I represent a niche group in the Shakespeare community. That’s right, my favorite Shakespeare play is Pericles. Today I’m here to tell you why and to demonstrate why YOU should take a chance and come see it.
Pericles, Prince of Tyre is an island-hopping, Odyssean play set in the expansive world of the Mediterranean. The titular Pericles, as the audience’s eternal traveler, not only navigates the seas, but also the interpersonal relationships he makes along the way. I first fell in love with Pericles during the pandemic. I was enrolled in Mary Baldwin University’s Shakespeare and Performance graduate program and was completing my Masters of Fine Arts by directing Pericles. Throughout my journey of editing the script and preparing to present this play in some unprecedented times, I grew to see beauty in the way this play represents the significance of how we treat each other. At its core, the play deals with themes of hospitality and the definition of honor. One reason the show is so important is demonstrated in the way the prince must rely on the help of others to survive–whether it be those in his court, on the seas, or in the lands where he finds himself a stranger. While his good hosts are depicted as honorable, his bad hosts are deemed dishonorable, allowing the audience to investigate how we treat travelers who may be far from home.
If you’ll allow me to get a wee bit nerdy, I’ll break down five themes that helped me find my way into this play.
There is an ancient Greek concept called Xenia, which is the sacred theory of hospitality, generosity, and curiosity shown to those who are far from home–perfect for Pericles and his travels!
Xenia has two main components:
- The respect from host to guest: Hosts must be hospitable to guests and provide them with a bath, food, drink, gifts, and safe escort to their next destination. It is considered rude to ask guests questions or even ask who they are before they have finished the meal provided to them.
- The respect from guest to host: Guests must be courteous to their hosts and not be a threat or burden. Guests are expected to provide stories and news from the outside world. Most importantly, guests are expected to reciprocate if their hosts ever call upon them in their homes. (Reece)
This concept of xenia manifests itself in about ten scenes in Pericles, averaging two scenes per act, so it definitely plays a significant role in the story, showing characters choosing to work either in harmony or violation of this “hospitality code,” and the subsequent consequences. One example can be found in Antioch, at the start of the play. King Antiochus gives Pericles welcome as his station of the regent of Tyre deserves. After discovering the horrific answer to Antiochus’ riddle, Pericles reveals his knowledge to the king: “Few love to hear the sins they love to act.” (1.1.95) With these words, Pericles pushes the limits of his welcome. Once Antiochus understands that Pericles knows the answer, he does not immediately call for Pericles’ death, but instead decrees that he will be situated in Antioch for 40 days and if the secret has not been revealed in that time, Pericles will be made his son–in the meantime his “entertain shall be as doth befit our honor and your worth.” (1.1.125-126). Pericles, instead of staying and becoming the son of incest, fleas from Antioch. Antiochus continues to offer xenia as the host, even after he threatens the life of Pericles. Even in the unfavorable circumstances, the code of xenia is never broken, only pushed and stretched.
The characters of Pericles hold such a special place in my heart for how they interact and exist with each other. They have variety, depth, compassion–even if they only show up for one scene. I will start with “a grave and noble counselor” Helicanus. Known as the ‘old man’ of the play, Helicanus is Pericles’ most trusted advisor. When we first see him in the second scene of the play, he berates the other Lords who flatter Pericles and refuse to notice the emotional state he is in. He reminds Pericles that if he is to rule by the court’s flattery, it is abuse to his position as king. Helicanus serves in his position to help Pericles and not for his own interests. A similar occurrence happens elsewhere in Shakespeare, in The Winter’s Tale. Paulina, considered one of the most loyal characters in the canon, not only criticizes Leontes’ servants but speaks her mind bluntly to him as well. I’d argue Helicanus is Paulina’s parallel in loyalty, especially since they both speak their mind to their superiors without fear of the consequences. It seems rare to see such a loyal advisor who isn’t self-interested. Compared to HBO’s House of the Dragon, Helicanus is the exact opposite of Otto Hightower. Otto is self-interested and wants to advance his own house, but Helicanus sees that as the biggest mark of dishonor possible. Later on in the play, Pericles is in Pentapolis and the Lords of Tyre are upset that he’s been gone for so long. When they insinuate their desire for Helicanus to rule, Helicanus gets upset just at the thought they could stray in devotion to their king, whose only fault so far is that he has been absent (they don’t know he was shipwrecked). What strikes me about Helicanus is that even when he has no clue where Pericles is, he still has faith that he will be coming back to Tyre for his people.
- CLASS CONSCIOUSNESS
After Helicanus, the Fishermen are my trio of choice and they are in my favorite scene in the entire play. As mere fishermen they offer a surprising view on class challenges, yet show such xenia and compassion for the washed-up Pericles. When mourning for the men who were wrecked in the storm, the First Fishermen comments how he wishes he could have helped those lost, but the fishermen can’t even really help themselves. Pericles, whose ship was wrecked, is overhearing this group ruminating on the inequities of the ‘big fish’ and ‘little fish’ in society; the First Fishermen states “I can compare our rich misers to nothing so fitly as a whale: he plays and tumbles, driving the poor fry before him and at last devours them all at a mouthful. Such whales have I heard on a’ the land, who never leave gaping tull they swallowed the whole parish–church, steeple, bells, and all.” (2.1.28-25) Like the ‘rich misers’ and ‘whales’ consuming the little ones for everything they have, those with the power are not in alignment with xenia’s traditions. The inequity the fishermen comment on is not unknown to them, and the audience can make external connections to corporations like Amazon or Uber, among others. As fishermen, they have to tirelessly work to survive while the higher-ups reap the benefits of their labor.
Now, you might be thinking, what do these fishermen know? Well, that’s the point of them! The Third Fisherman continues with a biblical reference to the Book of Jonah, stating that if the sea would have swallowed him he “would have kept such a jangling of the bells that he should never have left till he cast bells, steeple, church, and parish up again.” (2.1.39-43) Pulling on that imagery, they would have made salvation–and as fishermen they recall to mind the profession of Jesus’ disciples. Once Pericles reveals himself to the fishermen and asks for help, they joke back a bit but offer their help without concern for the cost, a gesture that again calls to mind the actions of Christ. One of the beautifully intricate elements of this play is how it calls on other work by Shakespeare, other plays, and different religious texts and experiences.
My love for Pericles definitely manifests in the Knight’s parade at Pentapolis. The scene opens at the court of King Simonides with Knights presenting shields to Princess Thaisa in hopes to win her affection. Each of the shields has an image and a motto (in our production we’ve put the motto’s English translation and not the Latin/Italian.) Pericles had been shipwrecked at this point and he was given some clothes by the Fishermen to help put his best foot forward. While he does not have a shield like the other Knights, he instead presents a “withered branch that’s only green at top, the motto: In hac spe vivo” (2.2.45-46) That motto means “in this hope I live.” In his shipwrecked state, Pericles does not assert his royal title, but hopes that his simple gift will be enough for him to be accepted by this Princess. This exemplifies a great quality in Pericles: he does not rely on his station in life to get by or get him out of trouble. Honor is one of his key virtues that he passes on to his daughter Marina.
Now I could go on ad nauseam about my other favorite elements of this play–Marina, Thaisa, the parallels between the brothel and the fisherman, how Marina is the perfect combination of her parents, etc. Instead, I’ll leave it up to you to discover as an audience member when you come to see Pericles this fall. If you see me behind the desk in our lobby, stop by! I am more than happy to talk to you about why you think this play is great (or bad–I’ll convince you of its goodness in person.) I hope this passionate and nerdy blog post will give you a reason (or five) to see Pericles before it closes on November 20th.
See you at the Playhouse soon!
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Gossett, Suzanne. The Arden Shakespeare Pericles. Third, Thomson, 2004.
Reece, Steve. 1993. The Stranger’s Welcome: Oral Theory and the Aesthetics of the Homeric Hospitality Scene. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.