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Reading Shakespeare’s Language: Pericles

By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions

For many people today, reading Shakespeare’s language can be a problem—but it is a problem that can be solved. Those who have studied Latin (or even French or German or Spanish), and those who are used to reading poetry, will have little difficulty understanding the language of Shakespeare’s poetic drama. Others, though, need to develop the skills of untangling unusual sentence structures and of recognizing and understanding poetic compressions, omissions, and wordplay. And even those skilled in reading unusual sentence structures may have occasional trouble with Shakespeare’s words. More than four hundred years of “static” intervene between his speaking and our hearing. Most of his immense vocabulary is still in use, but a few of his words are not, and, worse, some of his words now have meanings quite different from those they had in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the theater, most of these difficulties are solved for us by actors who study the language and articulate it for us so that the essential meaning is heard—or, when combined with stage action, is at least felt. When reading on one’s own, one must do what each actor does: go over the lines (often with a dictionary close at hand) until the puzzles are solved and the lines yield up their poetry and the characters speak in words and phrases that are, suddenly, rewarding and wonderfully memorable.

Shakespeare’s Words

As you begin to read the opening scenes of a play by Shakespeare, you may notice occasional unfamiliar words. Some are unfamiliar simply because we no longer use them. In the opening scenes of Pericles, for example, you will find the words wight (i.e., creature), erst (i.e., not long ago), physic (i.e., medicine), and ostent (i.e., display). Words of this kind will become familiar the more of Shakespeare’s plays you read.

In Pericles, as in all of Shakespeare’s writing, more problematic are the words that are still in use but that now have different meanings. For instance, in the opening scenes of Pericles the word targets has the meaning of “shields,” partakes is used where we would say “imparts,” convince is used where we would say “confute,” and curious where we would say “exquisite.” Such words, too, will become familiar as you continue to read Shakespeare’s language.

Some words are strange not because of the “static” introduced by changes in language over the past centuries but because these are words that Shakespeare is using to build a dramatic world that has its own space, time, and history. In Pericles, Shakespeare presents the narrator Gower as reappearing from the long past by having him speak not only in an old-fashioned verse form but also in words that would seem archaic to Shakespeare’s audience. Gower’s narrations include such words as “iwis,” “speken,” “ne aught escapend,” and “yslackèd,” words that were either used by John Gower in his fourteenth-century telling of the Pericles story or that sound like his language. When we move from Gower’s narrations to scenes of dialogue and action, the play’s language places it in a generally aristocratic world that is vaguely Greco-Roman; the opening scene, for example, includes references to such ancient Roman gods as “Jove,” “Lucina,” and “Cupid,” as well as to the mythological “Graces” and the “Hesperides” and their “dragon.” These Greco-Roman allusions are Shakespeare’s contributions to the story he inherited from Gower and Twine, both of whose supernatural references are strictly Christian. (For Gower and Twine, see the Appendix.) The scene also uses language from the world of chivalry, turning Pericles’ attempt to solve a riddle into a knightly “adventure” with death as the “hazard”: Pericles, facing his dangerous “task,” is to be “ ’sayed” (i.e., essayed, tested in combat), and, in the manner of a knight preparing to do battle, “like a bold champion [he] assume[s] the lists.” Like the language of Greco-Roman mythology, this language of chivalry is Shakespeare’s contribution to the story—a contribution that is literalized in the third act of the play, where Pericles introduces chivalric shields and armor in place of the naked wrestling and tennis in Gower and Twine and substitutes a tournament and a dance of knights in armor for the competition by way of written accounts of ancestry and possessions, the version found in Gower and Twine.

The language that opens the first scene of Act 2, when the action shifts to the coast of Pentapolis, creates a world very different from the previous aristocratic worlds of Antioch, Tyre, and Tarsus. The fishermen who find the shipwrecked Pericles are given the language of lower-class Elizabethans: they use such expressions as “Marry,” “welladay,” “Bots on ’t,” and “Come away, or I’ll fetch thee with a wanion,” and they allude to such Elizabethan commonplaces as “the whole parish—church, steeple, bells and all,” to the parish “beadle,” the “belfry,” and “puddings and flapjacks.” A comparable language set constructs the world of the brothel in Act 4, where the Bawd and her accomplices use such expressions as “Marry, whip the gosling!” and “Come your ways,” and where the conversation is about “sodden” “creatures” (prostitutes waterlogged from treatment for venereal disease) who have “pooped” the “gallants” of Mytilene until they cower “i’ the hams” from syphilis.

Shakespeare’s Sentences

In an English sentence, meaning is quite dependent on the place given each word. “The dog bit the boy” and “The boy bit the dog” mean very different things, even though the individual words are the same. Because English places such importance on the positions of words in sentences, on the way words are arranged, unusual arrangements can puzzle a reader. Shakespeare frequently shifts his sentences away from “normal” English arrangements—often in order to create the rhythm he seeks, sometimes to use a line’s poetic rhythm to emphasize a particular word, sometimes to give a character his or her own speech patterns or to allow the character to speak in a special way. When we attend a good performance of the play, the actors will have worked out the sentence structures and will articulate the sentences so that the meaning is clear. (Sometimes the language of Pericles steadfastly resists any clear meaning. But the actors will, nonetheless, clarify it as far as the words and sentence structure allow.) In reading for ourselves, we need to do as the actor does: that is, when puzzled by a character’s speech, check to see if the words are being presented in an unusual sequence.

Shakespeare often, for example, places the object before the verb (e.g., instead of “I hit him,” we might find “I him hit”). In Pericles, Antiochus’s “Nature this dowry gave” (1.1.10) is an example of an object-verb inversion, as is Pericles’ “the womb that their first being bred” (1.1.112). (The “normal” order would be “Nature gave this dowry” and “the womb that bred their first being.”) Inversions are not the only unusual sentence structures in Shakespeare’s language. Often in his sentences words that would normally appear together are separated from each other. Again, this is frequently done to create a particular rhythm or to foreground particular words or phrases. Take, for example, Antiochus’s warning speech to Pericles:

Yon sometimes famous princes, like thyself,

Drawn by report, advent’rous by desire,

Tell thee with speechless tongues and semblance pale

That, without covering save yon field of stars,

Here they stand martyrs slain in Cupid’s wars . . .


Here, a series of phrases that describe the “princes” (“like thyself,” “Drawn by report,” “advent’rous by desire”) separate the subject (“princes”) from the verb and its indirect object (“Tell thee”); the phrase “with speechless tongues and semblance pale” separates the verb from its direct object (“That . . . Here they stand”), just as the phrase “without covering save yon field of stars” separates the conjunctive particle (“That”) from the clause it introduces. These longer phrases, placed as they are as “interrupters,” foreground the horror with which Pericles is being threatened, the horror of being reduced to a severed head on a pole or gate.

Pericles’ speech in 1.2 uses interruptions in a similar way:

                        The great Antiochus,

’Gainst whom I am too little to contend,

Since he’s so great can make his will his act,

Will think me speaking though I swear to silence . . .


Here, the subject “Antiochus” is separated from the verb “Will think” by two clauses that are not logically connected to the subject and verb. In other words, they do not explain why Antiochus will think that Pericles is speaking against him. Instead, they explain why Pericles is afraid of Antiochus’s misunderstanding of his behavior: Antiochus is far more powerful than Pericles, so great, in fact, that he can do whatever he likes. The placement of this recognition as an interruption instead of in a sentence of its own suggests the panic that dominates Pericles’ thoughts, exemplifying “the passions of the mind” that Pericles meditates upon. In order to create for yourself sentences that seem more like the English of everyday speech, you may wish to rearrange the words, putting together the word clusters (“Yon princes tell thee that here they stand”; “Antiochus will think”). You will usually find that the sentence will gain in clarity but will lose its rhythm or shift its emphasis.

Sometimes, rather than separating basic sentence elements, Shakespeare simply holds them back, delaying them until other material to which he wants to give greater emphasis has been presented. Shakespeare uses a version of this construction in Pericles in Helicanus’s speech to the impatient lords of Tyre:

If further yet you will be satisfied

Why, as it were, unlicensed of your loves

He would depart, I’ll give some light unto you.


In the previous speech, Helicanus had said that the lords should not question him about Pericles’ departure, since the sealed commission Pericles has left behind conferring his authority on Helicanus is ample testimony to the prince’s absence. In the present speech, he nevertheless presents an answer to their questions, prefacing his concession to their demands (“I’ll give some light unto you”) with an ambiguous locution that perhaps blames the lords for wishing for yet more of an explanation (“if further yet you will be satisfied”); and, in the oddly phrased “unlicensed of your loves” (i.e., without permission from you, his loving subjects), he perhaps chastises them for an improper sense of their own importance. (Helicanus’s prefatory “if” clause can instead be interpreted by the actor not as accusatory but as a simple acknowledgment that the lords have a right to know why Pericles left without explaining his departure.)

Finally, in many of Shakespeare’s plays, sentences are sometimes complicated not because of unusual structures or interruptions but because Shakespeare, through ellipsis, omits words and parts of words that English sentences normally require. (In conversation, we, too, often omit words. We say, “Heard from him yet?” and our hearer supplies the missing “Have you.”) Frequent reading of Shakespeare—and of other poets—trains us to supply such missing words. Pericles, like Shakespeare’s other late plays, uses omissions frequently. Sometimes the ellipses are easily filled in by the auditor or reader. When Pericles says, for example,

Who has a book of all that monarchs do,

He’s more secure to keep it shut than shown.

For vice repeated is like the wand’ring wind,

Blows dust in others’ eyes to spread itself [,]


it is clear that “Who has a book” is to be understood to read “[He] who has a book,” and “wind, / Blows dust,” to read “wind [that] blows dust.” However, Pericles’ description of Antiochus’s daughter is more challenging:

See where she comes, appareled like the spring,

Graces her subjects, and her thoughts the king

Of every virtue gives renown to men!


“Every virtue gives” is clearly to be read as “every virtue [that] gives,” but it is more difficult to expand the ellipses in “Graces her subjects” (“[With the] Graces [as] her subjects”? “[The] Graces [are] her subjects”?) and to clarify “her thoughts the king” (“[with] her thoughts [as] the king”? “her thoughts [are] the king”?). Whether it is easy or difficult to fill in the ellipses, doing so—making Pericles say “[he] who has a book,” or “every virtue [that] gives renown”—destroys not only the rhythm of the verse but also the play’s characteristic highly cryptic style.

Shakespearean Wordplay

Shakespeare plays with language so often and so variously that books are written on the topic. Here we will mention only two kinds of wordplay, puns and metaphors. A pun is a play on words that sound the same but have different meanings or on a single word with more than one meaning. In Pericles, puns usually play on the multiple meanings of a single word. When, for example, Pericles says, in his farewell to Helicanus in 1.2, “in our orbs we’ll live so round and safe” (130), he uses the word orbs to mean “spheres of action,” but the word also refers to the circular paths or spheres in which, according to Ptolemaic cosmology, planets circled the Earth. This double meaning leads to the pun on round (in “we’ll live so round”), where round means “honestly, straightforwardly,” but with wordplay on the circularity of the orb. Again, when, in 2.1, Pericles says that the sea has cast him on the fishermen’s coast, the Second Fisherman replies, “What a drunken knave was the sea to cast thee in our way!” (59–60), punning on cast as (1) throw and (2) vomit. In 2.3, King Simonides, who seems to love bawdy puns, tells the knights that women “love men in arms as well as beds” (102), punning on in arms as (1) dressed in armor and (2) in the women’s arms. A few lines later, he encourages Pericles to dance by saying “I have heard you knights of Tyre / Are excellent in making ladies trip” (106–7); here he puns on trip as (1) dance nimbly and (2) fall (i.e., sin).

At two moments in Pericles, puns are used in particularly interesting ways. The first is near the end of the Chorus that introduces Act 4, where Gower says to the audience

        I carry wingèd Time

Post on the lame feet of my rhyme,

Which never could I so convey

Unless your thoughts went on my way.

(4 Chor. 47–50)

By punning on lame (as “crippled” and “metrically defective”), on feet (as his own “feet” and as “divisions of a verse”), and on convey (as “transport” and “communicate”), Gower is able to defend his moving the action forward by many years by wittily claiming that his verse has been heroically carrying the proverbial figure of “wingèd Time.” The second, and more profound, instance of interesting punning is found in Act 5, when Pericles refers to Marina as “Thou that beget’st him that did thee beget” (5.1.229), playing on beget as “to call into being” and “to father.” This line, arguably the most powerful in Pericles, shows that puns need not be merely trivial or amusing.

A metaphor is a play on words in which one object or idea is expressed as if it were something else, something with which it shares common features. When Pericles first sees the daughter of King Antiochus, he uses metaphor to capture her beauty and desirability: “You gods . . . / That have inflamed desire in my breast / To taste the fruit of yon celestial tree / Or die in th’ adventure, be my helps” (1.1.20–23). In his language, the princess is a “celestial tree” bearing delicious “fruit” of which he would “taste.” In Antiochus’s speech that follows, the metaphor continues, but with significant alterations: “Before thee stands this fair Hesperides, / With golden fruit, but dangerous to be touched; / For deathlike dragons here affright thee hard” (28–30). Transforming the metaphor by replacing the celestial tree with the mythological garden of the Hesperides, Antiochus retains the attractiveness of the fruit while reminding Pericles that it is a source of mortal danger. (In mythology, the golden apples of the Hesperides were guarded not only by nymphs but also by a dragon that never slept; overcoming it was one of the labors of Hercules.) Antiochus uses metaphor again when he says, in the same speech, that the princes who have died seeking his daughter’s hand are “martyrs slain in Cupid’s wars” (39). The princes, in other words, have “died for love,” but his metaphor represents them as dead bodies strewn on a battleground, dead as a consequence of fighting for Cupid. While the word martyr could signify one dying as a consequence of his devotion to any belief, it inevitably carries some of its earliest and continuing religious meaning of one who willingly dies rather than renounce his Christian faith; thus Antiochus’s metaphor implicitly accuses the dead princes of choosing religious martyrdom, refusing to renounce their faith (in Cupid) and going willfully to their deaths.

Pericles is so filled with metaphoric language that almost every speech could provide an example, but one specific metaphor—that in which a person’s face or a person’s history becomes a book for another to read—is worth singling out for comment. Pericles introduces the figure when he says of Antiochus’s daughter: “Her face the book of praises, where is read / Nothing but curious [i.e., exquisite] pleasures” (1.1.16–17). The metaphor, here expressed quite simply, is given a more elaborate form by King Simonides in his courtly, adulatory refusal to commend the knights celebrating Thaisa’s birthday:

To place upon the volume of your deeds,

As in a title page, your worth in arms

Were more than you expect or more than ’s fit,

Since every worth in show commends itself.


Here, the knights’ martial deeds are imagined as a book on which Simonides declines to place a flattering title page, since the content of the book “commends itself.” Book-related metaphors call attention to themselves in Pericles, in part because Gower as Chorus repeatedly cites the “authors” whose books his story retells and because John Gower himself was closely linked in the imaginations of Shakespeare’s day with the book as artifact: his tomb in the church of St. Mary Overie (now known as Southwark Cathedral or St. Saviors, Southwark) is ornamented with a stone image of the poet with its head pillowed on a stone replica of a pile of books—Gower’s three important folio works. Because metaphors are so central to the language of Pericles, the actor, the reader, and the spectator must be willing to exert an unusual amount of energy in responding to this play.

Implied Stage Action

Finally, in reading Shakespeare’s plays we should always remember that what we are reading is a performance script. The dialogue is written to be spoken by actors who, at the same time, are moving, gesturing, picking up objects, weeping, shaking their fists. Some stage action is described in what are called “stage directions”; some is suggested within the dialogue itself. We must learn to be alert to such signals as we stage the play in our imaginations. When Antiochus says to Thaliard “Here’s poison, and here’s gold. / We hate the Prince / Of Tyre, and thou must kill him. . . . / . . . Say, is it done?” and Thaliard replies “My lord, ’tis done” (1.1.162–67), it is clear that Antiochus, when saying “Here’s poison, and here’s gold,” has actually handed Thaliard the poison and the money. Again, when Helicanus, in chastising Pericles, says “Prince, pardon me, or strike me, if you please. / I cannot be much lower than my knees,” and, a few lines later, Pericles says to him “Rise, prithee rise” (1.2.49–50, 64), it is clear that Helicanus’s “I cannot be much lower than my knees” signals that he has kneeled or is at that moment kneeling.

Occasionally in Pericles, signals to the reader are not quite so clear. When in the first scene, for example, Antiochus says “Prince Pericles, touch not, upon thy life,” Pericles has doubtless made some kind of gesture that Antiochus misinterprets, though it is difficult to imagine just what that might be. (Pericles has said clearly in an aside that he has no desire to touch in any loving way the incestuous daughter.) Another example occurs later in the play, where, even with early printed stage directions, the stage action remains ambiguous. King Simonides demands a “soldiers’ dance,” telling the knights that they should dance in their armor and to loud music, since ladies “love men in arms as well as beds.” The Quarto stage direction then reads “They dance.” Neither Simonides’ language nor the stage direction makes clear whether only the knights in armor dance or whether they dance with the ladies. The king later insists that Pericles dance with Thaisa. Again, the Quarto stage direction reads “They dance.” And again editors and directors are divided about whether this is a dance of knights and ladies generally or only of Pericles and Thaisa. It is thus possible to stage this scene in several ways, both in the theater and in one’s imagination. Learning to read the language of stage action repays one many times over when one reaches a crucial scene like 5.3, in which implied stage action vitally affects our response to the play.

It is immensely rewarding to work carefully with Shakespeare’s language so that the words, the sentences, the wordplay, and the implied stage action all become clear—as readers for the past four centuries have discovered. It may be more pleasurable to attend a good performance of a play—though not everyone has thought so. But the joy of being able to stage one of Shakespeare’s plays in one’s imagination, to return to passages that continue to yield further meanings (or further questions) the more one reads them—these are pleasures that, for many, rival (or at least augment) those of the performed text, and certainly make it worth considerable effort to “break the code” of Elizabethan poetic drama and let free the remarkable language that makes up a Shakespeare text.