In the century in which it was written, “Pericles” seems to have been among Shakespeare’s most popular plays. Its first publication in 1609 announced it had been performed at the Globe Theatre “diverse and sundry times”. For readers (as opposed to theatre-goers), the printed edition in quarto went through five reprints. The play’s popularity seems not to have waned when the theatres were closed during the Commonwealth. Once they re-opened, the first Shakespeare play to be performed was not “Hamlet”, “Twelfth Night” or “Romeo and Juliet”. It was “Pericles”.
Even so, “Pericles” was not included in the First Folio (1623), published seven years after Shakespeare’s death. This was perhaps because it was a collaboration, the writing shared with George Wilkins, a publican, landlord and brothel-keeper, who seems to have been responsible for the first two acts. Wilkins’s original connection with Shakespeare, incidentally, may not have been literary, since he was landlord to the daughter and son-in-law of the Huguenot family, the Mountjoys, with whom Shakespeare lodged in Silver Street.
As a collaboration, it has its idiosyncrasies in the general context of Shakespeare’s work. For example it features a chorus or narrator, the medieval poet John Gower (1330 – 1408), who appears on eight separate occasions. He was best-known in Shakespeare’s day for his English language poem “Confession Amantis”, which reflects with a moralistic perspective on love. This may be no coincidence since “Pericles” also features several scenes set in a brothel that may have benefited from specialist knowledge of the type Wilkins could provide.
Nonetheless the play has much in common with other late plays by Shakespeare. Like “Cymbeline” it features a resourceful heroine whose personal qualities help her navigate a sea of troubles, and like “The Winter’s Tale”, it presents a heroic central character who loses his wife and daughter, only to have them restored to him in a concluding reconciliation. Other resonant themes from this period in Shakespeare’s writing include the place of the supernatural (Pericles is guided to reunion with his wife by a vision of the goddess Diana), and the emphasis placed on sexual restraint and chastity.
In some ways, the play it most closely resembles may be the very early “Comedy of Errors” (c. 1590) – another narrative set in a sea port featuring fractured families and concluding with emotional reconciliations. But it is best to think of “Pericles” as the first of the late plays, the prototype, in which Shakespeare was groping towards a new genre of dramatic presentation – part comedy, part romance, part myth – and the personality-light central characters are the price we pay for the author’s ambition in breaking theatrical new ground.
Scene by Scene
The poet John Gower describes the widowed Antiochus of Antioch, who took his daughter to bed.
Many princes competed for her hand, but they failed her father’s riddling test and were massacred.
Act One Scene One
The fearless Pericles Prince of Tyre is the latest to compete for her favours, at the risk of death.
But solving the riddle – she is the victim of adultery – ends his interest: “I care not for you”, he says.
Antiochus sees Pericles’s reluctance to solve the riddle publicly, and gives him forty days to solve it.
Pericles is no longer interested, though Antiochus sends assassins to murder him on pain of death.
Act One Scene Two
Pericles accepts that he is too weak to confront Antiochus, and is advised by Helicanus to leave Tyre. Pericles resolves to make for Tarsus, leaving governance of his kingdom in Helicanus’s loyal hands.
Act One Scene Three
Thaliard, Pericles’s would-be assassin, arrives in Tyre, is horrified to hear that Pericles has fled to sea.
To avoid being hanged by Antiochus, he means to tell him that Pericles eloped “to perish at the sea”.
Act One Scene Four
Cleon, governor of Tarsus, and Dionyza regret the decline of their once-wealthy city through famine.
Ships spotted on the horizon are misinterpreted as “some neighbouring nation” preparing to invade.
But Pericles appears, denying that his ships are a “Trojan horse”, and offering corn to make bread.
In exchange he desires only “harbourage for ourself, our ships, and men”, and this is granted.
Act Two Scene One
Gower presents a Dumb Show of Pericles’s trust in Cleon, then cuts to Pericles’s continuing odyssey.
Pericles, beset by inclement weather, is shipwrecked at Pentapolis and “bereft … of all his fortunes”.
He overhears a group of fishermen discuss “the infirmities of men”, and “entreats [them] pity him”.
Pericles is told about “the good King Simonides” and the tournament organised for tomorrow.
This will celebrate his daughter’s birthday, and the winner of the tournament will win “her love”.
Armour is dredged up from the waves, which Pericles claims so he may compete for the Princess.
Act Two Scene Two
Thaisa reads aloud to her father the motto of each of the competing knights as they process past.
Pericles is the last on the parade, his “strangely furnished” appearance defended by the King.
Act Two Scene Three
Pericles is modest about his tournament victory, though to Thaisa “he seems like diamond to glass”.
Struck by Simonides’s similarity to his late father, Pericles reflects that “Time’s the king of men”.
Pericles is melancholy, but Thaisa is secretly pleased to be told to drink a “bowl of wine to him”.
Thaisa learns Pericles’s background, and the King gives his approval by lodging him “next our own”.
Act Two Scene Four
Helicanus reports that the incestuous Antiochus and his daughter have been killed by an act of God.
He’s encouraged to take the crown in Pericles’s absence, but agrees to wait “a twelvemonth longer”.
Act Two Scene Five
Simonides abruptly announces that Thaisa has decided to forego “married life” for a further year.
The competing knights depart and Simonides reveals that she favours Pericles – which he supports.
He reveals her choice to Pericles, but the invitation is rejected, leaving Simonides to curse his guest.
But his defence of his own conduct impresses the King, and Thaisa says that he will “make me glad”.
Simonides is taken aback at his daughter’s clear attraction for Pericles, but is delighted by her choice.
Prologue to Act Three
Gower presents a second Dumb Show, in which Thaisa gives birth, before the family leave for Tyre.
He proceeds to explain that Helicanus agrees to accept the crown if Pericles does not return home.
Act Three Scene One
Caught in a deadly storm at sea Pericles cradles his infant daughter, “this piece of your dead queen”.
The crew persuade Pericles to consign his wife’s body to the waves – a sea-faring “superstition”.
As they are near Tarsus, Pericles directs the crew to alter course and take his daughter to Cleon.
Act Three Scene Two
In Ephesus, Thaisa’s coffin, rescued from the turbulent sea, is brought to the scientist Cerimon.
With the help of fire and music, the body, identified by letter as Pericles’s dead wife, comes to life.
Act Three Scene Three
Meanwhile in Tarsus, ignorant of his wife’s survival, Pericles leaves his daughter in Cleon’s care.
Cleon remembers Pericles’s gift of corn when it was needed, and pledges himself “to my duty”.
Dionyza reveals she too has a child, and Pericles promises not to cut his hair until Marina is married.
Act Three Scene Four
In Ephesus, Thaisa believes Pericles to be dead, and intends to adopt “a vestal livery” and a quiet life.
Prologue to Act Four
Gower reports that Marina has been raised at Tarsus, the object of her half-sister Philoten’s envy.
Her mother Dionyza plans to murder Marina and when her nurse Lychordia dies, Leonine is hired.
Act Four Scene One
Dionyza encourages Marina to walk with Leonine as she goes to place flowers on Lychordia’s grave.
Leonine encourages Marina to say her prayers, and Marina instantly guesses what is in store for her.
But as he is about to kill her, pirates appear and kidnap her, leaving Leonine to wait on events.
Act Four Scene Two
In Mytilene, Pandar calls on Boult to acquire fresh female recruits for his “too wenchless” brothel.
Boult returns with Marina, and Bawd reflects that “Such a maidenhead were no cheap thing”.
Marina wishes Leonine had killed her, while Bawd expects she will “taste gentlemen of all fashions”.
Boult reports he has advertised Marina’s services “through the market” and expects visitors later.
Bawd tells Marina to stay cheerful to succeed, and Boult is promised his chance to sleep with her.
Marina invokes Diana, goddess of chastity, and determines she “still my virgin knot will keep”.
Act Four Scene Three
Cleon rebukes Dionyza for the apparent murder of Marina, and questions what Pericles is to be told.
Dionyza denounces Cleon for “how coward a spirit” he has, and reminds him that Leonine is dead.
She had to die because she overshadowed Philoten, and Dionyza calls it “an enterprise of kindness”.
Moreover, Pericles will be deceived by the building of a monument to Marina at their “expense”.
Act Four Scene Four
Gower reappears, to report Pericles and Helicanus sailing to Tarsus to “fetch his daughter home”.
A dumb show reveals Cleon and Dionyza accompanying a heart-broken Pericles to Marina’s tomb.
Pericles, reports Gower, heads to sea, swearing “in sorrow all devour’d” not to wash or cut his hair.
Act Four Scene Five
Outside the brothel in Mytilene, two Gentlemen reveal that they are “for no more bawdy-houses”.
Evidently they have met Marina in the brothel, and are shocked to “have divinity preached there”.
Act Four Scene Six
The brothel owners regret Marina’s presence there as she would “make a puritan of the devil”.
Lysimachus, Governor of Mytilene, arrives to “do the deed of darkness” and is introduced to Marina.
Marina makes clear that she wishes “the gods / Would set me free from this unhallow’d place”.
Lysimachus believes her “a piece of virtue”, and curses the man who “robs thee of thy goodness”.
Lysimachus departs, leaving Bawd and Boult to wish Marina “had never come within my doors”.
Boult makes to deflower her but she offers gold to be employed in domestic tasks by honest women.
Prologue to Act Five
Gower describes Marina’s successful life outside the brothel and reports Pericles’ arrival at Mytilene.
Act Five Scene One
Pericles’s ship sails into Mytilene to be met by Lysimachus, who is told of the lost wife and daughter.
Pericles is silent with grief, but Lysimachus agrees he knows “a maid” who might speak with him.
Marina arrives, to be admired by all, and told by Lysimachus to engage Pericles in conversation.
She sums up her story, heir to “mighty kings” but lost to her parents and now “Bound in servitude”.
Pericles seems to recognise Thaisa in Marina, and imagines how “My daughter might have been”.
He insists she tell her story and is shocked by the coincidences implied by her name and background.
She recounts the attempt to murder her in Tarsus and her trip to Mytilene, then names her father.
He tests her with her mother’s name but when she answers, he announces “thou art my child”.
Pericles senses he hears music unheard by others, to be told by Marina it is the music of the spheres.
Diana appears to Pericles as he sleeps, instructing him to tell his story at her temple at Ephesus.
Lysimachus hints he wishes to marry Marina, and Pericles assents since he has been “noble to her”.
Act Five Scene Two
Gower reports that Pericles travelled as instructed to Ephesus before Marina may marry Lysimachus.
Act Five Scene Three
At Diana’s temple in Ephesus, Pericles tells his story, to be recognised by Thaisa: “O royal Pericles”.
Cerimon reveals that Thaisa was saved by him and “placed” here after she was rescued from the sea.
Pericles confirms his identity with the ring her father gave him, and introduces Marina to Thaisa.
Cerimon will reveal what else was found with Thaisa, and Pericles agrees to shave and “beautify”.
As Thaisa’s father has died, Pericles announces Lysimachus and Marina will reign in Tyre in his place.
Gower compares Antiochus and his daughter (and their “monstrous lust”) with Pericles and family.
Praise for Helicanus and Cerimon compares with fated punishment for “wicked Cleon and his wife”.
As mentioned in the Introduction, the events of this play are glossed by a narrator named John Gower, an English poet of two centuries before Shakespeare, a contemporary of Chaucer. Shakespeare’s plays do not often employ a narrator, though a chorus introduces “Romeo and Juliet” (and summarises the story) and another introduces “Henry V”. Meanwhile, “The Winter’s Tale” (a late play, like “Pericles”) employs a narrator once, in the figure of Time personified.
A number of Shakespeare’s plays are indebted to fairy tales for important features of their narratives: the wicked step-mother is one trope to be found in his plays (“Cymbeline”); the riddle which, when solved, awards a bride for a prize (“The Merchant of Venice”) is another. “Pericles” twists the latter somewhat cynically in its opening act, given that the prize (a “golden casket” as Pericles himself observes, “stored with ill”) is unwanted as soon as it’s understood.
One of the most familiar themes in Shakespeare’s plays is the relationships fathers strike with daughters. Most often these relationships describe daughters somewhat out of control and beyond the authority of their fathers: Desdemona secretly marrying Othello, for example, or Juliet’s clandestine relationship with Romeo. There are numerous other examples. This play has four versions of the father / daughter relationship – more than any other by Shakespeare. The first example, the central feature of 1.1, is perhaps the most unsavoury. In this context it is worth remembering that the first two acts were almost certainly the work of Shakespeare’s collaborator George Wilkins. It somehow seems significant that Antiochus’s daughter is not named.
When Pericles parades past Simonides and his daughter Thaisa in 2.2, some of the watching Lords are unimpressed by his appearance. But the King leaps to his defence with an aphorism that reveals depth and insight not always to be found in Shakespeare’s monarchs: “Opinion’s but a fool”, Simonides believes, “that makes us scan / The outward habit by the inward man”. Inoffensive stuff, one might imagine, but in a society in which dress codes were strictly regulated (as was the case in Jacobean England), a daring thing to put in the mouth of a character who commands our respect.
Simonides’s relationship with Thaisa, explored in Act Two, contrasts favourably with that of Antiochus and his daughter as outlined in Act One. In the latter, incest is laced with subterfuge and reinforced, so it seems, by a taste for assassination. In the former, a King who commands respect for his general decency seems at first to be allocating his daughter to the winner of the tournament, but is later revealed as being something of a spectator as she makes the decision herself. It is in Act Two that we learn of the deaths of Antiochus and his daughter in what looks like an act of God.
Biographies of Shakespeare have to contend with the “lost years” – time unaccounted for, when the playwright was a young man, between around 1582 and 1588. Some accounts believe he was briefly a teacher, but the ease with which he uses legal terms in his plays suggests to others that he may have had some legal training. In 3.1 of “Pericles”, the terminology is nautical and specialist (“Slack the bolins there!” etc), reminiscent of the opening scene of “The Tempest” (“Take in the topsail. Tend to the master’s whistle” etc), a further possible clue as to how those lost years were spent. Either way, these scenes are a reminder that Shakespeare lived and worked close to London’s docks, and sea-faring types may well have been among his companions.
There are times in Shakespeare’s plays, says the American scholar Harold Bloom, when “the demarcations between the improbable and the impossible become very ghostly”. Readers may feel that the revival of Thaisa from death – and the sea – in 3.2 of this play is such an occasion. But it’s not an isolated example in Shakespeare’s plays: Juliet’s apparent death (after she takes the Friar’s concoction) is merely the prelude to her revival in the Capulets’ mausoleum and the final tragedy of “Romeo and Juliet”; similarly, Imogen’s apparent death in 4.2 of “Cymbeline” is a temporary affair, induced by a drug whose properties have twice been misreported. Unlike Juliet, Imogen survives.
Just as, earlier in the play, Thaliard failed in his task to kill Pericles, so now in 4.1, Leonine fails in his mission to murder Pericles’s daughter Marina. In both cases the would-be murderer is overtaken by events and must hope his failure stays undiscovered. Dionyza’s attempt to have Marina killed by Leonine is particularly egregious as she has a duty of care towards the young woman, given that Pericles had earlier donated grain to Tarsus when the need was acute. Her treatment of Marina might be compared with Cerimon’s revival of her mother Thaisa in 3.2.
The encounter between Marina and Pericles on board ship in 5.1 introduces the fourth leg of the father / daughter theme on which the play is largely constructed. First we were shown Antiochus and his unnamed daughter, a relationship that triggers Pericles’s initial wanderlust. Next by way of contrast we were shown the relationship between Simonides and Thaisa – balanced and equable. The third leg reflects the relationship between Celon and his evidently ill-favoured daughter Philoten. Now the fourth leg, the relationship between Pericles and Marina, is in place, a reminder of the centrality of this theme in Shakespeare’s plays in general, though this is the only play of his to explore the theme in four separate relationships.
As the play moves towards a close, it becomes clear that Marina and Pericles have just enough information about one another to take their chance of reconciliation when it arises. Even so, the presence of Marina on Pericles’s boat and her conversation with him do still stretch credulity. By contrast with the reunion with Thaisa, however, the connection between Pericles and Marina is positively inevitable, since Thaisa is only found owing to a vision or dream that visits Pericles as he sleeps. It tells him to go to Diana’s temple at Ephesus – fortunately, he obeys.
The central place of coincidence in Shakespeare’s late plays is a reminder of a comment by the English Romantic poet S.T. Coleridge (1772 – 1834), who argues that events in these plays do not need to be probable – merely possible. Nevertheless the level of coincidence in plays like “Cymbeline”, “The Winter’s Tale” and even “The Tempest” does constitute a challenge to the modern audience. It is best to see these events as symbolic rather than literal: the quest comes to an end with families reunited and longstanding grief in abeyance. An optimistic note on which to close.
Who’s Who / Characters
When Simonides first encounters Pericles, he rejects attempts to judge him based purely on his rough and ready appearance: “Opinion’s but a fool”, he argues, “that makes us scan / The outward habit by the inward man”. To speak of the “inward man” in the case of Pericles himself, however, may be something of an exaggeration, since of all Shakespeare’s heroes, few have a personality as thin as his. True, Pericles is patient (indeed, passive) in meeting the challenges the play imposes, but in other respects he is merely a function of the plot, with no existence beyond the play.
Marina is an emblem of chastity and restraint, confident in her determination to resist the pleasures (or perils) of the flesh but otherwise as two-dimensional as her father. Like him she has a role to play in the story, which she dutifully performs.
Give the name of Antiochus’s daughter.
What is the name of Pericles’s counsellor, left in charge of his kingdom?
What do the fishermen dredge up from the sea at Pentapolis?
What is the reason for the tournament at Pentapolis in honour of the Princess?
Which two things help Cerimon revive Thaisa at Ephesus?
Give the name of Marina’s half-sister.
At what point does Marina realise she is about to be killed?
Who arrives at the brothel to “do the deed of darkness”?
Who tells Pericles to travel to Diana’s temple at Ephesus?
When he meets Thaisa at Ephesus, how does Pericles confirm his identity?
Her name is not revealed
A suit of armour
Fire and music
When Leonine tells her to say her prayers
Diana, in a vision or dream
By revealing the ring her father gave him.
Plays exploring the condition of England were not encouraged on the Elizabethan stage, so whatever needed to be said, it was simplest to set events overseas. Two observations may be made about Shakespeare’s work in this context: first, there is perhaps only a single explicit reference in the entire canon to a political event involving the English Government – a vote of confidence in the Earl of Essex and his invasion of Ireland in 1599 which closes “Henry V”; and second, aside from his History Plays, Shakespeare sets only a single play in England: “The Merry Wives of Windsor”.
“Pericles” is among the most peripatetic of Shakespeare’s plays: all the Mediterranean was his stage in a play that takes in six different locations. Briefly, these include Tyre, Pericles’s kingdom, located fifty miles south of modern-day Beirut; Antioch, then in Syria, now in Turkey, around one thousand kilometres to the north of Tyre; Tarsus, also in modern Turkey, around 250 kilometres east of Antioch; and Pentapolis, which is in modern Libya. Ephesus takes us back to Turkey, while Mytilene is on the island of Lesbos in the eastern Aegean, close to Turkey.