Hermione asks her little boy, Mamillius, to sit by her and tell her a story. Meanwhile, Leontes storms in, having just learned of Polixenes's escape and Camillo's role in accomplishing it. To his diseased mind, this is proof positive that his suspicions were correct—he decides that Camillo must have been in Polixenes's pay from the beginning. He orders Mamillius taken away from Hermione, and then accuses his wife of being pregnant with the king of Bohemia's child. Hermione, astonished, denies it vigorously, but to no avail, and her husband orders her taken away to jail, along with her ladies-in-waiting. When she has been dragged off, the lords of Sicilia plead with Leontes, declaring that he is mistaken and his queen is innocent; Hermione's most vocal defender is a lord named Antigonus. The king will have none of it, however—he is certain of his own rightness, and says that anyway, the matter is none of their concern. However, he does promise to ask the celebrated oracle of Apollo, at Delphi, for a verdict before proceeding against his wife.
In prison, Antigonus's wife Paulina attempts to visit Hermione, but is rebuffed by the guards. She is, however, allowed to speak with one of the queen's ladies, Emilia, who reports that her mistress has given birth to a beautiful daughter. Overriding the uncertain jailer, Paulina decides to take the child from the cell and bring it to Leontes, in the hopes that the sight of his new-born daughter will release the king from his madness.
Meanwhile, Mamillius has fallen ill since Hermione's imprisonment. Leontes, of course, attributes his son's ailment to shame over his mother's infidelity; meanwhile, he angrily wishes that Polixenes had not managed to escape his wrath. Paulina brings the child to the king, and he grows furious with her, demanding of Antigonus why he cannot manage to control his wife better. Paulina, instead of falling silent, argues with Leontes, defending Hermione's honor and then laying the baby before the angry king before she departs. When she is gone, Leontes orders Antigonus to take the child away and throw it into the fire, so that he will never have to see another man's bastard call him father. His lords are horrified by this order, and beg him to recon sider. He relents after a moment, but only a little—instead of burning the infant, he tells Antigonus to carry it into the wilderness and leave it there. As the unhappy nobleman takes the child and departs, word arrives that his messengers to the Oracle of Delphi have returned, bringing with them the divine verdict on the matter.
Despite its title, The Winter's Tale is only set during the winter months during the first three acts; in the latter two, spring and summer enter, bringing renewal. The resonance of the title for the opening acts is suggested in this scene by Mamillius, who promises to tell his mother a story, and then says "a sad tale's best for winter"(II.i.25). And, indeed, the portion of the play set in winter is "a sad tale"—but by bringing about a happy ending in the summer sun, the playwright seems to suggest that Mamillius is only partially correct, and that the best winter story will end not with sadness, but with the promise of spring.
This is the little prince's only real contribution to the story, save as a victim of the retribution against Leontes—he is quickly cleared off the stage, and his parents step to the fore. If we had any doubt of the king's madness before now, it is quickly swept away when he enters, and declares that Camillo must have been hired by Polixenes to kill him—"Camillo was his help in this, his pander. / There is a plot against my life, my crown. All's true that is mistrusted"(II.i.46-48). This blindness, accusing Polixenes of the very crime of which he himself is guilty, is the mark of a true paranoid, unencumbered by facts, yet nevertheless certain that "all's true that is mistrusted." Hermione, meanwhile, makes a strong showing, even if the play only allows her the twin emotions of outrage and grief. She does the best with her maddened husband as anyone could, offering him a way out of his folly—"Should a villain say so," she says of his accusation, "He were as much more villain. You, my lord, / Do but mistake"(II.i.7881). But, of course, in his mind he does not mistake, and so her pleas are fruitless.
Equally fruitless is the work of Paulina, who embodies good sense and natural feeling; the audience sympathizes with her hope that Leontes will regain his faith in his wife when he sees his child. His reaction to her attempt at reasoning with him is revealing, since it suggests that a deep misogyny, a fear of female power, is at work in the Sicilian king. Again and again, he demands of Antigonus why he "canst not rule her?"(II.iii.46), and then mocks husband and wife both—"A manking witch!" (II.ii.67) he calls Paulina, (witchcraft was a typical accusation leveled against disobedient women) and "Thou dotard," he says to the loyal nobleman, "thou art woman-tired, unroosted / By thy Dame Partlet here"(II.iii.74-76). In some awful way, then, the king seems to see himself as an enforcer of patriarchal discipline—my wife was rebellious, too, he seems to say, but I didn't let her get away with it.