Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Romance Plays
PERICLES, PRINCE OF TYRE, BY WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE AND GEORGE WILKINS
Assigned: Shakespeare. Pericles, Prince of Tyre. (The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems, third edition. 139-206).
INTRODUCTION TO SHAKESPEAREAN ROMANCE
In Fools of Time: Studies in Shakespearean Tragedy (U of Toronto Press, 1967, repr. 1985), Northrop Frye writes with precision about the defining characteristics of tragic vision; what underlies this vision, he posits, “… is being in time, the sense of the one-directional quality of life, where everything happens once and for all, where every act brings unavoidable and fateful consequences, and where all experience vanishes, not simply into the past, but into nothingness, annihilation. In the tragic vision death is … the essential event that gives shape and form to life” (3). By contrast, in Frye’s schema, the romance pattern is cyclical, not linear; death does not define life but rather the characters in the romance will have a chance to redeem themselves and the order within which they function. The social order in Shakespeare’s romance plays and comedies borrows from the stability and perpetuity of the great seasonal cycles that literary cultures have envied and invoked for thousands of years.
Shakespearean romance (Pericles, Prince of Tyre; Cymbeline; The Winter’s Tale; The Tempest; The Two Noble Kinsmen) clearly differs from the straightforwardly tragic mode of action and perception, but it isn’t identical with comedy, either. While both comedy and romance depend partly on the renovation of a corrupt social order, often by temporary removal into a green world of nature where magic rules and things can be turned around for the better, romance is to be distinguished from tragedy and comedy in its Janus-like quality, its ambivalence about even the bittersweet endings it supplies. In The Tempest, for instance, we enjoy a felicitous ending with the expectation of a marriage between Ferdinand and Miranda back in Naples and a return to power for Prospero as Duke of Milan. The old wizard shows himself a benevolent ruler on his island and, we presume, he will be equally benevolent when he returns to his Italian duchy. All of that sounds “comic” enough. Still, it is easy to see that Prospero is potentially a tyrant and could plausibly misuse his powers: death, disorder, and tyranny are real threats in The Tempest, even though things turn out well.
A key point is that in Shakespeare’s romance plays, we get not simple second chances or “do-overs” but rather second chances in altered circumstances. Events and persons may come full circle, but there is loss and sorrow along the way, leaving even triumphant conclusions with a bittersweet taste. Still, in the end, the romance plays are uplifting. Then, too—and in spite of their fantastical plot twists and settings—they offer what may well be the most realistic orientation towards life with its recurrent opportunities and travails: not a proffer of ultimate insight and intense clarity near the point of being crushed by inexorable forces, as in tragedy; not a sunny representation of individual satisfaction and happy communities, as in Shakespeare’s lighter comedies; but a kind of wisdom that allows us to abide in uncertainty, accept the changes and losses that time brings, and be thankful for the rare and all but miraculous second chances we may receive, however partial the outcome. When my father was growing up during the Great Depression, his father used to take him on weekly visits to an ice-cream parlor, and in those bleak times, the son’s choice was “plain, white, or vanilla.” My dad assured me that he enjoyed all three flavors, and it took him a good while to figure out that the choice wasn’t quite what it seemed. It’s a silly anecdote from a lifetime ago, perhaps, but the point is that the best romance characters have much the same capacity, much the same grace, to see wonder in things even when they fall short of cornucopia or perfection.
Pericles, Prince of Tyre, based in part on medieval poet John Gower’s Confessio Amantis (and Lawrence Twine’s prose version of that text, The Pattern of Painful Adventures)andco-written most likely with the not exactly reputable George Wilkins (author of The Painful Adventures of Pericles), is the earliest of Shakespeare’s attempts in the romance sub-genre. Despite its rough edges stylistically, it turned out to be very popular on the stage. Wilkins seems to have written the first two acts (the first nine scenes), and Shakespeare most or all of the final three acts. It is easy to tell when we arrive at Shakespeare’s handiwork: the opening of Scene 11 is magnificent in its dramatic staging and in the beauty of its language, neither of which Wilkins could ever have managed. One can hardly miss the Shakespearean energy of these lines spoken by Pericles during a storm at sea: “Thou god of this great vast, rebuke these surges, / Which wash both heaven and hell!” (3.1.1-2) This popular play seems to have begun performance around 1607-08, making it a later work in spite of its impossibly messy textual history. (King Lear was performed first in December of 1606, and Antony and Cleopatra around 1607.) It is, however, Shakespeare’s first play in the romance sub-genre, and its characters do not achieve the individuality or power, for the most part, as those in the more well-rounded romance efforts do. All the same, it’s a moving and dramatically effective play, and with its multiple shipwrecks and wonderful turnarounds of fortune, it certainly qualifies as a fine start for Shakespeare on his way to romance-play glory. We’ll spend a few meetings on Pericles, and then move on to The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest.
ACT ONE (SCENES 1 TO 4)
Act 1, Prologue (pp. 151-152, John Gower sets the stage: King Antiochus of Antioch lost his wife and is now in an incestuous relationship with his daughter. Introduction of the incest-theme is blunt, and Gower opens the scene to Pericles.)
The real John Gower (c. 1330-1408), whom Shakespeare and Wilkins have enlisted as their solo chorus speaker, was a medieval poet and contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer, and the author of the Confessio Amantis, one of the sources for Pericles. For more on Gower’s function in the play, see my comments on the Epilogue.
Act 1, Scene 1 (pp. 152-156, Pericles discerns the king’s scandal but decides not to reveal its details in the court’s presence. Antiochus offers him forty days of entertainment, but plots to kill him forthwith. Pericles, wise to this, flees first. Thaliart is sent after him.)
The editors offer useful information about Shakespeare’s interweaving of sources. He borrowed from John Gower himself, but also from medieval Christian accounts involving women condemned to brothels. The editors also point out that Gower adds a certain medieval quality to the whole affair, thereby keeping us at some emotional distance from the unfolding story, at least for a while. In the end, the play turns out to be effective in terms of its emotional impact. In his book Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom writes that only the brothel characters come across as authentically human—Marina and Pericles himself, says Bloom, are narratival and moral abstractions. I would use the term “ethical universe” to describe the world in which they live. That is, of course, a feature of many medieval narratives and dramas; the play Everyman, for example, represents the protagonist as moving through just such a grayscape towards salvation.
It may be that Gower’s reference to the medicinal qualities of his tale, his description of it as a “restorative,” fits well with the thesis that from time to time or eventually, value systems need to be restored, renewed. So often in Shakespeare, a society seems to have become a hollow place for hollow men and women, emptied of anything like truly animating moral values and passions. Discourse, language, will play a vital role in the restoration of Pericles to Marina, and in his recovery of Thaisa.
The action opens with Prince Pericles having just arrived in Antioch to take his chances with the king’s guilty riddle, marriage to the king’s beautiful daughter being the prize. Antiochus offers what sounds like the ancient version of a legal disclaimer regarding the trial Pericles is about to undergo. The young man is quite the romance hero at this point, all fired up to put his life on the line for supreme beauty and eros. Antiochus’s arrogance shows already when he refers to his daughter as fit for “the embracements ev’n of Jove himself” (1.1.8). Is he comparing himself to Zeus, i.e. to Jove, who married his own sister Hera? In any case, the young lady is characterized as a wondrous, perfect work of nature.
The girl is also likened to the Hesperides (Ἑσπερίδες) who lived in a garden filled with golden apples. Again, her beauty is supreme, but dangerous and forbidden. Almost everything either Pericles or Antiochus says about her bespeaks this forbidden quality. The myth of the Hesperides is that they were tasked with guarding the golden apples in the gardens commemorating the marriage of Zeus and Hera. A dragon kept them from stealing the apples themselves, but one of the apples makes its way to the destructive scene of the Judgment of Paris. The goddess Strife made one of these apples the prize for judging which of three goddesses was the most beautiful: Hera, Athena, or Aphrodite. The outcome of that contest was, of course, the Trojan War.
In any case, the king’s daughter is, according to him, quite irresistible. I think we may take as projection both this assertion and the attribution of haughtiness or arrogance to Pericles and his fellow princes who have sought her favors. Pericles professes to take Antiochus’s warnings to heart, and declares himself “ready for the way of life or death” (1.1.55). Antiochus seems angry that yet another young challenger has insisted upon competing with him for his daughter’s love. He is at least in this regard a typical Freudian jealous father. The daughter declares that of all the men who have sought marriage to her, she wishes most of all that he should succeed. Perhaps it is cynical to say this, but it is difficult to avoid thinking that she says this to all the applicants. There is something ritualistic about the pronouncement. She must be quite used to this whole rigmarole by now. Should we suppose she is desperate to escape the clutches of her wicked father? It is impossible to say, but we were told by Gower that over time, habit or custom took over, and they did not feel the sting of conscience.
As for the riddle itself, part of it leads obviously to the life-preserving answer, and part is downright confusing or muddled: we can see how Antiochus makes his daughter his wife and himself her husband, but how does he become her son and she his mother? Perhaps the Freudian framework will be of service here: in rejecting his daughter as a daughter, we might say, Antiochus deranges the temporal scheme of his relationship, and opens the door to the family secret that the male child desires his mother first of all. In this sense, every woman he sleeps with is his mother, just as every man the daughter sleeps with is symbolically her father. The glaringly obvious part of the riddle remains unspoken to the king’s face.
In a sense, this is a power play on Antiochus’s part: like a typical bully, he tosses out damning information and double-dares anyone to make it plain in his angry, forbidding presence. When bullies tell obvious lies to their hearers, they are really saying, “I know I’m lying and I know you know that, and you know that I know you know it, etc.” There’s a mise-en-abîme here: “Help us help you help us help you, etc.” The ultimate in that line is the romantic leap into infinite self-consciousness: “I am reflecting on myself reflecting on myself reflecting on myself….” Since none of Pericles’s predecessor knights answered the riddle correctly, I’m going to assume that even if they did figure out the riddle, they blinked, just as Pericles himself now does. He knows the answer, but it’s taboo to blurt it out. Either way, he’s at grave risk of losing his life. That’s the Freudian interdiction at work: a dark, unsettling truth that may be distorted and screened, but never simply revealed in all its simplicity.
Since I like to go into what I see as the political-theory dimension of Shakespeare’s plays, as I see it, the king’s guilty sexual secret parallels a guilty political secret, one not unrelated to the Platonic dilemma of rulership: he has guilty knowledge of humankind and of the realities involved in keeping control of his realm. He’s daring subjects and foreigners alike to make this knowledge common, knowing that they won’t reveal the taboo from sheer terror. The riddle, then, has to do with the nature of political legitimacy and with the ability to govern, to use one’s authority. I would remind us of Aeschylus’ carefully articulated renaming and relegation of the Furies to the Eumenides (well-abiding, well-attending, or perhaps even “they who bide their time”). There is also the scandalous truth in Plato’s Republic that it is acceptable for rulers to lie to their subjects so long as the purpose is governance itself, the maintenance of order.
Pericles, upon solving the riddle, is immediately put off at the thought of romance with the king’s daughter. He sees her as a “glorious casket stored with ill” (120). Antiochus demands an answer, forbidding Pericles to touch his daughter at this point. Pericles addresses the king directly, and seems to say enough to anger him. Pericles shrinks back in fear from doing more than hinting he knows the true secret that the king hides. Essentially, he declares that he knows the truth, but will not make it manifest. It is bold enough that he should say, “And if Jove stray, who dares say Jove doth ill?” (147) but he will not speak the word “incest.” He will not reveal the scandal itself, but his boldness consists in a species of counter-bullying whereby he makes the king understand that he knows the secret. Pericles himself is a ruler, and is at least in that the equal of Antiochus.
Antiochus doesn’t quite know what to do with this bold foreigner, and offers him forty days of delay, time in which he might yet reveal the secret. But we know that he will not do that. The king decides to temporize and disassemble by means of decorous entertainment. Pericles sees through this false politeness, and decides to flee from Antioch. He characterizes what the daughter is doing as being like the action of a serpent, “an eater of her mother’s flesh” (173), with the daughter replacing the mother. How right Pericles is we see immediately when Antiochus, like the stage-villain he is, tells us he plans to kill Pericles as soon as possible, and summons his chamberlain Thaliart. This man is so obedient to the king that he even plans to use a pistol to do the job — an invention still far in the future. Evidently, George Wilkins, who seems to have written the first couple of acts of the play, shares Shakespeare’s penchant for anachronism. As Thomas Love Peacock writes in his satirical essay “The Four Ages of Poetry,” the Elizabethans “made no scruple of deposing a Roman Emperor by an Italian Count, and sending him off in the disguise of a French pilgrim to be shot with a blunderbuss by an English archer.”
Act 1, Scene 2 (pp. 156-158, Pericles is distressed over the threat to Tyre from his solving the riddle, showing political realism an compassion for his subjects. Pericles tells Helicanus what happened at Antioch, and receives earnest counsel: travel. The prince will sail for Tarsus, and Helicanus will rule in his stead.)
From lines 1-33, Pericles explains how his anxiety about the threat posed by Antiochus grew up on him until at last it now seems he must do something to relieve it. Pericles understands the logic and realities of power: princes who fail to pass “Machiavelli 101” seldom last long in Shakespeare’s works. Antiochus is quite capable of making good on his need to eliminate the one man who could reveal his guilty secret. The prince also reveals to us that his seeming near-paranoia about the punitive reach of Antiochus is really about the welfare of his subjects, not a dread selfishly felt for his own safety alone.
Pericles demands honesty from Helicanus, who disclaims all pretense of flattery. He tells Pericles that his “pining sorrow” (38) threatens both his own welfare and that of the kingdom. Pericles is impressed, and agrees with the sentiment expressed. This is an interesting contrast from the court of Antiochus, where Pericles offered himself counsel of a more Machiavellian nature, advice rendered entirely appropriate due to the quality of Antiochus’s court, which was unhealthy, even deranged. Pericles’s realm, by contrast, is ordered properly, with Pericles a true prince and Helicanus a loyal, capable subject who treats his prince with reverence and honesty.
Helicanus shifts his counsel from patience to travel. He will go to Tarsus, which we might observe with our editors is St. Paul’s city of birth. While the play is clearly pre-Christian, the place probably still indicates to Shakespeare’s audience that Pericles the traveler is about to undergo a deep spiritual transformation under the pressure of harsh experience. At this point, the reference works at a general level of significance.
Act 1, Scene 3 (pp. 158-159, Thaliart arrives at Tyre to kill Pericles, and reflects on his situation as a servant. Helicanus tells him Pericles has penitently gone traveling, thanks to Antiochus’s disapproval of him. Helicanus and the lords offer to entertain Thaliart before he supposedly returns home.)
This scene is very brief, but it introduces us to Thaliart, who seems like a capable rascal, even if this play offers him no hope of developing into an irrepressible Iago. Thaliart just seems like a standard Machiavellian operator: he keeps his eyes and ears open, and rolls with the punches. At Tyre, he at least gets enough information to spin a narrative for Antiochus that might keep an enterprising servant out of trouble. Helicanus easily discerns why this chamberlain has really traveled to Tyre, but he keeps up the appearance of civility.
Act 1, Scene 4 (pp. 159-162, Governor Cleon vents his grief to Dionyza over the plight of once-opulent Tarsus. He greets Pericles’ approach with fear, but his arrival with joy when the prince explains that he has come to relieve Tarsus’s hunger.)
It’s worth noting with a look forward that Pericles will, when met with such terrible misfortunes, falls silent, but here in the fourth scene, Cleon expresses to his wife Dionyza a strong faith in the therapeutic power of lamentation. Tarsus, it seems, was once a wealthy, prideful city that disdained the very thought of ever needing assistance. Its citizens, suggests Cleon, were more concerned with fashion and the competitive delights of what today we might call “conspicuous consumption” than with anything like mere utility and sufficiency. But those days are gone, and all he can do is hope the advancing fleet means the city no harm. Famine has made even him, Tarsus’ governor, altogether desperate: “bring they what they will and what they can, / What need we fear?” (4.75-76).
Pericles sets Cleon’s mind at ease, telling him that Tarsus’s suffering has been known for a while even as far as Tyre. This is no Greekish assault on Troy, says Pericles, but a mission of mercy: he has brought grain to fortify the starving people of Tarsus, and asks only for “love, / And harbourage” (4.99). Cleon offers both in effusively grateful terms, even calling down a curse on himself and his city if Pericles should ever find they’ve broken their bond.
Act 2, Prologue (pp. 162-163, Gower explains that Pericles, called home to Tyre by Helicanus, has suffered his first shipwreck, washing up on Pentapolis, where fishermen find him.
Gower promises a full-on morality tale, with Pericles sure to gain from the series of adversities he is about to undergo. On comes the shipwreck, and Pericles drifts until, says Gower, “Fortune, tired with doing bad, / Threw him ashore to give him glad” (2.0.57-58).
Indeed, this should remind us that Pericles’ misfortunes throughout the play are not brought on by error or flaw–they’re due to bad luck, or chance. The play is not suffused with the sensibility or ambience of classical tragedy: Pericles has done nothing wrong, has not made a mistake: what Aristotle calls hamartia (ἁμαρτία) is not in play in Pericles, Prince of Tyre. The protagonist has simply run up against the chaotic powers of elemental humanity (Antiochus) and the natural world (the rough ocean with its pulverizing storms).
Act 2, Scene 1 (pp. 163-166, Pericles washes ashore, and accepts his mortality. He meets some fishermen as they describe their country, and they soon tell him of the upcoming tournament for Thaisa’s hand. The fishermen have discovered Pericles’ rusty armor, and he gets them to give it to him for the joust.)
Shipwrecks are an obvious metaphor for the travails of life in all the time between the ultimate passage from birth to death. The sea and its storms are an alien realm that threatens to cast all that’s dear to humanity into the void. Until modern times, any kind of prolonged travel was apt to be treacherous and uncertain, with sea voyages probably inspiring the greatest fear of all. In Homer’s Odyssey, the narrator describes the coming on of night with the wonderful line, “the sun went down, and all the world’s paths turned dark.” Even on land, the dark reduces humanity to the level of raw nature. Here in an Elizabethan play, the ocean takes on something like that leveling power, along with a sense of profound uncertainty and violence. The sea is a roadway for the realization of desire, but it is also a place of peril, a “reset button” for past woes and felicities alike. It’s the great equalizer in the play: even princes are subject to its vicissitudes.
Pericles humbly wishes for little but a dry death after his ordeal at sea, saying to the elements, “I, as fits my nature, do obey you” (2.1.4). But soon, he’s in the company of some comic fishermen as they serve one another a helping of their views (in prose, not verse) on relations between the realm’s social classes, the sum total of it being that, like the fishes, “the great ones eat up the little ones” (2.1.27-28). Pericles reveals himself to these rustics, and reduces himself to a key of begging suitable to his plight. He is received kindly, and the fishermen inform him of the upcoming tournament whereby a skillful and fortunate knight at arms will win the hand of Thaisa, daughter of the virtuous King Simonides, whose “peaceable reign and good government” (2.1.100) are praised by the First Fisherman. When a rusty suit of armor is spied in the nets, Pericles hails its appearance since, he informs the fishermen, it was given to him by his father, and it is such a precious artifact to him that it all but banishes the shipwreck and other losses from his mind. The fishermen gladly turn the armor over to Pericles, and even agree to make him a garment to wear underneath the armor. They hope to be gainers along with him should he win, but their deed is generous in any case.
Act 2, Scene 2 (pp. 166-168, Pericles reaches the court of King Simonides of Pentapolis and his daughter Thaisa, the antidotes to Antiochus and his ruined daughter. The five knights present their mottos in chivalric sequence, and Pericles, lowly attired and professing only his dependence on Thaisa, wins the joust.)
In this scene, Simonides and his daughter Thaisa are introduced to us, while Pericles is introduced as the last of a series of knights seeking the hand of Thaisa. What we begin to see is an appropriate courtly spectacle, and what seems to be a healthy relationship between a father and his daughter. This is not a court dominated by secrecy and intrigue. Whatever dark Freudian jealousy may lie within King Simonides is kept firmly where it belongs: beneath the level of consciousness.
Each seeker marches forth on his horse to display his emblem in hopes of success. The king and his daughter will judge the contest partly on the basis of each man’s ingenuity. The first knight, a Spartan, presents as his Latin motto, “Your light is life to me.” The second knight is a Macedonian prince, and his motto translated from the Italian is “More by sweetness than by force.” The third knight comes from Antioch, and his device is “The summit of glory has led me on.” Then comes a knight from Athens, whose device is, “Who nourishes me extinguishes me.” The fifth knight hails from Corinth, and his motto is “Thus is faith to be regarded.”
Pericles is the final contestant, and his appearance is hardly promising, what with his rusty suit of armor and lack of assistants in proffering his device. All he has is “A withered branch that’s only green at top,” and his motto is “In this hope I live” (6.47-48). There is nothing inappropriate about the display and motto of the first five gentlemen, but Pericles is the only one among them whose situation really matches his motto and self-presentation. All he has going for him is hope — he certainly lacks resources at present; he is dependent for his future upon the outcome of the contest. With regard to the other five men, the mottos they present are rather standard and conventional: none of them is impoverished and desperate, but rather each is wealthy and privileged. The stakes are not the same for them as they are for Pericles. There is in Pericles’s case, that is, a perfect adequation between symbol and reality, between situation and display. King Simonides picks up on this fact, and gently rebukes the three fashionable lords with whom he is holding converse, saying, “Opinion’s but a fool, that makes us scan / The outward habit for the inward man” (6.59-60). They were looking for a precise match between the knight’s attire and his personal worth, but the king sees the more important “match” that lies beyond such facile observation. Pericles goes on to win the contest, thus ending the scene.
Act 2, Scene 3 (pp. 168-171, King Simonides and Thaisa host a banquet for the knights, above all for the champion Pericles. A courtly dance ensues, with “asides” carrying much of the dialogue.)
Simonides and Thaisa together constitute a guest-host antidote to Antiochus and his ruined daughter. Everything they do is gracious and appropriately decorous rather than garish or narcissistic. The knights are equally gracious in their appreciation of the seemingly lowly Pericles.
Pericles himself shows a great deal of humility in this scene, and a certain amount of melancholy as well. It’s as if he can’t help being a bit overshadowed by his previous experience with a kingly father and daughter team back in Antioch. In beholding Simonides, he is prompted to thoughts of his own departed father, whom he describes in terms almost reminiscent of Hamlet’s high praise of his father. What kind of protagonist succeeds in a romance play? It seems that the protagonist will need a combination of comic energy and openness to experience (a classical value accorded to epic heroes such as Odysseus) along with gravitas and fortitude equal to that of a tragic hero. At this point in the play, Pericles, who has already shown himself capable of considerable audacity as when he pursued the daughter of Antiochus, here shows a Christian-like degree of humility and patience. “I see that time’s the king of men; / He’s both their parent and he is their grave, / And gives them what he will, not what they crave” (7.44-46).
Both Simonides and Thaisa show themselves to be honest characters, but the conversation between them reveals a certain complexity in their decorous relationship. As the “asides” indicate, the main characters in this scene are capable of keeping their own counsel even as they engage in fit conversation with others. Simonides seems to be already trying to temper what he must suppose is the passion beginning to stir in Thaisa for Pericles, while Thaisa herself shows a maiden’s regard for her chaste reputation. When the king tells Thaisa to bring Pericles a bowl of wine, she responds hesitantly: “it befits not me / Unto a stranger knight to be so bold” (7.63-64). Yet to herself, she admits that she is very pleased with Pericles indeed. These asides are by no means dishonest; they are instead signs of a need to shape appropriate social and romantic outcomes, and to avoid some of the pitfalls of courtship. This is part of the work of society, of civilization itself: honesty does not always require “full disclosure” of one’s entire intent. Characters who show themselves to be too blunt with their words (think Cordelia and Kent in King Lear) often run into trouble, even though their moral character may be spotless and their intentions good.
Having been asked in classical fashion his birth and purpose here in Pentapolis, Pericles casts himself as quite the romantic adventurer, a man “looking for adventures in the world” (7.78), even though that doesn’t seem to fit his present circumstances well—it wasn’t pure wanderlust that drove him from Tyre to Tarsus and thence to Pentapolis. He was fleeing a political enemy, bringing aid to Tarsus, and then, as he admits to the king, barely surviving a disaster at sea. The king significantly offers gifts and personal friendship to Pericles, then orders up a dance for the still-armored knights. He teases Pericles and Thaisa into pairing off on the dance floor, thereby continuing the decorous pursuit of Thaisa that the now-completed joust began. At last the dancing is done and the hour is late, so it’s time for everyone to take their rest.
Act 2, Scene 4 (pp. 171-172, Helicanus reports to Aeschines that Antiochus and his daughter have been struck by lightning in their chariot. The lords of Pericles’ kingdom are concerned about his absence, and Helicanus puts off for a year their request that he accept the top position. The lords agree to seek out the absent prince.)
The scandal of Antiochus and his daughter is “illuminated” in a terrible way, at least for those in the know already, brought to light by a bolt of lightning that strikes their carriage one day, out of the blue. The foulness of the bodies, says Helicanus, so offended the common people that no one would give the two burial.
There are usually Machiavellian concerns in any Shakespeare play with a political dimension. The lords in Pericles’s realm are beginning to worry that the prince came to a bad end in his oceangoing travels—hardly an unreasonable supposition. The lords know that power hates a vacuum, and an absent prince is bad for them and the whole realm, conducive as it is to instability and the threat of foreign invasion. Helicanus is able to put them off for twelve months, but he understands that their patience is not infinite: it’s all he can do to prevent them from anointing him ruler, which of course he swore to Pericles he would never allow to happen. But in the end, the lords agree to go traveling and look for their absent leader. The voyage should keep their energies occupied for a time.
Act 2, Scene 5 (pp. 172-174, King Simonides tells the knights that Thaisa has declared she will remain a virgin for another year, so they depart. The king approves of her actual decision to wed Pericles: he dissembles his approval of the match, but just as quickly brings them together as partners.)
King Simonides briefly dissembles his intention to allow the match between his daughter Thaisa and Pericles, putting on a stormy show for them and even threatening the life of Pericles, but with comical celerity he ends up revealing his true intentions that they should soon be wed. We can connect this scene with Prospero’s gruffness in The Tempest towards young Prince Ferdinand of Naples when he takes an interest in the old duke’s daughter, Miranda. For that matter, there was the comic menace of Egeus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream against his daughter, which Duke Theseus of Athens at first supported and then utterly disregarded. There’s probably some real paternal jealousy involved in the behavior of both Simonides and Prospero, but in truth, neither man is doing more than ensuring as best he can that his daughter doesn’t wind up hitched to an unworthy suitor. There seems to be some idea that, as Lysander says in Midsummer, true love should not run too smoothly. Some obstacle, even if it be a contrived one, seems necessary. In the course of this manufactured trial, Pericles shows considerable courage over and above his alarm, while Thaisa stands up admirably towards Simonides.
Act 3, Prologue. (pp. 174-175, Gower says Pericles’s bride is expecting; report comes to Pentapolis that Antiochus and his daughter are dead and that in Tyre, Helicanus is being pressured to accept the crown. Pericles sails for home with Thaisa, but at the halfway point, his ship runs into a storm.)
John Gower offers a dumb show and a bit of explanation. Thaisa is expecting a child, and Pericles receives from the king a message that Antiochus and his daughter are dead and that the lords back in Tyre are pressuring Helicanus to accept the crown. So the prince decides he must voyage back to Tyre and take care of business. Thaisa insists upon traveling with her husband, and brings along her nurse Lychorida. Pericles soon faces his second storm at sea.
Act 3, Scene 1 (pp. 176-177, Thaisa appears to die in childbirth during a storm when Pericles’ ship is halfway to Tyre. The prince wonders at the daughter born in such travail, and names her Marina in tribute. He grieves for Thaisa, but, at the superstitious sailors’ insistence, commits her body to the sea in a pitched coffin.)
The eleventh scene reveals Shakespeare’s authentic voice through the cry of storm-tossed Pericles: “The god of this great vast rebuke these surges / Which wash both heav’n and hell…” (11.1-2). This passage, along with Lychorida’s heartrending utterance, “Take in your arms this piece / Of your dead queen” (11.17-18) is unmistakably Shakespearean.
This whole scene is dramatically superb, and what’s more, it may lead us to broaden Coleridge’s claim that Shakespeare’s characters are most universal when they are most fully individuated. Pericles is not the most sharply drawn or particularized of Shakespeare’s protagonists, but at this point his grief and tenderness seem like the universal responses of anyone who has ever lost someone closest to heart. He even challenges the gods on a point of honor: they take back the good things they give, which is something even lowly humans usually scorn to do. The lines “Ev’n at the first thy loss is more than can / Thy partage quit with all thou canst find here” (11.35-36), an observation along the lines of King Lear’s complaint that he is “a man / More sinn’d against than sinning” (King Lear 3.2). Pericles is constrained to deliver up the seemingly dead Thaisa to the stormy sea in a pitch-caulked coffin to satisfy the sailors’ superstition, but his acquiescence is by no means a mark of weakness. He delivers striking elegiac remarks directly to his departed wife: “the belching whale / And humming water must o’erwhelm thy corpse, / Lying with simple shells” (11.61-63). After Scene 13, in which he speaks briefly to Cleon in handing over the infant Marina to that ruler’s care, we will not hear from Pericles again until Scene 21.
Act 3, Scene 2 (pp. 178-180, Pericles sails for Tarsus because his newborn child won’t make it to Tyre in such rough weather. Thaisa’s coffin washes ashore in Ephesus, where the physician Cerimon attends to it. He revives Thaisa.)
The early-morning conversation between Cerimon and a couple of visiting gentlemen tells us a good deal about the physician: “I held it ever; / Virtue and cunning were endowments greater / Than nobleness and riches” (12.23-25). Cerimon is a true scientist, adept in “the disturbances / That nature works (12.34-35) and in the properties of the natural substances that can remedy them, and he doesn’t much care for honor and suchlike baubles. This is in accord with the principles of the ancient Hippocratic Oath. While we are used to more or less dismissing the assumptions and practices of ancient medicine, the profession was more respected then than we might suppose. Ephesus, where Cerimon practices, was a Greek city along the Ionian coast in what is now Turkey, and among the Greeks, I’ve read, medicine had mainly broken free from domination by ritual and religion. (See, for example, Paul Carrick’s Medical Ethics in the Ancient World. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown UP, 2001.)
It isn’t entirely clear whether Thaisa is actually brought back from death or brought back from what we would call a hypothermic state of unconsciousness; one could argue the case either way, based on Cerimon’s language. How are we to take, for example, “They were too rash / That threw her in the sea” (12.77-78)? Or, “Death may usurp on nature many hours” (12.80)? Or again, “She hath not been entranced / Above five hours” (12.91-92)? The emphasis on how tightly caulked the coffin is with pitch lends itself to a naturalistic interpretation. In any case, Thaisa is alive by the end of Scene 12: she has either been brought back from death or she has had a “near-death experience,” as we would put it today.
Act 3, Scene 3 (pg. 181, Pericles reaches Tarsus and entrusts Cleon and Dionyza with the princely care and education of Marina. Pericles vows to the goddess Diana that he will not cut his hair until he knows Marina is married.)
Pericles gives Marina, named such, as he says, because of her birth at sea, to Governor of Tarsus Clean and his wife Dionyza, asking that she be brought up in a manner befitting her true station as a princess. Cleon eagerly approves, and Dionyza promises that Marina will be as dear to her as her own daughter. Nurse Lychorida will stay behind to help raise the child. The pair see Pericles off to the harbor, where he will begin his journey back to Tyre, which threatens to break out into political discord in his absence.
Act 3, Scene 4 (pg. 182, Cerimon asks Thaisa if she remembers anything from her ordeal, and she can recall only being about to deliver a child. She now desires to join the nearest vestal order since she believes she will never see Pericles again. Cerimon says he knows just the place.)
This is a very short scene, and in it Cerimon simply asks Thaisa what she remembers from her ordeal. She knows she was on board a ship and that she was about to deliver a child, but that is all. She recognizes her husband’s handwriting on the note left within the coffin along with some jewels. Thaisa doesn’t expect ever to see her husband again, so she immediately decides it will be best to sign on with the nearest vestal order. Conveniently, Cerimon has a niece at the Temple of Diana in Ephesus who can serve as her attendant.
Act 4, Prologue (pp. 182-183, Marina is now a young woman, thanks to our passage through time with Gower. He says that Dionyza, envious of Marina for stealing praise from her daughter Philoten, plots to kill her, with Leonine the instrument.)
John Gower again sets the scene for us, this time at Ephesus, where Dionyza is about to betray Pericles by plotting to kill his daughter Marina. The deed takes shape out of Dionyza’s “rare” (i.e. intense) envy for the gifts that allow the girl to outshine her daughter Philoten.
Act 4, Scene 1 (pp. 183-185, Marina grieves at Lychorida’s grave, and Dionyza urges her to take a seaside walk with the servant Leonine. Just as he is about to kill her at Dionyza’s prior bidding, pirates abduct her.)
Dionyza is envious, as Gower already told us in his prologue, because Marina wins all the praise that would otherwise go to daughter Philoten. Using the excuse that Marina is discomposed due to her grief over the death of Lychorida, Dionyza sets her servant Leonine the task of cutting the young woman down while they are walking along the shore. She pleads with him to no avail. But just then, pirates conveniently turn up and relieve Leonine of the need to kill Marina. Ironically saving her life, they abduct her. As for Leonine, he is as villainous as one can imagine, in spite of his seemingly soft manners: he lurks in the background, on the off chance that the pirates will “but please themselves” (15.149) by raping Marina rather than killing her, in which case he will still have to carry out his murderous commission.
Act 4, Scene 2 (pp. 186-189, The pirates who abducted Marina sell her to brothel-keepers Pander, Bawd, and Bolt in Mytilene on Lesbos. Much banter ensues between the brother-keepers, but Marina stands upon her virgin honor even as they prepare to talk up her chaste condition with prospective customers.)
The editors point out that this scene has a distinctly English feel, and critic Harold Bloom is probably right to suggest in Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human that Pander, Bawd, and Bolt are the liveliest and most carefully individuated characters in Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Indeed, they hardly come across as ancient denizens of Tarsus—they seem like a quintessential London pimp, madam, and scout. Shakespeare’s Mistress Quickly from the Henry IV plays comes to mind. In any case, Pander and Bawd discuss their trade frankly, lamenting that venereal disease is continually damaging and diminishing their stable of prostitutes and their customers alike. Ironically, their business entails hawking and vending “innocence” or chastity itself because that—and not simply “sexual license” is what sells. Young virgins appeal to the clientele, of course, in part because they’re unlikely to cast the user straight into the maw of syphilis or some other dread STI, but also because so many men apparently fantasize about recovering their own youth and maximum sexual potency by deflowering a young maiden.
In this regard, Bolt is quite important to Pander and Bawd’s success—he operates as a public relations professional, a Jacobean-style “madman” (after the phrase coined by Madison Avenue advertising agents to describe themselves) whose task it is to sell an image of beauty combined with flawless virtue. We can say “image” because, as we can see, Bolt has no intention of allowing Marina to begin her duties in the chaste condition he’s talking up. After receiving his advertising instructions from Bawd (16.50-54), he insinuates that he wants to break in Marina as the newest member of team prostitute: since Bolt, as he puts it, has “bargained for the joint,” Bawd offers first use to him: “Thou mayst cut a morsel off the spit” (16.115).
Bawd has her own job to do in convincing the impossibly virtuous Marina that the attractions of her new role in life merit the inconveniences: she tries to sell the young woman on an image of cosmopolitanism and sexual variety. Bawd promises her, “you shall live in pleasure” (16.67) and “You shall have the difference of all complexions” (16.70-71). That is, she will experience sex with men from all over the world. None of this claptrap impresses Marina, who peppers the scene with verbal indications that she is more than a match for her disreputable keepers, so Bawd and Company have their work cut out for them.
In truth, to judge from the early part of Pander and Bawd’s conversation, has begun to lose its appeal for them, or at least it has for Pander, who worries about the business’s disreputable standing with gods and men. Bawd pitches in that she has raised eleven illegitimate children born to customers, and Pander reminds her that she has recycled them into the trade as prostitutes. This is no “calling” (16.33), no proper religious mystery sect, nothing hale or holy, as was sometimes held to be the case with ancient temple prostitutes, for example. It’s just commerce, like almost everything else, only dirtier and (we can recognize, even if Pander, Bawd and Bolt may not) even dehumanizing. As Shakespeare and his audience (and co-author George Wilkins, who, as a disreputable inn-keeper on London’s Cow Cross Street, may have actually been in the “flesh trade” himself) must have known, it wasn’t as if humane care and consideration awaited women trapped in this terrible cycle of abuse and then cast out when disease inevitably stripped them of their ability to contribute.
Act 4, Scene 3 (189-190, Cleon of Tarsus deplores what Dionyza has done to Marina. Dionyza defends her wicked deed. Reluctantly, Cleon goes along with Dionyza’s cover-up.)
Dionyza is a bit like a lesser Lady Macbeth, goading her husband into complicity with her depraved attempt to have Marina killed: as she says, “I do shame / To think of what a noble strain you are, / And of how coward a spirit” (4.3.22-24). Just as Antiochus’s lives were structured and cut short by a guilty secret, selfish, envious Dionyza and cowardly Cleon will have to live with the knowledge of what she has done. Cleon is what we might call an “accessory after the fact” in modern legal terms, but perhaps his biggest sin is how unheroic and ordinary, even petty, he seems when placed next to characters such as Pericles, Thaisa, Marina, Cerimon, and Simonides, or even the honest fishermen of Pentapolis.
Act 4, Scene 4 Prologue (pp. 190-191, Gower says Pericles has sailed to Tarsus to see what has become of Marina, whom he hasn’t seen since her infancy. Pericles is devastated at Marina’s supposed death; in Gower’s telling, he seems to abandon his faith in the gods and yield his course to fate.)
This scene consisting only of Gower’s narration shows Shakespeare acknowledging the need to do psychological and emotional justice to his characters. The main characters in Pericles have been described by some critics as overly universalized and insufficiently particularized, but consider a modern television series like Star Trek. So many traumatic things happen to most of the characters in the space of one or two episodes that if one-tenth of it happened to real-life individuals, they would doubtless slip into a permanent catatonic stupor. But the interstellar show must go on, so they don’t. By contrast, when Pericles thinks he’s lost Marina on top of his loss of Thaisa, he goes numb and becomes listless, vacant. The prince (rather like King Lear at his nadir) really does slip into a profound depression. That’s an element of psychological realism in Shakespeare: he isn’t afraid to dramatize a character’s emotional and spiritual breakdown. Pericles apparently becomes unreachable to everyone around him.
Act 4, Scene 5 (pg. 191, Two Gentlemen, amazed at their turn towards virtuous living after their encounters with Marina, head for church.)
Two Gentlemen, now former clients of Pander and Bawd, share their astonishment at the transformation wrought in them by the angelic Marina.
Act 4, Scene 6 (pp. 192-196, Pander and the Bawd try to win Marina to the role of a prostitute, and Bolt tries to ravish her, but she overcomes them with her virtue and conquers Lysimachus, the Governor of Mytilene, too.)
The three brothel-keepers are at their wits’ end as to how they can overcome Marina’s virtue and chastity. The Bawd says, “she would make a puritan of the devil if he should cheapen a kiss of her” (4.6.8-9). By this point, that scarcely seems an exaggeration. Things only get worse for them in this scene since Marina resists not only the brothel-keepers but the governor of Mytilene, Lysimachus. Well, she does more than simply resist — she transforms them and gets them working on her side. Marina has the poise of a biblical figure such as Daniel in the lions’ den, preserved from harm by his faith in God. What we are getting in the present play, then, seems like the comic version of Christian ordeal narratives. Marina easily fends off Bolt’s attempt to rape her, and her magic works wonderfully on the rakish Lysimachus, who gives her plenty of gold and promises that if she hears from him again, “it shall be for thy good” (4.6.105). At the end of the scene, Bolt himself dutifully scampers off to find Marina an honest position of just the sort she wants: one where she can make yourself useful by teaching her various arts. She tells him that she can “sing, weave, sew, and dance” (4.6.168), among other honorable talents.
Act 5 Prologue (pg. 196, While Marina makes money for her keepers by honest means, says Gower, Pericles’ black-trimmed ship has been driven by ocean winds to Mytilene’s harbor during a holiday dedicated to Neptune. Lysimachus goes to meet Pericles on the latter’s richly trimmed ship.)
We have heard nothing directly from Pericles for some time now, and Gower prepares us for our meeting with him again in the next scene simply by calling him “sad,” which, as we will soon find out, is quite an understatement. The restless ocean, the πόντος ἀτρύγετος or trackless sea of Homeric lore, has allowed one further twist in Pericles’ strange odyssey. On the ocean, Pericles has already suffered one outright shipwreck and one costly near-shipwreck, along with a few smooth conveyances. Now he is swept into Mytilene’s harbor at the mercy of the winds, a passive, worn-out traveler rather than a chivalric knight or lord of heroic cast.
Act 5, Scene 1 (pp. 196-203, Pericles miraculously recovers his lost Marina, who guides him towards recognition of the truth, in the process completing the realization of her own identity. Pericles has a dream vision of the goddess Diana, who instructs him on what to do next.)
This is perhaps the best time to remind ourselves that while the name Marina means “of the sea” (as Pericles said when he named her during an ocean storm), as a common noun it also means “harbor” a safe place at which to moor one’s ship. This second meaning is significant here in the play’s longest and most important scene. Marina serves as an inspired guide for Pericles, leading him back from storm and lassitude to a firm grounding in his true nature and identity. She is the “harbor” for his life’s voyage, as symbolized by many ocean crossings and travails throughout the play.
In the tragedies, the bedrock of human nature—the “the thing itself” in King Lear’s phrase, or at least as close as we can get to it—is someplace one doesn’t want to be for long, if at all. Getting there only leads to disaster, along with any insight (tenuous or deep) one may gain. In the present romance play, the Prince of Tyre has been exiled into himself, and it seems as if the experience leads to something very like madness, not of the howling kind but instead a period of silence and nearly complete loss of self. That is Pericles’s condition as his richly adorned ship enters Mytilene’s harbor.
At this point in the play, Shakespeare dramatizes a miraculous recovery that seems all the more powerful because of Gower’s and Helicanus’s narrations of the emotional devastation Pericles has suffered. This formulation differs from what we find in Shakespeare’s comedies, in which extreme loss is seldom more than gestured at, not delivered as it is in tragedy. In comic plays, the threat can even border on the cartoonish—think of Egeus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, stormily threatening to have his daughter banished or even executed if she fails to heed his will in marriage matters. For the present romance play, Shakespeare crafts an exquisitely moving recognition scene that depends on, but does not overemphasize, our knowledge of Pericles’s genuine trauma and loss. Pericles was convinced that both his wife and daughter were dead, Thaisa for many years and Marina by very strong circumstantial evidence. Pericles has felt these supposed losses deeply and over considerable time, and now at least his loss of Marina is about to be made whole. How, then, does Shakespeare manage the revelation?
Lysimachus takes a barge to satisfy his curiosity as to who the traveler at harbor in Mytilene may be. Helicanus informs the governor that Pericles “for this three months hath not spoken / To anyone, nor taken sustenance / But to prorogue his grief” (5.1.20-22). Lysimachus has no luck in getting the silent sufferer to speak, but a lord reminds him that there’s “a maid in Mytilene” (5.1.35) who just might be able to wring some words from Pericles.
Just when Lysimachus is about to hear Helicanus’s tale about the prince’s sorrows, the lord re-enters with Marina and her maids. The governor praises Marina, admitting that if only she were nobly born, she should be his choice for a wife. The young woman’s one condition for her attempt is that only she and her maids should be in the room with the sufferer. Song and instrumental music have no effect on Pericles, and he rudely “pushes her back,” according to the stage directions just after Marina says, “Hail, sir! My lord, lend ear!” (5.1.74). Neither music nor the promise of discourse, then, does more than provoke Pericles’s anger. But something in the discourse finally offered catches the prince’s attention, and he blurts out, “My fortunes, parentage—good parentage, / To equal mine…” (5.1.88-89). Marina has dared to place her own sufferings and possibly even her lineage of a par with those of the princely stranger.
Pericles comes nearer to his vital recognition soon thereafter, when Marina (whose name he still does not know), responding to a question about her nationality, offers the strange response that she is not “of any shores” (5.1.94). But so far, all he can prove to himself is a likeness to the lost Thaisa in stature, countenance, voice, and stride—might not his daughter, had she survived, been just like this maid in all ways? In any event, he tells her, “thou lookest / Like one I loved indeed” (5.1.115-16). Much has been made of this passage as supposedly implying or reinvoking the possibility of incest between the stricken father and his daughter, but the point seems rather that no such thing is in the offing: this father and this child are really nothing like the selfish King Antiochus and his much-abused daughter. The selfish and destructive relation between the former pair will not be replicated here, but instead replaced by a relationship grounded in genuine, respectful and chaste love: what in biblical times would be called charitas or charity, not cupiditas or covetousness.
Now Pericles is truly on fire to know this young maid’s parentage, even if she fears she’ll be branded a wild liar for her efforts. He learns at 5.1.133 that her name is Marina, and a little below that she is the daughter of a king, and so was her mother. Pericles’s responses to all this seems uncomfortably close to the skepticism that Marina fears will be her reward for telling her tale, but Pericles—daring to believe only that he must be experiencing “the rarest dream” (5.1.151)—convinces her to continue with astonishing relation, and it all comes to light: how she was left in Tarsus and narrowly escaped death by Dionyza’s plot (though she doesn’t know that Cleon was an accessory after the fact), from thence by express pirate delivery to Mytilene. She leaves out the part of the story that involves a brothel, presumably so as not to distress Pericles still more. Her final pronouncement to him is, “I am the daughter to King Pericles…” (5.1.169).
What is Pericles to do with all this information? He first asks Helicanus for counsel, but the wise counselor simply doesn’t know, and neither does Lysimachus because she never revealed her parentage to him, either. At this, Pericles implores Helicanus to strike him physically into his senses: “put me to present pain, / Lest this great sea of joys rushing upon me / O’erbear the shores of my mortality / And drown me with their sweetness” (5.1.181-84). These are not only beautiful lines, but revealing ones, too: it seems fitting that the consummate expression of joy from a man who has suffered so much in and because of the sea should involve a metaphor involving the great movements of the ocean itself. Pericles is transformed by this strange knowledge, even reborn, as his joyful address to Marina as “Thou that begett’st him that did thee beget” (5.1.185). The last jewel in the revelatory crown is the name of Marina’s mother. At the sound of “Thaisa was my mother” (5.1.200), the truth for Pericles is undeniable and complete.
The end of the first scene in Act 5 is taken up with Pericles’s rapt hearing of the Music of the Spheres (see guide), which flows from the celestial harmony ordinarily imperceptible to mortal humankind. At last, an exhausted Pericles sleeps, only to receive a vision of the chaste goddess Diana. Her command is that Pericles should go to her temple at Ephesus and sacrifice, and when the priestesses are nearby, he is to give an accurate and moving recounting of his sorrowful experiences. The course is set for Ephesus, Lysimachus’s inevitable suit for Marina’s hand is granted even before he can get the words out of his mouth, and all that’s left is the carrying-out of Diana’s instructions for Pericles’s happiness to be complete.
Act 5, Scene 2 Prologue (pg. 203, Gower asks his hearers to imagine the celebration at Mytilene and skip forward to the final scene at Ephesus.)
John Gower again exercises his magical ability to whisk us through time and space to where the characters, and we, need to be. More about old Gower follows in my comments on the play’s Epilogue. Lysimachus’s wedding to Marina is still pending, by the way, since the goddess Diana’s commands must be carried out first.
Act 5, Scene 3 (203-205, Pericles obeys his dream vision of Diana and travels to the goddess’ temple at Ephesus. Here, Pericles recounts his losses as ordered, and Thaisa faints. But full and mutual recognitions follow all around. Pericles and Thaisa will rule in Pentapolis, while Lysimachus and Marina are bound for Tyre, where they will rule.
While Pericles recounts his tale as ordered by the goddess Diana, Thaisa faints because she recognizes her husband by his voice and appearance. Cerimon steps up to tell Pericles that this priestess is the very Thaisa of whom he has just spoken. The pair embrace joyfully, and Marina, kneeling, is revealed to Thaisa as her now-grown daughter. The transfiguration of Pericles’s attitude to pure joy is evident, and remarkably unalloyed for a romance play: he exclaims to the gods, “your present kindness / Makes my past miseries sports (5.3.40-41), and tells Thaisa, “Oh, come, be buried / A second time within these arms” (5.3.43-44). This seems like a total, if temporary, overcoming of the dread power of death, not a bittersweet utterance of the sort we will see in Shakespeare’s subsequent romance plays. Helicanus is duly recognized as a loyal substitute for Pericles, too, and Cerimon is honored for the excellent role he played in reviving Thaisa. Since King Simonides has recently died, Pericles decides that he and Thaisa will be sovereigns in Pentapolis, while Lysimachus and Marina will travel to Tyre and establish themselves on the throne there.
With this conclusion, we are as far as we can get from the selfish, wicked liaison of Antiochus and his daughter at the play’s outset. The frame story of Gower’s Confessio Amantis entails a long recounting of the sins committed by the protagonist Amans (the lover) against Venus, or love itself, so it makes sense that Shakespeare and Wilkins should shape Pericles, Prince of Tyre as a story that moves its Protagonist from his initially showy, chivalric pursuit of a terribly flawed companion to the holy, divinely sanctified love of a good woman and his beloved daughter. In Tyre and Pentapolis, two happy, generous and public-spirited couples will serve at the helm of their respective governments. This is Shakespeare’s basic comedic framework, and it lends the play’s conclusion a sunnier disposition than we might have thought possible. There is less of the bittersweetness in this romance than in the later ones The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, but it is just as enjoyable.
Epilogue (pp. 205-206, Gower caps off the play by reminding us of his own medieval moralist framework, which has seen the wicked punished and the good rewarded beyond their fondest dreams.)
Gower points to the distribution of rewards and punishments by the play’s end: the two happy couples, Helicanus, and Cerimon are all recognized as embodiments or emblems of their virtues, with Helicanus praised as “A figure of truth, of faith, of loyalty” (Epilogue 8), and Cerimon for his “learnèd charity” (10). Antiochus and his daughter, of course, died horribly, and so did Cleon and Dionyza for her wicked attempt on Marina’s life and his participation after the attempt. Gower’s final prayer is that the joy that reigns supreme at the play’s end should transfer itself to the audience. The last couplet runs “So, on your patience evermore attending, / New joy wait on you. Here our play has ending” (Epilogue 17-18). There is at least a hint here that as the audience has indulged the theater company’s need for its patience, part of the “new joy” for the audience might consist in an opportunity for them to behold yet another such play as Pericles, Prince of Tyre sometime soon.
Finally, John Gower by his ghostly performance throughout Pericles, Prince of Tyre joins the company of Shakespeare’s famous prologue- and epilogue-speakers: among others, the Prologue of Henry the Fifth with his stirring cry, “O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend / The brightest heaven of invention”; the concluding song of Feste the wise clown in Twelfth Night: “We’ll strive to please you every day”; Prospero in The Tempest with his plea, “Gentle breath of yours my sails / Must fill, or else my project fails, / Which was to please”; and Rosalind of As You Like It, with her admission, “It is not the fashion to see the lady the epilogue.” The general request among such figures is that we, the audience, should do our best to repair the limitations or defects of Shakespeare’s staged representations with our own imaginations and, perhaps just as important, with our charitable spirit, our “patience.”
Still, there is more to these first and last words in Shakespeare’s plays, and all of them repay close attention for the insight they provide regarding the nature and purpose of the theater, the standing of the audience, and other matters. Feste’s song lyric as quoted above can serve as an instance of such insight: he implies something about the value an audience might find in its theater-going experiences. Yes, we must leave the theater when the play is done, but we can always come back another day as “the whirligig of time” (to borrow Feste’s earlier expression) spins round and onward: the theater, then, serves as an inexhaustible wellspring of refreshing departures from the sordidness and tedium of the everyday world. There is not such a tragically permanent scission between “make-believe” and the real as some dour critics suggest there is and ought to be. Perhaps John Gower’s contribution as a speaker of first and last words has been to testify to the enduring power of poetry itself: he has returned to us in ghostly form to tell what Shakespeare’s friend and dramatic competitor Ben Jonson will call “a moldy tale” in a way that Shakespeare’s modern Jacobean audience can still learn from and appreciate.
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 © 2023 Alfred J. Drake