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Literature Study GuidesPericlesAct 1 Scene 1 Summary

Pericles | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Pericles | Act 1, Scene 1 | Summary



As Gower exits, Antiochus enters with Pericles. Antiochus wants to make sure the young man is clear on the risks he will be taking in trying to solve the riddle in order to win the hand of his daughter. Antiochus orders music to play, and his daughter enters "clothed like a bride / For embracements even of Jove himself." Pericles praises her beautiful appearance, and Antiochus cautions him yet again that the consequences of failure will result in Pericles's head being cut from his body and displayed next to the others. Not even this prospect deters Pericles, and he reads out the riddle, which includes the clue "I mother, wife, and yet his child. / How they may be, and yet in two." Pericles immediately realizes the answer to the riddle is the incestuous relationship between Antiochus and his daughter. For Pericles it means he no longer wants the daughter as his wife for, as Pericles says in an aside, "being played upon before your time, / Hell only danceth at so harsh a chime."

But Antiochus is waiting for Pericles's answer. The prince attempts the diplomatic statement: "Kings are Earth's gods; in vice their law's their will; / And if Jove stray, who dares say Jove doth ill?" By these words Antiochus knows Pericles has solved the riddle but tells him he has "misinterpreted" it. Antiochus pretends having had a change of heart due to this technicality and tells Pericles he will entertain the prince for 40 days before making a decision on his fate. In secret, however, Antiochus employs one of his thugs, Thaliard, to murder Pericles. However, Pericles doesn't wait to enjoy a feast: He wisely flees Antioch.


Jove (also known as Jupiter) is, according to Roman mythology, the king of the gods who is noted for his repeated infidelity to his goddess wife, Juno. His many conquests include young and beautiful human virgins, such as Danae, Antiope, and Europa. The two allusions to Jove in this scene—the first in Antiochus's description of her appearance and the second in the solution to the riddle itself made by Pericles—puts the daughter in mind of having already been seduced by the earthly "double" or mirror of Jove on earth. In this case the double is King Antiochus.

Pericles is faced with a deadly dilemma in this scene because no matter what he does, once he has accepted the challenge his life is forfeit. The riddle itself is fairly easy to solve, which brings up the question why so many others failed to grasp its meaning. Given the motivation Antioch has in keeping the secret of his incestuous relationship with his daughter, the problem is not so much in solving the riddle but in saying aloud the sin of the king or remaining silent about it. So every suitor has, like Pericles, a choice to make. If he is not able to solve the riddle, he dies. If (as may very well have happened to some of them) he does solve it, he may choose to pretend he hasn't solved it in order to avoid offending the king. But then, of course, he loses his head anyway.

Pericles tells the truth in a kind of transparent riddle of his own, causing the king to pause and then give him enough time to flee. This princess, in any case, would never be a wife he'd have. Another possible reason the riddle might have been so easy to solve is that it offers some members of the audience of the play an opportunity to show off both their knowledge of Jove's sexual adventures and maybe feel a bit superior to the characters of the play. The story of Pericles is already familiar to them, as mentioned by Gower in the first Chorus preceding this scene. Audience members were likely to interrupt the play with their own observations and witticisms, as evidenced by Gower's several reminders to the audience to quiet down.

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