It took me an embarrassingly long time to finish reading Pericles, I know. But, in the spirit of being kind to myself, I did go through a terrible rough patch when I was supposed to be working through this play. It’s gotten better here at the oh for muse of fire headquarters (A.K.A. my bedroom), but I’m still not completely out of the woods yet. Also, Pericles isn’t the greatest play to pull someone out of a funk, is it?
Here’s my opinion in a nutshell: Pericles isn’t one of Shakespeare’s great works. It’s very difficult to feel anything but indifference toward it. This is because Pericles just doesn’t know what its plot is. Is it about a dramatic incestuous reveal? Is it about a young princess looking for her family? Is it about the power of divine intervention? WHO KNOWS.
We open in Antioch, where Pericles is risking his life to win the hand of the princess. The chorus really tells us everything we need to know here, but for the sake of making this post interesting, I’m going to play innocent. Basically, Pericles is in a ‘solve-this-riddle-or-else,’ kind of situation, which reminds me of a similar scene in The Merchant of Venice.
Like a bold champion I assume the lists,
Nor ask advice of any other thought
But faithfulness and courage.
[He reads] the Riddle:
‘I am no viper, yet I feed
On mother’s flesh which did me breed.
I sought a husband, in which labor
I found that kindness in a father.
He’s father, son, and husband mild;
I mother, wife, and yet his child.
How they may be, and yet in two,
As you will live resolve it you.’
I honestly, genuinely feel like this isn’t even a riddle. This very clearly states that Antiochus and his daughter are engaged in an incestuous relationship with one another. All the past suitors must not have been very bright. Anyway, Pericles figures it out instantly. I could almost picture him looking pointedly into a camera, mockumentary style.
I’ll share my thoughts on Pericles as a character in a minute, but first:
Heaven, that I had thy head! He has found the meaning.
But I will gloze with him. – Young Prince of Tyre,
Though by the tenor of our strict edict,
Your exposition misinterpreting,
We might proceed to cancel of your days,
Yet hope, succeeding from so fair a tree
As your fair self, doth tune us otherwise.
Forty days longer we do respite you,
If by which time our secret be undone,
This mercy shows we’ll joy in such a son.
And until then, your entertain shall be
As doth befit our honor and your worth.
Again, there was no riddle. Antiochus is shocked when Pericles politely accuses him of incest, and wishes that he had the young prince’s brains. But do you really need brains when the riddle wasn’t even a proper riddle? I’m sorry, I know I’m too hung up on this, but if I walk through the streets yelling, “You know who loves Shakespeare?! This girl!” while dramatically gesturing to myself, that would be a declaration and not a riddle. And that’s basically what Antiochus was doing by airing all of his dirty laundry out for every single suitor to read. Why not just choose a genuinely impossible riddle with no answer? I just can’t wrap my head around it.
Pericles, of course, decides to leave immediately. Antiochus was giving off too much of a ‘I’m going to murder you in your sleep tonight,’ vibe for him to want to stay in Antioch for another forty days.
And speaking of Pericles – I actually like him quite a lot. This is an obscure video game reference that has no place on a Shakespeare blog, but he reminds me of Cecil from Final Fantasy IV. Pericles has a good, genuine heart. Despite being royalty, he never comes off as arrogant or self-serving. He’s harmless. This may make him sound incredibly boring, but trust me, we don’t need a conflicted main character in a play like Pericles.
In a shocking twist (I swear, I’m going to try to quit it with the sarcasm in this post), Antiochus is already busy calling a hit on Pericles.
My lord, Prince Pericles is fled.
ANTIOCHUS, [to Thaliard]
As thou wilt live, fly after, and like an arrow shot from a well-experienced archer hits the mark his eye doth level at, so thou never return unless thou say Prince Pericles is dead.
My lord, if I can get him within my pistol’s length, I’ll make him sure enough. So, farewell, to your Highness.
Pericles sure moves fast, doesn’t he?
At this point, I was pretty sure I had a good sense of the plot of this play. But, as usual, I was wrong. How silly of me to think that Pericles would be straightforward!
Pericles returns to Tyre, but he knows that it’s an obvious hiding place. I mean, if I were Thaliard, I’d look there first. Pericles has an interesting exchange with one of the lords of Tyre, Helicanus.
All leave us else; but let your cares o’erlook
What shipping and what lading’s in our haven,
And then return to us.
[The Lords exit.]
Thou hast moved us. What seest thou in our looks?
An angry brow, dread lord.
If there be such a dart in princes’ frowns,
How durst thy tongue move anger to our face?
How dares the plants look up to heaven,
From whence they have their nourishment?
Thou knowest I have power to take thy life from thee.
I have ground the ax myself;
Do but you stroke the blow.
Rise, prithee rise.
Sit down. Thou art no flatterer.
I thank thee for ‘t; and heaven forbid
That kings should let their ears hear their faults hid.
Fit counselor and servant for a prince,
Who by thy wisdom makes a prince thy servant.
What wouldst thou have me do?
The reason Helicanus speaks so freely with Pericles is because he knows he can. This proves to me that, in addition to just being a good person, Pericles is also an excellent king. As I mentioned, arrogance doesn’t leave him deaf to the words of others. He mentions that he could take Helicanus’ life if he wanted, but Helicanus isn’t shaken by these words. He knows Pericles too well.
Helicanus tells Pericles to travel for a while – if Antiochus can’t find him, then he can’t kill him.
Thaliard, meanwhile, arrives in Tyre only to find out that Pericles has already left. He is largely unbothered by this, and gives up on his mark. Antiochus sure knows how to pick his hitmen, doesn’t he?
Pericles arrives in Tarsus, where he saves King Cleon, Queen Dionyza, and literally every other living soul in the country from starvation with his shiploads of food. As a reader, I can appreciate his kindness, but I’m not quite sure this is the best time to be making heroic entrances into starving countries.
In any case, Pericles leaves. His ship, however, is destroyed by a storm and he is washed up on the shores of Pentapolis. It looks like we’ve moved from The Merchant of Venice to Twelfth Night. A group of fishermen are talking among themselves before they encounter him on the beach.
[…] Master, I marvel how the fishes live in the sea.
Why, as men do a-land: the great ones eat up the little ones. I can compare our rich misers to nothing so fitly as to a whale: he plays and tumbles, driving the poor fry before him and at last devours them all at a mouthful. Such whales have I heard on a’ the land, who never leave gaping till they swallowed the whole parish – church, steeple, bells and all.
I really enjoy coming across such passages in Shakespeare, because they hit so close to home. This could very well be commentary on our current political atmosphere, couldn’t it?
The fishermen help Pericles get dressed and agree to take him to King Simonides’ court, where a tournament for the princess’ birthday is taking place. Pericles always seems to find himself at princess-centric events, it seems. Let us hope that this one doesn’t end in all of us having to find out about a horrifying incestuous relationship between father and daughter.
At the tournament, suitors approach Princess Thaisa to present themselves and to show her their engraved shields. Pericles is the last one to approach her.
And what’s the sixth and last, the which the knight himself
With such a graceful courtesy delivered?
He seems to be a stranger; but his present is
A withered branch that’s only green at top,
The motto: In hac spe vivo.
A pretty moral.
From the dejected state wherein he is,
He hopes by you his fortunes yet may flourish.
Pericles looks a total mess, but what princess wouldn’t be interested in a humble, mysterious, and allegedly handsome knight? Even Simonides is taken with him!
By Juno, that is queen of marriage,
All viands that I eat do seem unsavory,
Wishing him my meat. – Sure, he’s a gallant gentleman.
Things finally seem to be working out for Pericles – this new princess that he’s interested in seems completely normal and lovely. And she is! Finally, something good for our poor prince of Tyre. Although getting married to a princess seems like it would push him into the public eye, and Antiochus is out for his blood, right? That’s the plot of this entire play.
Or it would be, if Antiochus and his daughter hadn’t been burnt to a crisp by flames from an otherworldly source. With both these characters dead, the conflict that I believed Pericles would be challenged by has also turned into a pile of soot. Look, I don’t miss Antiochus and his daughter. Nobody does, because they were disgusting. But what is the plot of this play?
We actually find out about Antiochus from Helicanus, who is taking care of Tyre in Pericles’ absence. But what is Tyre supposed to do now that Antiochus is no longer a threat? They don’t even know where Pericles is.
Wrong not yourself, then, noble Helicane.
But if the Prince do live, let us salute him,
Or know what ground’s made happy by his breath.
If in the world he live, we’ll seek him out;
If in his grave he rest, we’ll find him there,
And be resolved he lives to govern us,
Or dead, give ‘s cause to mourn his funeral
And leave us to our free election.
I honestly love Tyre. Pericles leaves, and not a single person tries to steal the throne. There is so much respect for their prince – even Helicanus refuses to take the throne until they’ve waited a year for Pericles to return.
Back in Pentapolis, Simonides is pleased to find out that Pericles and Thaisa seem to be in love with one another. Thaisa writes him a dramatic letter insisting that she is going to marry the “stranger knight.” Simonides wants her to, but decides to freak Pericles out a little bit.
I am unworthy for her schoolmaster.
She thinks not so. Peruse this writing else.
A letter that she loves the knight of Tyre?
‘Tis the King’s subtlety to have my life. –
O, seek not to entrap me, gracious lord,
A stranger and distressèd gentleman
That never aimed so high to love your daughter
But bent all offices to honor her.
Thou hast bewitched my daughter, and thou art
By the gods, I have not!
Never did thought of mine levy offense;
Nor never did my actions yet commence
A deed might gain her love or your displeasure.
Poor Pericles. Of course he thinks the letter is part of an elaborate plot that will end in his murder. This happened last time – not that Simonides knows. It’s an accidental mean-spirited trick.
Thaisa enters, and Pericles begs her to tell her father that he hasn’t done anything to lead her astray. Simonides drops the act and reveals that he’s happy to give them his blessing.
There is a relatively small time-skip here: the next major scene opens with Pericles and a pregnant Thaisa on a boat, heading to Tyre. Yet another storm ravages the ship – and poor Thaisa goes into labor during it. She does not make it, leaving Pericles alone with a newborn daughter.
O you gods!
Why do you make us love your goodly gifts
And snatch them straight away? We here below
Recall not what we give, and therein may
Use honor with you.
Pericles really does not deserve any of the terrible things that happen to him. Again, this should have been a story about his conflict with Antiochus, not about his incredibly unlucky relationship with the ocean. But now the plot is about him being a single father, I guess.
They decide to get rid of Thaisa’s body, and Pericles is distraught.
A terrible childbed thou had, my dear,
No light, no fire. Th’ unfriendly elements
Forgot thee utterly. Nor have I time
To give thee hallowed to thy grave, but straight
Must cast thee, scarcely coffined, in the ooze,
Where, for a monument upon thy bones
And e’er-remaining lamps, the belching whale
And humming water must o’erwhelm thy corpse,
Lying with simple shells. – O, Lychorida,
Bid Nestor bring me spices, ink, and paper,
My casket and my jewels; and bid Nicander
Bring me the satin coffin. Lay the babe
Upon the pillow. Hie thee, whiles I say
A priestly farewell to her. Suddenly, woman!
Reading this, I am quite convinced that Pericles and Thaisa could have been one of Shakespeare’s most successful romantic couples. But not enough time was spent on them, and so we must take whatever scraps we are given. It does sound like Pericles had an incredible amount of love and respect for her – he must be so confused, dealing with loss and the joy of his new daughter at the same time.
Thaisa’s body washes onto the beaches of Ephesus. A doctor is called, and the casket is opened.
Shrouded in cloth of state, balmed and entreasured
With full bags of spices. A passport too!
Apollo, perfect me in the characters.
‘Here I give to understand,
If e’er this coffin drives aland,
I, King Pericles, have lost
This queen, worth all our mundane cost.
Who finds her, give her burying.
She was the daughter of a king.
Besides this treasure for a fee,
The gods requite this charity.’
If thou livest, Pericles, thou hast a heart
That ever cracks for woe. This chanced tonight.
Oh, Pericles. Even his letter tugs at your heartstrings. I wish Shakespeare had written more about Pericles and Thaisa – they’re practically the only characters in this play who deserve to have poetry written about them.
The doctor manages to revive Thaisa – I know, I know. This play isn’t Twelfth Night anymore, but rather The Winter’s Tale.
On his way to Tyre, Pericles drops his daughter – named Marina, after the sea – at Tarsus. He asks Cleon and Dionyza to take care of her and to raise her well. It isn’t a huge demand, given that he saved their lives a few acts ago.
Another time-skip takes place here, and in true The Winter’s Tale fashion, we next see Marina as a teenager. Dionyza is insanely jealous at how Marina outshines her own daughter, and decides to have her murdered. It looks like some of Pericles’ bad luck rubbed off on poor Marina. She is almost killed, but is then kidnapped by pirates and sold to a brothel in Mytilene – I know, I know. Let’s just grin and bear it.
Marina is able to talk her way out of every single seedy situation she finds herself in at this brothel. Lysimachus, the governor of Mytilene, is so touched by her way with words that he gives her enough money to buy herself out of the brothel. Maybe touched isn’t the right word – I highly suspect that Marina’s eloquence shamed him. He knows that going to the brothel is wrong, and hearing sweet words tumble from a virgin’s mouth ruins him. Which, you know, good. Marina is impressive, and has the potential to be lovely just like her mother.
Pericles eventually returns to Tarsus to retrieve his daughter, only to find out that she’s died. Cleon and Dionyza lie to him about how it happened, of course. Pericles vows to spend the rest of his life in mourning. His ship finds its way to Mytilene, where Marina has found great success since her brothel days – brothel hours?
Lysimachus visits with Pericles, and decides to call upon Marina so that she can cheer the grieving king up. Pericles immediately takes note of how familiar Marina is to him.
I am great with woe, and shall deliver weeping.
My dearest wife was like this maid, and such
A one my daughter might have been: my queen’s
Square brows, her stature to an inch;
As wandlike straight, as silver-voiced; her eyes
As jewel-like, and cased as richly; in pace
Another Juno; who starves the ears she feeds
And makes them hungry the more she gives them speech. –
Where do you live?
After all these years, Pericles still grieves for Thaisa. He must have loved her so much, and even if we didn’t get to see enough of them, it still hurts a little.
First, sir, I pray, what is your title?
I am Pericles of Tyre. But tell me now
My drowned queen’s name, as in the rest you said
Thou hast been godlike perfect, the heir of kingdoms,
And another life to Pericles thy father.
Is it no more to be your daughter than
To say my mother’s name was Thaisa?
Thaisa was my mother, who did end
The minute I began.
And so, in the sweetest scene in this entire play, Pericles and Marina are reunited. I found this to be very emotional and well-written – I am kind of a father’s girl myself, and I can’t imagine how tearfully happy a reunion like this would be.
Pericles takes a sudden nap, and is visited by the goddess Diana – I know, but we’re almost done. She tells him to go to her temple in Ephesus, but doesn’t tell him why.
Before they set sail, Lysimachus asks Pericles for Marina’s hand in marriage, and he agrees immediately. I wasn’t too happy with this, considering the circumstances under which Lysimachus and Marina met. Why would she want to marry a seedy guy she met in a brothel? A man she literally had to shame before he decided not to buy her virginity? Isn’t a princess a little too good for a governor? So many questions, and absolutely no time for answers.
Pericles enters Diana’s temple in Ephesus, and comes face to face with Thaisa, who has been there since she was revived. They recognize one another, and are also reunited. This is literally the plot of The Winter’s Tale – except Pericles deserves happiness, while Leontes did not.
Now I know you better.
[She points to the ring on his hand.]
When we with tears parted in Pentapolis,
The king my father gave you such a ring.
This, this! No more, you gods! Your present kindness
Makes my past miseries sports. You shall do well
That the touching of her lips I may
Melt and no more be seen. – O, come, be buried
A second time within these arms!
I really enjoy that, after all these years, there is still a ton of chemistry between Pericles and Thaisa. I adore how emotional he is around her – there is no fake macho behavior from this king.
And they all live happily ever after. Except for Cleon and Dionyza, of course, who get murdered by their own people. But that isn’t important.
Whew! It was actually a struggle to get this post out after not writing for so long, so forgive me if it isn’t as good as some of my other ones. With Pericles out of the way, I am only left with Henry VIII and Cymbeline. I’m super excited to get into another history, but I really shouldn’t get my hopes up. It’s still an uphill climb from here, I think. Anyway – thanks for sticking with me as I’ve dealt with all of my boring life stuff! I’ll have all of these plays read and analyzed just like I promised.