"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.
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...
(The entire section is 10,686 words.)