“Great king,/Few love to hear the sins they love to act.”


Act One, Part One

By Dennis Abrams



Gower, the narrator

Pericles, Price of Tyre

Marina, Pericles’s daughter

Helicanus and Aeschines, counselors of Tyre

King Antiochus of Antioch

Antiochus’s Daughter

Thaliart, a villain

King Simonides of Pentapolis

Thaisa, Simonides’s daughter

Cleon, governor of Tarsus

Dionyza, Cleon’s wife

Leonine, a villain

Lychordia, Thaisa’s nurse

Cerimon, a physician from Ephesus

Philemon, Cermino’s servant

Lysimachus, governor of Mytilene

Various brothel characters, including a Bawd, a Pander and Boult, the Pander’s servant

Diana, goddess of chastity

(Although the play is broken down by scene vs. acts, I’m going to keep up traditional act divisions.)


pericles1Scenes 1-4  Gower relates an old story; how King Antiochus has had an incestuous affair with his daughter, and tried to keep her for himself by seeing her many suitors an impossible riddle. When each one fails to solve it, he sentences them to death. Antiochus enters with Pericles, who plans to court the princess, and sets him the riddle; when Pericles works out the correct answer, Antiochus secretly orders that he be murdered. But before Thaliart can poison the Prince, Pericles arranges with Helicanus to escape to Tarsus. Thaliart arrives in Tyre, but misses Pericles, who has arrived and Tarsus and saved its citizens from famine by bringing corn.

Reading the first “act” of Pericles, it seems obvious that it never allows us to forget that it is a story – an old tale retold. The first person on stage, and a continuing presence throughout, is Gower, medieval poet and author of the Confessio Amantis (“The Lover’s Confession”), Shakespeare’s main source for the play. “To sing a song that old was sung/From ashes ancient Gower is come,” he jauntily begins,

Assuming man’s infirmities

To glad your ear and please your eyes.

It hath been sung at festivals,

On ember-eves and holy-ales,

And lords and ladies in their lives

Have read it for restoratives.

(Sc. 1, 1-8)

But, unlike the Chorus of Henry V, who apologizes for the theater itself, “this unworthy scaffold,” “Ancient Gower,” like all the best storytellers, begs forgiveness for his tale by simultaneously boasting of its pedigree. That apology goes for Pericles as a whole, the first of Shakespeare’s so-called “romances,” which draws attention to its own artifice while at the same time celebrating the fact.  (Very post-modern if you think about it.)_  Rejuvenating the long-dead Gower from his grave – which by coincidence was just around the corner from the Globe in what is now Southwark Cathedral – and putting him on stage is the first of the many miracles the play will perform.

Of course, none of this impressed Ben Jonson.  At the point where he was abandoning the stage completely, and anxious to distance himself from the then fashion for romance in the Jacobean theater, he dismissed all of it as “a mouldy tale…and stale/As the shrieve’s crusts, and nasty as his fish –/Scraps.” Though other critics have agreed (as we’ve seen many believe that the play lacks that “Shakespearean” quality, and was possibly co-written), but I think that this is missing the point. Pericles has a very distinct “once upon a time” quality – it seems that it is meant to seem old, and meant to be magical.

Gower’s expedition through the centuries to the stage of the globe is just one of many journeys in Pericles, which moves restlessly from place to place, “bourn to bourn, region to region,” as Gower himself puts it (Sc. 18, 4). Though Shakespeare himself had no use for the word “romance,” like many of his contemporaries, Pericles is actually his fullest expression of romantic motifs, themes that ultimately have their origin in ancient epics such as Homer’s Odyssey but became formalized during the early medieval era and flowered for at least another three centuries. Integral to romance tales, narratives of adventure and love, it is the idea of the quest – the task that the hero (there are few romance heroines) must perform, and the adventures he encounters along the way. In this sense, Pericles has all the right ingredients: a questing hero, a story of love and loss, seemingly impossible feats of daring-do, multiple tragedies averted only by the most magical of realizations. All of these are experienced by the play’s hero, Pericles, who is compelled by mischance to take up what seems like an endless journey across the eastern Mediterranean. Like Odysseus in Homer’s Epic, and indeed. Like Egeon and Antipholus of Syracuse in The Comedy of Errors (which also uses Gower as a source) – he becomes an adventurer, nomadic and rootless.

Pericles enters the play on the first of many quests, to win the hand of King Antiochus’s beautiful (of course she is!) daughter, but is compelled to flee when he discovers a dark secret at the heart of the Syrian court. This set up a chain of transit that will take in such exotic centers of the ancient world as Ephesus, Tarsus, and Myteline. The restlessness that lies at the heart of the play’s source material has often attracted comment. What Laurence Twine, the sixteenth century author of The Pattern of Painful Adventures (1576), which Shakespeare seems to have used, billed the “delectable variety…chances and changes” of his story has been less well received in our time. The critic G. Wilson Knight (who I will be using later in our reading), though one of the play’s most ardent champions, famously described its plot as “merely a succession of happenings linked by sea-journeys,” while editor J.C. Maxwell catalogued what he saw as the “fantastic and often irrational narrative” on the page before him. But…Pericles, it seems to me, is dominated by vast, almost fairy-tale, struggles between good and evil; and it is one of the play’s most telling themes that in the face of powerful natural forces humans have little opportunity to control their own fates. Even ending other people’s lives can be a problem, as Thaliart (the assassin hired by Antiochus to murder Pericles) discovers, when he arrives at Tyre in hot pursuit, only to discover that his target has “betook himself to unknown travels” (Sc. 3, 35), already enroute elsewhere.

The reasons behind Pericles’s decision to travel to Tarsus near the beginning of the play remain unexplained – a mysterious start to his many mysterious voyages – but the famine-struck city provides a gruesome instance of mankind brought low by Fate. A city ‘whose tow’rs bore heads so high they kissed the clouds,/And strangers ne’er beheld but wondered at,” is now in the depths of misery, its ruler laments:

Those mothers who to nuzzle up their babies

Thought naught too curious are ready now

To eat those little darlings whom they loved.

So sharp are hunger’s teeth that man and wife

Draw lots who first shall die to lengthen life.

(Sc. 4. 24-46)

Cleon’s exclamation just moments earlier – “see what heav’n can do by this our change’ – foreshadows the trials of Pericles himself.”


From Garber:

Pericles 2“Of equal concern to editors and readers has been the question of authorship. It seems clear from internal evidence that most of the first two acts of Pericles were written by someone else, probably George Wilkins, the author of the novel The Painfull Adventures of Pericles, Prince of Tyre, published a year before the quarto of Pericles, and a freelance playwright some of whose plays had been performed by Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men. (Wilkin’s novel cannot have been the source for the play that we have, since its title page declares it to be ‘The true History of the Play of Pericles, as it was lately presented by the worthy and ancient poet John Gower.’ The novel, that is, depends for its timeliness on the success of the play, or of a play on the same topic.) As we have noted, plays in this period were often written collaboratively, much as film scripts are today. Nevertheless, Pericles contains a number of tropes familiar from the Shakespearean corpus: the idea of the isolated middle world; the conjunction of nature, which exists in and through time, with jewels and art, which are by convention ‘timeless’; and the great central issue of the family reunion, which is so crucial in the tragedies and romances, and above all the reunion of parent and child (Hamlet and old Hamlet; Cordelia and Lear; Coriolanus and Volumnia; Cymbeline and his lost sons; Leontes, Hermione, and Perdita in The Winter’s Tale). In Pericles we have the reunion of a long-separated husband and wife, Pericles and Thaisa (the kind of event that was formative for one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, The Comedy of Errors). But that reunion is, as it were, deliberately subordinated to the reunion of father and daughter, Pericles and Marina. (Shakespeare himself, as we have noted, was the father of two daughters, and much in these late plays seems to be presented from the vantage point of the older, paternal generation, rather than, as in earlier plays, that of the young lovers). The third, fourth and fifth sections, or acts, of the play, those generally considered by scholars to be written in whole or in large part by Shakespeare, contain a number of verbal anticipations of phrases and scenes in his other romance plays (Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest), as well as echoes of lines from Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra, both written about the same time as Pericles. The brothel scenes are surely by Shakespeare, and they resemble moments in Measure for Measure.

If Shakespeare took over the play-text of Pericles and made it his own, he did so with certain formal limitations or inheritances. He inherited the central Greek romance story of Pericles, or Apollonius of Tyre, a story that had already been told by John Gower (see below); by Chaucer in the introduction to his ‘Man of Law’s Tale’; by Laurence Twine in a novel called The Patterne of Painfull Adventures, written at the end of the sixteenth century; by George Wilkins in The Painfull Adventures of Pericles, Prince of Tyre, a novel that plagiarizes whole sections from Twine; and by Sir Philip Sidney. (the ‘Pyrocles’ of Sidney’s Arcadia can be understood to be Pericles.) And Shakespeare also inherited the figure of Gower, who speaks as Prologue for each section of the play, and who is probably in part responsible for Ben Jonson’s dismissal of the play as a ‘mouldy tale.’ John Gower (1330? – 1408) was a poet who told the story of Pericles in his major work, the Confessio Amantis. The prologues spoken by the character of Gower are written in an archaic English – ‘killen’ for ‘kill,’ ‘spoken’ for ‘speak,’ eyne’ for ‘eyes’ – and in a four-foot rather than a five-foot verse line. Jonson, who famously declared about Spenser’s similar archaisms in the Shepheardes Calender that ‘Spenser write no language,’ would presumably have had a similar impatience with Shakespeare’s Gower. Each new section of Pericles begins with this ‘medieval’ poet speaking a ‘medieval’ language in a ‘medieval’ verse form (octosyllabic couplets, the verse form of Confessio Amantis). And in the following sections (the quarto was not divided into acts, so the act divisions are perforce provided by modern editors) each begins, as well, with a dumb show, another old-fashioned device, a kind of visual riddle to be deciphered first by Gower onstage and then by the audience offstage (We might recall that Hamlet’s Mousetrap play began with a dumb show, which it fell to Hamlet himself to interpret for King Claudius’s court.)

Yet the figure of Gower is far from being simply a liability, a relic from an outmoded style of drama. For one thing, his presence and his language stress the archaism of the play as a whole, and this is valuable in naturalizing unlikely events and extreme coincidences. Such coincidences, which are part of the world of romance and fairy tale, are easier to accept if the audience is continually reminded that what it is watching is an old story, an ancient song, a deliberate and self-conscious fiction. So Gower functions as a signal to the spectators that they may suspend their disbelief. The acute unrealism of most of the play is framed by Gower’s interpolations, by his reminders that the audience is helping to imagine his story and bring it to life. (It is by the same token no accident that the most jarring moments in Pericles are the brothel scenes, which are too realistic, given their closely observed language and their bawdy wit, for romance, or for the Gower frame.)

Repeatedly at the end of his prologues Gower reminds us of the inadequacies of telling – just as do the prologues in Henry V. By stressing the fictionality of the events he is describing, by emphasizing the degree to which they are products of poetic imagination, he brings his audience into the process of creation. In a sense, the play can be understood as having the structure of a dream or a dream vision, one as improbable as that which Pericles calls his dream: the reappearance of his lost child. Gower points toward the allegorical structure that lies at the heart of fairy tales, the basic pattern of human life expressed in mythic terms: growing up, leaving one’s parents, seeking an identity and a name, temptation, and testing in the world, sexual maturity, the begetting of a new generation. Yet even as he conveys the audience to an imaginary land of fairy tale that is also a map of his own desires, Gower insists upon the way telling must be replaced by showing, lyric and narrative replaced by spectacle and drama:

And what ensues in this fell storm

Shall for itself itself perform;

I nill relate; action may

Conveniently the rest convey.


photo1Action, rather than mere words, is necessary, and ‘[s]hall for itself itself perform.’ The final rhymes (‘may’/’convey’), a traditional verbal sign for ending a scene or clearing the stage, move the play from narrative to performance, and this formal issues becomes a theme within the play proper, as well – as, for example, when Helicanus, the old counselor, is about to explain Pericles’s problem to Lysimachus, the governor, in scene 21. ‘Sir, sir,’ he says, ‘I will recount it.’/But see, I am prevented’ (21.51-52). Prevented, that is, by the arrival of Marina, who will discover Pericles’s story for herself in a much more dramatic, even ‘miraculous’ fashion, as she cures him of his melancholy, tells him her name, and, in exchange, learns his name and his story.

There is, then, both value and charm in the Gower frame, even though Shakespeare might not have chosen it, and does not employ it in the other last romances. Not only does the frame-narrator device focus attention on mode (allegorical fairy tale rather than mimetic ‘realism’) and form (showing versus telling), it also offers a kind of unity and control in this peripatetic and picaresque play, ‘set dispersedly’ in various Mediterranean countries. In gleeful defiance of what some humanist theorists understood to be the classical dramatic ‘unities’ (time, place, and action), scenes in Pericles take place in Antioch, Tyre, Tarsus, Pentapolis, Mytilene, and Ephesus, and the events span not a few hours (as in The Comedy of Errors or A Midsummer Night’s Dream), or even a few days or weeks, but rather the enormous period of fourteen years. Why violate the ‘unity of time’ so overtly? Because the structure of Shakespeare’s dramatic romance demands it, since that structure depends upon the growth and maturation of a second generation, one old enough, by play’s end, to marry. As for the third ‘unity,’ the ‘unity of action’ specified in Aristotle’s Poetics – it is, as we have already seen, present in Pericles in the extreme. For the actions that make up the play are all repeated. Loss of a parent, loss of a child, shipwreck, privation, suffering, rebirth, and reconciliation: each of the three main characters – Pericles, Thaisa, and Marina – undergoes a version of these events, all to be knit together at the close.

Shakespeare in fact almost always mixes his genres, even from his earliest plays. A typical romance pattern is embedded in Othello, in the hero’s description of the way he told the story of his adventures to an admiring Desdemona:

Wherein I spoke of most disastrous chances,

Of moving accidents by flood and field,

Of hair-breadth scapes i’th’ imminent deadly breach,

Of being taken by the insolent foe

And sold to slavery, of my redemption thence,

And portance in my traveller’s history,

Wherein of antres vast and deserts idle,

Rough quarries, rocks, and hills whose heads touch heaven,

And of the cannibals that each other eat,

The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads

Do grow beneath their shoulders…

In Pericles, the human is typically mingled with the superhuman, with gods, giants, witches, sorcerers, monsters – figures that populate the imaginative mind of humankind and may stand, upon occasion, for parents, enemies, rivals, and other ‘blocking figures.’ Romance is the pattern that underlies both psychology and myth: the quest hero, who stands at its center, who undertakes an adventure to prove himself, and to find his own secret name. This sequence is familiar to us from the story of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table, from Parzival, from Hamlet, and from Coriolanus – and it is omnipresent in Pericles.

In order to find himself, the quester in a romance must ask the proper question, which often presents itself in the form of a riddle, like the Sphinx’s riddle. The sign of his success in human terms will be marriage; in political terms, kingship or rule; and in both, fertility: for the family, the birth of a child or children, the provision of an heir; for the land, the coming of spring and harvest after a long period of drought, waste, or winter. Thus romance will often cross over into the terrain of comedy (love, sex, and marriage) as well as history (succession, rule, and plenty). Pericles brings corn – fertility – to the starving and dying land of Tarsus, the kingdom of Cleon and Dionyza, and he also brings to them a version of human fertility in the person of his infant daughter, Marina. But the king and queen of this determined wasteland attempt to kill Marina, to kill the child who emblematizes the springtime and the harvest of the land, and they themselves are killed as a result. In myths the freeing of the land and the self is often visualized as the slaying of a dragon. In Shakespeare the ‘dragons’ tend to be monstrous human beings, naturalized dragons who prevent maturity and fertility: in Pericles, the wicked incestuous Antiochus and the cruel queen Dionzya, both struck by lightning, and the bawds and their customers in the Mytilene brothel, converted to virtue by Marina (‘Shall’s go hear the vestals sing?’ ‘I am out of the road for rutting for ever’ [19-7, 8-90.

painful adventuresIn essence, a romance is a season myth or maturation myth expressed in human terms: as Northrop Frye and others have noted, the hero is linked to spring, to dawn, to fertility, to youth, and to order, while the enemy – the antitype of the hero – is a figure of repression, winter, sterility, darkness, and old age. Often, at least in fairy tales, this antitype is linked to the parental generation, and the story becomes that of a child’s (necessary) rebellion against his or her parents, a struggle in the direction of independence, autonomy, and power. The psychology of Carl Jung presumes, in many ways, the cultural ubiquity of such a pattern. The fourteen-year gap at the center of Pericles, like the similar gap of sixteen years between acts 3 and 4 of The Winter’s Tale, thus marks the cycle of events, and the redeeming function of the second generation. The plays of romance are cyclical – they celebrate the recurrence of events: here, the marriage of Pericles to Thaisa, and then, a generation later, the marriage of Marina to Lysimachus. In Shakespearean romance the apparently awkward gap of time allows for the infant to come to maturity.

Romance, myth, ritual, and dream are closely allied to one another, as anthropologists and psychologists have often observed. In The Interpretation of Dreams Sigmund Freud outlined a fundamental schema for analysis, based upon his reading of fiction and folktales:

‘The Emperor and Empress (or the King and Queen) as a rule really represent the dreamer’s parents; and a Prince or Princess represents the dreamer herself or himself…Boxes, cases, chests, cupboards, and ovens represent the uterus, and also hollow objects, ships, and vessels of all kinds…to represent castration symbolically, the dream-work makes use of baldness, hair-cutting, falling out of teeth and decapitation.’

If we consider the dramatic events of Pericles in relation to the passage just quoted from The Interpretation of Dreams, we can see how much of archetypal romance or folktale is built into the play’s structure. Fertility and sterility are everywhere in the plot, on the surface (the wasteland theme, the threat of incest, the loss of the king’s heir) as well as in the subtext and the details:

 — Decapitation. The play opens with a dumb show, the display of severed heads on the wall of Antioch. These are the heads of suitors who failed to answer the incest riddle of King Antiochus and his daughter. For their failure – a failure of knowledge, or a failure of courage – the suitors were decapitated. Instead of marriage, death is their reward.

— Hair-cutting. When Pericles is convinced that his daughter is lost, he allows his hair and beard to grow long, a conventional sign of mourning in many cultures. Pledging that he will cut his hair on Marina’s wedding day, he goes unshorn until he is reunited with wife and daughter.

— Boxes, chests, and vessels. Marina is born at sea, on her father’s ship: in the same storm her mother, Thaisa, dies, we are told, and her body is placed in a casket, ‘a chest…caulked and bitumed.’ In this casket of sweet perfumes and spices the supposedly dead Thaisa will be buried, and from it she will be reborn.

It is important to emphasize here that Freud did not go into the consulting room with a checklist; his famous couch was not a Procrustean bed of symptomatology. He derived this catalogue of cultural symbols from his study of the Greek and Roman classics, of mythology, and, indeed, of the plays of Shakespeare – and he was then fascinated to see these symbols and symbol clusters appear in the dreams of his patients. The clusters of symbols, their repetition and destiny, not the appearance of one isolated sign, make for significance. Why would these symbols reappear in the dreams of middle-class people in Vienna, Freud’s city? Because they, too, were brought up in a culture influenced by these same literary texts and forms. And what relevance can Freud have to Shakespeare, who lived so long afterward? Freud read Shakespeare with great attention and interest. He wrote about Macbeth and King Lear and The Merchant of Venice and, most famously, about Hamlet. Freud himself is an allegorist and mythographer, who used Shakespeare’s characters as case studies for his observation of what he came to believe was human nature. It is not, that it is to say, so much that Shakespeare is ‘Freudian’ as that Freud was a Shakespearean. (Freud’s late interest in the Shakespeare Authorship Controversy – he was a belated convert to the Oxford camp – suggests that his notion of the family romance, the child’s fantasy that he is not his parents’ offspring but the scion of a noble house, could be applied to Freud’s own literary and imaginative parentage.)

We could, of course, as well turn to history as to myth for these symbols, since the walls of London were themselves adorned with the severed heads of traitors, and the sea and its storms represented, for sea-walled England, a constant source of danger, and of treasure and prize. What is arguably most effective about the way Shakespeare builds the imagery and action of his plays is the multiplicity of resonances that can be perceived in every line. A historicist reading of Pericles would take note of its celebration of the family as a political concept – a concept that glorifies King James and the Stuart royal family, seen as a fertile, ‘natural’ family after the reign of a sterile, ‘unnatural’ Virgin Queen, as the site of authority. The bad family structure of the incestuous Antiochus and his nameless daughter is displaced and replaced through the reunion of the good father and daughter, Pericles and Marina, and the reunion of the good husband and wife, Pericles and Thaisa. When Pericles is reunited with his wife, he also sets up a dynastic inheritance, allowing his daughter Marina and her husband, Lysimachus, to rule in Tyre, while he and Thaisa rule over Pentapolis, Thaisa’s dead father’s kingdom. (Followers of the Shakespeare biography trail may wish to note that by this time, in 1609, Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna had married and had produced a daughter, the playwright’s grandchild.) The play is relevant, in part, to the Jacobean court, and the intended political marriages of the King’s son Henry (who would die young) and daughter Elizabeth (who would shortly marry), just as the first two acts of the play can be seen to be concerned with one of James’s favorite topics, the question of what makes a good ruler. But it is important, I think, to underscore the generic elements of fantasy and archetype in Pericles. As always, the historical material enriches our understanding of the play’s context and indwelling allegories. But the tone of this play is clearly one of fable and archetype.

The opening scenes of the play offer a series of pairs of fathers and daughters, kings and queens, brief adventures that set the stage for the major conflicts to come. At Antioch Pericles encounters King Antiochus and his nameless daughter (her lack of a name underscoring the need for Marina, later on, to find the meaning of her own name and birth). Following heroic precedent, Pericles successfully interprets the riddle that has stumped other suitors, only to find, to his horror, that the answer is ‘incest’ – an unlawful relation between parent and child. Antiochus treats him with exaggerated courtesy, ‘glozing,’ as he says, once he realizes that Pericles knows the answer to the riddle, and Pericles flees for his life, resigning his kingly duties to the old man Helicanus. Pericles is fleeing the anger of Antiochus, but he is also, by the logic of romance, seeking himself. When he approaches Tarus, the home of Cleon and Dionyza, he brings not conquest, as they fear, but corn to feed the people of their wasted land.

Much of the play’s action takes place on the sea, and among the treasures yielded up is the child Marina, who name means ‘woman of the sea.’ Other archetypal romances often turn on the figure of a child born from the water – as in the case of Moses, who is placed in a reed basket and sent off through the bulrushes, adopted by a foster parent (Pharaoh’s daughter), and named Moses because, Pharaoh’s daughter says, ‘I drew him forth from the water.’ Moses will slay his own dragon, in the form of the wicked Pharaoh, and will receive a message on a mountaintop. In Greek mythology the hero Perseus is also put to sea in a casket, and also slays a dragon, the Gorgon Medusa. He rescues a king’s daughter, Andromeda, from another dragon (a sea monster) and married her, and he, too, is brought back to his place of origin by coincidence, and fate, to die. In The Odyssey Odysseus is symbolically reborn from the sea when he comes, naked, to the shore near the island of Phaeacians, magically conveyed there by a long cord in the form of a goddess’s veil.

Marina’s birth is the central, and literal ‘birth from the sea’ in Pericles, but it is not the only one. Thaisa, as we have noted, is reborn from her casket after being rescued from the sea, then reborn a second time when she is reunited with Pericles. And Pericles himself seems to undergo a symbolic pattern of birth in scene 5, a scene that begins with his emergence from the water. The stage direction announces, ‘Enter Pericles wet.’”



My next post:  Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning.  More on “Act One” or, to be more precise, more introductory material.  Enjoy.

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