In the palace the preparations for Hermione's trial were complete and everyone was ushered into a ceremonial chamber. The atmosphere was strange and curious. The dignitaries and officials of Sicily were visibly nervous as the final preparations for this unprecedented trial were conducted before them. An official called for silence. King Leontes stood to address the court.
"This trial, to my great grief we open. Striking at my heart, the accused is the daughter of a king, my wife, and one of us too much loved. Let me be cleared of tyranny, since I publicly seek justice, which shall have its course to guilt or acquittal. Bring in the prisoner."
A court official called to the other room where Hermione was held.
"It is His Highness' pleasure that the Queen appear in person here in court."
Due to Leontes’ paranoia Hermione was brought in under heavy guard. She was accompanied by Paulina, Emilia and other ladies-in-waiting. The spectators fidgeted and muttered under their breaths.
"Silence!" the court clerk yelled.
"Read the indictment," Leontes said.
A court official unfurled a scroll and addressed the court.
"Hermione, Queen to the worthy Leontes, King of Sicily, you are here accused and arraigned of high treason for committing adultery with Polixenes, King of Bohemia, and conspiring with Camillo to take away the life of our sovereign lord the King, your royal husband. The aim whereof being by circumstances partly laid open, you, Hermione, contrary to the faith and allegiance of a true subject, did counsel and aid them, for their own safety, to flee by night."
The court gasped at every stage as the indictment was read.
"Since what I am about to say,” Hermione began, ”must be that which contradicts the accusations, and the testimony on my part and no other comes from myself, it will hardly do me any good to say, Not guilty. My integrity, being questioned, shall reveal itself in what I have to say. But if divine powers watch over our human actions, as I believe they do, do not doubt then that innocence shall make false accusation blush and tyranny tremble at patience. You, my lord, best know, even though you act otherwise, my past life has been as virtuous, as chaste, as true, as I am now unhappy, which is even more profound than anything found in a story or play performed for an audience to understand and articulate. Look at me, the royal partner, who owns a part of the throne, a great king's daughter, the mother to a hopeful prince, forced to stand here and beg for life and honour before whoever cares to watch. My life I now value as much as my grief, which is something I will happily forsake, but honour is something bequeathed to me, and I will bequeath it to my children. It is only for that, that I stand here. I appeal to your own conscience, Leontes. Before Polixenes came to your court, I was in your favour because I merited being so. After his arrival, when was the encounter so debased that it has led me here today? If one iota beyond the bounds of honour, in act or in intention, have I strayed then hardened be the hearts of all who hear me, and my nearest of kin can cry insults upon my grave!"
"I have yet to hear of any bold vice that wasn’t enthusiastically performed first and vigorously denied later," Leontes retorted.
"That's true enough, though it is not something applicable to me."
"So you say!"
“I cannot confess to anything other than being a friend to Polixenes, with whom I am accused. I do confess I loved him in the honour he deserved, with such a kind of love as might become a lady like me, with a love such as you and no other commanded. Not to have done so would have been both disobedient and ungrateful to you and your friend, of whose love you have spoken since childhood. Now, for conspiracy. I know not how it tastes, though it is being served up for me to try. All I know of it is that Camillo was an honest man and why he left your court, the gods themselves, if they know no more than I, are ignorant."
"You knew of his departure, as you know how to complete your part of the plot in his absence."
"Sir, you speak a language that I don't understand. My life as you see it exists only in your dreams. And that life I will lay down."
"Dreams! Your actions are my nightmares. You had a bastard by Polixenes, and I only imagined it! As you are past all shame- guilty- don't prolong this with feeble denials. The brat has been cast out, to fend for itself, no father owning it- which is, indeed, more criminal in you than in the infant. So you shall feel our justice, even at its most lenient expect nothing less than death."
"Sir, spare your threats, the fate with which you want frighten me I longingly seek. To me life can have no pleasure. The crown and comfort of my life, your favour, I have lost, but know not how it happened. My second joy and first-born is denied me, as though I am contagious. My third comfort, born under a malevolent star, has been dragged from my breast- the innocent milk in its most innocent mouth- and sent for slaughter. I am proclaimed a harlot on every available post. The right to convalesce from a hard pregnancy is denied me. Finally, hurried to this place I face a trial before I’m fit and able. Tell me what blessings I have in life that to die is so terrible? Therefore proceed. But hear this. Life is worth nothing, but my honour must be unblemished. If I shall be condemned on surmises, since no evidence exists other than what your jealously creates. I tell you this is tyranny, not law. Your honoured lords, I place my faith in the oracle. Apollo is my judge!"
"Your request is just," said one of the lords of the court. "Bring forth Apollo's judgement."
There was a brief pause as officials left to escort Cleomenes and Dion to the trial with the pronouncements from the oracle. Hermione, though, continued her testimony.
"The Emperor of Russia was my father, oh, that he was alive, and here witnessing his daughter's trial! He would see the depth of my misery, yet with eyes of pity, not revenge!"
Leontes looked at Hermione with contempt and smiled with delight when Cleomenes and Dion entered the court, led by an officer, with the sealed judgments.
"You here shall swear upon this sword of justice that you, Cleomenes and Dion, have both been at Delphos, and from there have brought the sealed oracle, delivered by hand by a great priest of Apollo. And that since then you have not dared to break the holy seal nor read the secrets contained therein."
"All this we swear," Cleomenes and Dion said.
"Break the seals and read," Leontes ordered.
The court was breathless and anxious as the court officer removed the various layers of sealing wax protecting the document. The officer finally got to the judgement and cleared his throat before speaking.
"Hermione is chaste. Polixenes is blameless. Camillo is a true subject. Leontes is a jealous tyrant. His innocent daughter truly begotten, and the King shall live without an heir if the abandoned child is not found."
The court erupted spontaneously into cheers and laughter.
"Now blessed be the great Apollo!" several lords shouted.
"Praised!" Hermione laughed.
Leontes was enraged and he immediately silenced the court when he barked at the court officer: "Have you read what is written?"
"Yes, my lord. Exactly as it is set down here."
Leontes was suddenly very calm and although he began to whisper, the court was so quiet everyone caught what he said: "There is no truth in the oracle. The trial shall proceed. Lies, lies."
Just as he had spoken a servant from the domestic quarters rushed into the court.
"My lord the King! King Leontes!"
"What is the matter?"
The servant paused anxiously.
"Oh, sir, I shall be hated to report it! Prince Mamillius, just thinking about his mother's fate, is gone."
The court gasped and Leontes was consumed in a torment.
"Apollo is angry and the heavens themselves strike at my injustice."
"What's happening?" Leontes pleaded.
"This news is fatal to the Queen!" Paulina sobbed. "Look, see what death is doing."
"Take her out!" Leontes shouted. "Her heart is just excited- she will recover. I have believed my own suspicions far too much. Please, tenderly apply to her some remedies for life."
Paulina and the ladies rushed from the court as several men carried Hermione out. Leontes felt completely alone.
"Apollo, pardon my great profanities against your oracle!" Leontes begged. "I'll reconcile myself to Polixenes, and begin again my courtship of Hermione and recall the good Camillo, whom I proclaim a man of truth and mercy. Transported by my jealousies to bloody thoughts and to revenge, I chose Camillo to be the one to poison my friend Polixenes. An order that would have been fulfilled if that good mind of Camillo had not delayed my swift command, even though I threatened him with death and encouraged him with rewards. He, most humane and filled with honour, revealed my plot to my kingly guest and abandoned his home and fortunes here, which you know are considerable, and opted to hazard all the uncertainties of a new life in Bohemia- with nothing other than his honour. How he glistens thorough my rust! And how his piety makes my deeds even blacker!"
Paulina crept silently into the courtroom. She heard the last of Leontes' pleas for forgiveness.
"Woe the while! Oh, cut my tight bodice, lest my heart, cracking in it break too."
"What is wrong, good lady?" a lord returning to Leontes asked Paulina.
"Tyrant, what tortures have you perfected for me? What wheels? Racks? Fires? What skinning? Boiling in lead or in oil? What old or new torture must I receive? Your tyranny and your jealousy, fancies too infantile for children, have wreaked havoc here. Think what they have done and then run mad indeed- stark mad! All your old fooleries were just a foretaste of this! You betrayed Polixenes that was nothing but showed you to be a fool, unpredictable and ungrateful. You would have poisoned good Camillo's honour, expecting him to kill a king. Minor sins compared with what was to come. Of which, I think, casting off your infant daughter to crows ranks very highly. A devil would have shed a tear in hell rather than do that. Although the death of a young prince- a child whose thoughts were so tender for one of that age- is not directly laid at your door, you began the slurs on his mother that killed him. Oh, lords, woes! The Queen, Hermione, sweet dear creature is dead. And vengeance for that is still to visit us."
"The higher powers forbid!" a lord implored.
"I say she is dead. I'll swear it. If neither word nor oath will satisfy you, go and see. If you can bring colour to lips, or sparkle to her eyes, heat her hands or hear her breathe, I'll serve you as I would the gods. But, oh, you, tyrant do not repent these things, for they are worse than any lamentation can cure. Despair, despair! A thousand praying together for ten thousand years, naked and fasting upon a barren mountain through perpetual winter storms could not move the gods to look in your direction."
"Go on, go on, you cannot speak too much. I deserve all tongues at their bitterest," Leontes said.
"Say no more, Paulina,” a lord said. “However the business goes, you are at fault in the boldness of your speech."
"I am sorry for it. All the faults I make, when I shall come to know them, I do repent. Alas, I have shown too much of the rashness of a woman. He is touched to the noble heart. What's gone and what's past help should be past grief. Leontes, do not receive yet more afflictions at my petition. I beg you, rather let me be punished, I who have reminded you of what you should forget. Now, sir, royal sir, forgive a foolish woman. The love I bore your Queen- ah, fool again! - I'll speak of her no more, nor of your children. I'll not remind you of my own lord, who is lost too. Make your sorrow your own, and I'll say nothing."
"You spoke well and it was the truth, which is preferable to pity. Please, take me to the dead bodies of my Queen and my son. One grave shall be for both, and upon it shall be inscribed the causes of their death for all to see, unto my perpetual shame. Once a day I'll visit the chapel where they lie, and crying there shall be my recreation. So long as I am fit enough to do this then I vow I will. Come and lead me to these sorrows."