Later that evening King Leontes was trying to coax King Polixenes to extend his visit to Sicily, but the guest was resisting. Leontes was accompanied by his wife Hermione and their young son Mamillius.
"Nine full moons have passed on the shepherd's watch since I left my throne in Bohemia without an occupant," King Polixenes said. "And it would take another nine moons, Leontes, just to thank you for my stay, and I will be eternally grateful when I leave. I multiply my thanks forever, adding a zero until a hundred thanks becomes a thousand and so on. Indeed, ten thousand thanks before I go!"
"Postpone your thanks a while yet and express them when you leave," Leontes retorted amicably.
"Leontes, that's tomorrow. I'm questioned by my fears as to what may be happening or unfolding in Bohemia during my absence. I don't want to return to some dissent that justified my worries. Besides I have stayed long enough to tire you."
"I am tougher than you think, brother!"
"I can't stay any longer!" Polixenes exclaimed.
"Oh, just one more week!"
"I must leave tomorrow," Polixenes insisted.
"Tomorrow! A week! We'll split the time between us then and in that your host will not be refused."
"Curtail your coaxing, please. There is no tongue that persuades me more! None, none in all the world could win me over so quickly. And so it would be now if there was any necessity in your request, however much I should deny it. Bohemian domestic matters call me homeward. To hinder my return through friendship would only cause problems and regret, to avoid both I must say farewell, Leontes."
King Leontes, undettered by Polixenes’ insistence, turned to his wife, Queen Hermione, to cajole their guest into staying.
"Hermione, don't sit tongue-tied, you speak to him!"
"I had thought," Queen Hermione said, "to have held my peace until you had him swear he couldn't stay. You, sir, charge him too coldly. Tell him, you are sure all in Bohemia is well. We heard that only yesterday from the courier. Tell him this: he's lost the game on his best excuse."
"Well said, Hermione."
"To say that he longs to see his son," the Queen added, "would make sense but let him say that, then let him go home. Let him swear that is the case and he can go. In fact we women will chase him off to fulfill his paternal responsibility. Polixenes, I think Bohemia and its heir can risk us borrowing you for another week! When Leontes visits Bohemia you have my permission to delay his departure by one month. Although, Leontes, I don't love you a tick less than any other woman loves her husband I would allow you to stay in Bohemia if Polixenes pleaded! You'll stay, Polixenes?"
"No, but you will?" Queen Hermione pleaded.
"I may not, indeed."
"Indeed!" the Queen said. "You put me off with feeble excuses! But I, though you would seek to remove the stars from their usual position with oaths, should yet say, Sir, you're not going. Indeed, you shall not go- a lady's indeed is as potent as a lord's. Will you go? Will you force me to keep you as a prisoner, not like a guest? If that be the case, you'll have to pay your discharge fee when you depart! What do you say to that? My prisoner? Or my guest? Which shall it be?"
"Your guest, then, madam. To be your prisoner implies I have offended, which is for me less easy to commit than you to punish."
"Not your gaoler, then, but your kind hostess. Come, I've been meaning to question you about the tricks you and my husband got up to when you were boys. You were handsome young things then?"
"We were, Hermione, two lads who thought there was nothing more to life but such a day tomorrow as today, and being young something that is eternal."
"Was not my lord the prankster of the two?"
"We were like twin lambs playing in the sun, one bleating at the other. What we shared was innocence for innocence. We knew nothing of the doctrine of ill-doing, nor did we dream that any others did. If we had pursued that life, and our childish spirits never been allow to mature with stronger blood, we should have answered heaven on Judgement Day boldly, Not guilty, cleared of all but the original sin we were born with."
"By this I gather you have been guilty since," Queen Hermione said mockingly.
"Oh, Hermione! Temptations have since littered our path! For in those young days my wife was a girl and your precious self had not yet crossed the eyes of my young friend."
"Goodness gracious! Don't pursue that line of thought or you'll say your wife and I are temptations! But go on, the offences we have made you commit we will answer for if you first sinned, continued to do so and if you sinned not with any but us."
"Is he won over yet?" King Leontes asked Hermione.
"He'll stay, my lord."
"At my request he would not! Hermione, my dearest, you have never spoken to better purpose."
"Never?" Hermione exclaimed mockingly.
"Never, but once."
"What! Have I only twice spoken well? When was the last occasion? Tell me- cram me with praise, and make your compliments as fat as the fireside dog. One good deed unpraised leaves the rest of our good intentions to die wanting. Don't ration compliments! One soft kiss can get you a thousand furlongs whereas a lash of the spur merely gains a few paces! But to the goal. My last good deed was to get Polixenes to stay. What was my first? It has a precedent, or I misunderstand you. Oh, I hope my one and only other good deed pleased you as much as this one! Only once before I have spoken as well! When? Tell me, tell me! I long to hear about it."
"Why, that was when those three dreary months prior to courtship had saddened me to distraction. Before I could make you open your white hand and commit your love to me. Then you said, I am yours for ever."
Queen Hermione smiled, delighted at her husband's explanation: "It is grace indeed. Why, look at you now! I have spoken graciously twice. The first time forever earned a royal husband, the second for your lifelong friend."
As the Hermione smiled at Polixenes, King Leontes' mood suddenly changed. As Polixenes took Hermione’s hand Leontes was consumed by an inexplicable jealousy.
"Too hot, too hot!" Leontes said to himself. "To mingle friendship as far as this is mingling blood. I have tremors in my heart at this sight. It dances- but not for joy, not for joy. This hospitality may look free and have an innocent face, derived from liberty, from heartiness, from bounty, a generous spirit, and very becoming of the hostess- that I grant. But holding hands and smiling and rejoicing as if it’s the culmination of the hunt? This is a display of hospitality that neither my heart nor my head likes!"
The presence of his son, Prince Mamillius, only aggravated Leontes' condition. He looked at the child closely but coolly.
"Are you my son?" he whispered in the child's ear.
"Yes, my good lord."
While speaking to his son, Leontes glanced at Hermione and Polixenes with increasing suspicion.
"In faith! That's my lad! What has dirtied your nose? They say it is a copy of mine. Come, captain, we must be neat and clean, young captain. And yet neat is what we call the steer, the heifer and the calf. Still they play with their hands! How now, you playful calf! Are you my calf?" he asked of Mamillius, not making sense to the child.
"Yes, if you want to play, my lord."
"You want a rough coat and the horns that I have, to be full like me. Yet they say we are like peas in a pod- women say so, but they will say anything. But were they being false, like cloth dyed black for a mourning occasion? Unreliable like the wind and water! Dice are loaded by the one who wins by any means. Yet it is true to say this boy looks like me. Come, sir page, look on me with your blue eye. Sweet villain! My cherished offspring! Can your mother look me in the eye? May it be jealousy that stabs my heart! Lust can make possible the impossible, as though I communicate with my dreams. How can this be? How can one create from nothing? Actually it's very plausible one can perceive something that is real, that’s what I’m doing, beyond my expectations, and it leads to a corruption of my heart and my mind!"
Mamillius stood rapt listening to his father but unable to follow to his confused thinking.
"What's wrong with Leontes?" Polixenes asked Hermione.
"He seems a trifle out of sorts."
"How, my lord! Where is you cheer?" Polixenes called over to Leontes. "How are you, best brother?"
"You look as if you have a head full of worries!" Hermione added. "Are you well, my lord?"
"Oh, nothing, I’m fine. You know how sometimes one’s nature will betray its folly, its tenderness, and make itself ridiculous with bouts of sentimentality! Looking at the contours of my boy's face, my thoughts turned to twenty-three years ago, and I saw myself not yet in breeches, in my green velvet coat, my dagger muzzled, in case it should wound its master, and so prove, as ornaments often do, too dangerous. How like I then was to this kernel, this sapling, this gentleman," Leontes said, and turning to Mamillius he asked, "My honest friend, will you take eggs for money?"
"No, my lord, I'll fight."
"You will! Why, happy man you have my luck! Polixenes, are you as fond of your young prince as we seem to be of ours?"
"When at home, sir, he is all the exercise I need, all the laughter, everything to talk about. One minute my sworn friend and then my enemy, my favourite, my soldier, statesman- everything. He exhausts me until a July day seems as short as a December afternoon. And with his varying childish ways he cures me of the thoughts that darken my mood."
Sworn friend, then my enemy. Those curious words unhinged Leontes yet further. He wasn't exactly sure what Polixenes meant but the sentiments seemed akin to his own thinking.
"Mamillius does the same for me. We two will take a walk, Polixenes, and leave you to your serious talk. Hermione, show our love in Polixenes' welcome. Let what is expensive in Sicily be cheap next to you and my young rover, he's close to my heart."
"If you want us, you'll find us in the garden," Hermione said. "Will you join us there?"
"Do as you please. You'll be found, as long as you are beneath the sky!"
Polixenes and Hermione were oblivious to Leontes’ sarcasm. Once again Leontes was seething with a jealous rage that inflamed him more as he spoke to himself: "I am fishing now, though you don't know how I give the line. Take the bait! Take the bait! How she holds up her mouth to his! And how she walks arm in arm with the boldness of a wife who knows she has a complacent husband!"
As Polixenes and Hermione disappeared from his view, Leontes' jealously swelled.
"Off they go! Incontestable evidence that they are knee-deep in sin! Go, play, boy, play. Your mother plays, and I play too, but so disgraceful is my part, that it is a role which will jeer me to my grave. Contempt and clamour will be my knell. Go, play, boy, play. There have been, or I am much deceived, cuckolds before now. And many a man there is, even now as I speak, who holds his wife by the arm, little thinking that she has been sluiced in his absence and his pond fished by his nearest neighbour, Sir Smile! Yes, there's comfort in knowing that this is widespread. Other men have gates and those gates opened, just like mine, against their wishes. If all who have had adulterous wives despaired, a tenth of mankind would hang themselves. A cure for this there is none. It is the bawdy planet of Venus that strikes, believe it. From east, west, north and south, this is the conclusion: a woman's womb cannot be barricaded. Know this, it will admit and discharge the enemy with bag and baggage. Many thousands of husbands have the disease, and are oblivious to the symptoms. How now, Mamillius!" Leontes barked at the baffled child.
"I am like you, they say."
"Why that's some comfort. What, Camillo are you there?"
"Aye, my good lord," Camillo answered.
"Go play, Mamillius. You are an honest boy."
Mamillius ran off to get some of the servants to play with him in one of his games.
"Camillo, this great sir will yet stay longer."
"Well, it certainly took some effort to get him to change his mind," Camillo said.
"You noticed?" Leontes said, consumed by suspicion.
"He would not stay at your petitions, insisting matters of state were calling him home." Camillo said, thinking he was merely explaining rather than fuelling Leontes’ paranoia.
"You noticed that, too?"
Leontes turned away from Camillo and paced the room. His suspicions were becoming more elaborate.
"They're gossiping already," he told himself, "whispers are doing the rounds. Leontes is in for a shock! It must be far gone if I’m the last to get wind of it. How was it, Camillo, that he choose to stay?"
"Why, at good Queen Hermione's pleading!"
"At the Queen's behest. Good, should be pertinent but, as it is, it is not. Was this grasped by any other understanding head but yours? Your head takes in the intricacies more readily than the blockheads. It hasn’t been noted, has it, by the more sensitive and astute natures? The lower masses are ignorant of this business? Tell me."
"Business, my lord! I think most understand Polixenes is simply extending his stay."
"He stays here longer," Camillo said respectfully but hesitantly as though the question was a trick.
"Yes, but why?"
"To satisfy Your Highness and at the request of our most gracious mistress."
"Satisfy? The request of your mistress! Satisfy! Let that suffice. I have trusted you, Camillo, with all the nearest things to my heart. You have been privy to the most private matters and, priest-like, you have cleansed my soul. Often after one of our talks I have left feeling like a reformed penitent. But I have been deceived by your integrity, which was never what it seemed."
"No, my lord!"
"To elaborate, you are not honest, or, if you are inclined towards honesty you are only honest when your cowardice is weak. And cowardice keeps honesty under its thumb. The other scenario is that despite being one of my most trusted servants you are negligent- or simply a fool who watches a domestic game played for the highest stakes and takes it all for jest."
"My gracious lord, I may be negligent, foolish and fearful. Of every one of these things no man is free, and inevitably his negligence, his folly and his fear, surface in all the things that go on in the world. But in your affairs, my lord, if ever I was willfully negligent, it was my folly. If industriously I played the fool, it was my negligence that didn't consider the outcome. If ever I failed to carry out one of your orders it was because I was seized by the kind of fear that befalls even the wisest, this, my lord, is the kind of thing that even honesty can never escape. But, I beg your grace, be plainer with me. Let me see my trespass for what it is. If I then deny it, it is not mine."
"Have you not seen them, Camillo? But that's past doubt, you have, or your eye-glass is thicker than a cuckold's horn. Or maybe you've heard, since even bad eyesight can catch up with the gossip. Any man with a brain in his head must think Hermione is crafty. If you peevishly deny- I didn't see or hear anything- that my wife is loose and doesn't deserve the same names as hurled at any village wench, say so and explain yourself."
"I can't stand here and listen to my sovereign mistress being defamed so without demanding a retraction. I've never heard you say anything less appropriate than this. Even to repeat it would be as bad as the sin you accuse her of- even if true!"
"Is whispering nothing? Is leaning cheek to cheek? Is meeting noses? Kissing with inside lip? Halting in the middle of everything with longing sighs? Infallible evidence of adultery. Playing footsie at the dinner table. Skulking in corners? Wishing the day to pass? Hours were minutes? Noon was midnight? And all eyes blind but theirs, theirs only, that would, unseen, be wicked? Is this nothing? Why, then the world and all that's in it is nothing- the covering sky is nothing. Polixenes is nothing. Hermione is nothing. Everything is nothing, if this adultery be nothing."
"My lord," Camillo pleaded, "rid yourself of this diseased opinion as soon as possible. For it is most dangerous."
"Say it is so, say it’s true."
"No, no, my lord."
"It is! You lie, you lie! I say you lie, Camillo, and I hate you. I pronounce you a gross lout, a mindless slave, or else a sniveling hesitant sycophant, who cannot with his own eyes differentiate between good and evil. If my wife's liver was as infected as her morals an hour glass would be more than her life expectancy."
"Who infects her?" Camillo asked hesitantly.
"Why, he that wears her like a medal hanging around his neck."
Camillo looked at Leontes mystified, anxious not to incur his wrath but obviously uncertain as to whom the King was referring.
"Polixenes! If I was surrounded by reliable truthful servants who understood that while my honour remains intact they gain and profit whenever I do then I wouldn't be in this situation. Yes, you, his cupbearer, whom I have promoted and praised, can see as plainly as Heaven sees earth and vice versa, that I am wounded to the quick. For me you can add something fatal to his nightly cordial, something that will give him everlasting sleep and me a similarly long peace."
"Sir, my lord, I could do this, but not with a rash potion, but with a lingering dram that should not work suddenly like poison. But I cannot believe this flaw in my mistress, so honourable is Hermione. I have loved you-"
"If you are going to question me, go rot. Do you think I am so confused and unsettled that I would willingly put myself through this? Would I sully the purity and whiteness of my sheets, which was the preserve of sleep and is now a bed of thorns, nettles, tails of wasps? Would I give scandal to the blood of the Prince my son, whom I do think is mine and love as mine, without reason to do so? Would I do this? Can a man delude himself in such matters?"
"I must believe you, sir. I do, and I will see to Polixenes. But on condition that when he's removed, you will again take Hermione as your own, as you did in the beginning, even if only for your son's sake, and thereby silencing dangerous talk in courts and kingdoms known and allied to Sicily."
"You advise this, and it is my own course. I'll give no blemish to her honour, none."
"My lord, go then, and with a countenance as clear as friendship wears at feasts, be amicable with Polixenes and Hermione. I am his cupbearer, if from me he drinks a wholesome beverage then count me not your servant."
"This is all I ask. Do it and you shall have one half of my heart. Do not do it, and you will have split your own heart."
"I'll do it, my lord."
"I will appear friendly to Polixenes, as you have advised."
King Leontes left Camillo in solitude to ponder the awful situation.
"Oh miserable lady! Oh, miserable me! What a situation to be in! I must be the poisoner of good Polixenes, and my grounds for doing so is obedience to a master who is at war with himself, and demands that his friends be so too. Do this deed and promotion will follow. Even if I could find examples of thousands who had killed anointed kings and flourished afterwards, I would not do it. But since there is neither verbal nor documentary evidence of this let villainy itself refuse to carry out this order. I will have to leave the Sicilian court. To do it or not do it, either way I will suffer. Oh, no, here comes Polixenes! Maybe this is a sign!"
At first Camillo could not bring himself to speak to Polixenes, the weight of the preceding minutes was crippling him.
"This is strange! I think my stock has dropped in the court of Leontes. Cat got your tongue, Camillo? Camillo, good afternoon."
"Hail, most royal sir!"
"What is the news in the court?"
"Nothing new, my lord."
"No? The King has a countenance which suggests he has lost some province, a region loved as he loves himself. When I met him there and greeted him with customary compliment, he rolled his eyes, muttered something, and sped off. Leaving me to wonder what has happened to affect his mood in such a way."
"I dare not know, my lord."
"Why, dare not! Do not? Do you know, and dare not repeat? Make sense, what is it you know? It is only to yourself you are saying you cannot and dare not. Good Camillo, your changing complexion is a mirror which shows me that in the eyes of some mine has changed too. Obviously I must be a party to this mood change in Leontes, your face tells me as much."
"There is an ailment that is contaminating the court, but I cannot name the disease, and it is caught from you, but you are still in good health."
"How! Caught from me! I don't have the deadly gaze of the basilisk one reads about in myths. I have looked on thousands who have been all the better for it- and so far have killed none. Camillo, your talents have led you to your current status, and you are no less than those of us who have merely inherited title and rank, so I beg you, if you know something I should know tell me rather than concealing it to keep me in ignorance."
"I cannot answer."
"A sickness caught from me- yet I am well! I must be answered. Do you hear me, Camillo, tell me by all that is honourable in man, the least of which is my request. Tell what inkling you have of something harmful coming my way. How far off? How near? How to prevent it? If unavoidable, how best to bear it?"
"Sir, I will tell you, since I am asked in honour and by a man I that I consider to be honourable. Therefore take heed as swiftly as I utter it, or both of us will suffer and with no fond farewell!"
"Carry on, good Camillo."
"I have been appointed by him to murder you."
"By whom, Camillo?"
"By the King."
"He thinks, no, with all confidence he swears, as if he had seen it or had asked you to do it, that you have touched Hermione inappropriately."
"Oh, then my best blood turn to an infected jelly and my name be tarnished like Judas who betrayed Jesus! May my fine reputation become a stench which plagues even the least sensitive nostrils wherever I go! May I be shunned and hated like the most lethal contagion."
"You can deny his suspicions by swearing on all the stars and gods, but it would be easier to forbid the sea to follow the movements of the moon than get Leontes to question his belief. His folly will live as long as he lives."
"What provoked this?"
"I don't know. But I'm sure it’s safer to avoid what has grown than question how it was born. If therefore you dare trust the honesty that exists in my being, which I will bring as a pledge, we should flee tonight. I will get wind of this to your diplomats and courtiers and will discreetly have them leave the city through different gates. My fate, I'll put in your hands. My services are at your disposal- I have no future in Sicily. Don't be wary, for by the honour of my parents, I have told you the truth. If you seek it yourself, I dare not stand by, nor shall you be safer than one Leontes has condemned and sworn to execute."
"I believe you. I saw his heart in his face. Give me your hand. Guide me and your place will always be next to mine. My ships are ready since my people expected my departure two days ago. This jealousy is for a precious creature. Since Hermione is rare, then it must be great, and as Leontes is mighty, it must be violent, and as he believes he is dishonoured by a man for whom he professed affection, his vengeance will be made more bitter. Fear overshadows me. May our departure save us and Hermione, though she must remain here to be subjected to his fury despite doing nothing to justify his suspicion. Come, Camillo. I will respect you as a father if you save me tonight. Let's go."
"It is in my authority to command the keys of all the gates. Please, Polixenes, let us waste no time. Come, sir, away."