Pericles, Prince of Tyre takes the form of a hero’s journey—actually it takes the form of an exceptionally bad B-movie—but Shakespeare makes it work somehow. There were a few stops along the way that left me reeling in their rawness. Right out of the gate, 25 lines in, we are told by Gower, the narrator that in Antioch is a king who took such a liking to his own daughter that
“her to incest did provoke.
Bad child, worse father! To entice his own
to evil should be done by none.”
Enter Pericles who is obviously not apprised of the situation. All he knows is that the daughter of the King of Antioch is available. He learns there is a riddle to solve and the prize is the daughter. Mounted on the wall are the heads of all the suitors who couldn’t solve the riddle but Pericles gives it a go.
The riddle is stupid and obvious. The answer is father-daughter incest. Pericles understands immediately that solving the riddle is as dangerous as not solving it. As the King says in an aside “He must not live to trumpet my infamy.” As titillating as all this is, it’s the last of our concern with Antioch.
Pericles flees, is shipwrecked and washes up on shore at Pentapolis where he marries Thaisa, the King’s daughter. He receives word that he’s needed back in Tyre. Pregnant Thaisa goes with him and dies in childbirth. She is given a burial at sea and the baby, Marina, is left at Tharsus with Cleon and Dionyza for the time being.
The coffin containing Thaisa washes up at Ephesus where (as we know from The Comedy of Errors) all sorts of magic and occult practitioners offer their services. One of them brings Thaisa back to life and she takes up as the high priestess at Diana’s temple.
Gower comes out and tells us sixteen years have passed.
Cleon and Dionyza have not been the greatest choice as foster parents. They’ve been kind to Marina but now that she is 16, Dionyza contracts a little touch of the Texas cheerleader’s mom and feels that Marina is outshining her own daughter. She orders her to be killed. But before this can happen, Marina is abducted by pirates and sold to a brothel in Mytilene.
The scenes in the brothel are raw. There’s a pander (who we all know about from Troilus and Cressida) and his bawd (that would be the madam) and their servant who goes by the name of Boult. The numbers are down in the brothel because the women are “so pitifully sodden” from being “stewed in the sweating tubs” as a treatment for venereal disease. A client has died because his “little baggage. . . pooped him; she made him roast meat for worms,” all of which is to say she infected him with venereal disease.
Into this cesspool comes Marina, the virgin. Pander, Bawd, and Boult salivate over the price they will get from her first client while Marina waits in terror. But Marina manages to dazzle or shame everyone who comes near her and thus remains “pure.” The last to be dazzled is the Governor of Mytilene who rescues her from the stew.
Finally here comes Pericles, looking for his daughter. Besides losing his wife, he’s been shipwrecked several times and who knows what all has been going on in Tyre. Told his daughter was abducted by pirates, he has gone into a complete funk. He’s depressed and apathetic. Marina is brought to work her magic on him, and the two work out that they are father and daughter.
The governor of Mytilene wants to marry Marina. Before they can do that, they must make a sacrifice at the altar of Diana at Ephesus and we know who is running that show. And so the whole family is united.
As a story of loss and restoration, Pericles didn’t move me like The Winter’s Tale did. It felt dis-jointed and contained story lines that got lost and weren’t restored. There is some thought that Shakespeare didn’t write the entire play and it read that way. Mid-way through it got tighter and livelier so that even a novice like me noticed it.
After the brothel scene I was most fascinated with the short scenes at Ephesus. I grew up a kid drenched in Bible stories from Sunday School. We heard all about the evil at Ephesus and the abomination that was Diana. Between Pericles and The Comedy of Errors, Ephesus sounds like rather a fun place to be, not to mention a safer place to be stranded than my childhood Sunday Schools classes.
*passions of the mind (I, ii)
*One sorrow never comes but brings as heir
That may succeed as his inheritor. (I, iv)
*due diligence (III, chorus)
*O you gods!
Why do you make us love your goodly gifts
And snatch them straight away? (III, i)
*What world is this? (III, ii)
*foul play (IV, iii)
*needful thing (V, iii)