One of Shakespeare's last, great plays, "The Winter's Tale" presents a story whose political themes would have had obvious force for its contemporaneous audience. Most early-17th Century listeners and readers knew that their last married king (prior to the incumbent James I), Henry VIII, had disposed of two of his wives - Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard - on grounds of sexual infidelity; the evidence for the initial accusations was an opaque mixture of paranoid wish-fulfillment and personal pragmatism, legitimated by being voiced in the forum of the Reformist Tudor politics of the 1530s and '40s. Thus we have Leontes, king of Sicilia, deluded with frightening rapidity into believing his pregnant wife Hermione and boyhood fr iend Polixenes, king of Bohemia, are conducting a secret and treasonous affair, the imaginary nature of which is set coolly before the audience. Leontes' suspicions feed upon the misread acts of his disbelieving lords; he breaks in upon Hermione and the young prince, Mamillius - aptly, as Mamillius is unfolding a sad, winter's tale for his mother - and orders the queen's arrest and incarceration. Despite Hermione's magisterial self-defence and renunciation at the trial, and the plainer impartiality of the Oracle, Leontes is unrelenting until the reports of the offstage deaths of both Hermione and Mamillius shock him into a realization of his folly; the plot's first resolution is accompanied by the closing of the Sicilian action and the image of the banished, newborn child rescued from the shores of Bohemia.
Act IV opens with personified Time bringing us forward to Spring and Polixenes' son Florizel meeting Perdita, wh ose identity as Leontes' daughter is guessed at by his estranged lord, Camillo. In flight from the disapproving king, the lovers travel to Sicilia where a reunion between father and daughter segues into a final rapprochment before the statue of Hermione, orchestrated by the steadfast Paulina. The play's second and final resolution places forgiveness and hard-won wisdom alongside a frank acknowlegement of the inevitability of loss.