“Master, I marvel how the fishes live in the sea./Why, as men do a-land: the great ones eat up the little ones.”


Act Two

By Dennis Abrams


Pericles4Scenes 5-9:  As news arrives regarding Trailart’s plot, Pericles once again leaves, but is shipwrecked in a storm. He is washed up on the shore near Pentapolis, where he is looked after by a group of kindly fishermen. When they drag his armor from the sea, Pericles decides to travel incognito to the court of King Simonides to take part in a tournament there, which is set up to test the prowess of his daughter’s prospective suitors. The mysterious knight wins the jousting (surprise!), and also the princess’s heart (also surprise!), but refuses to divulge his identity. Meanwhile, back in Tyre, Pericles’s own knights complain about his absence and try to persuade Helicanus to take the crown in his place – but Helicanus rightfully and nobly refuses. In Pentapolis, Simonides tests Pericles’s feelings for his daughter by showing him a forged love letter to Thaisa; after hearing Pericles’s protestations of virtue, the King grants the couple permission to marry. Their wedding is then described by Gower with the aid of a dumb show.

The dangers faced by the plays characters are starkly presented by the all-encompassing role of the sea in Pericles. Even more so than in The Tempest (written probably two years later), the play seems (at least at this point) obsessed with the risks of the voyage, which separate our hero not only from his homeland but as we’ll see, from his wife and daughter. Two terrible storms take place in the course of the action: in the first, Pericles is shipwrecked and all his possessions lost, in the second he will lose his wife. And although in one sense these storms (or tempests if you will) allow the plot to develop and turn in unexpected directions – Twelfth Night, as you recall, also relied on a shipwreck to separate Viola from her brother – in Pericles, the sea appears more as a malevolent dramatic force:  a fearful barrier rather than a liberating medium. By heading to Tarsus, Helicanus worries that his friend Pericles “puts himself unto the ship man’s toil,/With whom each minute threatens life or death’ (Sc. 3. 24-5), and indeed the frustrated assassin Thaliart contents himself that the King has done his job for him by opting to travel by water, noting grimly that ‘he scaped the land to perish on the seas.’ (sc. 3.29). Those these dark forebodings will not prove to be quite accurate – Pericles obviously does not die during the first storm – other problems will soon strike.


From G. Wilson Knight’s book The Crown of Life, which looks at Shakespeare’s last plays, from the essay “The Writing of Pericles

Submit – in this, or any other sphere,

Secure to be as blest as thou can’st bear:

Safe in the hand of one disposing Power,

Or in the natal, or the mortal hour.

All Nature is but Art, unknown to thee;

All Chance, Direction, which thou can’st not see;

All Discord, Harmony not understood;

All partial Evil, universal Good…

Pope’s Essay on Man, I.285

gow1958“The problems raised by Pericles are unique. In no other Shakespearian play do we find so stark a contrast of (i) scenes of supreme power and beauty with (ii) scenes which no one can accept as Shakespeare’s without disquietude. Two more facts must be faced: the first, that the play seems to have been extremely popular; the second, that it alone of the accepted canon was omitted from the First Folio.

The most questionable scenes, which occur early, are strange both in matter and manner. The first, showing Pericles’ suit for the hand of Antiochus’ daughter and his reading of the riddle, is peculiar enough; what dramatic interest is raised sags soon after and it is hard to follow his later fears and successive flights with the requisite interest. The verse, too, is troublesome. The thought is clear and pointed, but the language seems week; at the best, it lacks colloquial grip and condensed power and at the worst sounds like apprentice work; there are few striking metaphors, and rhyme bulks large. One begins by suspecting another hand, or wondering if Shakespeare is revising a script of his own dating back to the time of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, a manner suggested by Pericles’ first lines:

I have, Antiochus, and, with a soul

Embolden’d with the glory of her praise,

Think death no hazard in this enterprise.


Often one suspects the text which may be faulty. And yet, as against these suspicions, we are forced to recognize that everything is organic in story-value; more, that each scene, indeed the early scenes as a single unit, are imaginatively coherent, and, the peculiar manner, on the whole, sustained. Moreover, little occurs that is indisputably unauthentic, and the thoughts at least, and even the action, recall other Shakespearian plays. Occasionally we meet lines that sound like late writing of the normal kind. Later, we have long sequences of apparently mature Shakespeare between work of the doubtful sort. The court scenes at Tarsus and Pentapolis are full of strange, often rhymed, rather formal, verse, but Pericles’ arrival on the shore of Pentapolis in Act II, with its accompanying storm-poetry and the fisherman’s talk, has the Shakespearian stamp. Even the queer scenes seem to grow in power, perhaps becomes one gets acclimatized; after Act I, one is less inclined to doubt, and from Act III onwards there is little but superlative, even for Shakespeare strength. Finally, after a number of re-readings one begins to suspect some especial purpose in the passages of stilted verse, lending themselves, as they do, to semi-didactic comment and generalized statement. The style is often gnomic.

It is often supposed that Shakespeare was re-writing someone else’s play. This is possible, though it may be wiser to supposed an earlier text of his own. Anyway, the allotment of unauthentic, early Shakespearian and late-Shakespearian passages, if such allotment is attempted, must be left to the reader’s private judgment, since no certainty is possible. The general result is that, though the Folio editors rejected the play, we are in no position to do so. It was published under Shakespeare’s name, fits, as we shall see, into the general progress of his later work, and is, even where the style appears doubtful, heavily loaded with Shakespearian reminiscence. It fairly obviously stands now as a whole for which Shakespeare must be considered responsible. As Lascelles Abercrombie argued in his Plea for the Liberty of Interpretation, non-authentic material can assume authenticity through incorporation, deriving sustenance from the new organism into which it has been incorporated, as when flesh is grafted on to a living body. It is the less easy to feel this in Pericles in that the queer scenes bulk so largely and seem to stand so firmly on their own feet; the problem is far different from the incorporation of Plutarchan passages in Antony and Cleopatra. But the strong Shakespearian continuation in Acts III, IV< and V, apart from earlier fine scenes and the possibly misunderstood purpose of those considered dubious, certainly does something to render the whole, as a whole, impressive. We must accordingly be prepared to make a preliminary acceptance and see what comes of it.

To pass to a direct interpretation. The events are linked by Gower who directs us with a series of choric speeches, the story of Pericles having been contained in Gower’s Confessio Amantis. How far the attempts at archaic phraseology are successful may be questioned; and so may the poetic value of these speeches in general; but, since their quaintness is clearly deliberate, and since they are crammed with typical Shakespearian imagery of tempest and wreck in association with ‘fortune,’ they may be allowed to pass.

We start with Pericles’ suit for Antiochus’ daughter, who enters ‘apparell’d like the spring’ and appears a dazzling creature of intelligence, virtue and honour (I.i.12-14). Pericles’ praise is extravagant. But there is in it something a trifle feverish it is the result more of fascination, almost lust, then love, resembling Orsino’s passion for Olivia:

You gods, that made me man, and sway in love,

That hath inflam’d desire in my breast

To taste the fruit of yon celestial tree

Or die in the adventure, be my helps,

As I am son and servant to your will,

To compass such a boundless happiness!


The weak conclusion is certainly reminiscent of Shakespeare’s early writing, but the speech is subtle enough. Notice the speaker’s self-defence, not unusual in lust, attributing it, with some justice to instinct divinely implanted. The image in the third line recalls certain passages in Dante, so fine an expedrt in the subtleties of good and evil in human desire. The thing aimed at is specifically dangerous. Antiochus warns Pericles that the lady is a ‘fair Hesperides’ with ‘golden fruit,’ guarded by ‘death-like dragons.’ He continues with reminders of former suitors whose ‘dead cheeks’ – like those in Keats’ Belle Dame Sans Merci – advise him to ‘desist’ from this mad engagement with death. Pericles’ suit is to depend on his solving of a riddle and failure means death; so, as it turns out, does success to, since the riddle concerns the lady’s incestuous relationship with her father, a powerful and wicked king who will not tolerate his secret’s discovery.

Our hero’s adventure is a plunge into sin and death closely associated with ravishing desire. He has not actively sinned, except in giving way to a lustful and cheating fantasy, but the result is immersion into an experience o evil with accompanying disgust and danger. It is a fall in the theological sense. His eyes are now opened to ‘this glorious casket stor’d with ill’; he has found ‘sin’ within the thing of beauty:

You’re a fair viol, and your sense the strings,

Who, finger’d to make men his lawful music,

Would draw heaven down and all the gods to hearken;

But being play’d upon before your time,

Hell only danceth at so harsh a chime.


The phraseology is intensely impregnated with moral and theological concepts (‘lawful,’ ‘heaven,’ ‘gods,’ ‘hell,’). The evil exposed is a denial of a ‘lawful music’; of the harmony of human marriage and procreation defined in Sonnet VIII, where father, mother, and child are described as making a single music. The creative order has been mutilated and hence the oblique confusions of the riddle itself:

I am no viper, yet I feed

On mother’s flesh which did me breed;

I sought a husband, in which labour

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.

Shakespeare’s final work is aptly heralded by this inversion of that creative mystery which is to be from now on its emphatic and repeated theme. The poetry denounces this obscenity with thoughts of ‘foul incest’ (I.i.126) and ‘serpents’ who breed poison from sweet flowers (I.i.132-3). The black evil suggests Lucrece and Macbeth:

Murder’s as near to lust as flame to smoke

Poison and treason are the hands of sin…

So Pericles flees from Antioch to escape the King’s vengeance.

The short scene is clearly important. Though the verse may at moments recall Shakespeare’s early manner, the philosophical impact lies clearly in advance of it. Moreover, the rhymed or otherwise stilted sequences suit the intention of the miniature ‘morality.’ The meaning is generalized: the King is less man than ogre, the lady less a lady than a ravishing thing: she is not even given a name, and her entry to music is correspondingly formal. The whole scene is a moral on the dangers attending visual lust, and recalls the moral undertones of the casket-scene in The Merchant of Venice, with its song on ‘fancy’ bred ‘in the eyes (The Merchant of Venice, III.ii.63; cp. ‘eye’ in our Pericles scene at I.i.77). In both plays failure to read the riddles concerned is to be punished, the penalty in Pericles being death. The scene is impregnated with a grimness of intention surpassing anything in the earlier play, the antimony of good and evil transcended in Antony and Cleopatra being now again powerfully distinct: the unity has fallen apart, as is, in the new style of myth-making, necessary, since that fine immediacy and coalescence is to be henceforth strung out again into narrative sequence. A further, semi-social, criticism of Antiochus as tyrant gives us a line of two of Shakespeare’s mature best:

The blind mole casts

Copp’d hills towards heaven, to tell the earth is throng’d

By man’s oppression; and the poor worm doth dies for’t.

The speech continues with gnomic rhymes: we have no choice but to accept the poetic amalgam as it stands.

After escaping to Tyre, Pericles is struck down with melancholia. He has had a blasting experience, not unlike Hamlet’s, both suffering through knowledge of incest in one they love and falling into a mysterious gloom:

Why should this change of thoughts

The sad companion, dull-ey’d melancholy,

Be my so us’d a guest, as not an hour

In the day’s glorious walk or peaceful night –

The tomb where grief should sleep – can breed me quiet?

Pleasures ‘court’ his eye, but, like Hamlet (‘I have of late, but wherefore I know not.”, he cannot enjoy them. His fear of Antiochus is, he half knows, irrational; and yet he realizes that his silence will be, like Hamlet’s an ever-living threat: Antiochus ‘will think me speaking though I swear to silence.’ His vague foreboding (like the Queen’s at Richard II), burdened by fear and horror, expresses itself in such phrases as ‘black as incest’ and ‘his bed of darkness.’ He seems to feel guilt, yet is uncertain how far the ‘offence’ is his own. The experience transmitted is both subtle and powerful, though the verse often remains, comparatively, weak:

And what may make him blush is being known,

He’ll stop the course by which it might be known…

That does not sound like late Shakespeare. There is a dialogue between Pericles and Helicanus containing typical Shakespearian thoughts on flattery, but couched in a poetry at its best recalling the early histories:

If there be such a dart in princes’ frowns

How durst thy tongue move anger to our face?

However, the sequence of emotions and events moves with steady assurance.

So Pericles sets out on his journeys. His first action is to be one of charity: he seems to make deliberately for Tarsus (I.iv.88), which is suffering from a severe famine, with ships laden with provisions. Before his arrival we meet Cleon and Dionyza, the king and queen, moralizing on their misfortunes:


This Tarsus, o’er which I have the government,

A city on whom plenty held full hand,

For riches strew’d herself even in the streets;

Whose towers bore heads so high they kiss’d the


And strangers ne’er beheld but wonder’d at;

Whose man and dames so jetted and adorn’d,

Like one another’s glass to trim them by:

Their tables were stor’d full to glad the sight,

And not so much to feed on as delight;

All poverty was scorn’d, and pride so great,

The name of help grew odious to repeat.


O! ‘tis too true.


But see what heaven can do!…

gow1969He continues with an extraordinary account of past luxuries and present necessity, saying how parents are ready to eat their erstwhile pampered babies, the passage driving home a contrast of superficial luxury and basic need. Such is heaven’s judgment on man’s wickedness:

O! let those cities that of plenty’s cup

And her prosperities so largely taste,

With their superfluous riots hear these tears:

The misery of Tarsus may be theirs

‘Superfluous’ directly reminds of Lear’s

Take physic, pomp;

Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,

That thou may’st shake the superflux to them,

And show the heavens more just.

or Gloucester’s:

Heavens, deal so still!

Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man,

That slaves your ordinance, that will not see

Because he does not feel, feel your power quickly.

The similarity in thought is as striking as the divergence in style: we are aware of profundity crudely expressed. Here the semi-gnomic stiffness suggests the kind of weakness critics have complained of in the verse Shakespeare allows to his gods and goddesses (e.g. Hymen, Hecate, Diana, Jupiter); which raises yet further possibilities.

On Pericles’ appearance, they fear that his ships signify some hostile invasion taking advantage of their own weakness, but instead find an act of pure charity, Pericles disclaiming all protestations of ‘reverence’ and asking only for ‘love.’ Gratitude is poured on him and a statue set up in his honor. His own misfortunes have been used to relieve the sufferings of others (cp. Romeo and Juliet V.i.84 and V.iii.42; King Lear IV.i.65-72). The scene, moralistic from the start, has turned into a little morality drama on the theme of good works and indeed recalls the parable of the ungrateful man in the New Testament, for, after being left off by Providence functioning through Pericles’ charity, Cleon and Dionyza are to prove criminally ungrateful.

News of Antiochus’ continued persecution makes a longer stay unsafe and Pericles leaves Tarsus. We have already in typical Shakespearean manner been introduced to tempests. A tyrant’s revenge was a ‘tempest’ at I.ii.98. Sea-voyages are here considered all but suicidal. Pericles when setting out from Tyre was spoken of as putting himself

     unto the shipman’s toil

With whom each minute threatens life or death.

Thaliard, commissioned to murder him, takes it for granted that he has ‘scap’d the land to perish at the sea.’ Now, when Pericles again dares the waters, Fortune, in spite of his recent good works, is cruel. Gower describes how he puts forth into the dangers of ocean and is stricken by a thunderous tempest and roaring seas; how his ship is ‘wrack’d and split’ and the ‘good prince’ driven from shore to shore till the spite of ‘Fortune’ is satiated. Through the attempt at archaic language a typically Shakespearean range of thought, imagery and phraseology is apparent. Pericles is cast up at Pentapolis.”

More from Wilson on Act Two in my next post.


Finally, it’s interesting to note that William Hazlitt filed Pericles under the heading “Doubtful Plays”:

PERICLES, PRINCE OF TYRE. This piece was acknowledged by Dryden,
but as a youthful work of Shakespeare. It is most undoubtedly his,
and it has been admitted into several of the late editions. The
supposed imperfections originate in the circumstance, that
Shakespeare here handled a childish and extravagant romance of the
old poet Gower, and was unwilling to drag the subject out of its
proper sphere. Hence he even introduces Gower himself, and makes him
deliver a prologue entirely in his antiquated language and
versification. This power of assuming so foreign a manner is at
least no proof of helplessness.


My next post:  Sunday evening/Monday morning…more from Wilson Knight and Tanner on Act Two…

Enjoy.  And enjoy your weekend.

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