Before the king's palace at Antioch (Syria), the 14th century poet Gower explains that Antiochus (the king) had a daughter by a consort who then died. The father and daughter became sexually involved and he enacted a law that no man can marry her unless he answer Antiochus' riddle, else he die and his head will be hung in the king's courtyard. Prince Pericles arrives to pursue the princess in marriage. He reads the riddle and solves it, determining the answer is, in fact, a person's head. The king, angered that Pericles solved the riddle, lies and says he did not. Antiochus gives Pericles 40 days to get the "right" answer. Fearing for his life, and in disgust at discovering the incest between Antiochus and his daughter, Pericles flees. Antiochus orders his chamberlain, Thaliard, to chase Pericles and kill him. At Pericles' home in Tyre, he laments to his friend Helicanus that Antiochus will go to any length to kill him, even war. Helicanus suggests that Pericles go on holiday to let the king cool off. Pericles agrees and heads to Tharsus. Thaliard arrives in Tyre and overhears the lords discuss Pericles' departure. He shows himself, saying he has a message for Pericles. Meanwhile, at Tharsus, the governor, Cleon, laments to his wife Dionyza how their city is in ruins due to famine. Pericles arrives and brings corn and other food to help the town, in return for letting him stay there, bringing great joy.
Gower appears again and explains that Helicanus sends word to Pericles that Thaliard is searching him out to kill him. Pericles flees to the sea with his men and is caught in a storm which wrecks his ship and kills all but him. He washes up on the shore of Pentapolis in Greece and is found by three fisherman, who he convinces to help him. In their fishing net the find Pericles' armor. He plans to use it to enter a jousting contest to win the hand of King Simonides' daughter, Thaisa. At the joust, Pericles wins the day. At dinner, Thaisa and Pericles fall in love. Back in Tyre, Helicanus explains to Escanes that the gods have killed Antiochus and his daughter by fire, ending their incestuous relationship. Three lords appear and ask Helicanus' permission to seek out Pericles; he grants it. Back at Pentapolis, Simonides tells the knights that Thaisa will not wed for a year, and immediately all leave. This is just a ploy to gt rid of them, though, since Thaisa wishes to wed Pericles, and Simonides and Pericles agree.
Gower appears to explain that the two are married and Thaisa becomes pregnant. A letter arrives from the lords of Tyre saying Pericles must return home within 12 months, lest mutiny ensue. Pericles, pregnant Thaisa, and her nurse Lychordia set sail for Tyre and again are caught in a storm, causing Thaisa to go into labor and deliver a daughter, who Pericles names Marina; however, Thaisa dies of complications during the labor. As is custom, she is buried at sea in a chest, and Pericles includes a note with her body asking that she be properly buried if found. Pericles decides to stop off at Tharsus to leave the baby so as not to endanger it in the voyage back to Tyre. Later, at Cerimon's house in Ephesus, two servants bring in a chest that was tossed on up the shore. It holds Thaisa and Pericles' note. Cerimon, however, uses an Egyptian ritual to restore life to her. Meanwhile, at a now prosperous Tharsus, Pericles stays 12 months with his daughter, then returns to Tyre, leaving Marina and Lychordia with Cleon and Dionyza. At Ephesus, Thaisa decides that since she'll never see Pericles again, she'll lead the life of a vestal virgin (i.e., a nun).
Gower appears to tell us that Marina has grown up and befriended Cleon's daughter, Philoten. Dionyza, however, is angry that Marina is more beautiful than Philoten, and plots with Leonine to kill Marina. Mourning her nurse's death, Marina meets Dionyza who instructs her to walk with Leonine. He tries to kill her, even after she objects, but is interrupted by the pirates of Valdes who kidnap her. At Mytilene, the pirates sell Marina to a brothel, run by a Bard and her servant Boult. At Tharsus, Dionyza informs Cleon of Marina's supposed death and instructs him to tell no one the truth. They plan to claim Marina died in her sleep. Gowen then tells us Pericles sails to Tharsus with Helicanus to see his daughter, Marina, only to discover she is "dead". Pericles vows to never wash his face or cut his hair again, and departs for the sea, leaving Escanes in chard at Tyre. At the brothel, Marina refuses to sleep with any man, and, in fact, she converts many of them to good. She even convinces the doorman Boult to convince her masters to let her change professions, using gold she had procured from the local governor (Lysimachus).
Gower appears and explains that Marina now teaches music and educates the nobles' children, giving the profits to the Bawd. Pericles, now arrives at Mytilene, though actually, Helicanus leads the ship while Pericles hides, in grief, in the hold. Lysimachus (the Governor of Mytilene) greets them and tries to cheer up Pericles, to no avail. He suggests they have Marina try to cheer him up (not knowing she is Pericles' long lost daughter). She arrives and sings to him, causing him to speak and ask of her origins. She explains she is Marina, the daughter of a king, born at sea, her mother died, and she was raised by a nurse Lychordia at Tharsus. Pericles, though refusing to believe her at first, comes to realize she really is his daughter and rejoices. The Goddess Diana appears to Pericles in a dream and instructs him to go to Ephesus, where he will be made happy. Further, Lysimachus informs Pericles of his desire to woo Marina. Gower tells us of Pericles' journey to Ephesus. There, Pericles and Thaisa are united by Cerimon, and Marina is able to meet her mother. Pericles decrees that Thaisa and he will live in Pentapolis, since Thaisa's father Simonides has recently died, while Marina and Lysimachus will reign in Tyre. Gower closes by reviewing the play's morals and telling us the townspeople of Tharsus burn Cleon and his wife Dionyza in their palace as punishment for plotting to kill Marina.
Has it been unfairly confined to apocryphal status?
It was the only chance during my trip to go to the Globe. I would rather have seen The Tempest. I knew Pericles would be a modern production, but I had seen other plays in modern styles that I didn't disagree with. It was definately worth buying a ticket to see a play produced on the Globe stage, but the play itself was AWFUL! I tried to read it before going, but was pressed for time and only got halfway through. But I was able to understand the need for additions because the script we have today is incomplete. However, during this production I felt like I had gone to the circus. There were so many rope tricks and acrobatics in unnecessary places, that it severely overshadowed the story. At one point Gower tried to explain that Shakespeare would've enjoyed such a production. I doubt it! Shakespeare liked spectacle but I always felt that the purpose of it was to move the plot along, which this wasn't. Shakespeare always seems to be more concerned with the psychology of his characters. In addition to this, there were just stupid mistakes by the director. They added an older Pericles looking on his younger self during the scenes, an aspect that I didn't disaggree with. However, the younger one spoke with a Mediterranean accent while the older one's was very British! That killed any verisimilitude. Also, when the play got past the part where I stopped reading, it was at the part where Marina is captive of a brothel. Everyone spoke Shakespearean English with thick Italian accents! I think the whole audience was lost at that point and only stuck around because of the amount of skin on stage that the "modernized" scene evidently required. I only understood anything that was being said because of Marina's lines. I had to leave early to catch a train back to Cambridge, but I was glad for the excuse!
I think the death of Thaisa can be interpreted differently from the plot summary above. Shakespeare seems to let his readers know that she wasn't "dead."
Cerimon does not use "Egyptian ritual" to restore life to her. In III,ii, 60, Thaisa "smells most sweetly," and it doesn't seem to be the scent of the spices. After Cerimon reads from the scroll that Pericles have included in the chest, he states in III, ii, 76-77 and line 79, "If thou livest, Pericles, thou hast a heart that even cracks for woe!...For look how fresh she looks! They were too rough that threw her in the sea." She wasn't dead, and Cerimon understands that whoever threw her in the sea thinking she was was too "rough" in their haste decision.
This comment about Thaisa's death was discussed in one of my classes at The University of Chicago taught by Professor Strier.
Pericles realizes in the answer to the riddle that the king is having sex with his daughter. That is the answer to the riddle. The King is not merley angry that Pericles answered the riddle he is horrified that he has answered it because it means making the answer public. This is why the king prevents him from answering the riddle and saves face by giving him 40 days to come up with the answer.
Some critics have suggested that pericles is running away from his own feelings, throughout the play. These feelings are said to be of fear: fear of his own incestuous desires which the riddle has awakened in him. Obviously this is a Freudian analysis, but most striking about the play to my mind is that Pericles is constantly on the run, and always there is this fear of being caught and ruined: I think this pursuing and fleeing theme is the main impetus of the play, and what more difficult and ever present thing to flee from than knowledge of the self. I think this is what is happening to Pericles.
Please submit a quiz here.
Here is where you find links to related content on this site or other sites, possibly including full books or essays about William Shakespeare written by other authors featured on this site.