King Leontes' sixteen years in mourning amounted to a hermit-like existence. He saw only the closest members of court and was totally disinterested in affairs of state. Leontes was in one of the cold and lifeless rooms of his private quarters when Cleomenes, Dion and Paulina came to see him.
"Sir," Cleomenes said, "you have done a saintly penance. Indeed if you ever sinned again the penance has been done in advance. Do as the heavens have done, forget your evil and forgive yourself your sins."
"As long as I remember Hermione and her virtuous children, I cannot forget the wrongs done to them and the ills I’ve brought upon myself, so bad that my kingdom is left without an heir and I destroyed the sweetest companion a man could ever hope for."
"True, too true, my lord," Paulina said. "If, one by one, you wedded all the women in the world, or from all of them took something good to make a perfect woman, Hermione would still be unparalleled."
"I agree. I killed her!"
The courtiers wagged their heads in disagreement but Leontes waved their objections aside.
"Yes, I did. But Paulina, you cut me to the quick by saying that. I feel it bitter on my tongue. If you have to remind me, do so seldom."
"Don't bother, good lady," Cleomenes said. "You could have a said a thousand other things that would have been more appropriate and becoming."
"You are one of those keen to have him remarry," Paulina countered.
"If you're against that," Dion said, "then you have no consideration for Sicily or the royal lineage. Without an heir Sicily is vulnerable to all kinds of interference and ambitions from would-be conquerors. What would be more respectful now Queen Hermione is at peace? What would be better for the monarchy’s continuity and the King's welfare than to have a companion?"
"There are no women worthy of Hermione," Paulina said rather sharply. "In addition, the gods have fulfilled their purpose. Was it not the divine Apollo's pronouncement that said King Leontes shall not have an heir until his lost child is found? The probability of that happening is much the same as my husband Antigonus coming back from the dead, he who died abandoning your daughter under threat of my life. It's the courtier’s advice the King should ignore the will of Apollo!"
Paulina approached Leontes and gripped his arm: "Forget about heirs, the monarchy will survive. Alexander the Great left his throne to the worthiest, thereby ensuring the Macedonian monarchy continued in the best hands."
"Good Paulina," Leontes said, "who I know always holds the memory of Hermione precious, I wish I only ever listened to your counsel. If only I had, now I would be looking into Hermione's eyes and kissing her lips."
"And be all the better for it!"
"You speak the truth. There will not be another wife. One of less substance but treated better would make Hermione's spirit restless, wandering Sicily wondering why."
"If she did that it would be justified," Paulina nodded.
"Indeed, and it would only incense me to murder my new wife."
"If I were the ghost I would drive you to a frenzy," Paulina said. "I'd want to know what parts of her you preferred to me and I would scream until your eardrums burst, Remember me."
"Stars, stars, and all eyes are just dead coals! No wife, Paulina, don’t worry. I'll have no wife."
"Will you swear never to marry unless you have my consent?"
"I swear, Paulina. Never."
"Good lords, bear witness to his oath."
"You're blackmailing him!" Cleomenes said.
"Unless another, identical to Hermione stands before him."
"Good madam,-" Cleomenes began.
"I am finished,” Paulina said. “Yet, if my lord should remarry, sir, no remedy, but you will give me the office to choose you a queen. She shall not be as young as your former wife but she shall be such that if Hermione's ghost saw you it would approve."
"My true Paulina, I will not remarry until you permit it."
"That will only be when Queen Hermione breathes again. Not until."
Cleomenes and Dion stood fuming and were about to berate Paulina when another courtier hurriedly joined them with an urgent message.
"One who calls himself Prince Florizel, son of Polixenes, with his princess, she the fairest I have yet beheld, desires an audience with Your Majesty," the courtier said.
"Who is with him? He arrives in a manner inappropriate to his station. And it's unexpected and rather sudden. In fact it suggests this is not planned but forced upon him by need and accident. How large is his party?"
"Few, and rather ragtag."
"You said his princess is with him?"
"Yes, the most beautiful creature on whom the sun has ever shone."
"Oh, Hermione," Paulina sighed, "as every new time boasts it is better than what has gone before, so your beauty must now be superseded since you are of the dead. Gentleman, you have said and written those sentiments before, and now they are as cold and dead as the one you praised."
"Pardon, madam, I have not forgotten Queen Hermione but once you see this young lady you will be complementing her too. Her beauty will inspire a new religion, satisfying the zeal of the believers and make converts of everyone else."
"Oh? Not of women!"
"Women will love her for being a woman and of more worth than any man, and men that she is the rarest of all women."
"Cleomenes," said King Leontes, "go with your assistants and welcome them and then bring them here. Still, it's rather strange he should appear here in this manner."
"Had our Prince Mamillius, a jewel of a child, lived to see this, he would become this prince's friend. There wasn't not full a month between their births."
"Please, no more. You know he dies all over again at the mention of his name. When I see this young man your talk will only depress me. Here they come!"
Cleomenes returned with Prince Florizel and Perdita.
"Your mother was most true to wedlock, Prince Florizel," Leontes said, "you are the double of your father. If I were still twenty-one I would call you brother the way I once did Polixenes, and I would suggest something to occupy us for the afternoon. You and your princess, or should I say goddess, are most dearly welcome. Alas, I lost a couple who should be standing here as wondrously as you two. But I lost them through my own folly, the same way I lost friendship and society. Although my life is miserable, to see Polixenes once more is an incentive to live."
"By his command I have landed in Sicily and from him bring you all greetings that a King in friendship can send his brother. If it was not for his ailments, which come with old age, he himself would cross the waters between Bohemia and Sicily to see you. He asked me to tell you how much he loves you, more than all the other kings put together."
"Oh, Polixenes! Good gentleman! The wrongs I have him done stir afresh within me. This visit only reminds me how lacking I have been in diplomacy. You are welcome here as the spring is to the earth. And has he also allowed this paragon of beauty to risk her life crossing Neptune's temperamental territories to meet a man not worthy of her trouble."
"My lord, she is from Libya."
"Where the warlike Smalus, that noble honoured lord, is feared and loved?" Leontes asked.
"Yes, your majesty. From Libya, from Smalus himself, his daughter. Sir, Smalus cried vainly when she left Libya. Then a robust but friendly south wind carried us here to fulfill my father's orders. The bulk of my entourage have been sent home to Bohemia to advise my father of my triumph in winning Smalus' daughter’s hand and of my arrival in Sicily."
"The blessed gods freshen the air while you remain in our country! You have a virtuous father, a graceful gentleman against whose person, as sacred as it is, I have sinned. For this the heavens, observing all, have left me childless. Your father is blessed with you, Heaven says he merits your worthy goodness. How different a man I might be if I had a son and daughter to look upon."
Another courtier interrupted with more developments.
"Most noble sir, that which I shall report would have no credibility if the proof weren't conclusive. Please you, great sir, King Polixenes of Bohemia asks that you arrest his son, who has abandoned his duty and dignity and fled from his father on an elopement with a shepherd’s daughter."
"Where's Polixenes? Tell me!" Leontes gasped.
"Here in Sicily. I've just left him. I'm speaking excitedly, and that's appropriate to the circumstances. He came to your court in hasty pursuit of this young couple and on the way he met the apparent father and brother of this young lady, who are also in pursuit."
"Camillo has betrayed me," Florizel yelled. "I thought his honesty and honour would endure anything."
"You can tell him that," said the courtier, "he's with your father!"
"Camillo? Here too?" Leontes gasped.
"Yes, Camillo, sir. I spoke with him. He's questioning the girl's father and brother as we speak. I never saw two poor wretches quake so! They kneel, they kiss the earth and wail their loyalty with every second word. Polixenes has a headache listening to them and threatens all kinds of vicious punishments."
"Oh my poor father!" Perdita cried. "The gods have arranged for spies to thwart our marriage!"
"You are married?"
"We are not, sir, nor are we likely to be. The stars hold our fate, high or humble who can tell the outcome."
"Florizel, is this the daughter of a king?" Leontes asked.
"She will be, when she is my wife."
"That when, I see by your father's urgency is not imminent. I am sorry, very sorry, you have offended him, and sorry, too, your choice is not as rich in worth as in beauty that your marriage may not go ahead."
"Perdita," Florizel said, "look on the bright side. Fortune may side with my father but even together they cannot hinder our love. I beg you, sir, think of when you were as young as I am. With your memories of youth please attempt to persuade my father. I know at your request my father would grant anything."
"If that was so I’d beg this beautiful woman for myself."
"Sir," Paulina said, "your eyes are young again, full of sparkle. Only a month before Hermione died did you look at her so lovingly."
"I think of Hermione as I look at her. But, Florizel, that doesn’t answer your question. As long as you have behaved honourably towards this girl I will speak on your behalf. So, on this errand let us go and meet Polixenes. Follow me."