In a court of Sicily, Lord Archidamus of Bohemia invites Lord Camillo of Sicilia to visit Bohemia when he can. They also speak how King Leontes’ son Mamillius will someday be king. Next, the king of Bohemia, Polixenes, says goodbye to the king and queen of Sicilia, Leontes and Hermione, although they beg him to stay and enjoy himself more in Sicilia. Polixenes reminisces with Hermione how he and Leontes had been boyhood friends.
Eventually, she convinces Polixenes to stay in Sicilia, making Leontes wonder why she could persuade Polixenes to stay, but he could not, leading Leontes to complain privately that his wife is flirting with Polixenes too much. Leontes tells Camillo of his suspicions that his wife is unfaithful, though Camillo tries to change his mind. But, at length, Leontes seems to convince Camillo of Leontes’ wife’s unfaithfulness, though privately Camillo still believes Leontes is wrong. Camillo asks Leontes to forgive the queen by and by, but Leontes states he will not.
Camillo then approaches Polixenes and warns him he (Camillo) is to kill him for flirting with Hermione. Camillo tells Polixenes he will help his friends and he flee the city, then serve under him, defecting from Leontes’ court. At the royal court, Hermione plays with Mamillius when Leontes enters, hearing that Camillo has left with Polixenes. Leontes wrongly determines that Camillo had been working for Polixenes for a long time, then accuses Hermione of being unfaithful and sends her to prison,although she publicly denies all. Antigonus and other lords try in vain to change Leontes’ mind.
He tells them he has sent a messenger to the oracles Delphos and Apollo to confirm or deny his suspicions. At the prison, Antigonus’ wife Paulina comes to visit Hermione, but the jailer only lets her see Hermione’s lady Emilia. Emilia tells her the stress has caused Hermione to go into labor and have a baby girl. Paulina convinces Hermione to let her bring the baby to Leontes in hopes of calming him. In Leontes’ chamber, he muses how he can only take out his revenge on the queen, but not on Polixenes who is too far away. We also learn Prince Mamillius has fallen sick over depression for losing his mother.
Paulina arrives and presents Leontes’ daughter to him. Leontes denies the child, but Paulina yells at him and insists it is his baby and not Polixenes’. Yet, he still yells at her and then accuses Antigonus of setting his wife up to her outbursts. Leontes then orders Antigonus to burn and kill the baby he calls a bastard. The lords convince him to let the baby live, but Leontes then orders Antigonus to abandon the child in a desert place and let it fiend for itself. Cleomenes and Dion return from the oracle with an unknown scroll fro it.
In a court of justice, Leontes acts as judge and juror over the charges against his wife, which now include a supposed plot against Leontes’ life by Camillo and Hermione. She, as is her right, pleads not guilty and asks Leontes to change his mind. Of course, Leontes is set in his decision and promises her death. Cleomenes and Dion then bring in the oracle’s scroll which declares “Hermione is chaste, Polixenes blameless, Camillo a true subject, Leontes a jealous tyrant, his innocent babe truly begotten, and the king shall live without an heir, if that which is lost be not found.
Leontes denies it is true then learns his son is dead, causing Hermione to faint. Finally, Leontes sees the truth and repents, vowing to forgive all, newly woo the queen, and call Camillo home. Paulina then appears and tells Leontes his wife is dead too, blaming it all on him. He accepts all the blame and vows to forever daily visit and cry at the tomb of his wife and son. In Bohemia, Antigonus, and a mariner arrive with the king’s daughter. In private, Antigonus tells us he saw the queen’s ghost the previous night and it told him to name the baby Perdita (the lost girl) and leave it in Bohemia.
He does so, leaving it as a storm was brewing; in fact, he is chased away by a bear. A shepherd appears and finds the baby and decides to take it in. The shepherd’s son (a clown) then appears and tells his dad he saw a ship sink (Antigonus’) and he saw Antigonus mauled and killed by the bear, though he told the clown his name before he died. With the babe, the shepherd finds a pot of gold, prompting great rejoicing and a vow to raise the child. Time appears and announces 16 years has passed. He tells us Leontes has shut himself up, while his unknown daughter Perdita has grown and is being courted by Polixenes’ son Florizel.
At the Bohemian court, Camillo tells Polixenes he wishes to return to Sicily, but Polixenes forbids it and convinces Camillo to say longer. We learn Florizel is spending much time at the shepherd’s house. The men plan to visit the shepherd in disguise. Before the shepherd’s house, Autolycus (a thief) walks and spies the Clown going to market to buy supplies for a great feast. Autolycus approaches him and pretends to have been robbed. While the Clown helps him up, he picks the Clown’s pocket, without him noticing. At the shepherds cottage, Florizel woos
Perdita while she tells him she fears his father (the king) will discover them and be angry since she is of a lower rank. The feast begins and Polixenes and Camillo appear (disguised) while Perdita (as mistress of the feast) greets them. Florizel continues to woo her and promises she shall be queen. Polixenes tells Camillo that Perdita is the most beautiful “low-born lass” he’s ever seen. The shepherd tells Polixenes the boy courting Perdita is Doricles (actually Florizel) and they are deep in love. Autolycus appears as a peddler/salesman with ballads and songs for ale.
We learn two shepherdesses, Mopsa and Dorcas are both pursuing the clown for marriage. The Shepherd, Polixenes, and Camillo come to Florizel and Perdita. The Shepherd offers Perdita’s hand in marriage to Florizel, but Polixenes reveals himself and orders his son not to marry, else he be barred from succession. Polixenes leaves and the Shepherd, in despair admonishes the youths for letting their relationship occur. Florizel promises he will still marry Perdita, even against Camillo’s suggestions. Florizel vows to flee with Perdita to the sea.
Camillo then suggests they sail to Sicily and greet king Leontes. Camillo promises to instruct them in how to act and promises to try to appease the king in their absence. Autolycus appears and tells how he has swindled all. He bumps into Camillo and the others and they have him trade clothes with Florizel. He and Perdita leave and Camillo tells the audience he plans to tell the king of their escape immediately, then use the pursuit as a chance to get back to Sicily, while trying to calm the king during the journey.
The Clown and Shepherd appear and the Clown convinces his dad to tell the king that the daughter is adopted, hoping to at least clear themselves from his fury. Autolycus, now in the prince’s clothes and pretending to be a lord stops them and delays them, claiming the king is raging mad and plans to kill them both (obviously lying). Autolycus convinces them to let him help them deliver their goods to the king, in return for their gold. Back in Sicily, Cleomenes tries to convince the king to forget his past and remarry. But Paulina reminds him that the oracle said he shall not get an heir (remarry) until his lost daughter be found.
She makes him swear not to marry until she bid hi do so. In fact, she promises to provide him with a wife who looks just like his long dead wife. Florizel and Perdita arrive from Bohemia and bring greetings of love to Leontes. Florizel tells Leontes his princess is from Libya, but a lord appears announcing Polixenes has arrived and demands Florizel arrested. Leontes promises to help ease tensions. We learn the box of the shepherd’s that was given to Polixenes proved Perdita is Leontes’ daughter. All are happy and the two kings agree to let the children marry.
Paulina learns her husband Antigonus is dead, and announces she has a statue carved in the form of Hermione which supposedly can speak if asked a question. All go to Paulina’s house to celebrate the wedding and see the “statue” of Hermione. Leontes, upon seeing the “statue”, asks why it has wrinkles, but Paulina explains that the carver meant it so. After much amazement, Paulina promises to make the “statue” move and take Leontes hand. Finally, Hermione speaks and admits she has hid for 16 years in Paulina’s house. Leontes then declares that Camillo should marry Paulina who is now widowed. All depart in happiness.