Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics
EONTES, King of Sicily, and his queen, the beautiful and
virtuous Hermione, once lived in the greatest harmony together.
So happy was Leontes in the love of this excellent lady that he
had no wish ungratified, except that he sometimes desired to
see again and to present to his queen his old companion and
schoolfellow, Polixenes, King of Bohemia. Leontes and Polixenes
were brought up together from their infancy, but being, by the
death of their fathers, called to reign over their respective
kingdoms, they had not met for many years, though they frequently
interchanged gifts, letters, and loving embassies.
At length, after repeated invitations, Polixenes came from
Bohemia to the Sicilian court, to make his friend Leontes a
At first this visit gave nothing but pleasure to Leontes. He
recommended the friend of his youth to the queen's particular
attention, and seemed in the presence of his dear friend and old
companion to have his felicity quite completed. They talked over
old times; their school-days and their youthful pranks were
remembered, and recounted to Hermione, who always took a cheerful
part in these conversations.
When, after a long stay, Polixenes was preparing to depart,
Hermione, at the desire of her husband, joined her entreaties to
his that Polixenes would prolong his visit.
And now began this good queen's sorrow; for Polixenes, refusing
to stay at the request of Leontes, was won over by Hermione's
gentle and persuasive words to put off his departure for some
 weeks longer. Upon this, although Leontes had so long known the
integrity and honorable principles of his friend Polixenes, as
well as the excellent disposition of his virtuous queen, he was
seized with an ungovernable jealousy. Every attention Hermione
showed to Polixenes, though by her husband's particular desire
and merely to please him, increased the unfortunate king's
jealousy; and from being a loving and a true friend, and the best
and fondest of husbands, Leontes became suddenly a savage and
inhuman monster. Sending for Camillo, one of the lords of his
court, and telling him of the suspicion he entertained, he
commanded him to poison Polixenes.
Camillo was a good man, and he, well knowing that the jealousy of
Leontes had not the slightest foundation in truth, instead of
poisoning Polixenes, acquainted him with the king his master's
orders, and agreed to escape with him out of the Sicilian
dominions; and Polixenes, with the assistance of Camillo,
arrived safe in his own kingdom of Bohemia, where Camillo lived
from that time in the king's court and became the chief friend
and favorite of Polixenes.
The flight of Polixenes enraged the jealous Leontes still more;
he went to the queen's apartment, where the good lady was sitting
with her little son Mamillius, who was just beginning to tell one
of his best stories to amuse his mother, when the king entered
and, taking the child away, sent Hermione to prison.
Mamillius, though but a very young child, loved his mother
tenderly; and when he saw her so dishonored, and found she was
taken from him to be put into a prison, he took it deeply to
heart and drooped and pined away by slow degrees, losing his
appetite and his sleep, till it was thought his grief would kill
The king, when he had sent his queen to prison, commanded
Cleomenes and Dion, two Sicilian lords, to go to Delphos, there
to inquire of the oracle at the temple of Apollo if his queen had
been unfaithful to him.
When Hermione had been a short time in prison she was brought to
bed of a daughter; and the poor lady received much comfort
the sight of her pretty baby, and she said to it, "My poor little
prisoner, I am as innocent as you are."
Hermione had a kind friend in the noble-spirited Paulina, who was
the wife of Antigonus, a Sicilian lord; and when the lady Paulina
heard her royal mistress was brought to bed she went to the
prison where Hermione was confined; and she said to Emilia, a
lady who attended upon Hermione, "I pray you, Emilia, tell the
good queen, if her Majesty dare trust me with her little babe, I
will carry it to the king, its father: we do not know how he may
soften at the sight of his innocent child."
"Most worthy madam," replied Emilia, "I will acquaint the queen
with your noble offer. She was wishing to-day that she had any
friend who would venture to present the child to the king."
"And tell her," said Paulina, "that I will speak boldly to
Leontes in her defense."
"May you be forever blessed," said Emilia, "for your kindness to
our gracious queen!"
Emilia then went to Hermione, who joyfully gave up her baby to
the care of Paulina, for she had feared that no one would dare
venture to present the child to its father.
Paulina took the new-born infant and, forcing herself into the
king's presence, notwithstanding her husband, fearing the king's
anger, endeavored to prevent her, she laid the babe at its
father's feet; and Paulina made a noble speech to the king in
defense of Hermione, and she reproached him severely for his
inhumanity and implored him to have mercy on his innocent wife
and child. But Paulina's spirited remonstrances only aggravated
Leontes's displeasure, and he ordered her husband Antigonus to
take her from his presence.
IMPLORED HIM TO HAVE MERCY
ON HIS INNOCENT WIFE AND CHILD
When Paulina went away she left the little baby at its father's
feet, thinking when he was alone with it he would look upon it
and have pity on its helpless innocence.
The good Paulina was mistaken, for no sooner was she gone than
the merciless father ordered Antigonus, Paulina's husband,
 to take the child and carry it out to sea and leave it upon some
desert shore to perish.
Antigonus, unlike the good Camillo, too well obeyed the orders of
Leontes; for he immediately carried the child on shipboard, and
put out to sea, intending to leave it on the first desert coast
he could find.
So firmly was the king persuaded of the guilt of Hermione that he
would not wait for the return of Cleomenes and Dion; whom he had
sent to consult the oracle of Apollo at Delphos, but before the
queen was recovered from her lying-in, and from the grief for the
loss of her precious baby, he had her brought to a public trial
before all the lords and nobles of his court. And when all the
great lords, the judges, and all the nobility of the land were
assembled together to try Hermione, and that unhappy queen was
standing as a prisoner before her subjects to receive their
judgment, Cleomenes and Dion entered the assembly and presented
to the king the answer of the oracle, sealed up; and Leontes
commanded the seal to be broken, and the words of the oracle to
be read aloud, and these were the words:
"Hermione is innocent, Polixenes blameless, Camillo a true
subject, Leontes a jealous tyrant, and the king shall live
without an heir if that which is lost be not found."
The king would give no credit to the words of the oracle. He said
it was a falsehood invented by the queen's friends, and he
desired the judge to proceed in the trial of the queen; but while
Leontes was speaking a man entered and told him that the Prince
Mamillius, hearing his mother was to be tried for her life,
struck with grief and shame, had suddenly died.
Hermione, upon hearing of the death of this dear, affectionate
child, who had lost his life in sorrowing for her misfortune,
fainted; and Leontes, pierced to the heart by the news, began to
feel pity for his unhappy queen, and he ordered Paulina, and the
ladies who were her attendants, to take her away and use means
for her recovery. Paulina soon returned and told the king that
Hermione was dead.
 When Leontes heard that the queen was dead he repented of his
cruelty to her; and now that he thought his ill-usage had broken
Hermione's heart, he believed her innocent; and now he thought
the words of the oracle were true, as he knew "if that which was
lost was not found," which he concluded was his young daughter,
he should be without an heir, the young Prince Mamillius being
dead; and he would give his kingdom now to recover his lost
daughter. And Leontes gave himself up to remorse and passed many
years in mournful thoughts and repentant grief.
The ship in which Antigonus carried the infant princess out to
sea was driven by a storm upon the coast of Bohemia, the very
kingdom of the good King Polixenes. Here Antigonus landed and
here he left the little baby.
Antigonus never returned to Sicily to tell Leontes where he had
left his daughter, for, as he was going back to the ship, a bear
came out of the woods and tore him to pieces;
 a just punishment on him for obeying the wicked order of Leontes.
The child was dressed in rich clothes and jewels; for Hermione
had made it very fine when she sent it to Leontes, and Antigonus
had pinned a paper to its mantle, and the name of "Perdita"
written thereon, and words obscurely intimating its high birth
and untoward fate.
This poor, deserted baby was found by a shepherd. He was a humane
man, and so he carried the little Perdita home to his wife, who
nursed it tenderly. But poverty tempted the shepherd to conceal
the rich prize he had found; therefore he left that part of the
country, that no one might know where he got his riches, and with
part of Perdita's jewels he bought herds of sheep and became a
wealthy shepherd. He brought up Perdita as his own child, and she
knew not she was any other than a shepherd's daughter.
The little Perdita grew up a lovely maiden; and though she had no
better education than that of a shepherd's daughter, yet so did
the natural graces she inherited from her royal mother shine
forth in her untutored mind that no one, from her behavior, would
have known she had not been brought up in her father's court.
Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, had an only son, whose name was
Florizel. As this young prince was hunting near the shepherd's
dwelling he saw the old man's supposed daughter; and the beauty,
modesty, and queenlike deportment of Perdita caused him instantly
to fall in love with her. He soon, under the name of Doricles,
and in the disguise of a private gentleman, became a constant
visitor at the old shepherd's house. Florizel's frequent absences
from court alarmed Polixenes; and setting people to watch his
son, he discovered his love for the shepherd's fair daughter.
Polixenes then called for Camillo, the faithful Camillo, who had
preserved his life from the fury of Leontes, and desired that he
would accompany him to the house of the shepherd, the supposed
father of Perdita.
 Polixenes and Camillo, both in disguise,
arrived at the old shepherd's dwelling while they were
celebrating the feast of sheep-shearing; and though they were
strangers, yet at the sheep-shearing, every guest being made
welcome, they were invited to walk in and join in the general
Nothing but mirth and jollity was going forward. Tables were
spread and great preparations were making for the rustic
feast. Some lads and lasses were dancing on the green before the
house, while others of the young men were buying ribands, gloves,
and such toys of a peddler at the door.
While this busy scene was going forward Florizel and Perdita sat
quietly in a retired corner, seemingly more pleased with the
conversation of each other than desirous of engaging in the
sports and silly amusements of those around them.
The king was so disguised that it was impossible his son could
know him. He therefore advanced near enough to hear the
conversation. The simple yet elegant manner in which Perdita
conversed with his son did not a little surprise Polixenes. He
said to Camillo:
"This is the prettiest low-born lass I ever saw; nothing she does
or says but looks like something greater than herself, too noble
for this place."
 Camillo replied, "Indeed she is the very queen of curds and
"Pray, my good friend," said the king to the old shepherd, "what
fair swain is that talking with your daughter?"
"They call him Doricles," replied the shepherd. "He says he loves
my daughter; and, to speak truth, there is not a kiss to choose
which loves the other best. If young Doricles can get her, she
shall bring him that he little dreams of," meaning the remainder
of Perdita's jewels; which, after he had bought herds of sheep
with part of them, he had carefully hoarded up for her marriage
Polixenes then addressed his son. "How now, young man!" said he.
"Your heart seems full of something that takes off your mind from
feasting. When I was young I used to load my love with presents;
but you have let the peddler go and have bought your lass no
The young prince, who little thought he was talking to the king
his father, replied, "Old sir, she prizes not such trifles; the
gifts which Perdita expects from me are locked up in my heart."
Then turning to Perdita, he said to her, "Oh, hear me, Perdita,
before this ancient gentleman, who it seems was once himself a
lover; he shall hear what I profess." Florizel then called upon
the old stranger to be a witness to a solemn promise of marriage
which he made to Perdita, saying to Polixenes, "I pray you, mark
"Mark your divorce, young sir," said the king, discovering
himself. Polixenes then reproached his son for daring to contract
himself to this low-born maiden, calling Perdita "shepherd's
brat, sheep-hook," and other disrespectful names, and threatening
if ever she suffered his son to see her again, he would put her,
and the old shepherd her father, to a cruel death.
The king then left them in great wrath, and ordered Camillo to
follow him with Prince Florizel.
When the king had departed, Perdita, whose royal nature was
roused by Polixenes's reproaches, said, "Though we are
undone, I was not much afraid; and once or twice I was about to
speak and tell him plainly that the selfsame sun which shines
upon his palace hides not his face from our cottage, but looks on
both alike." Then sorrowfully she said, "But now I am awakened
from this dream, I will queen it no further. Leave me, sir. I
will go milk my ewes and weep."
The kind-hearted Camillo was charmed with the spirit and
propriety of Perdita's behavior; and, perceiving that the young
prince was too deeply in love to give up his mistress at the
command of his royal father, he thought of a way to befriend the
lovers and at the same time to execute a favorite scheme he had
in his mind.
Camillo had long known that Leontes, the King of Sicily, was
become a true penitent; and though Camillo was now the favored
friend of King Polixenes, he could not help wishing once more to
see his late royal master and his native home. He therefore
proposed to Florizel and Perdita that they should accompany him
to the Sicilian court, where he would engage Leontes should
protect them till, through his mediation, they could obtain
pardon from Polixenes and his consent to their marriage.
To this proposal they joyfully agreed; and Camillo, who conducted
everything relative to their flight, allowed the old shepherd to
go along with them.
The shepherd took with him the remainder of Perdita's jewels, her
baby clothes, and the paper which he had found pinned to her
After a prosperous voyage, Florizel and Perdita, Camillo and the
old shepherd, arrived in safety at the court of Leontes. Leontes,
who still mourned his dead Hermione and his lost child, received
Camillo with great kindness and gave a cordial welcome to Prince
Florizel. But Perdita, whom Florizel introduced as his princess,
seemed to engross all Leontes's attention. Perceiving a
resemblance between her and his dead queen Hermione,
 his grief
broke out afresh, and he said such a lovely creature might his
own daughter have been if he had not so cruelly destroyed her.
"And then, too," said he to Florizel, "I lost the society and
friendship of your brave father, whom I now desire more than my
life once again to look upon."
When the old shepherd heard how much notice the king had taken of
Perdita, and that he had lost a daughter who was exposed in
infancy, he fell to comparing the time when he found the little
Perdita with the manner of its exposure, the jewels and other
tokens of its high birth; from all which it was impossible for
him not to conclude that Perdita and the king's lost daughter
were the same.
Florizel and Perdita, Camillo and the faithful Paulina, were
present when the old shepherd related to the king the manner in
which he had found the child, and also the circumstance of
Antigonus's death, he having seen the bear seize upon him. He
showed the rich mantle in which Paulina remembered Hermione had
wrapped the child; and he produced a jewel which she remembered
Hermione had tied about Perdita's neck; and he gave up the paper
which Paulina knew to be the writing of her husband. It could not
be doubted that Perdita was Leontes's own daughter. But, oh, the
noble struggles of Paulina, between sorrow for her husband's
death and joy that the oracle was fulfilled, in the king's heir,
his long-lost daughter being found! When Leontes heard that
Perdita was his daughter, the great sorrow that he felt that
Hermione was not living to behold her child made him that he
could say nothing for a long time but "Oh, thy mother, thy
Paulina interrupted this joyful yet distressful scene with saying
to Leontes that she had a statue newly finished by that rare
Italian master, Julio Romano, which was such a perfect
resemblance of the queen that would his Majesty be pleased to go
to her house and look upon it, he would be almost ready to think
it was Hermione herself. Thither then they all went; the king,
 anxious to see the semblance of his Hermione, and Perdita longing
to behold what the mother she never saw did look like.
When Paulina drew back the curtain which concealed this famous
statue, so perfectly did it resemble Hermione that all the king's
sorrow was renewed at the sight; for a long time he had no power
to speak or move.
"I like your silence, my liege," said Paulina; "it the more shows
your wonder. Is not this statue very like your queen?"
At length the king said: "Oh, thus she stood, even with such
majesty, when I first wooed her. But yet, Paulina, Hermione was
not so aged as this statue looks."
Paulina replied: "So much the more the carver's excellence, who
has made the statue as Hermione would have looked had she been
living now. But let me draw the curtain, sire, lest presently you
think it moves."
The king then said: "Do not draw the curtain. Would I were dead!
See, Carmillo, would you not think it breathed? Her eye seems to
have motion in it."
"I must draw the curtain, my liege," said Paulina. "You are so
transported, you will persuade yourself the statue lives."
"Oh, sweet Pauline," said Leontes, "make me think so twenty years
together! Still methinks there is an air comes from her. What
fine chisel could ever yet cut breath? Let no man mock me, for I
will kiss her."
"Good my lord, forbear!" said Paulina. "The ruddiness upon
lip is wet; you will stain your own with oily painting. Shall I
draw the curtain?"
"No, not these twenty years," said Leontes.
Perdita, who all this time had been kneeling and beholding in
silent admiration the statue of her matchless mother, said now,
"And so long could I stay here, looking upon my dear mother."
"Either forbear this transport," said Paulina to Leontes, "and
let me draw the curtain or prepare yourself for more amazement. I
can make the statue move indeed; aye, and descend from off the
pedestal and take you by the hand. But then you will think, which
I protest I am not, that I am assisted by some wicked powers."
"What you can make her do," said the astonished king, "I am
content to look upon. What you can make her speak I am content to
hear; for it is as easy to make her speak as move."
Paulina then ordered some slow and solemn music, which she had
prepared for the purpose, to strike up; and, to the amazement of
all the beholders, the statue came down from off the pedestal and
threw its arms around Leontes's neck. The statue then began to
speak, praying for blessings on her husband and on her child, the
newly found Perdita.
No wonder that the statue hung upon Leontes's neck and blessed
her husband and her child. No wonder; for the statue was indeed
Hermione herself, the real, the living queen.
Paulina had falsely reported to the king the death of Hermione'
thinking that the only means to preserve her royal mistress's
life; and with the good Paulina Hermione had lived ever since,
never choosing Leontes should know she was living till she heard
Perdita was found; for though she had long forgiven the injuries
which Leontes had done to herself, she could not pardon his
cruelty to his infant daughter.
His dead queen thus restored to life, his lost daughter found,
the long-sorrowing Leontes could scarcely support the excess of
his own happiness.
Nothing but congratulations and affectionate speeches were
on all sides. Now the delighted parents thanked Prince Florizel
for loving their lowly seeming daughter; and now they blessed the
good old shepherd for preserving their child. Greatly did Camillo
and Paulina rejoice that they had lived to see so good an end of
all their faithful services.
And as if nothing should be wanting to complete this strange and
unlooked-for joy, King Polixenes himself now entered the palace.
When Polixenes first missed his son and Camillo, knowing that
Camillo had long wished to return to Sicily, he conjectured he
should find the fugitives here; and, following them with all
speed, he happened to just arrive at this the happiest moment of
Polixenes took a part in the general joy; he forgave his friend
Leontes the unjust jealousy he had conceived against him, and
they once more loved each other with all the warmth of their
first boyish friendship. And there was no fear that Polixenes
would now oppose his son's marriage with Perdita. She was no
"sheep-hook" now, but the heiress of the crown of Sicily.
Thus have we seen the patient virtues of the long-suffering
Hermione rewarded. That excellent lady lived many years with her
Leontes and her Perdita, the happiest of mothers and of queens.