Pericles, Prince of Tyre

Questions on Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

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Shakespeare, William. Pericles, Prince of Tyre. (Norton Romances and Poems, 3rd ed. 139-206).


1. In Act 1, Prologue, John Gower sets the stage for us in his prologue: King Antiochus of Antioch lost his wife and is now in an incestuous relationship with his daughter; young Prince Pericles has come to Antioch to take his chances with the riddle in which the king has wrapped up his wicked relations with his daughter, with her hand in marriage as the prize. Explain what you can about Pericles’s approach to life – that is, to fortune, wealth, love and the gods. In what sense might we say that he is at this point the perfect comic protagonist?

2. In Act 1, Scene 1, what is the wording of the riddle? Is it difficult or easy to solve? Why is the manner of this riddle appropriate to the taboo nature of its content? Why have so many men apparently failed to solve it and lost their lives as a result? Why is Pericles able to solve it, unlike his predecessors in this quest?

3. In Act 1, Scenes 1-2, and particularly in the latter, how does Pericles respond to the threat presented to him by his solving the riddle? What qualities as a man and as a potential leader does he show? How do his responses cut against any notion that he is merely a naïve young man — what does he understand that shows his potential and even maturity?

4. In Act 1, Scene 2, Pericles makes his way back to Tyre and informs Helicanus about what has happened. What counsel does Helicanus give the Prince, and what qualities does this subject show in giving it?

5. In Act 1, Scene 3, we again meet Thaliart, the commoner Antiochus had ordered to kill Pericles. How does Thaliart understand his situation? What principle does he enunciate regarding the relationship between kings and subjects? How does he react to the news from Helicanus that Pericles has gone traveling and is no longer in the kingdom?

6. In Act 1, Scene 4, we meet Governor Cleon and his wife Dionyza of the great biblical city Tarsus. What is their situation? How does Cleon describe it in detail, and what attitude do both he and his wife manifest towards their plight? In what spirit does Cleon greet the coming of Pericles’s well-provisioned fleet of ships and the prince’s generous offer of assistance?


7. In Act 2, Prologue, John Gower again acts as chorus for the coming action, and as usual his narration is accompanied by a “Dumb show.” In this or in any of the scenes in which Gower functions as a chorus, in what way does his manner of imparting information impact your understanding of the play?

8. In Act 2, Scene 1, Pericles, having been shipwrecked, washes up on the coast of Pentapolis and encounters some fishermen there. How does he set forth his predicament and make his claim upon their assistance? How do they respond to what Pericles requests? Furthermore, what symbolic significance might we attach to the fishermen’s discovery of a rusty suit of armor that washes up along the same stretch of the coast? Why is it so important to Pericles?

9. In Act 2, Scenes 2-3, Pericles makes his way to the court of King Simonides and his daughter Thaisa. How do this King’s conduct and speech, along with that of his daughter, contrast with the manner of reception given Pericles by Antiochus and his daughter back in the first scene? In other words, what pronounced difference is there in the guest-host relations Pericles encounters in these two different kingdoms?

10. In Act 2, Scene 4, Helicanus reports that Antiochus and his daughter were struck by lightning while riding in their chariot, but the subjects of the absent Pericles’s realm have more pressing matters on their minds. With what concerns do they come to Helicanus, and how does Helicanus deal with these concerns — what is his plan going forwards?

11. In Act 2, Scene 5, King Simonides of Pentapolis shows tact and charm in dissembling his strong approval of the brewing match between Pericles, who has by now won the jousting tournament he entered along with several other knights, and the king’s daughter Thaisa. Why does the king so strongly approve? Moreover, why does he at first hide his delight in the match and treat Pericles rather harshly?


12. In Act 3, Prologue, John Gower fills us in on the latest developments: Pericles’s bride has had a child, the wicked King Antiochus and his daughter are reported dead, and back in Tyre, Helicanus is under pressure to accept the crown. The Prince sets sail for home, but runs into a powerful storm. In Act 3, Scene 1, how does Pericles handle the awful loss of Thaisa? How does he shape our future understanding of his newborn daughter: what does he say about her and what is his plan to keep her safe?

13. In Act 3, Scene 2, we learn that Pericles has made his way through the storm to Tarsus, while Thaisa’s carefully sealed coffin, tossed overboard by suspicious sailors, has washed ashore in Ephesus, where it comes to the attention of the physician Cerimon. What virtues does Cerimon show that link him to the hero Pericles? How does Cerimon achieve the almost miraculous revival of Thaisa: what means does he employ to this end, and what advice does he give Thaisa later in Scene 14?

14. By Act 3, Scene 3, Pericles has reached Tarsus and he now entrusts Cleon and his wife with the care of his infant daughter Marina. What are Pericles’s requests to Cleon, and what vow does Pericles himself make to the goddess Diana regarding Marina? What attitude does Pericles manifest towards the realm of the gods in this scene?


15. In Act 4, Prologue and Scene 1, we find out that Pericles has by now made it back to Tyre, and in Ephesus Thaisa has become a votary of the chaste goddess Diana. The young daughter Pericles named Marina and then left with Cleon at Tarsus is now a young woman, thanks to our passage through time with John Gower. How does Marina understand her current situation, and with what difficulty is she now presented: what’s the cause of Dionyza’s attempt upon her life?

16. In Act 4, Scene 2, as a result of the failed attempt on Marina’s life, the young woman ends up at the mercy of brothel-keepers in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos. In Act 4, Scenes 2 and 6, we are let in on the efforts of the Pander, his wife the Bawd and their man Boult’s efforts to acclimate Marina to the role of a prostitute. By what means does Marina get the upper hand not only on them but also on her would-be first customer, the Governor of Mytilene? How does the cumulative effect of these two scenes create a parallel between Pericles’ heroic qualities and Marina’s virtue?

17. In Act 4, Scene 3, Governor Cleon of Tarsus wrestles with the unwelcome knowledge of what his wife Dionyza has done to Marina — they both believe Marina is dead. How does Dionyza defend her wicked deed — what principles does she assert that we can take as the opposite of the romance quality of good characters such as Pericles, Thaisa, Helicanus, Cerimon and Marina? Why does Cleon go along with Dionyza’s cover-up?

18. In Act 4, Scene 4, we hear from John Gower that Pericles has made his way by sea to Tarsus to see what has become of his daughter Marina, whom he hasn’t seen since he left her as an infant in the care of Governor Cleon and his wife Dionyza. How does Pericles take the news that Marina has supposedly died — at what resolution does he arrive, and how might we relate or contrast that resolution to his earlier displays of good character and firm faith in the gods?


19. In Act 5, Prologue, John Gower tells us that Pericles’ ship has ended up at Mytilene’s harbor during a holiday dedicated to Neptune, god of the sea. Act 5, Scene 1 is taken up with the near-miraculous recovery by Pericles of his supposedly dead child, Marina, who guides him towards recognition of the truth and herself completes the realization of her own identity. How does Marina accomplish this impressive recovery or redemption?

20. In Act 5, Scene 3, Pericles obeys the dream vision of Diana he had towards the end of the previous scene, and makes his way to the goddess’ temple at Ephesus. How does Pericles and Marina’s wondrous recovery of Thaisa (and hers of them) unfold — what makes the necessary mutual recognitions possible? Why is Diana the appropriate goddess to guide the characters towards and preside over the happy romance ending: Pericles, Thaisa and Marina together again, with the addition of Lysimachus of Mytilene as Marina’s new husband?

21. General question: In alignment with a comic temporal sweep and favorable disposition of fortune and the gods, Shakespeare’s romance plays end happily, but they wouldn’t be “romances” if they didn’t involve considerable sorrow and loss, which is the stuff of tragedy. On the whole, how would you describe the balance in this first of Shakespeare’s romance plays between the sense of loss and the joyous exaltation stemming from recovery and reunion?

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93862-3.

Copyright © 2012, 2023 Alfred J. Drake (Changed to Act/Scene format)