Stuff that Happens
Stuff that happens during the play
In Antioch (Syria):
- 15th century poet John Gower introduces himself and tells the audience that King Antiochus has a beautiful daughter “and her to incest did provoke.” Because his daughter/lover has many suitors, the King enacted a law that no man can marry her unless he answer Antiochus’s riddle; any suitor who gives the wrong answer will be executed.
- Pericles, Prince of Tyre, arrives to pursue the princess in marriage. He reads the riddle and solves it, determining the answer is, in fact, a person’s head. The King, angered that Pericles solved the riddle, lies and says Pericles did not solve it correctly.
- Antiochus gives Pericles forty days to get the “right” answer. Fearing for his life, and in disgust at discovering the incest between Antiochus and his daughter, Pericles flees. Antiochus orders his chamberlain, Thaliard, to chase Pericles and kill him.
- At Pericles’s home in Tyre, he laments to his friend Helicanus that Antiochus will go to any length to kill him, even war.
- Helicanus suggests that Pericles travel for a while, to let the King’s anger cool. Pericles agrees and heads to Tarsus, leaving Helicanus to rule in his absence.
- Thaliard arrives in Tyre, overhears the lords discuss Pericles’s departure, and leaves to inform Antiochus.
- The governor, Cleon, laments to his wife Dionyza how their city is in ruin due to famine.
- Pericles arrives and brings corn and other food to help the town, in return for letting him stay there.
- Gower appears again and, in a dumbshow, Pericles receives a letter; Gower tells the audience that Helicanus sends word to Pericles that Thaliard is searching him out to kill him. Gower says that Pericles flees by the sea and gets caught up in a storm, which wrecks the ships and kills all but Pericles.
- Pericles washes up on the shore of Pentapolis in Greece and is found by three fishermen, whom he convinces to help him.
- They tell him that their king, Simonides, will hold a jousting tournament the next day and that the winner will marry the princess Thaisa; they also find Pericles’s armor in their nets he plans to use to enter the contest.
- At the joust, some ridicule his rusty armor, but Pericles wins; at the celebration dinner, Thaisa and Pericles fall in love.
- Helicanus explains to Escanes that the gods have killed King Antiochus and his daughter by fire, ending their incestuous relationship. Three lords ask permission to seek out Pericles; if Pericles is dead, they ask Helicanus to be king; he agrees to be King only if Pericles cannot be found in twelve months.
- In a ploy to get rid of the rest of the suitors, Simonides pretends to be angry and tells the knights that Thaisa will not wed for a year; the suitors leave and Thaisa says she wishes to wed Pericles; Simonides reveals his pleasure and declares his daughter shall marry Pericles.
- Gower tells the audience that Thaisa, now married to Pericles, is pregnant. In a dumbshow, Pericles receives a letter from the lords of Tyre; Gower says Helicanus, to prevent a mutiny, will accept the crown if Pericles does not return home within twelve months; Gower says Pericles, pregnant Thaisa, and her nurse Lychordia set sail for Tyre and are caught in a storm.
In a storm at sea:
- Aboard ship, the nurse Lychordia reports that Thaisa has died giving birth to a daughter.
- As is custom, she is buried at sea in a chest, and Pericles includes a note with her body asking that she be properly buried if found.
- Pericles decides to stop off at Tarsus for nearly a year to leave the baby so as not to endanger it in the voyage back to Tyre.
- Two servants bring a chest that was tossed up on the shore to the nobleman and physician Cerimon; it holds the apparently dead Thaisa and Pericles’s note. Cerimon, however, uses an Egyptian ritual to revive her.
- Pericles stays twelve months with his daughter, Marina, then returns to Tyre, leaving Marina and Lychordia with Cleon and Dionyza.
- Convents, growing up, murderous plots, pirates, brothels, supposed death, and happy reunions ensue.
Notes from the Executive Director
the perils of the journey
Pericles is perilous. “Perilous” comes from the French word “perilleux,” which in turn derived from the Latin “perilculosus,” meaning “danger.” While his hero, Pericles, navigates the seas of the known world, Shakespeare’s late romance sails through dangerous dramatic waters. Both come home safely.
In a sense, the very nature of Pericles’s journey is risky business for Shakespeare as a playwright. His settings are normally centralized or, at most, shift between poles such as Rome and Egypt. Pericles, however, has no central or polar locations, but the scene moves from one place to another and from one set of characters to another. Pericles may be the Prince of Tyre, but he’s mostly elsewhere – Antioch, Tarsus, Pentapolis, Mytilene, and Ephesus.
A narrator in the character of the 15th-century poet John Gower helps to tie things together, but Shakespeare unifies his play in other ways. He holds the play together with a sense of magic – in the persons of the Doctor and the Goddess Diana and even more in a quality of wide-eyed wonder in our hero. Shakespeare seemed to like people like Sebastian in Twelfth Night and Pompey in Antony and Cleopatra who can deal with the sea, and Pericles encounters the world in his voyages willingly, his arms open to adventure.
Adventure for Pericles is about women and love. Twice he undergoes a life-risking competition for a bride, the first a test of his mind, the second a physical competition. The first of these two tests raises the stake to a higher level by introducing the subject on incest, a subject that will haunt the play. How do we avoid the monstrous in our love? How do we recognize it? In Pericles love between a man and a woman is a defining aspect of the human, and the play sails us near the tragic shores of Oedipus, when Marina, Pericles’s daughter, comes to comfort him.
But instead of giving us the monstrous, Shakespeare gives us the wonderful in what is perhaps his most beautiful recognition scene. In that scene an aging father, a world-weary, bitter, potentially violent and self-destructive man, encounters a hopeful, brave, and loving young woman, his daughter. Shakespeare has brought his play to the island of Prospero, to the safe harbor that King Lear does not live to enjoy.
The perilous journey Pericles makes from an open armed young adventurer to an embittered misanthrope adrift like some depressed version of Ahab and finally back to the state of grateful man is one of Shakespeare’s most skillful high-wire acts.
Ralph alan cohen