The moral of this story is that great power combined with human frailties like jealousy, vanity, and pettiness is a recipe for misery – even [perhaps, especially,] for the all-powerful individual. Stated another way, all humans get a little crazy from time to time, but if one has power over life and death the craziness isn’t just a passing fancy.
Leontes, the Sicilian King, has enjoyed an extended visit from his old friend King Polixenes of Bohemia. As Polixenes intends to leave the next day, Leontes is politely trying to talk his friend into staying longer. Leontes then asks his Queen, Hermoine, to take on the task of nagging Polixenes while Leontes steps out to take care of some business. When Leontes returns, he finds the Queen has succeeded in talking Polixenes into staying. At this point, Leontes is driven into a jealous madness, assuming his wife must be sleeping with Polixenes because she was able to talk the Bohemian King into something Leontes couldn’t. Leontes immediately becomes certain of this infidelity, despite the fact that he has no evidence for it and – it will turn out – no one believes the Queen has been unfaithful. While Leontes keeps his rage to himself, he orders one of his trusted Lords, Camillo, to murder Polixenes.
While neither Camillo nor Paulina (the Queen’s closest friend) would be considered marquee characters, they are the MVP’s of the play. Both characters take actions that put themselves at great risk when confronted with the dilemma of whether to do the right thing or to comply with the dictates of the King. Camillo first does this by refusing the assassinate Polixenes and then fleeing to Bohemia (which is necessary given Leontes’s madness.) [In an intriguing turn, Camillo will again have to do the right thing, this time, in the face of Polixenes’s wishes – i.e. when Polixenes wants to punish his son for sneaking out to apparently court a commoner. This incident with the — previously reasonable — monarch reinforces the aforementioned story moral, and perhaps establishes a few hundred years before Baron Acton’s dictum that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”] Paulina is vocally (and, later, in other ways) supportive of the Queen, even when it is clear she is raising the hackles of King Leontes.
The madness of Leontes is fascinating. He not only concludes with certainty that the Queen cheated on him, he also makes the leap that his current son, Florizel, and the child that Queen is due with when she is arrested were both sired by Polixenes. The fact that all his Lords and Paulina (wife of a Lord) politely suggest to him he is in error does not sway him. As an attempted concession toward reason, he consults an Oracle. Even when the Oracle’s sealed response comes back telling him that he is wrong, that his wife and Camillo are both right, and he is going to end up without an heir unless he can find the child that he sent away (the infant delivered in the gaol) he is unswayed – until moments later when he learns his once beloved son, Florizel, is dead. Despite the fact that he’d concluded Florizel was a bastard, he is moved by the death of the boy – at least in combination with the swooning of the Queen — which appears to be her death as well.
The rest of the story plays out the fate of the child that was sent away by the King. The child was taken by Antigonus (another of Leontes’s Lords and husband to Paulina) who doesn’t survive the trip but does leave the child where a shepherd ends up finding her.
This is an intense take on the jealousy and insanity. The story is gripping throughout. There are plenty of intriguing twists and turns. It’s fascinating how many ways Shakespeare can play the simple plot of unfounded jealousy. Needless to say, this play is highly recommended reading.