Pericles: A Life of Ease and Love . . . Delayed
I felt as if I were on a stormy sea as I started to read Pericles, Prince of Tyre. I’d never seen or read the play, but when it introduced incest in its early lines, my head nearly began to ache and my stomach to churn.
It wasn’t a topic I wanted to think about, and, just having finished the bloody Titus Andronicus, I wasn’t looking for another “yuck” play. Momentarily, I had the impulse to put it down, never finish it, so I could get my equilibrium back. But I persevered—as I had no choice if I wanted to reach the goal of reading all of Shakespeare by next April. Happily, what I thought was a turbulent sea smoothed quickly as incest references merely heightened opening drama and quickly faded from the play.
- “John Gower, De Confessione Amantis (1554). Book 8 of this work suggested the figure of Gower, who acts as a chorus in Pericles. It also provided Shakespeare with the main outline of his plot, the names of places and characters, and a number of passages in the play.
- “The Patterne of Paineful Aduentures , translated by Lawrence Twine (1607). It is not possible to tell which edition between 1576 and 1607 Shakespeare used. Twine’s novel influenced scenes 1, 3, and 6 in act 4.
- “Barnabe Barnes, The Diuils Charter (1607). This influenced the chorusses spoken by Gower.
- “John Day, William Rowley, George Wilkins, The Trauailes of the Three English Brothers (1607). This work also influenced Gower’s chorusses.”
Pericles is a play of happiness and ease delayed. Pericles has it all, with the exception of a wife, when the play starts. Unfortunately, like many other princes searching a companion, he seeks the hand of the beautiful daughter of the great Antiochus, King of Antioch. Antiochus requires any worthy prince seeking the hand of his heir to solve a riddle. Many princes have tried and many failed, with death being the agreed upon outcome of failure.
Pericles takes the riddle’s risk, not knowing that it is a Catch-22 for Pericles cannot survive either guessing correctly or wrongly the riddle. The wicked Antiochus has created a riddle that reveals his own dark secret—his incestuous relationship with his fair daughter. If Pericles guesses incorrectly, he has agreed to his own death. But if he guesses correctly, powerful Antiochus surely will surely put him to death for he cannot have Pericles spread his secret among the ancient city states. (Not only was Antiochus wicked, but apparently he was a dullard as well: Why would he code his sin into the riddle?)
Pericles understands the riddle, and Antiochus realizes he has deciphered it. Pericles flees, and Antiochus sends an assassin, Thaliard, after him. Thaliard, was clearly a man of foresight, for he promised Antiochus, “My lord, if I can get him within my pistol’s length, I’ll make him sure enough: so, farewell to your highness.” If you look at it literally, it’s not much of a threat to Pericles for pistols would not be invented for more than 1,000 years. Count it as one more Shakespearean anachronism.
Prince Pericles abandons his hometown, Tyre, to save it from the forces of Antioch which surely will come to destroy him. He leaves a trusted counselor, Helicanus, to manage the kingdom in his absence. That’s where the adventure begins. A shipwreck later, he meets a wonderful woman whom he marries, and they settle down to a happy life, with a child on the way. But Heaven is deeply involved in events, charring Antiochus and his daughter by lightning, opening the way for Pericles to return—and he must quickly or lose forever his kingdom. Sounds like the play could end there in happiness, but the gods had other plans.
Pericles and his fair bride take a ship toward Tyre, but again bad weather beats upon the prince’s vessel, and tragedy once more strikes: His wife dies in child-birth. He is clearly not meant to be a happily married monarch. The sailors “force” him to throw her body over the side for a sea burial because of sailor superstitions. Luckily they first seal her up in a waterproof trunk. Why lucky? Because she’s not dead, she’s “only mostly dead,” and she lands in the hands of a man of Ephesus, Cerimon—a bit more charitable than Miracle Max—who resuscitates her for free, then sends her to a nunnery, or at least to the famed temple of Diana in Ephesus.
In the meantime, Pericles drops his daughter off at the home of friends, Cleon and his wife, whom he saved earlier from starvation. They’re very loyal to him and promise they’ll care for the child as if she were their own, and they do, until she gets older and outshines their daughter. Then they try to kill her, but pirates save her or kidnap her, depending on your perspective. They carry her back to their ship, then sell her into prostitution. But she is every panderers’ nightmare, for she shames all potential customers into repenting.
Again in the meantime, Pericles returns home, takes his kingdom. More than a decade later, he goes to retrieve his daughter, Marina. (Why so long? I asked myself.) He learns from his friends that the child died, and they have erected a fabulous monument to her “cherished” memory.
Pericles is destroyed, refusing to speak to anyone. His vessel sails to the very town where Marina’s masters have failed to turn her from her virtue. She is now a respected young teacher in the town. To wrap the plot up quickly: Father and daughter are reunited, grieving only that wife and mother is lost. Diana–the god–appears directing Pericles to the temple of Diana at Ephesus. They go to make an offering and are joyously reunited with the priestess of the temple–Pericles’ wife and Marina’s mother. Happy ending. Lots of pain for Pericles and his family getting there, but a fun read.
One of the things I liked most in the play is that Marina, placed in a situation that threatens everything she is, does not need to count on the arrival of a knight or cavalry, but saves herself with her own wit, strength, virtue and gifts.
The play cautions against jealousy and lust and elevates virtue, loyalty, goodness and kindness. Perhaps Gower, the chorus, captures it best at play’s end:
In Antiochus and his daughter you have heard of monstrous lust the due and just reward [heaven’s bolt of lightning]: In Pericles, his queen and daughter, seen,— although assail’d with fortune fierce and keen, virtue preserved from fell destruction’s blast, led on by heaven, and crown’d with joy at last: In Helicanus may you well descry a figure of truth, of faith, of loyalty: In reverend Cerimon there well appears the worth that learned charity aye wears: For wicked Cleon and his wife, when fame had spread their [jealousy-caused] cursed deed, …the gods for murder seemed so content to punish them….”
Quotes I liked:
Helicanus: They do abuse the king that flatter him: for flattery is the bellow blows up sin; the thing the which is flatter’d, but a spark, to which that blast gives heat and stronger glowing; whereas reproof, obedient, and in order, fits kings, as they are men, for they may err.
Pericles: Thou art no flatterer: I thank thee for it
Pericles: ‘Tis time to fear when tyrants seem to kiss.
Pericles: Tyrants’ fears decrease not, but grow faster than their years
Pericles: I’ll take thy word for faith, not ask thine oath: who shuns not to break one will sure crack both
Dionyza: For who digs hills because they do aspire throws down one mountain to cast up a higher.
Gower: Losing a mite, a mountain gain.
Pericles: Wind, rain, and thunder, remember, earthly man is but a substance that must yield to you
3rd Fisherman: Master, I marvel how the fishes live in the sea. 1st Fisherman: 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; a’ plays and tumbles, driving the poor fry before him, and at last devours them all at a mouthful: such whales have I heard on o’ the land, who never leave gaping till they’ve swallowed the whole parish, church, steeple, bells, and all.
Simonides: Opinion’s but a fool, that makes us scan the outward habit by the inward man.
Simonides: I hope is none that envies it. In framing an artist, art hath thus decreed, to make some good, but others to exceed
1st Knight: We are gentlemen that neither in our hearts nor outward eyes envy the great, nor do the low despise.
Pericles: O you gods! Why do you make us lover your goodly gifts, and snatch them straight away?
Gower: No visard does become black villainy so well as soft and tender flattery.
Next Up: King Lear