Commentary

Pericles, Prince of Tyre is the first of Shakespeare's Romances. Even though the opening acts are probably not his work, Shakespeare took this opportunity to develop several ideas and techniques. These techniques—such as the melding of Comedy and Tragedy, and the use of strange, elaborate plots and boldly symbolic characters—are the ones that he began to use in the Problem Plays and continued to experiment with in works such as Timon of Athens. Most important is the growth of a theme that runs through all of the late plays; that humankind cannot alter its destiny in an inexplicable but finally benevolent universe. Pericles is flawed, in part due to collaboration, or a very faulty text, or both, but also due to the nature of its imperfectly combined elements. However, it constitutes a significant step towards the magnificent achievements of The Winter's Tale and The Tempest

Though Pericles was extremely popular in the early 17th century, it has since been considered one of the least satisfying of Shakespeare's plays. Despite the flawed surviving text, it contains much good poetry, especially in the reunion of Pericles and Marina in 5.1, but the play's virtues are largely outweighed by its defects. Its major figures seem lifeless; it is episodic; its events are often described rather than enacted; and all this is presented in a nearly shapeless plot that is full of extreme improbabilities and absurd situations. For instance, why would Antiochus describe his sin in the riddle he invites the world to solve?) Why does Thaisa enter a temple convent instead of going on to Tyre to rejoin her husband? Why does Pericles leave Marina in Tharsus for 14 years? Each question can be answered by reference to the conventions of folklore and narrative romance, but taken together, the whole story lacks plausibility and dramatic interest. 

Nevertheless, Pericles has increased in popularity in the 20th century. The bold extremes of characterisation and theme found in folklore and narrative romance may be more acceptable to a century familiar with abstraction. The play is more rewarding on the stage than in print, in any case, for it depends in good part on Masque like spectacle. It also entertains us with a wide range of human behaviour—however baldly represented—and of good and bad fortune. Its very conventionality is reassuring: we can suspend our sense that life cannot be both randomly threatening and neatly resolved and simply enjoy its bizarre episodes and its happy ending. 

Pericles centers on the title character—and, late in the play, on Marina—but it features a number of boldly drawn minor figures. These are not, for the most part, endowed with real human personalities, but they demonstrate the nature of humanity. Antiochus is a regal villain, full of power and sin, while Dionyza represents the archetypal evil stepmother. On the other hand, Helicanus is a paragon of loyalty and strength, while Cerimon is a benevolent nobleman and a master of the far reaches of human knowledge.  These figures are not realistic, but this is part of their point. They are symbols of the human potential for good and evil that is so much more complex and obscure in reality, or even in realistic drama. The Fishermen of 2.1 and the staff of the Mytilenian brothel in Act 4 not only provide comic relief, they also remind us of our own parallel universe, mirrored allegorically in the play. 

The play is unified by a repeated pattern of loss and recovery. On the largest scale, Pericles loses his confident idealism and is tainted by sexual evil; he suffers as a result, and he recovers goodness and love at the end of his life. This pattern is repeated within the overall development, as Pericles encounters love and loses happiness three times, only to recover each time.  The cycle is strikingly punctuated with storms. When he flees the horror represented by Antiochus' daughter, Pericles becomes a shipwrecked exile, but he finds love anew in Thaisa. Beset by another tempest, Pericles loses Thaisa, but takes comfort in the birth of Marina. Finally, though he is driven to despair by the apparent loss of Marina as well, fate changes its course and he recovers both daughter and wife. Significantly, the storm that Pericles endures at this point is merely mentioned briefly, in 5.Chorus.l4, and is not given the emphasis of the first two. Like ancient festival rituals, Pericles offers an analogy to the eternal cycles of winter and spring, death and rebirth. This pattern is the play's plot. 

Our sense of this 'plot' is reinforced by the play's most prominent motif, resurrection. First Thaisa and then Marina seem to die, only to be revived, literally in Thaisa's case and figuratively with Marina's release from the brothel (after which 'she sings like one immortal' [5.Chorus.3]). When Pericles discovers that his daughter is dead, he withdraws into himself and may be said to have suffered a mock death, from which he is revived by Marina. Once restored, he cries that Marina 'beget'st' him (5.1.195), which suggests his reborn state, and demands 'fresh garments' (5.1.213). The symbolic value of this gesture is difficult to ignore. He has been returned from death as surely as Marina and Thaisa seem to have been. Finally, at the play's close, the ritual cycle of death and birth is brought full circle, and Pericles' mourning for his daughter is forgotten in plans for her marriage. The recurring theme is touched on one last time when Simonides' death is reported. This allows Marina and Lysimachus to take their destined place—once that of the play's protagonist—as rulers of Tyre. 

Another major motif of the play, incest, appears only once, but the issue is raised again at sensitive moments. In the play incest suggests the deepest evil to which humanity is susceptible. Pericles, drawn to Antiochus' daughter, is tainted by her sin although he is innocent, for the 'gods . . . inflame'd desire in [his] breast / To taste the fruit' (1.1.20-22). The episode's place at the opening of the play gives it great weight, and its point is further made by contrast when the hero encounters Thaisa and Simonides. Their healthy love is apparent when Simonides delightedly surrenders his daughter to Pericles in marriage. The theme is subtly and dramatically reworked in Pericles' cry to Marina: 'Thou . . . beget'st him that did thee beget' (5.1.195). The horrifying potential of incest—inbred offspring—is inverted. Finally Pericles, like Simonides and unlike Antiochus, can willingly separate himself from Marina as she joins her husband in a new life. 

At the play's close, then, the influence of evil has been destroyed and the misfortunes of the hero have been ended, but neither he nor Marina have been responsible for the happy ending. Dramatic coincidence, good luck, and the intervention of the gods have propelled events. Marina, in resisting the brothel world, influences her fate to some degree, but only sheer accident reunites her with her father. The other characters, especially Pericles—who is extraordinarily passive throughout—simply suffer or succeed as fate decrees. The play emphasises that the characters cannot control their destiny, and that the patience to accept the misfortunes of life is the best way to survive them. The most important of the external forces that drive the action is the sea. Its impersonal violence is both the occasion and the Symbol of Pericles' recurring losses. Further, help comes to famine-beset Tharsus by sea in 1.4; in 2.1 the shipwrecked Pericles' only remaining emblem of princely dignity, his inherited armour, is brought up in the Fishermen's net; and in 4.2 Marina's unlikely rescuers appear from the sea.  Not for nothing does the reunion of Pericles and Marina take place on a feast day dedicated to Neptune.  This fact is emphasised by pointed repetition (5.Chorus. 17; 5.1.17), and by reiteration of the word 'sea' and references to the sea throughout the scene. The spectacular appearance of Diana makes the divine influence on the play's events completely clear. It is only sensible that Gower should summarize the tale of Pericles' family by saying that they have been 'Led on by heaven'  

Another aspect of the characters' dependence on fate is the element of surprise that recurs throughout the play. In 1.1 Pericles is shockingly disillusioned about Antiochus' daughter; in 1.3 Thaliard finds his prey escaped; in 1.4, Cleon is astonished by the arrival of succor from famine, and so on. In almost every scene but Gower's narrations, which serve to anchor us amid seas of uncertainty, are instances of such startled amazement. Indeed, Marina feels that 'This world to me is as a lasting storm, / Whirring me from my friends' (4.1.19-20). The sublimely spiritual quality of the last act owes much to the appearance of a cause for the play's random surprises. As mistrust yields to confidence that the promised joy is real, we, like the characters, can believe that the irrational brutality of the world is a survivable danger; such a solace is to be valued as much as any human achievement.

 

To view other Pericles sections:

Main Play Page      Play Text     Scene by Scene Synopsis     Character Directory     Commentary  

 

To view the other Plays click below:

By  Comedies    Histories    Romances    Tragedies

All's Well the Ends Well Antony & Cleopatra As You Like It Cardenio Comedy of Errors Coriolanus
Cymbeline Edward III Hamlet Henry IV, Part 1 Henry IV, Part 2 Henry V
Henry VI, Part 1 Henry VI, Part 2 Henry VI, Part 3 Henry VIII Julius Caesar King John
King Lear Love's Labours Lost Love's Labours Wonne Macbeth Measure for Measure Merchant of Venice
The Merry Wives of Windsor A Mid Summer Night's Dream  Much Ado About Nothing Othello Pericles Richard II
Richard III Romeo & Juliet Sir Thomas More Taming of the Shrew The Tempest Timon of Athens
Titus Andronicus Troilus & Cressida Twelfth Night Two Gentlemen of Verona The Two Noble Kinsman The Winter's Tale

 

To view other Shakespeare Library sections:

Biography     Plays     Poems     Sonnets     Theaters     Shake Links 

 
Send mail to jciccarelli@hudsonshakespeare.org with questions or comments about this web site.
[Home]  [Upcoming Shows]  [HSC Venues]  [Past Productions]  [Articles] [HSC Programs]
 [Shakespeare Library] [Actor Resources]   [Contact Us]  [Links]  [Site Map]