Polixenes, king of Bohemia, has grown restless in his stay with his old friend King Leontes of Sicilia. Only the intervention of Leontes’ wife, Hermione, persuades him to prolong his visit. Consequently, Leontes suspects Hermione of adultery with Polixenes and persuades his friend, Lord Camillo, to poison him. However, Camillo is convinced of Polixenes’s innocence and, instead, the two flee to Bohemia.
Leontes dispatches servants to ask advice from the Delphic oracle and, enraged by Polixenes’s escape, confines Hermione to prison where a daughter, later named Perdita, is born. Paulina, Hermione’s friend and confidante, takes the child to the king in an attempt to soften his heart. However, Mamillius, the king and queen’s son, has fallen ill; and Leontes, blaming Hermione for the boy’s sickness, is determined to have revenge. Leontes refuses to accept the new baby as his own and orders Antigonus, a Sicilian lord and Paulina’s husband, to abandon her in the wild.
Leontes’s servants return from visiting the Delphic oracle, but, maddened, Leontes becomes an immovable tyrant and orders a public trial for Hermione. Even when confronted with the oracle’s pronouncement that Hermione is innocent, he refuses to believe that he is wrong. Suddenly a servant interrupts with the news that Prince Mamillius has died, and the queen falls into a faint. The blow brings Leontes to his senses, but too late; Paulina announces that the queen has died. Guilt-stricken, Leontes vows perpetual penance.
The scene shifts to a seacoast in the country of Bohemia, where Antigonus begins to abandon the baby princess. However, as debates this action, a bear appears and, in his attempt to guard the baby, Antigonus is killed. An old shepherd and his son appear on the scene and find the baby, taking her home to care for as their own daughter and sister.
The Chorus of Time then informs us that sixteen years have passed and that the lost Sicilian princess, Perdita, has grown healthy and beautiful in the shepherd’s household in Bohemia, not realizing her royal roots. Florizel, Bohemian King Polixenes’s son has been surreptitiously wooing the supposed shepherdess and resolves to marry her. Polixenes, however, discovers the plan and angrily threatens Perdita with punishment and Florizel with loss of his future throne. Camillo, still in exile from Sicilia, persuades Florizel and Perdita to fly to his homeland where they are greeted with joy by a repentant King Leontes who accepts his wronged friend’s son and Perdita whom he later recognizes as his daughter. King Polixenes soon follows, and is also welcomed by his old friend, Leontes.
Back in Bohemia the two shepherds discover Perdita’s true identity and, with this good news, also rush to Sicilia. All are happily reunited and travel together to a chapel in Paulina’s home to view a statue of the late Queen Hermione. When the miraculous statue is unveiled, Leontes is overcome by its extraordinary likeness to the queen. He tries to kiss it, and, at Paulina’s command, it moves. “She’s warm,” exclaims Leontes, and the living Hermione, long hidden, is reunited with her penitent and humble husband and their daughter.