Pericles, Prince of Tyre The Care . . . of Subjects' Good: Pericles, James I, and the Neglect of Government - Essay

William Shakespeare


(Shakespearean Criticism)

"The Care . . . of Subjects' Good": Pericles, James I, and the Neglect of Government

Stuart M. Kurland, Duquesne University

Critics have generally found the story of Perieles, Prince of Tyre, interesting—if at all—for the strange and marvelous adventures that befall the romance hero as he wanders the ancient Mediterranean world. Yet Pericles is also a prince—a prince who seems curiously uninterested in the fate of his kingdom of Tyre once he takes ship, in Act I, to escape the vengeance of the tyrant Antiochus, a prince who seems oblivious to the important issues of government and statecraft depicted in the diverse realms he visits. Pericles' obliviousness is the more striking since it appears in the context of a virtual education in government provided by a diverse group of rulers: the incestuous and cruel Antiochus, the ineffective but kindly Cleon, the "good Simonides," the licentious but miraculously transformed Lysimachus. Pericles' remoteness and general passivity are striking too because of the contrast with them provided by the energetic conduct of the daughter who will inherit his authority, the "absolute" Marina. Pericles' only daughter confronts and overcomes comparable adversity at the hands of fate, enough to consume all of Act IV and rate prominent mention alongside Pericles on the Quarto title page, which calls attention both to "the whole Historie, aduentures, and fortunes of the said Prince: As also, The no lesse strange, and worthy accidents, in the Birth and Life, of his Daughter MARIANA [sic]."1

These political aspects of Pericles, I will argue, are best appreciated in the context of early Jacobean politics, notably the problems associated with King James I's disinclination to stay in London to dispatch government business—that is, to govern and to be seen as governing. While James remained in the country whenever he could, hunting and traveling restlessly from one rural seat to another, his ministers were left to conduct affairs of state by correspondence. Observers commented on the problems caused by the King's apparent inattention to government business, which was the more notable in contrast with the picture of involvement presented by Elizabeth I. It might seem farfetched to see in Pericles and Marina an allegory of rule in the early Jacobean period, but, as I will suggest, the contemporaneous perception of royal indifference to good government provides a context for viewing Shakespeare's interest around 1606 in such a "mouldy" tale as the ancient history of Apollonius of Tyre, his politicization of aspects ofthat tale in Pericles, Prince of Tyre, and the play's surprising contemporary popularity.


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Let us begin with the travels of Pericles, who flees Antioch secretly after he discovers the tyrant Antiochus' secret incest in the opening scenes. Convinced that his discovery will result in certain death, Pericles returns home to Tyre and falls into a deep depression about the suffering that will surely befall his subjects. When Helicanus advises Pericles to "travel for a while" and offers himself as caretaker, Pericles immediately embraces the suggestion—"The care I had and have of subjects' good/On thee I lay, whose wisdom's strength can bear it" (I.ii.106, 118-19)—and takes ship. Guided by ancient Gower and his dumb shows, the audience of Pericles accompanies the romance hero in his wanderings, sailing from Tyre to Tharsus, from Tharsus to Pentapolis, from Pentapolis to Ephesus, from Ephesus to Tharsus—and, eventually, after a gap of many years, enduring a period of aimless drifting in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas that brings him to Mytilene and then to Ephesus, where he and his reunited family make plans to return to Pentapolis.

The impression of constant movement, frenzied and disjointed, is compounded by sudden scene shifts while Pericles is off stage—for example, during Pericles' entertainment in Pentapolis after his shipwreck the scene returns to Tyre, where Pericles' lords urge Helicanus to take the crown for himself (II.iv. 17-58). More significant, during Pericles' virtual disappearance from the story in Act IV, we follow the fortunes of his daughter Marina, who is brought from Tharsus to Mytilene, where they will eventually be reunited.2

Sometimes these movements are quite deliberate, as when Pericles and his wife Thaisa take ship for Tyre to reclaim his crown (III.Chorus.39-41). But often, as with Pericles' wanderings in Act IV, they seem deliberately aimless. Periodically, outside forces interrupt and redirect events. There are human agents: an assassin in the service of an incestuous tyrant, a jealous mother, a band of opportunistic pirates. And there are natural or supernatural forces, equally appropriate to romance, notably three storms at sea (which cause Pericles to wash up in Pentapolis, to bury a comatose...

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

Let us turn to the record of a very different set of travels, the progresses and hunting trips that marked the residence of King James I in England during the period of Pericles' composition, around 1606-08.10 Endeavoring to "sample" James' "wanderings" in the course of one year, 1605, D. H. Willson writes that the King left Royston for Whitehall for the Christmas season 1604-05, returned to Royston in mid-January 1605, and then moved to Huntingdon and Hinchinbrook.

He came to London early in February but soon returned to Royston, travelled thence to Ware, Newmarket and Thetford, then back to Newmarket and Royston, then to London about the middle of March. For some four months he remained in the vicinity of the capital, moving between Greenwich, Richmond, Windsor and Oatlands, hunting as he went. A progress in July and August took him towards Oxford. Thence he came to Windsor and to Hampton Court for part of September. In October he was again at Royston, Huntingdon, Hinchinbrook and Ware, and though he came to London to open Parliament in November, he returned to Royston for most of the remainder of the year.11

In various contemporary accounts, the King's hectic itinerary is a constant theme; during the first half of 1606, for example, James' movements can be traced from Enfield to London (he stayed primarily at Greenwich and Whitehall, with trips to Woking and Newmarket), then to Royston and on to Newmarket, and again to "London and its neighbourhood" (with brief stays at Havering, Theobalds, and Cheshunt).12

M. S. Giuseppi, editor of the Salisbury papers, quotes James writing in 1607 to his chief minister, Robert Cecil, Viscount Cranborne and later Earl of Salisbury, that "the confusion of business before my parting made me to forget those principal things whereof I should then have put you in remembrance," a comment that Giuseppi says "sums up very well the disorder introduced into the administration both by his peregrinations and also by his entire mode of life."13 On a number of occasions, the business of government was delayed or disrupted as a result of James' disinclination to stay in London: the Salisbury papers refer to a lost box that may have contained letters, a delivery boy who hurt himself and lay in the fields overnight until found, and complaints about the slow conveyance of important papers from the Privy Council. "On other occasions Salisbury's letters are reported to have arrived soon after six in the morning but the King was already on horseback. . . . The King remembers that he had forgotten sundry things in his last letter; . . . he puts off reading those from Salisbury, lies abed late, or is in no disposition to sign anything owing to a swollen ankle."14

Modern historians have been divided about just how disruptive James' habits were. According to Willson's unsympathetic portrait, after the accession in 1603 his "Councillors soon discovered that the transaction of business was rendered difficult by the peculiar habits of the King, and especially by his fondness for country life. . . . [T]he nervous and perpetual wanderings of this peripatetic Prince never ceased; year in and year out, for weeks and months on end, he loitered in the country or journeyed from one hunting-seat to the next though business demanded his presence in London." James' passion for hunting was well known. But he also sought to avoid London, which he "heartily disliked, much preferring the retired privacy and careless ease of the country. He wished to escape from business, from perplexing diversity of counsel, from the merciless importunity of suitors." On balance, according to Willson, James' "sylvan existence caused many difficulties in government."15

This view, that the business of government suffered because "[g]overnment was conducted largely by correspondence,"16 has been challenged by Maurice Lee, Jr., who nonetheless acknowledges that James' reputation suffered from "his devotion to the chase, which made him appear uncaring and irresponsible." Lee quotes a dispatch from the Venetian ambassador soon after the accession in which James was reported to be "bewitched" by his ministers: "He is 'lost in bliss' and leaves everything to them, while he indulges in the pursuit of stags, 'to which he is quite foolishly devoted'."17 And Lee acknowledges that "many English courtiers and officials were...

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

If we focus on the pragmatic issue at the heart of governance, the central question of the monarch's apparent concern for and attention to the maintenance of the commonweal,33 Pericles is surely lacking as a prince. Pericles is hardly the first representation in Shakespeare's work of a monarch who appears disengaged from the responsibilities of rule. Besides Lear, who wishes—like Richard II—to enjoy the ceremonial aspects of monarchy without the responsibility that goes with them, we might add a number of rulers from the seemingly non-political plays of the Jacobean period: Duke Vincentio, Cymbeline, Leontes, Prospero. Even in the most overtly political plays of Shakespeare, which clearly show the...

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

Although Marina is a political figure primarily in the indirect sense that she is Pericles' heir and Lysimachus' betrothed, she still provides a model of initiative and principled resourcefulness that contrasts with the purposelessness and drift (and, on occasion, the misdirected energy) that characterize her father throughout the play.62 Refusing to succumb to the debased life of the brothel, Marina displays an astonishing ability to act affirmatively and make the best of her situation.

Marina's influence on the characters around her is profound. She transforms not only Lysimachus, who leaves the brothel cursing the "damned door-keeper" Boult and "saying his prayers" ( 118, 140),...

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