Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1388
In Syria, King Antiochus’s wife died in giving birth to a daughter. By the time the child has grown to lovely womanhood, King Antiochus has conceived an unnatural passion for her. Her beauty attracts suitors to Antioch from far and wide, but King Antiochus, reluctant to give up his daughter, poses a riddle to each suitor. If the riddle goes unanswered, the suitor is executed. Many men, hoping to win the princess, lose their lives in this way.
Prince Pericles of Tyre arrives in Antioch to seek the hand of the beautiful princess. Having declared that he is willing to risk his life for the hand of the king’s daughter, he reads the riddle posed to him, the solution to which discloses an incestuous relationship between King Antiochus and his daughter. Pericles understands but hesitates, prudently, to reveal his knowledge. Pressed by King Antiochus, he hints that he has fathomed the riddle. King Antiochus, unnerved and determined to kill Pericles, invites the young prince to stay at the court for forty days, in which time he can decide whether he will forthrightly give the solution to the riddle. Pericles, convinced that his life is in great danger, flees. King Antiochus sends agents after him with orders to kill the prince on sight.
Pericles, back in Tyre, is fearful that King Antiochus will ravage Tyre in an attempt to take Pericles’ life. After consulting with his lords, he decides that he can save Tyre by going on a journey that lasts until King Antiochus has died. Thaliard, a Syrian lord who has come to Tyre to take Pericles’ life, learns of Pericles’ departure and returns to Antioch to report the prince’s intention. Meanwhile, in the remote Greek province of Tarsus, Cleon, the governor, and his wife, Dionyza, grieve because there is famine in the land. As they despair, it is reported that a fleet of ships stands off the coast. Cleon is sure that Tarsus is about to be invaded, but actually the ships are those of Pericles, who has come to Tarsus with grain to succor the starving populace. Cleon welcomes the Tyrians, and his people invoke the Greek gods to protect their saviors from all harm.
Pericles receives word from Tyre that King Antiochus’s agents are pursuing him relentlessly, and he is no longer safe in Tarsus. He thereupon takes leave of Cleon and sets sail. On the high seas the Tyrians meet disaster in a storm. The fleet is lost; Pericles is the only survivor. Washed ashore in Greece, he is helped by simple fishermen. Fortunately, the fishermen also retrieve Pericles’ suit of armor from the sea.
With the help of the fishermen, Pericles travels to Pentapolis, the court of King Simonides, where a tournament is being held to honor the birthday of Thaisa, the king’s lovely daughter. Among the gallant knights he meets, Pericles presents a wretched sight in his rusted armor. Even so, he defeats all antagonists and is crowned king of the tournament by Thaisa. At the banquet following the tournament, Pericles, reminded of his own father’s splendid court, lapses into melancholy. Seeing his dejection, King Simonides drinks a toast to him and asks him who he is. He discloses that he is Pericles of Tyre, a castaway. His modesty and courteous deportment make an excellent impression on King Simonides and Thaisa.
Meanwhile, in Antioch, King Antiochus and his daughter, riding together in a chariot, are struck dead by a bolt of lightning. In Tyre, Pericles has been given up for dead, and the lords propose that Helicanus, Pericles’ deputy, take the crown. The old lord, confident that his prince is still alive, directs them to spend a year in search of Pericles. In Pentapolis, Thaisa, having lost her heart to Pericles, tricks her other suitors into leaving by reporting that she will remain a maiden for another year; she and Pericles are then married.
A short time before Thaisa is to give birth to a child, Pericles learns that King Antiochus is dead and that Helicanus has been importuned to take the crown of Tyre. Free to go home, Pericles, with Thaisa and Lychorida, a nurse, sails for Tyre. During the voyage the ship is overtaken by storms. Thaisa, seemingly dead after giving birth to a daughter, is placed in a watertight casket, and the casket is thrown into the raging sea. Pericles, fearful for the safety of his child, directs the seamen to take the ship into Tarsus, which is not far off. The casket containing Thaisa drifts ashore in Ephesus, and Thaisa’s apparently dead body is taken to Cerimon, a skilled physician. Cerimon, suspecting that she is not really dead, discovers through his skill that Thaisa is actually quite alive.
Pericles, having reached Tarsus safely, remains there a year, at the end of which time he declares that Tyre has need of him. Placing little Marina, as he has named his daughter, in the care of Cleon and Dionyza, he sets out for Tyre. In the meantime Thaisa, believing that her husband and child have been lost at sea, takes the veil of a votaress to the goddess Diana.
Years pass, during which Pericles rules in Tyre. As Marina grows, it is clear that she is superior in every respect to her companion, the daughter of Cleon and Dionyza. When Marina’s nurse Lychorida dies, Dionyza, jealous of the daughter of Pericles, plots against Marina, commissioning a servant to take the girl to a deserted place on the coast and kill her. As the servant threatens Marina, pirates arrive and frighten the servant away; they then take Marina aboard their ship. They transport her to Mytilene, where they sell her to a brothel owner.
In Tarsus, meanwhile, Dionyza persuades the horrified Cleon that for their own safety against the rage of Pericles they must mourn the loss of Marina and erect a monument in her memory. When Pericles, accompanied by old Helicanus, arrives in Tarsus to reclaim his daughter, his grief on seeing the monument is so great that he exchanges his royal robes for rags and vows never again to wash himself or to cut his hair. Pericles then leaves Tarsus.
In Mytilene, in the meantime, Marina confounds both the owners and the customers of the brothel by preaching the heavenly virtues instead of deporting herself wantonly. Lysimachus, the governor of Mytilene, goes in disguise to the brothel, and when Marina is brought to him he quickly discerns her gentle birth. He gives her gold and assures her that she will soon be freed from her vile bondage. Alarmed, the bawd places Marina in the hands of the doorkeeper. Marina shames him, gives him gold, and persuades him to place her as a teacher of the gentle arts. The money she then earns by teaching singing, dancing, and needlework she gives to her owner, the bawd.
When Pericles, now a distracted wanderer, comes to Mytilene, Lysimachus takes a barge out to the Tyrian ship, but he is told that Pericles, grieving the loss of both wife and daughter, will not speak to anyone. A Mytilene lord suggests that Marina, famous for her graciousness and charm, be brought to see Pericles. When Marina meets Pericles, she reveals to him that she knows a grief similar to his, for she has lost her father and mother. It soon becomes apparent to the bewildered Pericles that his daughter stands before him. Rejoicing, he puts aside his rags and dresses again in regal robes. The goddess Diana then puts him into a deep sleep, in which she directs him in a dream to go to the temple of Diana in Ephesus and there tell of the loss of his wife.
Pericles hastens to the temple, where he reveals his identity to the votaries in attendance. Thaisa, overhearing him, faints. Cerimon, who is also present, discloses to Pericles that the votaress who has fainted is his wife. Pericles and Thaisa are joyfully reunited. As Thaisa’s father has died, Pericles proclaims that he and Thaisa will reign in Pentapolis and that Lysimachus and Marina, as husband and wife, will rule over Tyre. When the people of Tarsus learn of the evil done by Cleon and Dionyza, they burn the governor and his family alive in their palace.
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