects left if he were to carry out that sentence on all the men. Paulina’s defiance, not just of her husband but of the King as well, shows that things are topsy-turvy in Sicilia. Yet Paulina proves to be an adequate match for the King, stating that she is there to help Leontes unlike his obsequious subjects allowing not confronting his madness with the truth. She presents the baby to Leontes, detailing the likenesses (and snidely commenting ‘‘tis the worse” for it) of the King and the baby, symbolically speaking for the “good goddess Nature” for the proof that the baby is his. Despite being threatened by fire and hanging, Paulina comes close to calling Leontes a tyrant, unable to back up his accusations with anything beyond his “fancy.” Paulina lays the baby at Leontes feet and leaves.
A furious Leontes commands Antigonus to dispatch of the baby. Antigonus persuades the King to give the baby a chance in case of innocence. Leontes seems to relent in order to maintain some semblance of justice and reasonableness. As Antigonus leaves to abandon the baby in a remote place, he calls on Nature to provide pity and sustain the child. The Act ends with the announcement that the lords have returned with a message from the Oracle. While the King declares his wife will have “A just and open trial”, he clearly has his mind made up that she is guilty.
(Leontes, Antigonus, Lords, Attendants and the Infant Perdita)