In the kingdom of Sicilia, King Leontes is being visited by his childhood friend, King Polixenes of Bohemia. One of Leontes's lords, Camillo, discusses the striking differences between the two kingdoms with a Bohemian nobleman, Archidamus. The conversation then turns to the great and enduring friendship between the two kings, and the beauty and promise of Leontes's young son,Mamillius.
These two lords go out, and Leontes comes in, along with his wife Hermione (who is pregnant), Mamillius, and Polixenes, who is making ready to depart for home. Leontes pleads with him to stay a little longer in Sicilia, but his friend refuses, declaring that he has been away from Bohemia for nine months, which is long enough. Hermione then takes up the argument, and Polixenes yields to her entreaties, promising to stay for a little longer. He tells the Sicilian queen how wonderful his childhood with Leontes was—how "we were, fair queen / Two lads that thought there was no more behind / But such a day tomorrow as today / And to be boy eternal"(I.ii.63-66).
Leontes, meanwhile, tells Hermione that she has never spoken to better effect than in convincing Polixenes to stay—save for once, when she agreed to marry him. But as his wife and his friend walk together, apart from him, he feels stirrings of jealousy, and tells the audience that he suspects them of being lovers. He turns to his son and notes that the boy resembles him, and this reassures him that Mamillius is, in fact, his son and not someone else's; his suspicion of his wife remains, however, and grows quickly, until he is certain that she is sleeping with Polixenes. He sends the two of them to walk in the garden together, promising to join them later, and then calls Camillo over, asking if he has noticed anything peculiar about Polixenes's behavior lately. Camillo says that he has not, and Leontes accuses him of being negligent, and then declares that Hermione and Polixenes have made him a cuckold—that is, a betrayed husband. Camillo, appalled, refuses to believe it, but his king insists that it is true, and orders the lord to act as cupbearer to Polixenes—and then poison him at the first opportunity.
Camillo promises to obey, but his conscience is greatly troubled, and when Leontes has gone and Polixenes reappears, the Bohemian king realizes that something is amiss. Saying that Leontes just gave him a peculiar and threatening look, he demands to know what is going on, and Camillo, after a moment of anguish, tells him of the Sicilian king's suspicions and desire to have him poisoned. He begs protection of Polixenes, who accepts him as a servant, and they decide to flee the country immediately by sneaking out of the castle and taking ship for Bohemia. Camillo promises to use his authority in Sicilia to help their escape, and the two men slip away together.Read a translation of Act I, Scenes i-ii →
The appearance of the two lords at the opening of the play is a typical Shakespearean device, in which minor characters prepare the audience for what they are about to see. In Antony and Cleopatra, for instance, two Roman soldiers comment on Antony's decline; in King Lear, Gloucester and Kent discuss the division of the kingdom that their monarch is about to undertake. In this play, however, one may question whether the audience does see what Camillo and Archidamus prepare us for. They describe two kings with "rooted between them...such an affection which cannot choose but branch now...the heavens continue their loves!"(I.i.23-31). What we see, however, is one king's deepening jealousy of the other—for although Leontes is trying to persuade his friend to stay as their scene together opens, we are meant to believe that he already suspects Polixenes and his wife of adultery.
The opening can be played many different ways, of course, and one could legitimately suggest that Leontes's jealousy does not take flight until after Hermione convinces Polixenes to stay. But a number of clues suggest otherwise. For one thing, all the cheerful speeches belong to Hermione and Polixenes. The Bohemian king is given a long discourse on the bliss of his childhood friendship with Leontes, while the Sicilian king is conspicuously silent until he is left alone to nurse his jealousy, speaking only in short, clipped sentences—"Stay your thanks awhile / And pay them when you part"(I.ii.10-11), he says after Polixenes has spoken for nine lines, and after another lengthy speech by the Bohemian king, he replies tersely "We are tougher, brother, / Than you can put us to't"(I.ii.16-17). Polixenes uses the flowery language that one would expect between royal friends in Shakespeare, but Leontes seems to have already put their friendship behind him.
Meanwhile, the initial speech by Polixenes calls attention the fact that he has been in Sicilia for "Nine changes of the watery star"(I.ii.1), which coincides, rather obviously, with the length of Hermione's pregnancy, and suggests that Shakespeare wishes to call attention to the idea of infidelity from the beginning. And when Leontes later says "I am angling now, / Although you perceive me not how I give line"(I.ii.180-81), one can easily imagine that the entire business of asking Polixenes to stay is another "angling," designed to trap the Bohemian king and enable Leontes to dispose of him.
The roots of Leontes's jealousy are uncertain. Shakespeare allows him some of the play's most brilliant, and biting lines—"And many a man there is, even at this present, / Now while I speak this, holds his wife by th'arm, / That little thinks she has been sluiced in's absence / And his pond fished by his next neighbor, by / Sir Smile, his neighbor"(I.ii.192-96)—but refuses to give an easy explanation as to why he is so certain of Hermione's infidelity. The play allows no possibility of her guilt, but he does see her "paddling palms and pinching fingers"(I.ii.116), which (unless we think that Leontes hallucinates) suggest a degree of physical intimacy with her husband's friend. Still, a wide gulf remains between such behavior and Leontes's grim certainty of sexual relations. There is a traditional male fear of illegitimacy at work, of course, as we observe in the king's attempts to see his own likeness in Mamillius's face—in a time when male heirs were critical to dynastic survival, wifely adultery was a great fear, as one could witness with Henry VIII and his execution of multiple wives only a half-century before Shakespeare. At the same time, a number of critics have found a clue to Leontes's madness in the intensity of his friendship with Polixenes, whose depiction of their unfallen, innocent boyhood suggests that they have "tripped since"(I.ii.77) by marrying. "Of this make no conclusion," Hermione protests, "lest you say / Your queen and I are devils"(I.ii.82-83), but the real suggestion is that the closeness of Polixenes and Leontes was so great that it is difficult for the adult king of Sicilia to separate himself from his friend, even now that they are married. "To mingle friendship far is mingling bloods"(I.ii.110), Leontes says, but that is exactly what he does—he feels corrupted, in some odd sense, by his marriage to Hermione, and so he projects his guilt upon his friend, "mingling friendship" too far and so destroying it.