In Act 1, Scene 2 of The Winter’s Tale, Polixenes has been on vacation
in Sicilia for, “nine changes of the wat’ry star” (1.2.1), or nine months. The fact that nine months is the time from conception to birth, and Hermione is about to give birth, causes jealousy to begin to build in Leontes over his wife’s relationship with Polixenes. In this scene, Leontes develops curtness in his tone towards Hermione and Polixenes that indicates his seething anger. For example, Leontes’ first words to Hermione are, “Tongue-tied, our Queen?/Speak you.” (1.2.35). Leontes’ tone is rude and full of repressed venom; yet Hermione and Polixenes suspect nothing.
Leontes jealousy is further justified when Leontes, Polixenes, and Hermione are talking in Act 1, Scene 2. In this scene Hermione and Polixenes address each other in flirtatious tones. Hermione’s responses to Polixenes are almost lyrical:
You put me off with limber vows. But I,
Though you would seek t’ unsphere the stars with
Should yet say “Sir, no going.” Verily,
You shall not go. A lady’s “verily” is
As potent as a lord’s. Will you go yet?
Force me to keep you as a prisoner,
Not like a guest, so you shall pay your fees
When you depart, and save your thanks. How say you?
My prisoner or my guest? By your dread “verily,”
One of them you shall be. (1.2.59-70)
Whereas, Hermione’s responses to Leontes are straightforward and unemotional: “But let him say so then, and let him go”(1.2.45).
Also, in this scene the tone and word choice that Polixenes and Hermione use towards each other serve as another justification for Leontes’ jealous rage. Polixenes addresses Hermione in a flirtatious tone, when he says, “O my most sacred lady,/Temptations have since then been born to ‘s, for/In those unfledged days was my wife a girl;/Your precious self had then not crossed the eyes/Of my young playfellow”(1.2.97-101). Polixenes not only sets a flirtatious tone, but by using words like “temptation” and “crossed” ” he implies that he has been “tempted” by Hermione and that she has “crossed” Leontes. When Hermione replies in an equally flirtatious tone:
“Grace to boot!
Of this make no conclusion, lest you say
Your queen and I are devils. Yet go on.
Th’ offenses we have made you do we’ll answer,
If you first sinned with us, and that with us
You did continue fault, and that you slipped not
With any but us”(1.2.102-108)
This only worsens his already jealous-sick mind. Hermione’s use of the words “devils”, “offenses”, “sinned”, “fault”, and “slipped” caused Leontes’ to believe that Hermione was admitting she’s “sinned” with Polixenes, and that she was mocking him by admitting her “sin” right to his face.
In conclusion, Leontes’ seemingly unreasonable anger in the play The Winter’s Tale, is not as uncalled for as it may seem. The coincidence of Polixenes being In Sicilia for nine months, the cheeky responses Leontes received from Hermione, and the flirtatious language used between Hermione and Polixenes are all factors in driving Leontes’ into the jealous rage that caused him to accuse Hermione and Polixenes of adultery.