Pericles | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Pericles | Act 1, Chorus | Summary

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Summary

The Spirit of Gower enters as an old man to tell the audience he will present an old but very good story "to glad your ear and please your eyes." He at once explains how the action starts in Antioch, where Antiochus the Great has established the seat of his government. Antiochus has such a beautiful young daughter that many princes "seek her as a bedfellow, / In marriage pleasures playfellow." However, as Gower states, Antiochus wants to keep his daughter in his own possession because he has long had an incestuous relationship with her. "Bad child, worse father!" Gower comments as he sets up the situation that opens the play. Each suitor for her hand is asked a riddle that, if he can solve it, will win him the object of his desire. But if he is unable to answer it correctly his life is forfeit, and Gower shows the audience the gory row of heads of those who have failed.

Analysis

Gower acts as intermediary between the audience and the play as its Chorus throughout the performance. This means he is omniscient and knows the characters' inner secrets and what will happen to them. This position allows Gower to tell the audience they are going to see an old story that will be as entertaining as it is instructive. As if anticipating a short attention span, Gower snags the attention of the audience with the case of a "Bad child, worse father!" By calling him "Antiochus the Great" and then immediately giving the salacious details of a king who takes sinful pleasure in his daughter, Gower uses the irony and contrast to drive home what a terrible father Antiochus is. The discrepancy of the title "Great" for Antiochus is one way of presenting an important theme of the play, which is that appearances are deceiving. While the daughter appears beautiful and a marriage to her would also give a young man a king for a father-in-law, the daughter is in truth "damaged goods." Moreover, her father has no intention of letting go of her or of the pleasure he has in her.

The row of heads present on stage underscores the depravity of Antiochus's sin, which he shares with his daughter and refuses to give up. This gruesome reminder of the price of failure also serves as a comment on how physical beauty is a lure by which "men lose their heads."

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