The King of Bohemia is visiting the King of Sicilia. At the conclusion of his nine month visit, Polixenes prepares to leave. Leontes, Sicilia, begs him to stay to no avail. Only when Leontes orders his wife to add her pleadings does Polixenes agree to stay a while longer. And on this tiny cause, the king's jealousy turns. He believes his queen and boyhood friend have been having an affair, that the queen is pregnant with Polixenes's child and that his son is also not his own.
Leontes plots against Polixenes's life and accuses his wife, Hermione, of adultery. Polixenes flees back to Bohemia, while Hermione delivers her daughter in prison. Leontes sends the newborn to die in the desert. The Oracle at Delphi pronounces Hermione innocent, but Leontes defies the gods. Hermione faints and is reported to be dead. The young prince dies of grief over his mother's straits.
A shepherd finds the young princess in the desert of Bohemia where her ship has deposited her. (This scene provides a well-known stage direction of Shakespeare's. The man delivering her must "Exit, pursued by a bear".)
The child grows up beautiful, falls in love with the Prince of Bohemia, son of Polixenes. His father doesn't approve and they escape to Sicilia, where the repentant king gives them shelter. The girl's heritage is soon discovered and the kings are reconciled. Hermione is also restored, having spent the last 16 years in a cottage. In the final scene she is revealed to Polixenes disguised as a statue, and amazes him by coming to life.