What a ridiculous play.  And I mean that in the best way possible.  But it is also a weird play, and that is probably why you have never heard of it.

Much like Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, starring Guy Pierce and Hugo "Agent Smith" Weaving. Weird, but AWESOME.

Thematically, I actually think it was a good follow-up to the existential crisis that is Taming of the Shrew.  But towards the end there, Shakespeare just stopped caring about form and made some crazy theatre.  And while I really really like Pericles, it requires a great deal of explanation.

Pericles is written in the style of what Brecht called “Epic Theatre,” which basically means it takes place in numerous locations and necessitates a great amount of theatricality – by which I mean the audience is constantly aware that they are watching a performance.

This man's theories are responsible for most bad theatre you will ever see.

Shakespeare returns to the convention he popularized in Henry V, where a chorus introduces every Act.  However, this Chorus gets a name – Gower, who is actually a poet and contemporary of Chaucer who wrote the Confessio Amantis that provides a basis for this play.  Also, if wikipedia is to be believed, the first half of this play is actually attributed to someone named George Wilkins and was not part of the First Folio.  And I will admit, as I started reading the play, the language did have a very forced and heightened quality to it.  As the text went on, I assumed I just became used to it, but perhaps Shakespeare just took over the text and made it more understandable.  But in any case, it is a strange play that required unique presentation.

Let’s start with the absolutely crazy beginning, shall we?

Pericles, a young prince from Tyre, comes to visit Antioch in search of a bride.  Specifically, he wants to marry the renowned beauty of the Daughter of Antiochus.  No, she doesn’t get a name of her own.  She is pretty, and nothing else.  Well… she is something else.  From Gower’s opening monologue: “so buxom, blithe, and full of face As heaven had lent her all his grace; With whom the father liking took, And her to incest did provoke.”

See what I mean about the awkward language at the beginning?  Oh, right, and the fucking incest.

Not the type that gets comically resolved at the end, but actual, creepy incest.

Antiochus is so creepily satisfied with his sexy daughter, he actually sets up a riddle that all her suitors are required to solve before they can marry her.  If they answer wrong, they are executed.  But the right answer is, naturally, that Antiochus is having unnatural relations with his daughter.  Pericles, being the hero of our story, is smart enough to figure out the riddle, but also smart enough not to say out loud.  His ambiguous response is: “King’s are earth’s gods; in vice their law’s their will; And if Jove stray, who dare say Jove doth ill?  It is enough you know; and it is fit.”  After that politic answer, and a humble request to not marry his daughter, Antiochus declares that Pericles will have longer to solve the riddle.  End scene one.

By now, I'm sure you figured out the play has absolutely nothing to do with the Athenian statesman.

So yeah, that’s only the beginning of the first act.  From there, Pericles gets shipwrecked multiple times trying to flee the wrath of Antiochus – for, as he so accurately suspects: “‘Tis time to fear when tyrants seem to kiss.”  He acquires a virtuous wife, Thaisa, but she gives birth to Marina at sea during a storm and is presumed dead in childbirth.  Superstition among the sailors requires the corpse to be thrown overboard, but Pericles insists on giving her a casket filled with jewels and a letter that begs, “Who finds her, give her burying.”  But of course, this play is ridiculous, so really she is alive and the men who rescue her bring her to a temple where she enlists as a priestess to Diana.  Marina is an newborn infant, and too young to travel much further, so Pericles entrusts her to the care of his old friends, Cleon and Dionyza, who rule Tarsus.  But this play is ridiculous, so Dionyza grows jealous of Marina and orders that she be assassinated when the girl turns 14.  But this play is ridiculous, so Pirates randomly kidnap her and the assassin reports she was killed anyways.  Pericles hears of her early death, which Dionyza covers up as an accident.  “He swears Never to wash his face, nor cut his hairs: He puts on sackcloth, and to sea,” and wanders the earth in silence.  And here we have reached the middle of Act IV.

In short, the plot is about as convoluted as a Terry Gilliam movie.

But by Act IV, it becomes evident that our masterful friend William has taken the reigns. And Marina is sold to a brothel in the city of Mytilene. And it’s disturbing, at times darkly comedic, but ultimately a very threatening and creepy scenario. Marina’s plight dominates the stage time, as she cleverly defends her virginity while a Bawd, Pandar, and Boult try to break her into the business. Instead of submitting to horrific sex slavery, Marina actually preaches to all of her clients, and converts them back onto a nobler path. In fact, “She would make a puritan out of the Devil, if he should cheapen a kiss of her.” Eventually, a politician named Lysimachus comes to enjoy her company, and even he sees the error of his ways.

Hilariously upright morality.

The scene that follows, however,  is both disturbing and amazing. Since she drove away one of the brothel’s wealthiest clients, Boult and Bawd decide that they need to rape Marina themselves. The Bawd commands: “Boult, take her away; use her at thy pleasure: crack the glass of her virginity, and make the rest malleable.” To which, Boult responds, “An if she were a thornier piece of groundthan she is, she shall be plough’d.” Though the circumstance of a virgin in a whorehouse manages to be comedic at times, the scene becomes suddenly very sinister, and Marina’s skills are put to the test. As Boult chases her around the room, she denounces him, “To the choleric fisting of every rogue thy ear is liable; thy food is such As hath been belched on by infected lungs.” But Boult’s response is suprisingly humanizing, and it complicates the already discomforting scene. “What would you have me do? go to the wars, would you? where a man may serve seven years for the loss of a leg, and have not money enough in the end to buy him a wooden one?” Holy shit. This certainly does not justify the pimp’s life, but it serves in that grand Shakespearean tradition to give a villain human motivations other than the bland traditional “evil for it’s own sake.” And even besides that, the scene shoots out a horrifying portrait of the lowest class of humanity, that are forced to make choices between different types of evil sand suffering.

Fortunately, Marina is able to buy her way out. Lysimachus paid her well for the sermon, and Marina convinces Boult that she can make him even more money by teaching skills to noble women. She was, after all, trained and raised to become a princess. When Boult doubts her, she retorts: “Prove that I cannot, take me home again And prostitute me to the basest groom that doth frequent your house”. I can’t help but note that Marina is the only character that actually utters the word, “prostitute.” In any case, Boult is intrigued by the offer relents and Marina is admitted into proper society where her virtue becomes renowned. When Pericles happens to land in the city, he happily discovers her as a noble advisor, not a broken whore.

This would have been a very different play otherwise.

The scene where Pericles reunites with his daughter is one of the most beautiful moments I have ever read in Shakespeare. I loved it. Act V scene 1. It starts off nearly comic, with brilliant use of dramatic irony – when the audience knows something the character’s don’t.


Horror movies are rife with this technique called dramatic irony. Use it in front of your friends and impress them!


Pericles comes to the coast of Mytilene, and Lysimachus as governor goes out to meet him. The titular prince of Tyre is in a silent state of mourning, for the daughter and the wife he thinks are dead, and his advisors essentially rule his homeland for him. Helicanus is the man who speaks for him on the ship, because Pericles refuses to speak with anyone. Lysimachus, however, knows of a wonderful maiden who is so charming, she “Would win some words of him.” This wonderful maiden comes, and tries to convince Pericles that he deserves to be happy. She shares her life’s story, claiming that if she can find happiness, so can he. And as this story unfolds, and Pericles recognizes the history of his daughter, he springs to life. I can’t describe the scene as anything other than beautiful, and worth staging the entire play to reach. In the final scene, Pericles brings his daughter to the temple of Diana – the goddess who appears to him in a dream – and they both discover that Thaisa is alive as a priestess. Again, the scene is heartwarming and joyful. But what saves the play from being trite and cliche is that this ending is so DESERVED. You know exactly how these characters survived, and you are basically waiting for them to discover their own good fortune so they can rise out of legitimate despair. So much horror and darkness has transpired over the course of the play that you genuinely feel happy for this family, even if that type of happy ending is so impossible in real life.

Unlike other stories that CHEAT, and just throw happy endings on that have NOT been earned.

So that’s Pericles. I actually went through it pretty quickly, but it’s taken a while to figure out what I wanted to say about it. I could go on a tangent about the political aspects of the play, especially the issues that Shakespeare has investigated since the first Henry 666, like the right of unjust kings to rule. The play inhabits a divinely benevolent world, where evil is ultimately punished and good rewarded. But the issues raised in the fantasy certainly probe real concerns, and I just encourage you to read the thing and discover them for yourself.

Despite my sometimes silly antics, the actual goal of all this is to get you to read.

The trick to staging this play is embracing the theatricality, but that is a lot harder to do than I’d like to admit. Remove the genuine emotion, and you get that obsolete style of Brechtian theatre that even Brecht hated. Over-emote, and you spoil the genuine love and fear that these scenes deserve. So when Brecht talks about making the audience aware that they are watching a show, he means playing with them, not messing with them. We remember Brecht for messing with audiences, but not for playing with them (the same way we remember Scrooge for being a miser, not repentant… it’s more entertaining that way, I guess). The conventions in Pericles are textbook Epic Theatre, but how to do Epic Theatre well is it’s own long essay. Gower provides a good example of these theatrical conventions in Act IV, where he tells the audience “By you being pardon’d, we commit no crime To use one language in each several clime Where our scenes seem to live.”

Furthermore, you will forgive these non-British characters for having exceptionally British accents.

His function as narrator overtakes even the Chorus in Henry V, since Gower starts to interject in the middle of Acts towards the end of the play. As I mentioned, Gower was the author of the original work, and could easily be costumed like the popular depiction of Shakespeare, in order to preside over the entire story. I could actually see him moving characters around stage, functioning visually as a director and stage hand and all-around master of this story. But in manipulating the stage so bluntly, and throwing out any need for the audience to suspend disbelief, those moments of genuine emotion become even more intense when they occur. But that’s just what I think.

Right now, I’m on a streak of weird plays that I know nothing about going in. Next week will be Timon of Athens, and I hope to be pleasantly suprised by that one as well.

Even now, as I look over the play for a final quote to end on, I’m rediscovering all these crazy things that are packed in there. It’s crazy, please read it. I think I will end with a line from Pericles himself in the first scene, which reveals the intended function of government. Realizing that Antiochus may bring war against Tyre to hide his own incest, Pericles debates his course of action: “With hostile forces he’ll o’erspread the land, And with th’ostent of war will look so huge, Amazement will drive courage from the state; Our men be vanquisht ere they do resist, And subjects punisht that ne’er thought offense: Which care of them, not pity of myself, Who am no more but as the tops of trees Which fence the roots they grow by and defend them, Makes both my body pine and soul to languish And punish that before that he would punish.”

5 Responses to “Pericles”
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  1. […] qualities it is the chastity that makes or breaks their full value.  The brothel-bound Marina, in Pericles, is another great example of how chastity is the determining factor in a female character’s […]

  2. […] improbability of this play’s happy ending reminds me of the joyful reunions in Cymbeline and Pericles: almost unbelievable, but profoundly deserved after the suffering endured by the characters.  […]

  3. […] Company, and Katie Graves and Matthew McMunn Dance to tell the fantastic story of Pericles, Prince of Tyre.  Shakespeare’s sweeping existential epic Pericles tells the story of a prince in pursuit […]

  4. […] William Shakespeare is among the writers who have expanded on the myth.  It’s different from Pericles, which just has an unusual structure that abandons the traditional focus on plot over character.  […]

  5. […] By far the largest undertaking that B.O.T. has ever attempted, Shakespeare, I Love You is a multi-company production where the five acts of a Shakespeare play are given to five different theatre companies, each company is given complete artistic freedom over their assigned portion of the text, and then the whole play is performed together as one story from multiple perspectives.  For this project, we selected Pericles, Prince of Tyre. […]

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