The innocence of Hermione is never in doubt—every character in the play testifies to it, and the Oracle confirms it—so Leontes's suspicions of his wife and best friend are clearly irrational. As the victim of misplaced jealousy, he resembles one of the most famous Shakespearean heroes, Othello, who murders his wife Desdemona because he believes her to be unfaithful. But Othello is led into error by his villainous aide, Iago, whereas Leontes is his own Iago—the entire dream of adultery is concocted within his own mind. The play offers us hints, in the childhood friendship of the two kings, and the suggestion that Leontes may have been
In Mamillius's words, "a sad tale's best for winter," (II.i.25) and the first three acts are set in a Sicilian winter, and are determinedly sad. Indeed, these acts offer a kind of miniature tragedy, as Leontes's errors, like Lear's or Othello's, bring death and destruction down upon his family and kingdom. What makes
There is evidence on both sides of this question. Paulina, who orchestrates the entire scene—and who ostensibly commissioned the statue—seems remarkably unsurprised by the "miracle," and she is, after all, our only witness to the fact that Hermione actually died. Her behavior in the years since suggests a foreknowledge of her queen's return, as she steadfastly kept the king fixated on his own guilt, and on the impossibility of ever marrying again. On the other hand, if the entire business is only a trick, it seems rather an over-the-top stunt for two level-headed women like Hermione and Paulina to orchestrate. And no one who witnesses the miracle raises even a scrap of doubt as to whether the statue was ever an actual statue. Clearly, Shakespeare wants to have it both ways—a genuine miracle to cap off his "Tale," and a hint of a naturalistic explanation for the careful reader. And in either case, the miracle is an appropriate conclusion to the play, since it provides for a truly happy ending that Hermione's death seemed to place out of reach.