Pericles simplified

Synopsis

Pericles is one of Shakespeare’s late-in-his-writing-life romantic fairy tales, written for an adult audience.  We don’t think he wrote the first part of the play.  Pericles is what we call one of his “contrast” stories; a play where he creates a scene so dark that when it turns light, it turns bright.  The play’s central theme is the apparent tragic loss of a princess (and the loss of the princess’ daughter), both located in dramatic fashion late in the play.  The play is set around 170 B.C.; a time when Syria had a huge presence on the eastern end of the Mediterranean. We’re told Antiochus the Great built the city of Antioch, “his chiefest seat, the fairest in all Syria.”  The Antiochus in this story was the “Great’s” son, and was at that time king of Syria.  Antiochus’ daughter was “so bright, blithe, and perfect of face as heaven had lent her all his grace.”  She is nameless, known only as his daughter.  She has had many suitors, but “whoso asked her for his wife lost his life.”  Antiochus and his Daughter had an incestuous relationship; “bad child, worse father!”  That’s why her suitors lost their lives. There you go. It’s hard to get any darker than that.  But in classic Shakespeare style, Shakespeare draws an enormously appealing Marina. We’ll get to Marina later.

Pericles is the Prince of Tyre, a city that might be present day Lebanon.  We learn that he has an interest in Antiochus’ daughter, but we never learn how that interest came to be.  On his visit to Antioch he quickly realizes that the king and his daughter have an unnatural relationship. He wisely decides it’s in his best interest to immediately leave Antioch, not wanting to lose his head as other suitors had, well aware that kings being kings can pretty much do as they please.  Antiochus is not about to give his daughter up. 

The play opens in Antioch where Pericles is calling on Antiochus; Pericles having, as we say, a serious interest in winning the hand of Antiochus’ daughter.  We learn that she is absolutely gorgeous.  Antiochus lets Pericles know that “if you are not worthy” you will lose your head.  Antiochus has him read a Riddle; a riddle that in part reads “he’s father, son and husband mild; I mother, wife and yet his child.”  He leaves Antioch promptly.

King Antiochus is upset with himself, saying “Heaven, that I had thy head. He has found the meaning.”  Antiochus tells his aide Thaliard that “thou must kill him,” and to not “return unless thou say Prince Pericles is dead.” 

Pericles returns to Tyre and lets us know how he thinks things might play out. He is justifiably frightened, knowing that Antiochus will fear him, believing that he might talk, and that a king can “make his will his act.”  He also notes that “kings have long arms.” Pericles confides in his aide Helicanus, telling him of what he learned while in Antioch.  He fears that Antiochus (fearing that Pericles “might reveal his sin”) will not only try to kill him but will run roughshod over Tyre. Helicanus calmly suggests that the prince “travel for a while.”  Pericles leaves for Tarsus. He lets Helicanus know that he is to tell no one of his whereabouts.  Thaliard soon arrives in Tyre and is well received by Helicanus, who tells him nothing. 

In Tarsus, Cleon, the Governor, is talking with his wife Dionyza, letting us know how difficult life is for their citizens. They have had plenty in the past but are now enduring a famine. Pericles soon arrives with a mini-armada, “ships stored with corn to make your needy bread and give them life whom hunger starved half dead.”  He tells Cleon that “we have heard your miseries as far as Tyre and come to relieve them.” Cleon understatedly says “your Grace is welcome to our town and us.” 

While in Tarsus, Pericles learns that Thaliard has in fact arrived in Tyre with “intent to murder him.” Through some means he is advised to leave Tarsus. Pericles sails from Tarsus with all his ships, only to lose them during a violent storm at sea.  He is cast up on a remote beach, the only survivor. Pericles has washed up on the shore of Pentapolis. He is greeted on the beach by three fishermen who treat him beautifully.  The fishermen haul in his rusted armor; armor he had inherited from his father.  They feed him and provide him with fresh clothes. They lead him to the “good King Simonides’ court,” a “half a day’s journey” away.

We learn that King Simonides “hath a fair daughter, and tomorrow her birthday, and princes come from all parts of the world to joust and tourney for her love.”  Pericles plans to participate.  Each knight in his armor and with “his emblematic shield” passes by the princess. Pericles’ armor is rusted and “his shield is a withered branch.”  Pericles wins the princess’ wreath, she saying “to me he seems like diamond to glass.”  Pericles lets Simonides know who he is. A party begins. Thaisa, the princess, and Pericles dance.

Helicanus is still in Tyre.  We learn that Antiochus and his daughter died “when a fire from heaven came and shriveled up their bodies” when they were “seated in a chariot of inestimable value.”  Tyre’s lords want Helicanus to become “our sovereign,” but he suggests the lords wait “a twelve-month longer” and “go search for Pericles like nobles.”  They agree.

Simonides tells the knights (except Pericles) that he has a letter from his daughter that lets her father know that “this twelvemonth she’ll not undertake a married life.”  The knights exit.  Simonides then tells us his daughter has told him, again through the letter, that “she’ll wed the stranger knight or never more to view nor day nor light.”  Simonides puts Pericles to a test, saying “Thou hast bewitched my daughter, and thou art a villain, a traitor.”  Pericles responds that “my actions are as noble as my thoughts.”  Simonides says “I’ll make you man and wife.  Are you both agreed?”  Both respond “Yes, if ‘t please your majesty.” 

Pericles and Thaisa have married and have set sail for Tyre, Pericles now aware that Helicanus’ “twelve month” period is about up and that he must return home if he is to lead his people.  During a ferocious storm at sea, Thaisa gives birth to a girl, named Marina by Pericles, Thaisa “dying” during the delivery.  Marina is born late at night.  On the basis of a long-held serious superstition, the sailors demand that “the ship must be cleared of the dead,” promptly.  Thaisa is wrapped well and carefully placed with certain tributes in a coffin.  She is dropped overboard, right at the height of the storm, the ship “having had a chest beneath the hatches.”   With Marina but an hour old, Pericles commands the ship head for Tarsus where “I will visit Cleon.” 

At dawn, Cerimon, a physician, and two gentlemen are on a beach in Ephesus. Two servants haul the casket to Cerimon, the chest having just been “tossed upon the shore.”  They promptly open the casket and find Thaisa. Cerimon quickly recognizes that she is alive, noting that “she hath not been entranced above five hours.”  They learn from documents in the coffin that she is a queen and the daughter of a king.  They, of course, take very good care of her and she revives, unharmed by the ordeal.  She tells Cerimon she wants to live “a life of chastity.”  Cerimon shows her the way to “Diana’s temple where a niece of mine shall there attend you.”  Diana was the goddess of hunting and of the moon. 

Pericles arrives in Tarsus and meets with Cleon and Dionyza.  He leaves his daughter, Marina, with the two of them, to be cared for as a princess, Cleon saying “Fear not, my lord,” noting how generous Pericles had been to them, having “fed my country with your corn.”  Lychorida, Thaisa’s attendant, stays there in Tarsus to help care for the child.  Pericles asks Cleon “to give her princely training, that she may be mannered as she was born.” He accepts the request.  Pericles leaves promptly, needing to get to Tyre. 

Now fourteen years later, we learn that when compared with Dionyza’s daughter “Marina gets all the praises,” an issue that so troubles Dionyza that she demands that her servant, Leonine, kill Marina so that “her daughter might stand peerless by this slaughter.”  We also learn that Lychorida, Thaisa and Marina’s attendant, has just died. Marina puts up a beautiful defense when she learns of Leonine’s plan to kill her, as he says “to satisfy my lady.” But just as Leonine is about to kill her, he having drawn his sword, pirates seize her and carry her away.  Leonine tells Dionyza that he did what he was told to do. She poisons him. Dionyza tells Cleon that she had Marina killed, devastating Cleon who says “of all the faults beneath the heavens, the gods do like this worst.”  When Cleon asks rhetorically “what canst thou say when noble Pericles shall demand his child,” she calmly says we tell him “we wept after her hearse, and yet we mourn.”

Marina is sold by the pirates to a brothel owner in Mytilene, a port city near Ephesus.  She cleverly and smoothly talks her way out of any encounters, two Gentlemen saying things like “but to have divinity preached there! Did you ever dream of such a thing?” and “come, I am for no more bawdy houses.  Shall we go hear the vestals sing?”  Lysimachus, the governor of Mytilene, visits the brothel and has a wonderful conversation with her. He ends up giving her enough money and gold to buy her freedom.  As the Act ends, she tells Bolt, the servant and solicitor for the brothel owner that he needs to get out of the business, and that he needs to find her a job as a teacher. He says to her “Well, I will see what I can do for thee.  If I can place thee, I will.” 

Helicanus greets Lysimachus at sea, Lysimachus having sailed from Mytilene with hopes to speak with Pericles, Pericles being on-board.  Helicanus lets Lysimachus know that “he will not speak to any.”  Lysimachus persists, saying “we have a maid in Mytilene, I durst wager would win some words of him.”  Helicanus gives him a chance.  Marina enters. Helicanus observes “she’s a fine-looking lady.”  She says to Pericles “My lord, lend ear.”  He mumbles and forcibly pushes her away, knocking her down. She lets him know that her griefs are the equal of his.  He speaks, asking her “what country are you from?” He says to himself “my dearest wife was like this maid, and such a one my daughter might have been.”  She tells him her “ancestors stood equivalent with mighty kings.”  She gets his attention. She tells him “my name is Marina, for I was born at sea, and my father a king.”  He can’t believe what he’s hearing, having been told his daughter was killed by Dionyza’s servant.  She goes on, saying “but, good sir, why do you weep?  I am the daughter to King Pericles, if good King Pericles be.”  He blurts out “thou’rt my child.”  Everybody lets everybody else know who they are. 

Pericles hears “heavenly music.”  No one else hears any music.  He falls asleep.  The others leave quietly.  He is visited by the goddess Diana who suggests he visit her temple in Ephesus.  We learn Marina and Lysimachus plan to marry.

The group follows Pericles’s suggestion: they visit Diana’s temple in Ephesus. Cerimon and Thaisa enter.  Not recognizing her, Pericles tells them his sad tale in detail.  Thaisa cries “You are, you are Pericles.” She faints.  Cerimon tells the others of the time the coffin washed up on the shore of Ephesus.  Pericles and Thaisa embrace.  Pericles introduces Thaisa to her daughter.  They all plan to return to Pentapolis where “we’ll celebrate their nuptials.”  Pericles and Thaisa plan to “spend our following days” there.  He tells all that “our son and daughter shall in Tyrus reign.”  Lord Cerimon is honored.

Principal Characters

Antiochus.  Antiochus is the king of Antioch, the son of Antiochus the Great.  We’re told Antiochus the Great ruled Syria around 200 B.C. and built Antioch, the then capital of Syria.  This Antiochus ruled Syria around 170 B.C., the time of this play.  He had an incestuous relationship with his beautiful daughter.  Prince after prince, each having an interest in Antiochus’ daughter, lost his head, each not realizing her father didn’t want to give her up.  Pericles wisely escaped the fate of the other princes.  Antiochus and his daughter lose their lives in a lightning strike, the gods (we’re told) getting even for the father-daughter’s misconduct.

Cleon.  Cleon is the governor of Tarsus, a city on the southern coast of Turkey.  Soon after he returns from Antioch to Tyre, Pericles leaves for Tarsus, justly fearing for his life, knowing Antiochus has a contract out on his head.  He is grandly welcomed in Tarsus, having delivered shiploads of corn to Cleon and his starving people.  Late in the play, Pericles leaves his new-born daughter in Cleon’s care, Pericles having lost his wife at childbirth; he having to return to Tyre to run the country, knowing he can’t properly care for a days-old daughter. Fourteen years later, Marina having grown into quite the fine looking young lady, it’s reported that Dionyza, Cleon’s wife, plans to kill Marina, envious of all the attention she gets, wanting her same-age daughter to “stand peerless by this slaughter.”  Cleon is not at all happy with his wife’s decision to have Marina killed. All believe Marina was killed, but she wasn’t!  At the last moment, Marina was captured by pirates and whisked away. 

Marina.  Marina is Pericles and Thaisa’s daughter, born at sea, her mother “dying” at the time of her birth.  Pericles leaves his days-old daughter in the care of Cleon and Dionyza in Tarsus.  They do raise her as a princess should be raised, they owing Pericles big-time for saving their citizens from starvation.  But, Dionyza grows envious of the beautiful and talented Marina (Marina receives more attention than Dionyza’s daughter receives) and plans to have her killed, Marina now fourteen.  But just as she is about to be killed by Dionyza’s servant, Marina is captured by pirates who in turn sell her to a brothel owner in Mytilene, a city near Ephesus.  She talks her way out of any encounters at the brothel; one guest, Lysimachus, the governor of Mytilene, being so impressed by her eloquence and style, gives her gold so she can buy her freedom.  She and her father reunite at sea late in the play.  The two of them then reunite with her mother (and Pericles’ wife), Thaisa, at Diana’s temple in Ephesus.  She and Lysimachus marry.  The two of them “shall reign in Tyrus.” 

Pericles.  Pericles, the Prince of Tyre, finds himself in real trouble early in the play when he solves Antiochus’ “riddle,” realizing Antiochus and his beautiful daughter have an incestuous relationship.  This is the dark part of the play; a part that Shakespeare uses to make the end so emotional. Initially, Pericles is known as the Prince of Tyre; Tyre often is referred to as Tyrus.  On a two thousand year old map, it looks as if Tyre is perhaps present day Lebanon. Tyre seems to be more of a city than a state. At some point Pericles the Prince becomes Pericles the King.  Pericles spends very little time (at least in the play) in Tyre, spending most of his time at sea or bouncing around from Tyre to Antioch to Tarsus to Pentapolis to Mytilene to Ephesus.  He is the protagonist in this family love story, following the pattern Shakespeare often used to lead us from misfortunes to personal triumphs. 

Simonides.   Simonides is the King of Pentapolis, an area believed to be on the northern coast of Africa.  Midway through the play, Pericles finds himself cast on Pentapolis’ shore, the sole survivor of a terrible storm at sea that sunk his fleet of ships.  He had left Tarsus with his ships, justly fearing Antiochus’ men would track him down, they wanting to eliminate any risk that he might tell anyone the true story of Antiochus and his daughter.  It’s in Pentapolis where Pericles meets and marries Thaisa, Simonides’ daughter, the princess of Pentapolis. 

Thaisa.  Thaisa is the wife of Pericles who “dies” in a violent storm at sea at the time she is giving birth to her daughter, named Marina by Pericles.  She dies late at night, is placed in a coffin, along with “tributes and jewels and sweet scented spices,” and is dropped overboard, the superstition among sailors being that “the sea will not lie still till the ship be cleared of the dead.”  At the morning’s dawn, on the coast of Turkey at Ephesus, the casket is “tossed up upon the shore.”  As Cerimon, a physician, and two gentlemen are walking along the beach, they find the casket and find Thaisa “entranced” rather than dead.  With great care, as you might imagine, they revive her.  Cerimon leads her to “Diana’s temple” where “a niece of mine shall there attend you.”  Pericles finds her right at the end of the play and introduces his magnificent wife to her magnificent daughter, Marina.

The Play