Camillo and Archidamus are discussing the long-standing friendship between Leontes and Polixenes, their respective kings. Polixenes has been staying at Leontes’ court, and is persuaded by Leontes’ wife Hermione (who acts at Leontes’ suggestion) to stay with him longer. But Leontes then grows jealous of the affection shown to Polixenes by Hermione, and convinces himself they are having an affair. So quickly does his jealousy grow that he asks Camillo to poison Polixenes. Camillo, knowing Polixenes’ innocence, informs him of Leontes’ intentions, and Polixenes flees Sicilia for Bohemia, taking Camillo with him.
Leontes publicly accuses the pregnant Hermione, and puts her in prison, sending Cleomenes and Dion to the Oracle to have his course of action confirmed.
After she gives birth, he overrules the opinions of his lords, and banishes the baby. One of his lords, Antigonus, is instructed to take the baby and abandon it far from Sicilia. Leontes then puts Hermione on trial, but Cleomenes and Dion bring the judgement from the Oracle, which proclaims Hermione, Polixenes, and Camillo all innocent, and predicts that Leontes will have no heir if the banished baby is not found. Leontes rejects the Oracle, only to learn that his son has died. Hermione faints and is taken out. Leontes immediately repents. Paulina returns to say that Hermione is dead. Leontes vows perpetual sorrow.
In Bohemia, Antigonus reluctantly leaves the baby by itself, but as he starts to return home he is killed by a bear. The baby is rescued and adopted by a Shepherd and his son, a Clown.
The Chorus, Time, takes the play forward 16 years. Polixenes and Camillo disguise themselves to be present at a sheep-shearing festival. Polixenes wants to find out what is going on with his son Florizel, who is in love with the Shepherd’s adopted daughter, now called Perdita. A rogue, Autolycus, after earlier picking the Clown’s pockets, comes to the festival to sell his wares. Dancing and singing take place, and Florizel and Perdita plan to marry. The disguised Polixenes suggests to Florizel that his father should be told; when Florizel refuses, Polixenes reveals himself, and bans Florizel from seeing Perdita again.
With the help of Camillo the two lovers escape to Sicilia, where the now pious Leontes still visits his wife’s tomb. Leontes welcomes them, and Florizel claims they are there with their father’s knowledge.
Back in Bohemia, the Shepherd decides to tell Polixenes the truth about Perdita’s birth, making her eligible for marriage to Florizel, and Autolycus helps them get to the court. They then all make their way to Sicilia. When Polixenes unexpectedly arrives, the warmth of his meeting with Leontes is described by a group of gentlemen, who report the unravelling of the whole history of Perdita.
Paulina invites everyone to Hermione’s tomb to view a remarkable sculpture of Hermione. Paulina, having made Leontes vow to have no new wife unless she chooses one for him, reveals she can make the statue move. When it does, it is shown to be Hermione, who had been hidden by Paulina until Leontes came to his senses. Perdita and Hermione are re-united. Paulina laments the loss of her husband, and Leontes matches her with Camillo. Leontes begs forgiveness from Hermione and Polixenes.