“What I have been I have forgot to know.”


Act Two, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams


To continue with G. Wilson Knight’s “The Writing of Pericles”:

pericles_74_photo“The opening of Act II brings us closer than ever before to the Shakespearean tempest; we have, as it were, a close-up of this persistent terror that has for so long burdened the poet’s imagination. Pericles enters ‘wet’ and speaks in the usual tradition:

Yet cease your ire, you angry stars of heaven!

Wind, rain, and thunder, remember, earthly man

Is but a substance that must yield to you.

Alas! the sea hath cast me on the rocks,

Wash’d me from shore to shore, and left me breath

Nothing to think on but ensuing death:

Let it suffice the greatness of your powers

To have bereft a prince of all his fortunes;

And having thrown him from your watery grave,

Here to have death in peace is all he’ll crave.


The accent is clearly Shakespearean, though even here the virile tempest-verse tails off into rhyme. Notice that the elements are directly humanized as divine powers. We are made to feel that the hero has endured a series of trials and buffetings; in him mortality is getting a rough passage. The implications are again general. The speech says crisply in Shakespearean terms, ‘Tragedy’: that is its function.

The following fishermen’s dialogue preserves, in a different vein, the high standard of the opening. The men’s names (II.i.12, 14) ‘Pilch’ and ‘Patch-breech’ (referring to the nets) recall Hugh Oatcake and George Seacoal in Much Ado About Nothing (III.iii.11) and Potpan in Romeo and Juliet (I.V.i), while their description of the wreck points on to the Clown’s and Miranda’s similar descriptions in The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest:

Third Fisherman:

Faith, master, I am thinking of the poor men

that were cast away before us even now.

First Fisherman:

Alas! poor souls; it grieved my heart to hear what pitiful cries they made to us to help them, when, well-a-day, we could scare help ourselves.

The simple men are philosophical as well as sympathetic, and their humor shows a moralizing depth unknown to Shakespeare’s earlier prose rustics. One of them, marveling ‘how the fishes live in the sea,’ is answered:

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.

‘A pretty moral,’ says Pericles, aside, and continues with a comment that would, with the necessary adaption, have well suited the gardener’s comparison in Richard II of state-affairs to his own humble profession, perhaps our nearest equivalent to this scene, though there given verse, partly to suit the wholly serious intention. This is Pericles’ remark:

How from the finny subject of the sea

These fishers tell the infirmities of men;

And from their watery empire recollect

All that men may approve or men detect!

Notice again the stiff, gnomic, rhyme, here clearly fused with a Shakespearean comment in a purely Shakespearean scene.

Pericles introduces himself in terms of the clearest tragic generality as

A man whom both the waters and the wind,

In that vast tennis-court, have made the ball

For them to play upon, entreats you pity him;

He asks of you that never us’d to beg.

The metaphor (to which the nearest Shakespearean equivalent occurs at King Lear, IV.i.3607) is that of The Duchess of Malfi:

We are merely the stars’ tennis-balls, struck and bandied

Which way please them.

There follows more satire from the Fisherman on those (like Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale) who make a better living out of begging than any workers, with comic play on the words ‘beg’ and ‘crave.’ Pericles speaks lines of strongest sinew:

A man throng’d up with cold, my veins are chill,

And have no more of life than may suffice

To give my tongue that heat to ask for your help…

which again, however, tail off into a limp couplet. The warm-hearted men invite him to share their simple life and its homely comforts, the general warmth and kindliness overtopping both humor and satire. Sometimes Shakespearean comedy is dull, the play on words tedious, the satire arrows too particular for a later age; here the humor is obvious and the thrusts general. Pericles words for us a natural response: ‘How well this honest mirth becomes their labor!’ The scene is more than comic relief; its social philosophy is organic to the play’s moralistic thinking. The king here is ‘the good Simonides’


The good King Simonides do you call him?

First Fisherman:

Ay, sir; and he deserves to be so called for his peaceable reign and good government.


He is a happy king, since he gains from his subjects the name of good by his government.

The statement serves to crystallize the sense already transmitted of simple honesty and wisdom: we are in a good community. The society is not leveled, but the men are as happy and rich-hearted in their station as the King in his. This one always feels about Shakespeare’s rustics, but never before was the expression so purposeful.

Pericles hears of the tournament to be held for the hand of the King’s daughter, and there follows the chance discovery in the fishermen’s net of Pericles’ armour:

Help, master, help! here’s a fish hangs in the net, like a poor man’s right in the law; ‘twil hardly come out. Ha! bots on’t, ‘tis come at last, and ‘tis turned to a rusty armour.

0809-10 236It is poetically important that these simple fisher-folk are the means of Pericles’ retrieving of his fortune and that the sea itself should so mysteriously redeem its cruelty by this sudden shirt of favor. The equation sea = fortune, hinted throughout Shakespeare, is in Pericles emphatic and obvious. The rhythm of events, nearly all concerned with ‘fortune’ and the sea, is a pretty clear reading of the shifts of chance in human existence:

Thanks, fortune, yet, that after all my crosses

Thou giv’st me somewhat to repair myself…


It kept where I kept, I so dearly lov’d it;

‘Till the rough seas, that spare not any man,

Took it in rage, though calm’d they have given’t again.

I thank thee for’t; my shipwrack now’s no ill

Since I have here my father’s gift in’s will.

The accent is Shakespearean (cp. ‘though calm’d…again’ with The Tempest, II.i.259) though the end rhyme, as before, falls limp. Pericles decides to try his luck at court. There is a last happy touch in the Fisherman’s hint:

Ay, but hark you, my friend; ‘twas we that made up this garment through the rough seams of the water; there are certain condolements, certain vails. I hope, sir, if you thrive, you’ll remember from whence you had it.

Pericles’ concluding words, though picturesque, are rather trivial:

Unto thy value will I mount myself

Upon a courser whose delightful steps

Shall make the gazer joy to see him tread.

The weak adjectival emphasis – noticeable elsewhere in these early scenes – might be Green’s, or even Marlowe’s, or from a young Shakespeare, younger than any of which we have record, in imitation; or again, they may conceivably be mature Shakespeare, looking, in this tentative play, for new things, setting himself in a new-old manner for some specific purpose.

The court of the good Simonides scarcely offers anything of equivalent interest to the Fisherman’s conversation, but its atmosphere is well realized, and the events important. The verse, and much else, is formal and the rhymes often awkward. The stage-formality itself seems here more important than the verse; as when the various knights pass across with their devices and mottoes. The importance of such ceremonial grows throughout Shakespeare’s final period, its nature being here satisfactorily captured by Malone’s direction:

‘A Public Way. Platform leading to the Lists. A Pavilion near it, for the reception of the King, Princess, Ladies, Lords, etc.’

The jousting is done off-stage, as in Richard II, and we move to feasting, music and dance after the manner of Romeo and Juliet and Timon of Athens.

We are continually pointed to Pericles’ appearance of lowness and poverty. The other knight’s blazonings are spectacular: a ‘black Ethip’ against a ‘sun,’ a knight pictured as overthrown by a lady, a ‘wreath of chivalry,’ ‘a burning torch,’ a hand surrounded by clouds and holding gold. Pericles’ ‘present’ (probably the actual thing, not merely a device) is ‘a wither’d branch, that’s only green top’ (Ii.ii.16-44). The courtiers remark on his rusty armour and rude appearance, suggesting that he seems more at home with the ‘whipstock’ than the lance (Ii.ii.51). He is at the best ‘a country gentleman’ (II.iii.33), regarded rather as is Posthumus in Cymbeline, though he meets a worthier acceptance, for the good Simonides is, unlike Cymbeline, not to be deceived by appearances:

Opinion’s but a fool, that makes us scan

The outward habit by the inward man.

Where the thought is clear enough, whatever may be wrong with the seemingly transposed phraseology. Others take their example from the King:

Content not, sir; for we are gentlemen

That neither in our hearts nor outward eyes

Envy the great nor do the low despise.

King Simonides is always moralizing, often in gnomic rhyme, warning his daughter Thaisa of the duties incumbent on princes if they are to hold their subject’s respect, and asserting the importance of honor, that is, the interchange of courtesies, after the fashion of Timon:


We are honour’d much by good Simonides.


Your presence glads our days; honor we love;

For who hates honor, hates the gods above.

Simonides’ sentiments, in both substance and manner of expression, are directly in line with those of the King’s speech on true and false honor in All’s Well that Ends Well, a play whose early scenes abound in gnomic sequences very like those in Pericles. A near equivalent to Simonides’ court will be found in the early scenes of Timon of Athens, where there are more analogies to the strangely stilted language of Pericles, both in Timon’s moralizing and Apemantus’ proverb-like commentary. In both plays we have a firm sense of (i) true worth as independent of social rank and (ii) the duties incumbent on high position: our court scenes follow organically on the fishermen’s talk. The thought, too, recalls the two contrasted uses of gold in the early and late acts of Timon, and its two directions (the casket and wealthy heiress) in The Merchant of Venice. Simonides’ remark on the folly of reading worth by outward appearances is directly in line with Bassanio’s:

So may the outward shows be least themselves;

The word is still deceived by ornament.

This truth, which is indeed a central truth throughout Shakespeare, is here dramatically lived before us, since Pericles, poor as he appears, is really a king.

Indeed, the most insistent impressionistic recurrence in Pericles, except for the sea-voyages, concerns the balancing of true and false values. We started with Pericles’ infatuation for a deceptive beauty compared to the golden apples of the Hespirdes and turning out to be, like Morocco’s choice, a ‘glorious casket stor’d with ill’ We moved next to the paradox of Tarsus once so wealthy with people overdressed and bejeweled and their food arranged more to please the eyes – cp., again ‘eyes’ in the Fancy-song of The Merchant of Venice – than the taste, but now brought low by savage hunger; brought, that is, to realize its ultimate dependence; brought up against basic fact; such fast as in the natural air breathed by the admirable fishermen of Pentapolis.

Always in Shakespeare riches (gold, jewels, rich clothes, etc.) have two possible meanings: they may be shown as in themselves deceptive or they may, by metaphor, be used to reflect an essential good. So the rusty armor that had so often defended Pericles’ father is compared to a ‘jewel’ and princes are like ‘jewels’ which need keeping bright to deserve respect. And now – since we have brought our list up to date – when Thaisa begins to fall in love with Pericles, she says: ‘To me he seems like diamond to glass.’ The comparison of a loved person to a rich stone is, of course, among the most frequent of Shakespeare’s habitual correspondences (e.g. Romeo and Juliet, I.V.50; Troilus and Cressida I.i.105; Othello, V.ii.346). Later – to push ahead in our narrative – courtiers round a sovereign are as ‘diamonds’ almost a ‘crown’ (II.iv.53). There is, too, a peculiarly interesting example of the reverse, ironic, use, when the ‘high gods,’ sick of Antiochus’ wickedness, let loose their ‘vengeance’:

Even in the heights and pride of all his glory,

When he was seated in a chariot

Of an estimable value, and his daughter with him,

A fire from heaven came and shrivell’d up

Their bodies, even to loathing; for they so stunk

That all those eyes ador’d them ere their fall

Scoren now their hand should give them burial.

The passage renders actual the contrast of glorious appearance with inward pollution which first started Pericles on his wanderings. Of all our moralizings this passage, so strongly reminiscent of Greek tragedy, is the crown.

To return to Pericles’ fortunes at the court of Simonides. Having proved victorious in the tournament, he is crowned with ‘a wreath of victory’ (II.iii.10) by Thaisa who functions as ‘queen o’ the feat’ (Ii.iii.17) like Perdita in The Winter’s Tale, with Simonides playing the kindly over-lord, and reminding her, as her father reminds Perdita, of her duties. Pericles remains very quiet – he is now extraordinarily humble – and meditative, comparing the King to his own father, once just such a ‘sun’ surrounded by star-princes, though he himself has fallen to the glimmerings of a ‘glow-worm,’ and drawing there from the moral:

Whereby I see that Time’s the king of men;

He’s both their parent, and he is their grave,

And gives them what he will, not what they crave.

Twice (II.iii.91) Pericles’ especial melancholy is noted. Simonides, a jovial host after the manner of Old Capulet and Wolsey, is worried, and urges on Thaisa her responsibilities:

Princes in this should live like gods above,

Who freely give to every one that comes

To honour them…

Prompted by her father she questions Pericles, with whom she has fallen in love: her bashfulness in approach is delicately managed. The scene works up to a dance. The whole situation is dominated by Simonides: kingly, courteous, moralistic, and jovial.

Simonides next dismisses all the suitors but Pericles, telling them that Thais has sworn ‘by the eye of Cynthia’ that she will wear ‘Diana’s livery’ for a whole year: our first mention of the goddess, who is to assume such importance later. Simonides enjoys not only his ruse but also his daughter’s self-willed determination, expressed in a letter, to marry Pericles or no one, the long story of Shakespeare’s tyrannic fathers from Capulet to Lear being most delightfully reversed. Simonides admires the stranger-knight who is clearly a man trained ‘in arts and arms,’ winning the tournament and showing himself both a skilful dancer and a skilled musician:

     I am beho’ding to you

For your sweet music this last night; I do

Protest my ears were never better fed

With such delightful pleasing harmony.

True, the adjectival verse sounds most unlike late Shakespeare, but it is followed at once by:


It is your Grace’s pleasure to command,

Not my desert.


Sir, you are music’s master.


The worst of all her scholars, my good lord.

Which no one will question. Pericles is conceived as the perfect courtier (as defined by Castiglione) and even his tourneying praised as art:

In framing an artist hath thus decreed,

To make some good, but others to exceed,

And you’re her labour’d scholar.

Music is regularly in Shakespeare the antagonist to tempest; and Simonides’ peaceful court thinks automatically in artistic terms. Indeed, there are in Pericles many noticeable artistic emphases, some of a new sort to be observe later; and all blend with the moralistic tone of thought, the ceremonious directions, and even the stilted, and often questionable, formality of the verse. Art, as such, seems to be getting a more self-conscious attention than is usual; which is scarcely surprising in a play where the myth-making fantasy seems, as in the recurring voyages, to be functioning with a new freedom.

Pericles remains humble, and when confronted with Thaisa’s letter by the supposedly irate father asserts that he never dreamed of aiming so high. Like Prospero, Simonides keeps up the pretence of harshness, accusing him, as Ferdinand is accused, of treachery. So the scene is driven to its delightful conclusion:

Therefore, hear you, mistress; either frame

Your will to mine; and you, sir, hear you –

Either be ruled by me or I will make you –

Man and wife.

Simonides is a grand person and the scenes at his court, though blemished seriously by old play incorporations, bits of immature or hurried writing, faulty texts or evidences of genius at a loss – exact decision is impossible – remain of the highest Shakespearean standard in stage-organization, human delineation (Simonides and Thaisa) and the depicting of a chivalrous society (after the pattern of Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Timon in Timon of Athens). The neat, semi-humorous overturning of a tragic situation to reveal kindliness and joy is a clear precursor of other more important reversals in Pericles and later plays: while the rewarding of Pericles’ humility forecasts the fortunes of Cranmer in Henry VIII.

Pericles’ story has clearly been forming itself into a significant design. His first adventure was one of semi-adolescent fantasy, bringing him up sharply against disillusion and a realization of evil; he next won merit by charitable deeds; was again rebuffed by fortune, only to find himself on the shores of a hospitable community rich in social wisdom and artistic feeling; and so to a love affair characterized not by daring and aspiration (as was the other) but by a profound humility and crowned with unexpected success. We are watching something like a parable of human fortune, with strong moral import at every turn.”


Harold Bloom though, as we’ve seen, has his doubts about the whole thing:

Pericles dress rehearsal 09“Gower, speaking the Epilogue, tells us that Pericles, Thaisa, and Marina are ‘Led on by heaven, and crown’d with joy at last,’ so that the play represents the triumph of virtue over fortune, thanks to the intercession of ‘the gods,’ which must mean Diana in particular. Shakespeare, in his final phase, frequently seems a rather belated acolyte of Diana. No dramatist, though, would have understood better than Shakespeare how impossible it is to bring off a staged representation of triumphant chastity, virginal or married. Shakespeare’s poem The Phoenix and the Turtle is exactly relevant on this subject:

Love hath reason, reason none,

If what parts, can so remain.

Whether the heart’s reasons can be staged was always Shakespeare’s challenge, and kept his art a changing one. How to represent the mystery of married chastity – ‘If what parts, can so remain’ – remained a perplexity to the end. Shakespeare’s Gower and Pericles so removes us from our world (except for the whorehouse scenes!) that the play indeed answers the Bawd’s rhetorical question: ‘What have we to do with Diana?’

Essentially, there are only two deities in Pericles, Neptune and Diana, and Diana wins. What are we to make of that victory? Neptune has oppressed Pericles, almost in the pattern of Poseidon’s operations against Odysseus. Northrop Frye, noting the processional form of Pericles, remarks that the play’s manner of presenting its action makes it one of the world’s earliest operas, and then compares it to Eliot’s The Waste Land, and necessarily also to Eliot’s ‘Marina.’ I supposed that Diana’s triumph is operatic enough, as is Marina’s victory over both the staff and the clientele of the brothel. Frye’s reading of the play, rather like Wilson Knight’s more baroque interpretation seems to me a little remote from Pericles’s curious and deliberate emptiness, akin to much of The Waste Land and Eliot’s ‘Marina.’

Such an emptying-out of Shakespeare’s characteristic richness is a kenosis of sorts; the most sophisticated of all poet-playwrights surrenders his greatest powers and originalities – God becoming man, as it were. Frye calls Pericles ‘psychologically primitive,’ but this is true only in the sense of Shakespeare’s knowing abnegation of inwardness, not in asking the audience for a primitive response. Our participation is not uncritical; we give up the Shakespearean lifelike, but not the Shakespearean selfsame. Gower is there to keep telling us that this is a play, but so redundant a message takes us back from Pericles and Marina not to ‘mouldy tales’ and the authority of the archetypal, but to Shakespeare himself. The audience does not attend without the foregrounding of knowledge as to whom the playwright is, and how different Pericles is from the more than thirty plays preceding it. Nor can anyone now read Pericles without the awareness that the creator of Hamlet, Falstaff, and Cleopatra is giving us a protagonist who is merely a cipher, a name upon the page. Wonder is always where one starts and ends with Shakespeare, and Shakespeare himself, as poet-playwright, is the largest provocation to wonder in Pericles. One suspects that the scenario for the play originated with Shakespeare, but that he had some distaste for what was go to into the first two acts, and casually assigned them to a crony, Wilkins.

Pericles begins at Antioch, where its founder, Antiochus the Great, gleefully piles up the heads of suitors for his unnamed daughter, executing them for not solving a riddle whose solution would reveal his ongoing incest with her. Getting the riddle right, Pericles of Tyre flees for his life. After making a voyage to Tharsus, to relieve starvation there, the colorless hero suffers his first shipwreck, and then finds himself ashore at Pentapolis, where he marries Thaisa, daughter of the local king. All this out of the way, Shakespeare takes over to start Act III.”

And from Tanner:

pericles globe“Back in Tyre, he [Pericles] worries lest the powerful Antiochus will have him pursued, and falls prey to a barely explicable ‘dull-eyed melancholy’ – not the first Shakespearian hero whom that happens. Setting out on his destinationless travels, he arrives at the famine-struck city of Tharsus. There we hear the Governor Cleon reveal that the people are close to cannibalism: ‘mothers…are ready now/To eat those little darlings whom they love’ (I.iv.42=4). Part of the riddle of Antiochus was ‘I am no viper, yet I feed/On mother’s flesh, which did me breed.’ Cannibalism is perhaps the most ancient taboo of all, and is curiously linked with incest as part of some primal confusion – ‘chaos and old night’ – out of which human society emerged. Saturn devouring his children looms in the misty antecedents to the first Greek tragedy, which indeed dramatized this emergence (the Oresteia of Aeschylus). Intra-familial – incestuous – cannibalism is the ultimate negation of the family and the transmissive separation of generations. Again, the future is ingested. This has not, in fact, yet happened in Tharsus when Pericles arrives with his timely aid of corn. But it is curious that the travels of Pericles should start with dangerous brushes with these two most ancient dreads – curious, and perhaps part of the enduring and ubiquitous appeal of this ‘old tale.’ Setting sail again, he is shipwrecked, and thrown up on an unknown beach. It is as though his identity has been washed away in the storm – ‘What I have been I have forgot to know’; but with the help of local fishermen, and his ‘rusty armor’ which they have netted, he reassembles himself as a knight and duly wins a local tournament and the king’s daughter who, unlike his previous choice, is a glorious casket stored with good. In another reversal, her father pretends to be angry, but is really pleased. Such bad/good inversions are characteristic of fairy tales and old romances, and such is the atmosphere of the first two acts”


So what do you all think so far?  Are the first two acts indeed “bad” (either written by Wilkins, some early version of Shakespeare), or is there something else going on here?  Share your thoughts with the group!

Our next reading:  Pericles, Scenes 10-14

My next post:  Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning


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5 Responses to “What I have been I have forgot to know.”

  1. GGG says:

    After reading your prologue, i thought that as I read Pericles i would try to spot where it “became Shakespeare.” Having read the first two acts and now the beginning of act 3, I can see why that is the dividing line for those who feel that it’s “Shakespeare” from Act 3 on. The language noticeably starts to become more poetic/complicated. But as the play progressed, I thought that it became Shakespearean more gradually–with the fishermen and their repartee perhaps. I can also see why there is a case for it being an early work of Shakespeare that he picked up in later life. As in, “the first two acts work so let’s finish the play.”

    The “dumb show” to advance the plot during Gower’s speech was also surprising–have we had anything like that before? It seems very un-Shakespearean to have anything so non-verbal–but is very like the passion plays, I think.

    I will say that the first two acts were simple to understand and read–almost like some of the history plays. I didn’t think they were “bad”–in fact, I was hooked pretty quickly into wanting to see what happens to Pericles.

    It would be fascinating to know why Pericles was excluded from the First Folio. Aren’t there a couple of other plays that may have been co-authored that made it in?

    Looking forward to the rest….

    • GGG: I think you’re right in thinking that the fishermen and their repartee has a definite “Shakespearean” feeling about it. As for the “dumb show” there’s one in Hamlet, before the actual performance of “The Mousetrap” And…I haven’t seen a definitive answer as to why it was excluded from the First Folio — I’ll keep looking though, at least for one that seems to make the most sense.

  2. GGG says:

    Oops, forgot that one….

  3. Joe Simon says:

    Of course Hamlet’s dumb show was part of the plot, done for Claudius. Here, they are directly aimed at the actual audience.

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