Pericles, Prince of Tyre

Questions on Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

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Shakespeare, William. Pericles, Prince of Tyre. (The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems, third edition, pp. 139-206).


1. In the Prologue to Act 1, John Gower sets the stage for us: King Antiochus of Antioch lost his wife and is now in an incestuous relationship with his daughter. Prince Pericles has come to Antioch to take his chances in solving 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 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 about his predicament 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 of the prince show in giving such counsel? On the whole, what picture emerges of Pericles’s realm, Tyre?

5. In Act 1, Scene 3, we again meet Thaliard, the agent whom Antiochus had ordered to kill Pericles. How does Thaliard 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 the Prologue to Act 2, John Gower again acts as chorus for the coming action, and his narration is split in two between a “dumb show.” What is the content of the dumb show, and how does it relate to the narration before and after it? How does Gower’s manner of imparting information impact your understanding of the play at this point?

8. In Act 2, Scene 1, Pericles, having been shipwrecked, washes up alone on the coast of Pentapolis. What attitude towards the gods does he immediately strike up? He will soon encounter some fishermen, but first, what kind of conversation are the fishermen engaged in before they discover Pericles? How does the language and lore of their trade figure in the running social commentary between them? What is the point of that commentary—what is their view of their station in life and of the kingdom they inhabit?

9. In Act 2, Scene 1, after introducing himself to some fishermen on the coast of Pentapolis, how does the shipwrecked Pericles 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 this discovery of armor so important to Pericles?

10. 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?

11. 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 forward?

12. In Act 2, Scene 5, King Simonides of Pentapolis shows tact and charm in dissembling his strong approval of the fast-developing romantic 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? By this point in Act 2, how does Simonides compare to, and yet starkly contrast with, Antiochus of Antioch in his comportment towards his daughter and Pericles?


13. In the Prologue to Act 3, 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?

14. Textual scholars have suggested that George Wilkins composed the first two acts of Pericles, Prince of Tyre and that Shakespeare wrote the last three acts. Let’s assume that these scholars are correct. In Act 3, Scene 1, what differences in the verse quality and style from the first two acts quickly become apparent? Confining yourself to lines 1-37, list the properties of the language and the dramatization of the action that you find distinctively Shakespearean. What is it about this passage, essentially, that a playwright of lesser genius and skill than Shakespeare would not have been able to equal?

15. 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 superstitious 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 Act 3, Scene 4?

16. 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?


17. In the Prologue to Act 4, we find out that Pericles has by now made it back to Tyre and that in Ephesus Thaisa has become a votary of the chaste goddess Diana. The young daughter whom Pericles named Marina and then left with Cleon at Tarsus is now a young woman, thanks to our passage through time with John Gower. What kind of upbringing, according to Gower, has Marina had thus far? What is the cause of Dionyza’s plot to kill her?

18. In Act 4, Scene 1, Dionyza’s agent Leonine is foiled in his attempt to carry out her plot against Marina’s life. How does Shakespeare heighten the drama of this scene? What image of herself does Marina present to us during her conversation with Leonine? What attitude does Leonine take towards his dreadful task? How does he parse his options once a small band of pirates show up and prevent him from carrying out his orders? In the play’s broader context, how should we take this improbable event—is it due to mere chance, divine providence, or some property of the romance universe? Explain.

19. In Act 4, Scene 2, as a result of Dionyza’s failed plot against Marina’s life, the young woman ends up at the mercy of brothel-keepers in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos. In Scene 2 we are first let in on the efforts of the Pander (i.e., pimp), his wife the Bawd (a madam) and Bolt to acclimate Marina to the role of a prostitute. How do they talk about their seedy business amongst themselves? What plan do they come up with to accomplish their objective? In particular, what rhetoric does the Bawd employ to try to get Marina to see things her way?

20. In Act 4, Scenes 2, 5, and 6, how does Marina get the upper hand not only on the brothel-keepers but also on her would-be first customer, the Governor of Mytilene, and other prospective johns (the three amazed gentlemen of Scene 5)? Why is she so successful at thwarting such determined purveyors of “the flesh trade” as Pander, Bawd, and Bolt, the last-mentioned of whom is induced to give up his ugly intent to break her will by raping her? Towards what very different commercial venture does Marina end up redirecting his and the others’ frustrated efforts?

21. 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 principle 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?

22. In Act 4, Scene 4, John Gower says Pericles has made his way by sea to Tarsus to find out what has become of his daughter Marina, whom he hasn’t seen since he left her as an infant in the care of Cleon and 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 faith in the gods? Why is a “dumb show” an effective way to convey Pericles’s sudden transformation from joyful expectation to utter desolation?

23. In Act 4, Scene 6, Lysimachus, the Governor of Mytilene visits the brothel and assumes that Marina is his for the taking. How does Marina convert him from a customer into an admirer? No doubt this scene strikes many readers and viewers as improbable, a reaction that would not have escaped Shakespeare. What, then, is the point of staging such an implausible achievement as Marina’s conversion of Lysimachus to virtue? How does this concentration on a virtuous woman overcoming the corrupt value-system of a brothel serve the play’s larger thematic interests?


24. In the Prologue to Act 5, John Gower tells us that Pericles’s ship has arrived at Mytilene’s harbor during a holiday dedicated to the sea-god Neptune. Act 5, Scene 1 is mostly taken up with the near-miraculous recovery of Pericles upon recognition of his supposedly dead child, Marina. But before this recovery happens in Scene 1, how does Helicanus convey to Lysimachus the nadir at which Pericles has arrived in terms of his spiritual, mental, and physical condition? Moreover, what does Lysimachus apparently think of Marina at this point—what obstacle bars his consideration of her as a match?

25. In Act 5, Scene 1, by what process does Marina call the lost soul Pericles back to himself? How does he react to her attempt at first, when she plies him with healing music? What first engages his attention after this initial failure? What clues successively emerge regarding Marina’s true identity as Pericles’s daughter, and what information from Miranda finally “seals the deal” between father and daughter in this moving recognition scene?

26. In Act 5, Scene 1, at key points in the recognition scene between Pericles and Miranda, the play’s “potential incest” motif again comes to the fore. How should we interpret its significance where it appears at 5.1.98-104, 115-16, and 185-87? What is it about the interaction between Pericles and Miranda that keeps this potential from becoming a destructive force, as it was with Antiochus and his daughter in Act 1? Does the complex presence of this theme within Pericles diminish the play’s emphasis on the holiness of chaste love relations, or does it instead enhance that emphasis? Explain.

27. Towards the end of Act 5, Scene 1, Pericles, in ecstasy after being securely reunited with Marina, hears “heavenly music” (202, 5.1.220) and is blessed with a dream vision that includes the goddess Diana. Why is he able to hear this music, identified by the Norton editors as “the music of the spheres,” even though others can’t? (Lysimachus seems to be temporizing with Pericles; he is not actually able to hear the music.) Finally, what is the content and purpose of the dream vision that Diana grants him as, exhausted in his joy, he sleeps?

28. In Act 5, Scene 3, Pericles obeys the dream vision Diana granted him towards the end of the first scene in Act 5, and makes his way to the goddess’s temple at Ephesus. How does Pericles’s wondrous recovery of Thaisa unfold—the prince almost immediately clarifies his story and that of Marina, but what, in fact, makes Thaisa’s recognition of her husband possible? Why is Diana the appropriate goddess to preside over the happy ending, in which Pericles, Thaisa, and Marina are together again, with the addition of Lysimachus of Mytilene as Marina’s new husband?

29. In the Epilogue following Act 5, we hear from the ghost of the medieval poet John Gower (1330-1408) for the eighth and final time. Looking back over his appearances and monologues, assess the impact of his presence in the play, both in terms of style and substance. How does his archaic language, bearing, and strong moral investment in an action borrowed mainly from his own Confessio Amantis affect the way we process characters and events as well as the meaning that we draw from the whole play?

30. General question: Thanks to a comic temporal sweep and the favorable disposition of fortune and the gods, Shakespeare’s romance plays end happily, but they wouldn’t be “romances” (from Edward Dowden’s 1875 use of the term) if they didn’t involve genuine 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 © 2024 Alfred J. Drake