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Table of Contents
Type of Play Composition and First Performance Publication Sources Settings Authorship Question
Characters Plot Summary Climax Conflict Tone Themes Imagery: Good vs Evil Figures of Speech Allusions
Anachronisms The Role of Gower The Pirates The Birth of a Word Study Questions and Essay Topics Complete Text.
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Revised in 2010, 2016.©
Type of Play
Pericles, Prince of Tyre is a stage play usually classified as a comedy. Like other comedies, it ends happily. However, because the play contains tragic events, it is probably better classed as a tragicomedy.
Pericles, Prince of Tyre was
first published in 1609 in a quarto edition
containing errors. An edited version was
published in 1664 in the third folio edition of
Shakespeare's plays. (The play was not included
in the First Folio,
the first authorized collection of Shakespeare's
plays, published in 1623.)
The probable main sources for
the play were (1) "Apollonius of Tyre," one of
one hundred forty-one stories in Confessio
Amantis (The Lover's Confession),
by John Gower (1330-1408), and (2) The
Patterne of Painefull Adventures (1576),
by Lawrence Twine.
George Wilkins (1576-1618), a
London innkeeper and playwright, may have
collaborated with Shakespeare on Pericles,
Prince of Tyre. Wilkins, an acquaintance of
Shakespeare, wrote a narrative work entitled The
Painful Adventures of Pericles, Prince
of Tyre, published in 1608.
I am no viper, yet I feedThe young prince immediately hits upon the correct interpretation of the puzzle—namely, that Antiochus beds his own daughter. Incest! The most abominable of moral transgressions! The seventh line of the riddle provides the telltale clue: that the princess serves as the wife of Antiochus, thus becoming her own “mother” while yet remaining the king’s daughter.
Soon after Pericles solves the riddle, he realizes Antiochus most certainly will not live up to his promise. Fearing for his life, Pericles flees Antioch and returns home to Tyre. However, worrying that henchmen of Antiochus will track him to Tyre and endanger his people, even to the point of an all-out war, Pericles sets sail for Tarsus after assigning the job of running the government to a faithful lord, Helicanus. And none too soon. For, just as he casts off, an assassin, Thaliard, arrives in Tyre to kill him. While sneaking about, Thaliard bends an eavesdropping ear to a conversation among lords who reveal that Pericles is on his way to Tarsus.
In Tarsus, the citizens are suffering through a great famine. When Pericles arrives, Lord Governor Cleon wonders whether the royal visitor means to take advantage of the situation and make war. But Pericles tells Cleon he has come in peace with a shipload of corn, for he has heard of the starvation in Tarsus and means to distribute the corn so the people can make bread and restore their vitality. Pericles asks only that he be allowed to remain in Tarsus for a short time. After Cleon heartily welcomes Pericles, the prince’s men unload the corn, and Tarsus is saved.
After Thaliard tracks Pericles to Tarsus, the prince—not wishing to imperil his new friends—sets sail one more time. Out in the loneliness of the sea, he encounters a terrible storm that wrecks his ship and sends all of its crew, save for Pericles himself, to the ocean depths. Pericles struggles to shore at Pentapolis on the coast of North Africa. Three fishermen come upon him and ask who he is and what he wants:
A man whom both the waters and the wind,One fisherman, taking him aside, tells him where he is and says the king of the realm is Simonides, a good and peaceful ruler whose court is half a day’s journey away. The king has a beautiful daughter named Thaisa, the fisherman says, and on the morrow young men from far-off lands will assemble to joust in a great tournament celebrating Thaisa’s birthday. Pericles longs to participate in the competition, but he has lost his armor in the shipwreck. By and by, however, the other fishermen retrieve the armor with their fishing nets. It is a bit rusty, but usable.
At the tournament the following day, Pericles defeats knights from Sparta, Macedon, Antioch, and other kingdoms, thereby earning a seat of honor at a great banquet where he receives a victory wreath from Thaisa and the congratulations of the other knights, all gracious losers. The Spartan knight says that
We are gentlemenThaisa is quite taken with young Pericles—in fact, she loves him. There is music and dancing, and a merry time is had by all. The next day, Thaisa and Pericles both pledge their undying love for each other, and King Simonides arranges a wedding for them.
Several months pass as the newlyweds live a blissful, uneventful life at the court—save for one development: Thaisa is pregnant. News from abroad then arrives with these messages: First, King Antiochus and his daughter are dead; second, nobles in Tyre plan to crown Helicanus king (against his wishes) unless Pericles returns soon and accepts the crown himself. All of Pentapolis then rejoices that young Pericles will become King Pericles!
On Pericles’s sea voyage back to Tyre with Thaisa, thunder booms and lightning flashes just as Thaisa goes into labor. With her is her midwife, Lychorida. Pericles prays to the goddess of childbirth, Lucina, that Thaisa will have an easy childbirth, asking her to “make swift the pangs / Of my queen’s travails!" (3. 1. 14-15). Lychorida then enters carrying an infant. The child is healthy and beautiful, but the words Lychorida speaks are venom to the heart of Pericles. She tells him to “take in your arms this piece / Of your dead queen” (3.1.20-21).
Pericles hardly has time to bid good-bye to Thaisa, for a sailor tells him: “Sir, your queen must overboard: the sea works high, the wind is loud, and will not lie till the ship be cleared of the dead” (3.1.51).
Thaisa’s body is placed in a chest along with a note identifying her as the daughter of a king and asking the finder of the chest (if it floats ashore) to honor her with a fitting burial. After sailors cast the chest overboard, Pericles sails on to Tarsus, where he leaves his infant daughter, called Marina, and Lychorida under the protection of the governor, Cleon (whose city Pericles earlier saved from the brink of starvation), and his wife, Dyonyza. He does so because he does not want his baby to endure the hardships of the voyage to Tyre.
Meanwhile, the chest floats to Ephesus, where servants of a physician named Cerimon finds it. After they take it to him and open it, Cerimon, noticing how well preserved Thaisa is, suspects she is not yet dead and, working over her, revives her. When she recovers, she becomes a priestess serving the goddess Diana.
In Tarsus, Marina grows into a beautiful and intelligent young lady. Dionyza is not pleased, however, because Marina outshines her own daughter, Philoten, in every way. Filled with envy, Dionyza orders her servant, Leonine, to kill Marina. However, at the moment when Leonine seizes Marina and goes off to fulfill his evil commission, pirates kidnap Marina and scare Leonine off. Afraid to tell Dionyza that he failed, Leonine reports that he killed Marina, as ordered. Dionyza then poisons Leonine to eliminate her connection with the murder.
The pirates sell Marina to a brothel in Mytilene, where a bawd tells her that she will live a life of pleasure in which she knows the company of many gentlemen. The bawd’s servant, Boult, announces in the marketplace that the brothel has a new young lady of incomparable beauty to serve the men of the town. Bravely, Marina vows she will not cooperate with her overlords:
If fires be hot, knives sharp, or waters deep,Pericles, meanwhile, sets sail for Tarsus to see his long-absent daughter, this time leaving Escanes, a lord of Tyre, in charge of the government. Dionyza has given out word that Marina is dead and has even erected a monument to her with an epitaph in golden characters. Upon his arrival in Tarsus, Pericles learns of his daughter’s “death,” visits her tomb, and then leaves for Tyre.
In Mytilene, Marina’s fierce defense of her chastity, as well as her virtuous daily living, endear her to citizens of the city, including its governor, Lysimachus. Consequently, she is allowed to retain her honor and pursue a career as a teacher and, later, a singer and dancer.
On Pericles’s return to Tyre, winds blow his ship off course and into the port of Mytilene. There, his representatives tell Governor Lysimachus that Pericles is a nearly broken man who laments the loss of his daughter and earlier the loss of his wife. For three months, he has not spoken a single word. Lysimachus says he knows of a maid who can cure Pericles of his grief with the sweetness of her songs. The maid is Marina. When she enters, she tells Pericles she also knows the meaning of grief. She adds,
Though wayward fortune did malign my state,Pericles questions her about her ancestors. When her story unfolds, he realizes she is his daughter and rejoices, casting off the terrible depression that had possessed him.
Later, when Pericles sleeps, the goddess Diana appears to him and instructs him to make a sacrifice at her temple in Ephesus and to reveal how he lost his wife. Once again, the wind fills the sails of his ship and, with Marina and his friends, he travels to Ephesus. There, he presents himself at Diana’s temple before the high priestess and virgins. After identifying himself as the King of Tyre, he recounts events of his life beginning with his marriage to Thaisa at Pentapolis. The high priestess replies, “Voice and favour! / You are, you are—O royal Pericles!” (5.3.16-17). The high priestess is, of course, Thaisa. After Pericles recognizes her, they and Marina are joyfully reunited. Marina then marries Lysimachus, and they become rulers of Tyre. Pericles and Thaisa rule in Pentapolis after Thaisa’s father, King Simonides, dies. In a closing epilogue, Gower observes that virtue has triumphed, “led on by heaven, and crown’d with joy at last” (5.3.106).
The climax of a play or another literary work, such as a short story or a novel, can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. The climax of Pericles occurs, according to the first definition, when Lychorida tells Pericles that Thaisa has died giving birth to Pericles's daughter. Although devastated by this news, he accepts the decree of Fate, speaks a hasty eulogy over the body of Thaisa, then gives her up to the sea. He next sails to Tarsus to place his infant in the care of friends. His actions demonstrate that he yet retains the will to persevere in life in spite of his setbacks. He is like the biblical Job, who doggedly carries on in the face of calamity. According to the second definition, the climax occurs in the final act when Pericles reunites with Thaisa. The climactic moment comes in the following exchange:
THAISA:.O, my lord,
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Life is an unpredictable, and often harrowing, journey. Young Pericles learns that life is full of dangerous twists and turns—and sometimes pleasant surprises. His journey throughout the Mediterranean region appears to symbolize the journey through life. It is not unlike the journey taken by Odysseus in Homer's Odyssey. The latter hero also underwent many tests of his mettle and, like Pericles, lost his ship and all of his men. Also, like Pericles, Odysseus was reunited with his wife and child at the end.
Never give up. Like Job in the Old Testament of the Bible, Pericles undergoes many trials and encounters many setbacks. Though weighted down by all of his losses, he carries on—just barely. Gower observes that
He bearsIn the end, he receives his just rewards.
All is not as it seems. This theme becomes apparent at the very beginning, when Pericles discovers that the lovely Princess of Antioch, whom he hopes to marry, and her father are evildoers.
Deviant sexuality and harlotry are evil. King Antiochus and his daughter commit incest. Shakespeare contrasts these despicable characters with the upright King Simonides and his daughter, Thaisa, who marries Pericles. Their daughter, Marina, after growing to young adulthood, refuses to compromise her chastity after pirates sell her to a house of prostitution. She says:
Untied I still my virgin knot will keep.
Diana, aid my purpose! (4.2.74)
Of monstrous lust the due and just reward:
In Pericles, his queen and daughter, seen,
Though 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. (5.3.101-106)
Imagery: Good vs Evil
Pericles is a play that contrasts good and evil. We have the evil King Antiochus contrasting with the good King Simonides, the evil daughter of Antiochus contrasting with the good daughter of Simonides, the evil Dionyza contrasting with the good Lychorida, the evil servant Leonine contrasting with the good servant Philemon, and so on. In preaching goodness over evil, Shakespeare presents many mini-sermons and mini-speeches in the form of figures of speech such as metaphors and similes. Here are examples:
Few love to hear the sins they love to act. (1.1.87)
Following are examples of figures of speech in Pericles, Prince of Tyre. For definitions of figures of speech, click here.
As these before thee thou thyself shalt bleed. (1.1.61)Apostrophe
Yet cease your ire, you angry stars of heaven!Hyperbole
A city on whom plenty held full hand,Metaphor
Her face the book of praises, where is readPersonification
One sorrow never comes but brings an heirSimile
She comes apparell’d like the spring. (1.1.15)Allusions and Direct References
In keeping with the setting of the play, the dialogue contains many allusions and direct references to ancient deities of Greek mythology. Shakespeare generally uses the Roman name for the deities. In some instances, the Roman name is the same as the Greek.
(3.2.133): A god of medicine in Greek mythology.
He was the son of Apollo.
In Pericles, the name
of a minor character, Pandar, appears to be an
allusion to Pandarus, an ally of the Trojans
in Homer’s account of the Trojan War in The
Iliad. In medieval and Renaissance
literature, writers cast Pandarus in the role
of a go-between, or matchmaker, in a love
affair between the Trojan prince Troilus and
the Trojan woman Cressida. In time, the word panderer
(derived from Pandarus and Pandar)
evolved into popular use to identify an agent
who brings lovers together or, in less
euphemistic words, to identify a pimp, a
procurer, or a whoremonger. Among the writers
who wrote about Troilus, Cressida, and
Pandarus (or Pandar) were Benoît de
Sainte-Maure, Giovanni Boccaccio, Geoffrey
Chaucer, and, of course, Shakespeare.
Shakespeare based Pericles,
of Tyre on a work by the fourteenth
century author John Gower. (See Sources, above.) He is the
same Gower (resurrected, by the magic of
Shakespeare's quill) who acts as chorus and
narrator of Pericles. His role is (1)
to present a short introduction to each act,
helping to give the play a once-upon-a-time,
fairytale atmosphere; (2) to comment on the
morality of the characters; and (3) to review
the progress of events.