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A Modern Perspective: Pericles

By Margaret Jane Kidnie

Pericles is a play haunted by loss. Sometimes loss is figured as a sudden and calamitous separation from one’s friends and belongings, as when Pericles at the top of the second act is washed ashore after a shipwreck at sea, hungry and cold, or when Thaisa, Pericles’ wife, wakes from death to find herself alone in a strange country. At other moments, loss is evoked through the death, or seeming death, of a close family member or friend. Pericles mourns his wife, and later his daughter, Marina; Marina, in turn, early brought on stage as a newborn, makes her first entrance as an adult in Act 4, grieving the death of her nurse, Lychorida. For Marina, as for the rest of her family, the world seems “a lasting storm, / Whirring me from my friends” (4.1.21–22).

In Shakespeare’s tragedies, death tends to function as a terminus. Death may be shocking—one thinks of Romeo and Juliet killing themselves in the Capulet tomb, or King Lear bearing onstage the body of hanged Cordelia—but it imposes on the plot a sense of finality and closure. Yet the romances, among which Pericles is typically numbered, work to a different effect. Works in this genre, a troubling blend of comedy and tragedy to which Shakespeare turned late in his career, look beyond death to its painful aftermath. Thus in plays such as Pericles, The Tempest, Cymbeline, and The Winter’s Tale, death comes early and produces not “silence,” as Hamlet would have it, but desire.

In Pericles, this desire takes the form of a deep longing for the recovery of what has been lost. Such intense longing can bring with it danger, as we see in the play’s opening episodes, set in the nightmarish fairy-tale kingdom of Antioch. “This king unto him took a peer [wife],” Gower tells us, “Who died and left a female heir . . . With whom the father liking took” (1 Chor. 21–25). Antiochus’s daughter, the woman who finds identity solely through an abusive relationship with her male parent, fills the rupture caused by her mother’s death by becoming both daughter and wife to her father/husband. The perversity of Antiochus’s solution to family loss is signaled in the riddle he devises to deter his daughter’s potential suitors. It registers images of corrupt appetite alongside a bewildering conflation of familial relations:

I am no viper, yet I feed

On mother’s flesh which did me breed.

I sought a husband, in which labor

I found that kindness in a father.

He’s father, son, and husband mild;

I mother, wife, and yet his child.

How they may be, and yet in two,

As you will live resolve it you.


If Pericles answers the riddle correctly, he is promised a royal wife through whom he might propagate his own issue (1.2.78–79); if he fails to solve it, he forfeits his life. This device, an implicit test of singularity and virtue, is familiar to spectators from ancient Greek legend, folktale, and even Shakespeare’s earlier Merchant of Venice. The challenge for Pericles, however, lies not in unraveling the riddle but in delivering its answer. The domestic arrangement that makes sense of the conundrum is “incest,” and the “I” of the riddle (whether the verse is spoken in performance by Antiochus, Pericles, or Antiochus’s daughter) is the near-silent daughter, the object and prize of the contest. The answer to the riddle is self-evident, yet literally unspeakable. The fact that the daughter’s name is never revealed points at once to the king’s crime and to the personal and cultural trauma of a family that “feed[s]” on itself. The name that functions as the key to the riddle is thus an absence or gap in the narrative that neither Pericles nor the theater audience can provide.

Family lineage, naming, identity, and the desires prompted by loss—themes linked in such a startling manner at Antioch—shape the scenes that follow. But not everything that is lost remains beyond recovery, nor does every act of surrogacy carry with it the horror of incest. In seeking a wife, for example, Pericles is also seeking a father (more precisely, a father-in-law) to stand in place of his own dead father. He “would be son to great Antiochus,” he explains in a moment of intense dramatic irony before attempting the riddle (1.1.27). Later, symbolically clad in his father’s armor—a token of his heritage lost to him through shipwreck, but fortuitously pulled from the sea—he finds in King Simonides at the court of Pentapolis “my father’s picture” (2.3.41). His marriage to Simonides’ daughter, Thaisa, is thus framed by a memory of personal loss. Pericles gains at Pentapolis both wife and father, repairing generational absence through reproductive family alliances.

But this moment of parental substitution in Pentapolis also carries within it echoes of its incestuous double, since the situation in significant ways replays the circumstances of the opening episode in Antioch. Each kingdom is ruled by a male parent with a single female heir, and each king hosts a competition in which knights, hopeful of marriage, seek honor. The ceremonial procession of knights and shields at Pentapolis, with its spectacular display of cryptic visual emblems and mottos, is reminiscent of the murderous riddle witnessed at Antioch. Even more remarkably, despite commending his daughter’s choice of husband and affirming to himself that he “will no longer / Have it [their marriage] be delayed,” Simonides then inexplicably decides he “must dissemble” his favor (2.5.20–22). Realist theater accounts for this sudden plot complication with difficulty, as Simonides is given no motivation for his actions. However, the function of this fleeting intrusion of the vision of an angry father and the threat of entrapment is less realist than symbolic. It summons onstage a former time of fear and horror precisely in order to dispel it. This moment in which Pericles seems to find Antioch reappearing in Pentapolis (2.5.44–45) acts as a corrective to incestuous relations by transforming them, as though by magic, into orderly marriage and the birth of Marina.

Thus, despite an evidently straightforward linear structure that tends to move from one self-contained episode to the next by means of either a marked shift in fictional location or an imagined passage of years, Pericles evinces a subtle pattern of repetition and doubling that creates an ever-stronger sensation of strange, even uncanny, recurrence. The action follows the hero’s adventures around the eastern Mediterranean, with the story branching into three independent threads when in the third act Pericles, his wife, and daughter are separated at sea. For Shakespeare’s audience, place-names such as Tyre, Tarsus, Antioch, and Mytilene would have conjured up foreign, ancient, and perhaps also specifically non-Christian settings. Modern scholars, however, are unable to determine with certainty whether Pentapolis refers to a city, or a group of five cities, on the southern coast of Asia Minor or on the north coast of Africa. This late romance—not unlike The Winter’s Tale, a play that notoriously gives landlocked Bohemia a seacoast—depends for its effect not on geographical precision but on a rather more vague and associative sense of location.

Moreover, as is true of many plays performed on the early modern stage, settings “out there” are simultaneously “right here.” The fishermen, for example, whom Pericles encounters when he washes up on the shores of Pentapolis, talk in familiar English terms about “rich misers” who “never leave gaping till they swallowed the whole parish” (2.1.30–35), describe beggars “whipped” by the “beadle” (96–97), and allude to abuses of the legal system (121–22)—all topical social issues extensively debated by Elizabethan and Jacobean morality writers. The brothel into which Marina is sold, with its lecherous Spanish and diseased French clients bringing with them both money and infection (4.2.102–16), likewise dramatizes recognizably English prejudices and circumstances.

Narrative continuity is imposed on a story that sprawls over multiple regions and a temporal period of more than fourteen years through the device of the Chorus. “To sing a song that old was sung, / From ashes ancient Gower is come” (1 Chor. 1–2). “Ancient Gower”—the first character to take the stage—shepherds spectators across the seas and through the years, introducing and commenting on place, time, and character (1 Chor.); shifting the action among locations and plots (4 Chor.); and reporting, sometimes by means of dumb show, events that fall between episodes (3 and 4 Chor.). John Gower, an English poet, retold in the fourteenth century a version of the story that Shakespeare, perhaps with a collaborator, picked up more than two hundred years later and transformed into a play. This popular story of the adventures of Pericles (originally Apollonius) of Tyre was ancient even when Gower told it in book 8 of his Confessio Amantis. As Chorus to the play, Gower thus knowingly tells the theater audience once again a story he himself has taken from “mine authors” (1 Chor. 20), and with which he assumes they are already familiar. Pericles, as we have seen, is deeply preoccupied with family legacy in terms of inheritance, memory, and lineage. On another level, the story itself forms part of a cultural legacy, told and so passed down to generations of auditors and spectators.

Gower’s many intrusions into the drama remind us that the tale is art—“his story,” and not “history.” Gower’s peculiar relation to the action as its self-conscious narrator is signaled through clues in the verse. The third chorus, for instance, narrates Marina’s conception the night following the marriage of Pericles and Thaisa, evoking the nocturnal stillness of the household when familiar domestic spaces, occupied by human bustle during the day, are given over during the hours of sleep to other creatures:

Now sleep yslackèd hath the rout;

No din but snores about the house,

Made louder by the o’erfed breast

Of this most pompous marriage feast.

The cat with eyne of burning coal

Now couches from the mouse’s hole,

And crickets sing at the oven’s mouth

Are the blither for their drouth.

(3 Chor. 1–8)

Gower’s verse form, vocabulary choices, and phrasal patterns would have seemed old-fashioned even to early modern theatergoers. The obsolete past participial form found in the opening line, followed by an obsolete plural form in the vivid description of the “cat with eyne of burning coal,” makes him sound archaic, out of place and time. This effect of archaism is reinforced through both the use of iambic tetrameter (a four-foot line, in place of the more usual five-foot line) and the heavy predominance of rhyming couplets. Gower sounds, fittingly enough, like the medieval author he is, fully belonging neither to the world of his tale nor to the world of his auditors.

One challenge for a modern production of Pericles is to identify a context able to accommodate the way Gower is both part of, yet distanced from, the adventures of Pericles and his family. The BBC-Time/Life television production tries to replicate Gower’s own historical moment, suggesting his medieval origins through costuming choices and verbal accent. Another response, which was especially popular in twentieth-century theater, is to modernize the role. Productions of Pericles staged in recent years at the Stratford Festival of Canada and at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Britain have variously presented Gower as an Afro-Caribbean storyteller, as a female gospel singer (with the choruses transformed into song), and as a dancer in the style of Japanese butoh, dressed in a loincloth and white body paint, his verse accompanied by heavily stylized movement. These stage treatments in effect find modern analogues that can make accessible to modern spectators the medieval oral tradition out of which the character of Gower emerges.

The story is Gower’s, yet it remains a question to whom or what the play’s qualified happy ending should be attributed. Pericles dramatizes irresistible forces that operate beyond human will and control. These forces—variously described as the “gods” or “Fortune”—are capricious. They give and they take away, seemingly without reason. Their potential for both good and ill is neatly illustrated when Pericles loses his father’s armor in the shipwreck, only to regain it unexpectedly when the fishermen haul up their nets (2.1.124). When Thaisa, much later, seems to die in childbirth, the grieving Pericles reproaches the gods, asking, “Why do you make us love your goodly gifts / And snatch them straight away?” (3.1.25–26). But Fortune’s wheel continues to turn, eventually transforming even this adversity into good. The goddess Diana appears to Pericles in a vision, redirecting him and his ship to her temple at Ephesus, and it is through this intercession that Thaisa is finally reunited with her husband and daughter. “Now I know you better,” she says, correctly identifying a token that, like a dead father’s armor in another place and another time, forms part of Pericles’ heritage: “When we with tears parted Pentapolis, / The king my father gave you such a ring” (5.3.44–46). Thaisa, buried by her husband at sea in Act 3, is found alive at the end of Act 5, then “buried / A second time within [his] arms” (5.3.50–51).

But the accident that initiates Pericles’ recovery first of the dead Marina, then of the dead Thaisa—specifically, what brings him to the shores of Mytilene and thus near his unknown daughter—is never explained. It might be interpreted as coincidence, unacknowledged divine intervention, or even the invisible hand of the omniscient storyteller, guiding his tale to a comic resolution. The storms of earlier acts are stilled, replaced by the mental storm and danger of bodily shipwreck that Pericles embraces upon learning of his daughter’s supposed death: “He swears / Never to wash his face nor cut his hairs. / He puts on sackcloth, and to sea. He bears / A tempest which his mortal vessel tears, / And yet he rides it out” (4.4.28–32). His condition of despair prompts the city’s governor, Lysimachus, himself reformed by Marina’s virtue, to summon a maid to speak to a king.

Their encounter is filled with dramatic irony. The theater audience, but nobody on stage, knows that each of these characters has the ability to remedy a key loss suffered by the other. This, alongside an acute awareness that they might part ways without ever discovering their familial relation, generates a suspense that makes almost unbearably painful the power of the moment of their mutual recognition. These characters come to each other as ciphers. The silent Pericles is obliquely identified by Helicanus in terms of his ship: “Our vessel is of Tyre, in it the King” (5.1.26). Marina is introduced by Lysimachus simply as “the lady that I sent for” (72), one who, we later learn, when questioned about her parentage, “would sit still and weep” (221–23). The situation is reminiscent of the circumstances of Antiochus’s daughter, whose mother’s trauma-causing death leads to the daughter’s disturbing erasure of personal identity. Struck by her mention of “wayward Fortune” (100), “ancestors / Who stood equivalent with mighty kings” (101–2), and “parentage” rooted out by time (103), the nameless king finally looks at the nameless woman standing before him: and what he sees is the image of his dead wife. This is a deeply troubling moment. In an important sense, Pericles never entirely escapes the preoccupation with incest first introduced at Antioch. The dangers summoned up by a man who finds a wife in his child are then reinforced by echoes of that much earlier riddle of identity. “What countrywoman? / Here of these shores?” he asks, to which she cryptically answers, “No, nor of any shores. / Yet I was mortally brought forth, and am / No other than I appear” (114–19).

The resolution of this paradox is one of many answers Pericles must seek before he can finally believe that this woman—a woman with his daughter’s name who looks exactly like his wife—is truly the lost Marina. As the scene moves toward reunion, he identifies himself as “Pericles of Tyre” (238), and thus Marina’s father. It is at this moment that the king, surrounded by witnesses, pauses to demand of Marina the third name that, still unheard, has yet haunted the scene. When Marina speaks the name of her mother, the process of recovery is complete: “Is it no more to be your daughter than / To say my mother’s name was Thaisa? / Thaisa was my mother, who did end / The minute I began” (242–45). The sophisticated dramaturgy of this scene, especially the way it delays its revelations by so carefully withholding answers to which the audience is already privy, creates for spectators as a theatrical effect the intensity of the characters’ desire to recover what has been lost.

Pericles enacts the desire to defeat death, an almost mythic objective in keeping with the play’s resolutely nonrealist content. Not only does a goddess appear to Pericles in a vision—a true dea ex machina—but there are other hints of the supernatural, as when Marina decides to remain with the silent and potentially violent royal stranger because “something glows upon my cheek, / And whispers in mine ear ‘Go not till he speak’ ” (5.1.106–7). Such circumstances set aside as irrelevant any objection to seeming glitches in the narrative. How, for instance, is Thaisa, lodged at the temple of Diana at Ephesus, able to receive news of her father’s death through “letters of good credit” sent to Lord Cerimon (5.3.91–92), yet unable in a period of more than fourteen years to communicate either with Pentapolis or Tyre to tell her family she did not die at sea? Thaisa’s continued absence from the tale is driven by the logic of the play’s narrative. Brought back to life either by magic or art, Thaisa remains dead to Gower’s story until she is recovered from the convent by her husband and daughter, thereby regaining both her identity within that family and her former place in the narrative as wife and mother. Such a sequence of events is not plausible outside of the theater, but neither are returns from death. Pericles dramatizes not what we know will happen but what we wish could happen. Even in fantasy, however, the ending is tinged with sadness. The characters never get back the lost years, and some deaths are irreversible—surely the point of learning of Simonides’ death in the play’s closing moments. In place of the sort of comic resolution typical of, say, As You Like It or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Pericles offers a bittersweet tale of suffering and loss eventually brought to a close with the achievement of a qualified happiness.

The final scene is remarkable as the only moment in the play in which the theater audience sees a family composed of two parents and a child. This same familial organization was potentially available at Tarsus, but significantly, Philoten, the daughter of Cleon and Dionyza, never appears onstage. These parents are thus primarily judged as foster parents to Marina, the dangers of surrogacy foregrounded through Dionyza’s criminal decision to murder her charge. The recurrence of parents and children in Antioch, Pentapolis, Tarsus, and Ephesus makes evident the play’s interest in diverse models of parental authority. What is perhaps less obvious is a parallel concern with rule as it relates to state affairs. The conception of the king-as-father guiding his subjects-as-children was a commonplace of early modern, especially Jacobean, political theory. This identification of the private with the public accounts for Pericles’ otherwise baffling decision to separate his family once again at the very moment they achieve reunion, sending the newly found Marina to govern with Lysimachus in Tyre, while he and Thaisa travel to Pentapolis. It also implies that parents such as Antiochus, Simonides, Cleon, and Dionyza should be understood and interpreted as models of government. Cleon and Dionyza are thus not just wicked (foster) parents but wicked governors, a conclusion seemingly reinforced by Gower’s description of the people rising up in “rage” to burn them in their palace, the gods in this instance likewise “content / To punish [murder], although not done, but meant” (Epilogue 13, 15–16). Worthy fathers and kings, Gower’s closing chorus implies, enjoy peaceable, happy reigns and a secure succession; others, such as the incestuous Antiochus, are literally destroyed by the avenging fires of heaven (2.4.9–10).

Spectators, even while comforted by Gower’s editorial moralizing, might perceive oversights and inconsistencies suggesting that the dangers of parenting and rule are rarely so easily or safely avoided. The fishermen’s extended commentary on the rule of King Simonides, for example, a “good” king who nevertheless governs a state in which “the great ones eat up the little ones” (2.1.29–30), points to some of the injustices that defeat even strong and well-loved leaders. The wished-for happy ending cannot entirely dispel problems encountered over the course of the play; and while deep desires prompted by loss are eventually fulfilled, the possibility of future loss remains ever-present. In particular, the vision of succession with which Pericles closes incorporates within itself the potential for disorder, especially as embodied in the as-yet-untested future parents of children and state. Lysimachus encountered his bride in a brothel, and while evidently transformed by her virtue and words, his rule at Mytilene, both before and after meeting Marina, is characterized by corrupt dealings, exploitation, and infection. Syphilis in Shakespeare’s London, a sexually transmitted disease popularly known as the “pox,” was lingering, contagious, and incurable. In the troubling figure of Lysimachus, this tragicomic romance embraces within its closing tableau the potential for still more secrets, and further riddles.