“…nor have I time/To give thee hallowed to thy grave, but straight/Must cast thee, scarcely coffined, in the ooze…”


Act Three, Part One

By Dennis Abrams


pericles-anw-408-1024x819-2Scenes 10-14:  Pericles and his pregnant wife Thaisa set sail for Tyre, but during a terrible storm (or tempest if you will), Thaisa appears to die in childbirth and the superstitious sailors insist that her body be thrown overboard. Horrified and grief-stricken, Pericles complies with their demand, but resolves to transport their newborn daughter, Marina, to Tarsus, where her upbringing will be entrusted to the governor Cleon and his wife Dionzya. Thaisa’s coffin, meanwhile, has washed ashore at Ephesus, where the physician Cerimon somehow manages to revive her from a deathlike sleep. Unable to remember her child’s birth, Thaisa is taken to join the temple of Diana.

Tempest #2.  And while Pericles survives this one as well, it is at an appalling cost. When his new wife, Thaisa, appears to have died in childbirth, the sailors insist that “the ship be cleared of the dead,’ that her body must be dumped overboard, the “venomous” ocean will not be completely satisfied until it has swallowed up her corpse. Pericles’ moving farewell speech to his wife carries the play to its first climax, and in it he attempts to negotiate with the vast forces that surround them both. “A terrible childbed hast thou had, my dear,” he murmurs,

No light, no fire. Th’ unfriendly elements

Forget thee utterly, nor have I time

To give thee hallowed to thy grave, but straight

Must cast thee, scarcely coffined, in the ooze,

Where, for a monument upon thy bones

And aye-remaining lamps, the belching whale

And humming water must o’erwhelm thy corpse,

Lying with simple shells.

(Sc. 11, 55-63)

Passionately simple and movingly homely in tone, Pericles’s obsequy attempts to find a human, personal space in the ‘great vast’ for his dead wife. Though the play’s language is not always this fine (the text, as we’ve seen might be faulty or otherwise incomplete) here it calls down themes that resonate with the great tragedies.  And yet, Pericles does not, like Lear, rant and rage against the elements – as he later admits ‘Should I rage and roar/As doth the sea she lies in, yet the end/Must be as ‘tis” (Sc. 13.9-12)

So into the sea, Thaisa’s immense and watery grave, go Pericles’s hopes:  this is undoubtedly the play’s bleakest moment. Yet at the same time, the “ooze” – at the same time the end of life and its source (and a word that will become densely suggestive in Shakespeare’s late plays) – will not swallow up her body for ever, and in fact, will deliver her. Lord Cerimon, the virtuous doctor, speaks of “the disturbances/That nature works, and of her cures” (Sc. 12, 34-5), describing the inherent balance that lies at the heart of creation. Sure enough, right on cue, out of the “turbulent and stormy night” arrives Thaisa’s casket, presenting Cerimon with the opportunity to revive its living but unconscious cargo; a miraculous reawakening that proves the first of several in Pericles. Calling for “still and woeful music,” Cerimon observes how, as it works, Thaisa “gins to blow/Into life’s flow’r again” (Sc. 12.92-3) – both a breathtakingly beautiful theatrical moment as well as a figurative rebirth of the Queen, herself just free from the pains of childbirth. When she exclaims, somewhat breathlessly, “Where am I? Where’s my lord? What world is this?” (Sc. 12, 104) it is almost as though she begins to relearn what it is to live.

Thaisa’s recovery from the clutches of the storm seems to echo that of her husband after the first tempest just a few scenes earlier. “Cast up” (vomited) by the “drunken” sea after his shipwreck (with all his possessions drowned), Pericles is on the verge of collapse when he comes across a group of fishermen by the shore:


What I have been, I have forgot to know,

But what I am, what teaches me to think on:

A man thronged up with cold; my veins are chill,

And have no more of life than may suffice

To give my tongue that heat to crave your help,

Which if you shall refuse, when I am dead,

For that I am a man, pray see me buried.

(He falls down)


Die, quotha? Now, gods forbid’t an I have a gown here! Come, put it on, keep thee warm. Now, afore me, a handsom fellow! Come, thou shalt to home, and we’ll have flesh for holidays, fish for fasting-days, and moreoe’r puddings and flapjacks, and thou shalt be welcome.

(Sc. 5, 112-24)

Again, it is humanity that intervenes. Though this scene has none of the magical splendor we saw in Thaisa’s reawakening, the fishermen’s brand of homespun generosity is powerful enough. A stranger and a survivor, Pericles is nonetheless warmly welcomed into their society.  And, as if in response to their kindness, the “rough seas” that provide them their livelihood suddenly disgorge (or vomit up) the King’s armor – giving Pericles the opportunity to prove his heroic worth at King Simonides’s court and ultimately win Thaisa’s hand in marriage.


From Garber:

pericles0506“This scene (Pericles entering wet), with its witty, joking, and moralizing fishermen who compare the whales eating little fish to powerful men swallowing the powerless, may remind the audience of other mordant Shakespearean clowns, like the gravedigger in Hamlet and the Porter in Macbeth. They are particularly close, perhaps, to a Clown soon to appear, the wonderful shepherd’s son in The Winter’s Tale. Pericles’ language, when he emerges from the sea, is resoundingly the language of romance, of loss of name and commitment to adventure:

What I have been, I have forgot to know,

But what I am, want teaches me to think on:

A man thronged up with cold…


This Lear-like sentiment – ‘[a] man thronged up with cold’ – is one of many phrases that link the suffering of Pericles with that of King Lear. Earlier in the same scene, Pericles cried out at the wind, rain, and thunder to abate:

Yet cease your ire, you angry stars of heaven!


Let it suffice the greatness of your powers

To have bereft a prince of all his fortunes,

And, having thrown him from your wat’ry grave,

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


The conventional ‘wat’ry grave’ marks the sea in this scene as womb and tomb, for after the near-death experience in his ill-fated wooing of Antiochus’s daughter, Pericles’ emergence from the sea is clearly a new beginning. Impressing the fishermen with his humility, his lack of pride (in the face of a sea and storm that treat all men equally regardless of rank), he enlists their aid in the next stage of his quest, the courtship of another king’s daughter, Thaisa. He will have a second chance in the same scenario, a chance to apply the lessons he has learned in the initial courtship of what psychoanalysis would call a ‘bad object.’ Thaisa, by contrast, will turn out to be the quintessence of the ‘good object,’ an ideal as princess, wife, and mother.

Coincidentally – though not surprisingly for the world of romance – the fishermen’s nets produce a rusty suit of armor that once belonged to Pericles’ father. The logic of romance is often that of psychological generation, in which something thought or imagined becomes ‘realized’ in the plot. Thus in Spenser’s Fairie Queene a knight who thinks despairing thoughts may encounter a character called Despair, or, when distracted from the nonpareil lady Una, will meet, and be attracted by, her malign near-double, Duessa. In other words, the state of mind of the character can almost magically produce ‘real’ effects in the plot. So it is that Pericles, musing on his situation, in effect wishes his father back into existence:

To beg of you, kind friends, this coat of worth,

For it was sometime target to a king.


In fact, what we have here is the first of the play’s father-child reunions. Pericles puts on his father’s armor, and becomes a hero like his father – something Hamlet might have done, if the romance elements in Hamlet had been further emphasized in the plot. The armor is rusty, a detail that allows Pericles to appear in disguise, as a common man, what the spectators at the tournament will call the ‘mean knight,’ the shabby knight. His inside is more valuable than his outside. (But rust also implies disuse: these heroic attributes have lain rusting, and need to be revitalized.) As King Simonides, Thaisa’s father, will point out, ‘Opinion’s but a fool, that makes us scan/The outward habit for the inward man’ (6.59-60). As with retelling and showing, actions here speak louder than appearances. Pericles fights well in this armor, and dances well, too, so he is able to win the hand of Thaisa.

The relationship between Simonides and his daughter Thaisa is everything that the relationship of Antiochus and his daughter is not: filial, lawful, sociable. Here, too, is a contest for a princess’s hand,. And Pericles will win this one as well. Yet he must undergo a further test. He is still in disguise, his rank unknown. As Antiochus had pretended friendship, and in fact planned to kill him, Simonides does the opposite: he pretends to be stern and to oppose the marriage, while actually welcoming it. Prospero in The Tempest will do the same, testing the suitor’s ardor, constancy, and faith. The contrast between Antiochus and Simonides is another inside/outside dichotomy, appearances belied by reality.

Significantly, Pericles shows his excellence not only in feats of arms but in the arts. He dances best of all the knights, and he is, as Simonides tells him, ‘music’s master.’ These are romance traits he will pass on to his daughter Marina, just as Thaisa, described as ‘a fair day in summer; wondrous fair,’ will pass on to her daughter the seasonal quality of spring and the primal; romance emotion of ‘wonder.’

At the time of the writing of Pericles there was a revival at court of the old tradition of the tilt, the encounter between two armed men on horseback, so this medieval tradition had a fresh and fashionable quality onstage, and allowed, as well, a certain element of pageantry and mystery, with the devices, or emblems, of the knights functioning as another kind of riddle. The rusty armor Pericles inherits from his father is also probably related to the ‘whole armour of God’ described by Saint Paul in a famous passage in Ephesians (6:13) – the armor to be assumed by a Christian knight. It represents the faith and virtue of the untried knight about to begin his quest.

What is perhaps most important to note is that these early scenes set forth the raw material for what Shakespeare will make of this fable: a tale of rebirth, transformation, and reconciliation. The relationships between the two fathers and daughters (Antiochus and his daughter: Simonides and Thaisa) are used as foils for the central recognition scene between Pericles and Marina in scene 21. And the trials and sufferings of the romance quest hero Pericles, reborn from the sea, forced to leave his own country, appearing nameless and unknown in Pentapolis to win the love of the chief lady of the land by the strength of his inner qualities – all of these will be repeated, in a language incomparably pure, beautiful and evocative, in the adventures of Marina, which occupy the last three sections of the play. Marina undergoes the same process as her father: reborn, unknown, making a great marriage by means of her inner qualities. The quest hero becomes a quest heroine, born in a tempest and at sea, and given over to the care of a false parent, a stepmother (Dionyza) who seeks her death.

As in all romances, Marina has an innocent childhood that resembles a prefallen state. We first see her strewing spring flowers from a basket onto the grave of her nurse Lychorida. And yet she, too, inhabits Pericles’ storm:

     Ay me, poor maid,

Born in a tempest when my mother died,

This world to me is but a ceaseless storm

Whirring me from my friends.


Marina is at the start too trusting, falling first into the hands of the hired murderer Leonine (his name, which means ‘lionlike’ establishes him as a stock romance monster-man) and then into the hands of pirates. Both threats thus come from liminal beings, who occupy boundary places between human and animal, sea and land, lawful and lawless.

Marina’s exemplary purity and eloquence are such that she is not ravished by the pirates, and though she winds up in a brothel she not only remains chaste but, as we have noted, begins to convert the customers to the path of virtue. Before long she is giving lessons in the town – ‘I can sing, weave, sew and dance,’ she tells her captors’ servant. As Gower reports in scene 20, the prologue to scene 21, she is a paragon, an almost supernatural woman, with an air of the domestic, who is the counterpart of the heroic knight of romance:

She sings like one immortal, and she dances

As goddess-like to her admired lays.

Deep clerks she dumbs, and with her nee’le composes

Nature’s own shape, of bud, bird, branch, or berry,

That e’en her art sisters the natural roses.

Like Hermia and Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Marina is a creator whose arts rival those of Nature. Fittingly, the final state in the fulfillment of her romantic quest will be the retelling of her own tale to the unknown figure who is discovered to be her father, Pericles. The tale retold is the romantic quester’s final task, like – once again – the task of a knight of the Round Table. Marina stands at this play’s imaginative center, as the doer of magical deeds, the performer of resurrections, bringing both father and mother back to life – like the spring and the sea, with which she is linked by name and spirit.

As we have already had occasion to note, one of the kinds of ‘sources’ at work in Pericles is the set of Shakespearean plays and characters that preceded it. The romances often seem to cite earlier plays, and Pericles, a character legendary for his suffering and forbearance, is especially close to King Lear. Like Lear, for example, Pericles is plagued throughout the play with the need for patience. ‘Patience, good sir, do not assist the storm,’ cautions Lychorida, the nurse, pleading with him, in the midst of tempest and shipwreck, not to weep out his grief. Just in this way Lear cried out, ‘You think I’ll weep./No, I’ll not weep’ as the storm wept for him. But the storm in Pericles is as much a ritual event as it is a psychological one; it marks a passage, and it will alter be internalized in Marina’s image of her life as a ‘ceaseless storm/Whirring me from my friends.’ For it is Marina’s birth that comes out of the storm, as Lychorida enters with an infant in her arms, and tells the weeping Pericles, ‘Here is a thing too young for such a place,/…Take in your arms this piece/Of your dead queen’ (11.15, 17-18) A thing too young for such a place. This piece of your dead queen. This is a kind of expression that gestures toward symbolism rather than psychology, a language allied to ritual, to magic spell, to epiphany, to miracle, and to incantation. And Pericles’ farewell to Thaisa approaches pure lyricism; his descriptions are poetic but not metaphorical. Signally, in this picture of the world undersea, although there is sadness, there is no visceral horror of death:

A terrible childhood hast thou had, my dear,

No light, no fire. Th’ unfriendly elements

Forgot thee utterly; nor have I time

To give thee hallowed to thy grave, but straight

Must cast thee, scarcely coffined, in the ooze,

Where, for a monument upon thy bones

And aye-remaining lamps, the belching whale

And humming water must o’erwhelm thy corpse,

Lying with simple shells…


‘Ooze’ is a word that recurs only in the late romances, and in Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus. It is a word John Keats would pick up from Shakespeare, and use, notably, in the ode “To Autumn.’ (Herman Melville, likewise, would use it tellingly in Billy Budd.) Pericles’ vision of Thaisa’s resting place is surprisingly lively – the ‘belching whale,’ the ‘humming water’ – and pure. This same concatenation of peaceful images will recur in The Tempest in Ariel’s song to Ferdinand about Ferdinand’s supposedly dead father (‘Those are pearls that were his eyes’). We might compare the vivid fear of mortality in the undersea scenario of ‘Clarence’s dream’ in an early play like Richard III – and note that in both Pericles and The Tempest the mourned and beloved person beneath the waves is, in fact, not dead. Indeed Thaisa, buried among jewels, herself a jewel, is already on her way to revival and resurrection. She will wash ashore in Ephesus (where it was thought that Mary went to live after Christ’s resurrection, and where the legendary ‘Seven Sleepers’ fell asleep in a cave and awakened, years later, to find that the Roman Empire had become Christian).

Saint Paul wrote of the Ephesians that they ‘used curious arts’ (Acts of the Apostles 19:19), or magic, so Shakespeare’s audience would not have been surprised to find at Ephesus just such a natural magician, the doctor Cerimon, who will preside over the reawakening of Thaisa. Cerimon may be seen as a figure poised between the physicians of Macbeth and King Lear, who knew that to cure the body you also had to cure the mind and soul, and the more perfected and magical figure of Prospero in The Tempest. He calls first for music, which accompanies all romance transformations and rebirths in Shakespeare, including that of King Lear: ‘The music there! I pray you give her air’ (12.88-89). And then:


This queen will live. Nature awakes, a warmth

Breathes out of her. She hath not been entranced

Above five hours. See how she ‘gins to blow

Into life’s flow’r again.


She is alive. Behold.

Her eyelids, cases to those heav’nly jewels

Which Pericles hath lost,

Begin to part their fringes of bright gold.

The diamonds of a most praised water

Doth appear to make the world twice rich. – Live,

And make us weep to hear your fate, fair creature,

Rare as you seem to be.

She moves.

12.89-93, 95-102

Thaisa is brought to life. What transpires in this passage is characteristic of the romances at their purest and best. Thaisa is a flower, but also a jewel and a work of art (‘fringes of bright gold); ‘diamonds of a most praised water’). The image of the jewel links husband, wife, and child, as Pericles emerges from the water rejoicing that ‘spite of all the rapture of the sea/This jewel holds his building on my arm’ (5.188-189). Marina’s chastity is described as a jewel, Pericles is compared as ‘diamond to glass.’ In this central scene of the awakening of Thaisa, the natural and mutable are transformed into the precious and immutable. And the words that accompany this ceremony (conducted by a healer called Cerimon) are themselves the key words of romance:

     The heavens

Through you increase our wonder, and set up

Your fame for ever.


Is not this strange?

     Most rare.

12.93-95, 104

‘[R]are,’ ‘strange,’ ‘wonder.’ Modern life has dulled the difference among these superlatives of emotion, rending ‘wonderful,’ ‘marvelous,’ ‘terrific,’ ‘fantastic,’ ‘fabulous,’ ‘spectacular,’ and the now-conventional ‘awesome’ as tame and indistinguishable terms. But they once carried quite specific, and quite different associations: ‘marvelous’ – having to do with the prodigious, the supernatural, the unbelievable; ‘fantastic’ – unreal, imaginary; ‘fabulous’ – fabled, fictive; ‘terrific’ – causing terror, dreadful, frightful; and ‘wonderful’ – producing wonder, amazement, and astonishment. Wonder is the emotion that greets a marvel or a prodigy. It was the chief object of the Jacobean court masque, intending to produce a spectacle so imposing that it would generate a kind of catharsis of the imagination – a recognition not of human suffering, but of superhuman possibility and beauty. Wonder in this sense is what is felt and expressed in all the key scenes of Pericles.

Thaisa, awakening, speaks in a language we are beginning to recognize as the idiom of romance:

    O dear Diana,

Where am I? Where’s my lord? What world is this?


These lines, at once question and declaration, offer both a description of the paradoxes of romance and an acceptance of them. Questions in these last plays play a crucially important role, akin to that of riddles, conundrums, and prophecies. And here indeed we can see what Shakespeare as playwright and craftsman has done with the unpromising, rather tedious, but dangerous riddle with which the play of Pericles began:

He’s father, son, and husband mild;

I mother, wife, and yet his child.


Pericles solved the riddle, and although we may not find it particularly difficult to do so, all those severed heads of failed suitors remind us that, by comparison, he is a good analyst and a good quester. But by the midpoint of the play the riddle of Antiochus has become the harbinger of riddles far more taxing – Thaisa’s ‘Where am I? Where’s my lord? What world is this?’ and, very soon, Pericles’ own version of this quester’s question, addressed to his unknown daughter:


[W]hat countrywoman?

Here of these shores?


No, not of any shores,

Yet I was mortally brought forth, and am

No other than I seem.


She is human, not supernatural, she assures him. We might be reminded of the riddles in Macbeth that seem likewise contrary to nature, the man not born of woman and the moving grove. Or of the riddle represented by Mariana in Measure for Measure, ‘neither maid, widow, nor wife.’ The impossible must be possible, if one can only find one’s way to the truth.”


And to conclude today’s post, from Bloom:

Pericles1-720x479“Shakespeare himself takes over to start Act III. Pericles and Thaisa, who is about to deliver their infant daughter Marina, are voyaging back to Tyre; Neptune acts up, and we rejoice to hear Shakespeare’s great voice as Pericles invokes the gods against the storm:

The god of the great vast, rebuke these surges,

Which wash both heaven and hell; and thou that hast

Upon the winds command, bind them in brass,

Having call’d them from the deep! O, still

Thy deaf’ning, dreadful thunders; gently quench

Thy nimble sulphurous flashes!


That is Herman Melville’s Shakespeare, though Ahab, if he spoke these lines, would convert them into defiance. Pericles is no Ahab, and endures the apparent death of Thaisa in giving birth to Marina. He then yields to the sailor’s superstition that a corpse on board will sink the ship, meaning that his wife’s coffin must go overboard. The farewell of Pericles to his bride also found its way into Melville’s imagination:

A terrible childhood hast thou had, my dear;

No light, no fire: th’unfriendly elements

Forgot thee utterly; nor have I time

To give thee hallow’d to thy grave, but straight

Must cast thee, scarcely coffin’d, in the ooze;

Where, for a monument upon thy bones,

And e’er-remaining lamps, the belching whale

And humming water must o’erwhelm thy corpse,

Lying with simple shells.


Resolute to forfeit mimetic realism, Shakespeare never lets us know whether Thaisa is dead indeed. When, in the next scene, the lady is either revived or resurrected by Cerimon of Ephesus, where her coffin apparently has landed, she comes awake with the outcry ‘O dear Diana,’ thus invoking the particular goddess of the Ephesians. In the next scene, at Tharsus, commanding the infant Marina’s care and upbringing to the governor, Cleon, and his wife, Dionyza (whom Pericles had rescued from famine), the Prince of Tyre vows ‘by bright Diana’ to remain unshorn until Marina be married. Subsequently, the restored Thaisa goes off to abide at the temple of Diana in Ephesus as the goddess’s high priestess. The play’s final reconciliations will conclude there, and I think it important to observe that Shakespeare avoids the patterns of Christian miracle plays in thus exalting Diana of the Ephesians. It is as though St. Paul never came to Ephesus: the divinity that haunts Shakespeare’s late romances is located by him outside the Christian tradition. Shakespeare, in his dying, may have returned to his father’s Catholicism, but like Walter Stevens’ reputed deathbed conversion, this would have been another instance of the imaginative achievement going one way and the personal life quite another.”


My next post:  Thursday evening/Friday morning, more on Act Three


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