In Sicilia, Leontes is still in mourning for Hermione and Mamillius, although some of his lords urge him to forget the past, forgive himself, and marry again. Paulina, however, encourages his continued contrition, and extracts from him a promise that he will never take another wife until she gives him leave. Word comes of the arrival of Prince Florizel and his new wife Perdita from Bohemia, and the couple is ushered into Leontes's presence and greeted eagerly—since the Sicilian king has had no word from Bohemia for years. Everyone remarks on the beauty and grace of Perdita, and Florizel pretends to be on a diplomatic mission from his father. As they talk, however, a lord brings news that Polixenes himself, along with Camillo, are in the city, in pursuit of Florizel—and that they have the Shepherd and the Clown (who came to Sicilia on Florizel's ship) in their custody. Leontes, stunned, immediately resolves to go down and meet his former friend, bringing the despairing Florizel and Perdita with them.
What follows is told second-hand, by several lords of Leontes's court to the newly-arrived Autolycus. Briefly, once the Shepherd tells everyone his story of finding Perdita on the Bohemian coast, and reveals the tokens that were left on her, Leontes and Polixenes realize who she is; both kings—but especially Leontes—are overcome with joy, and there is general rejoicing. The lords also tell Autolycus that the happy group has not yet returned to court, since Perdita expressed a wish to see a statue of her mother, recently finished in Paulina's country house. Then the Clown and Shepherd come in, having both been made gentlemen, and Autolycus pledges to amend his life and become their loyal servant.
The scene shifts to Paulina's home, and she unveils the statue, which impresses everyone with its realism and attention to detail—as well as the fact that the sculptor made Hermione look exactly sixteen years older than the queen was when she died. Leontes is overcome by the sight of her, and tries to touch the statue's hand. Paulina keeps him back, saying that she did not expect it to move him to such grief, and offers to draw the curtain, but the king refuses to allow it. Paulina then offers to make the statue come down from the pedestal—and, to everyone's amazement, there is music and the statue moves. It steps down, and embraces Leontes: it is the real Hermione, alive again. She blesses her daughter, saying that she hoped to see her again, and then Leontes, now overcome with happiness, betrothes Paulina and Camillo and then leads the company out, rejoicing in the apparent miracle.Read a translation of Act V, Scenes i-iii →
We return, finally, to Sicilia, and although sixteen years have passed, Leontes is still in exactly the same place where we left him—mourning his wife, and repenting his crimes—while Paulina is still fanning the flames of guilt within him. This frozen-ness, the sense of time halting until a curse is lifted, is a typical fairy tale trope, and Leontes's Sicily resembles the enchanted castle of the Beast, or the thorn-choked palace of Sleeping Beauty in which everyone sleeps, waiting for the Prince to awaken them. When the awakening comes in this fairy tale, though, as Leontes is finally released from his suffering by the restoration of his daughter, the scene is kept offstage. We are given an eloquent account of it from Leontes's courtiers—"There might you have beheld one joy crown another, so and in such manner that it seemed sorrow wept to take leave of them, for their joy waded in tears"(V.ii.42-46)—but Shakespeare makes a wise dramatic choice, knowing that one joyful climax is enough for a play. And despite the rejoicing over Perdita, The Winter's Tale's true climax is reserved for the final scene.
The final scene is a difficult one for critics to interpret, since the playwright deliberately obscures whether Hermione has actually been resurrected, or whether she never really died and was hidden away by Paulina. Certainly there are suggestions that the latter is the case—including the fact that the queen died off-stage, with only Paulina as a witness. Also, Paulina's insistence in V.i that the king promise to never marry again implies that she anticipates Hermione's return. But at the same time, the characters seem to accept the event as a true miracle, and who are we to argue with them? In either case, the resurrection of the wronged queen closes the circle, thematically—what began with death and winter now ends with spring and a true rebirth. Antigonus and Mamillius, Leontes's victims, are forgotten—Paulina mentions "my mate, that's never to be found again"(V.iii.133), but this sorrowful mood is out of place, and so she is quickly given a new husband. Mamillius is not needed, since both kingdoms now have an heir—the same heir, in fact—and both marriages and friendships are restored; for good, one supposes.