Act II

Act 2.1

Act 2 begins with Mamillius, Hermione and her ladies. Hermione is nearing the end of her term, and tired by her pregnancy needs others to look after Mamillius. When Leontes enters, however, Mamillius is whispering a tale into Hermione's ear. Leontes has just found out about Polixenes' flight which to him is further proof of his suspicions, confirmation of his perceptiveness.

"How blest I am in my just censure! In my true opinion!
Alack, for lesser knowledge! How accurs'd
In being so blest!" (2.1.36-8)

In front of everyone he accuses Hermione of infidelity, orders Mamillius to be taken away from her, and sends her to prison. Hermione's response is a heroic stoicism: "I must be patient till the heavens look / With an aspect more favourable", but Leontes' lords do their best to argue her case, Antigonus going so far as to promise to geld his three daughters if Leontes' suspicions are proved true. To support his case Leontes sends Cleomenes and Dion to consult the Oracle.

Act 2.2

Paulina, Antigonus' wife and gentlewoman of the court, visits Hermione in prison, where she has given birth to a baby daughter. Paulina is one of the most vociferous characters in the play, and she is resolved to confront Leontes with his own folly. She wants to show him the baby, hoping that the sight of it will bring him to his senses, and convinces the gaoler to let her have it:

"This child was prisoner to the womb, and is
By law and process of great nature, thence
Free'd and enfranchis'd; not a party to
The anger of the king, nor guilty of
(If any be) the trespass of the queen" (2.2.59-63)

Act 2.3

Leontes is discovered, trying to assuage his tormented mind with thoughts of revenge, hardly a state of mind auspicious of success for Paulina's mission. He is informed that his son is ill, which he interprets as the boy's shame for his mother, and when Paulina forces her way to an audience, his reaction is furious:

"This brat is none of mine;
It is the issue of Polixenes.
Hence with it, and together with the dam
Commit them to the fire!" (2.3.93-4)

Paulina defiantly asserts that the baby is his, and looks like him too, so Leontes threatens to burn her too, to which she replies "I care not: / It is an heretic that makes the fire, / Not she which burns in't. I'll not call you tyrant; But..." The burning of heretics was more than just a brutal form of punishment and control, it was the ultimate court of religious truth and for that reason out of the control of any ruler: 'heretics' who die this way often become heroes and martyrs, symbols of truth. Paulina is desperate to show Leontes the extent of his folly, but she is forced from the room. Begged to reconsider, Leontes decides against killing the baby and sends Antigonus to expose her in some far-off country. As Antigonus leaves, news comes that Cleomenes and Dion have returned with the judgement of the Oracle.

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