Literature Study GuidesPericlesAct 1 Scene 4 Summary

Pericles | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Pericles | Act 1, Scene 4 | Summary

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Summary

This scene takes place in Tarsus at a time of famine. The governor, Cleon, and his wife, Dionyza, enter to discuss the troubles they and their citizens are facing due to lack of food with no relief in sight. The dire situation has been "felt several years," and as Cleon darkly suggests, hunger has brought "Those mothers who, to nuzzle up their babes, / ... are ready now / To eat those little darlings whom they loved." Their laments are interrupted by the news that a fleet of ships approaches Tarsus. Cleon at once fears it is an enemy come to take advantage of their weakness, despite a display of white flags. Pericles arrives and informs Cleon he has heard of the famine and come with resources "like the Trojan horse was stuffed within ... stored with corn to make your needy bread / And give them life whom hunger starved half dead." This is the answer to Cleon's prayers, and he lavishly thanks Pericles, who asks in return for "harborage" (safe refuge) in Tarsus for himself and his men.

Analysis

Since ancient times, a white flag is flown on land or sea to signal surrender or peaceful intent. In this way Pericles signals to the people of Tarsus that rather than approaching the land with hostile intent (as Cleon at first suspects, knowing that neighboring powers are likely to take advantage of his weakened state) he wants to make a peaceful approach. True to this sign, Pericles informs Cleon he has heard of the starvation in Tarsus and brought stores of corn to save them.

The contrasts of abundance and privation weave in and out of the play but are particularly brought forward in this scene. The desperation of long-term starvation is presented to an audience that is probably nibbling on food while the play is going on. Cleon stresses the desperate condition of his people with the image of mothers on the verge of eating their own infants. As a basic taboo of human behavior, cannibalism rates pretty close to incest (exemplified in the play by Antiochus and his daughter). Pericles has established himself as honorable in having left Antioch without pausing even to eat at Antiochus's table and abandoning his pursuit of the princess of Antioch, whom he knows is in a sinful relationship with her father. In a sense Pericles also forestalls the stigma of resorting to cannibalism in Tarsus by providing much-needed food.

The reference Pericles makes to the Trojan horse was one well known to most audiences familiar with both Greek and Roman stories about the Trojan War. The large wooden horse was constructed with a hollow body so it could hide a group of Greek soldiers inside. It was left outside the city of Troy as a "gift." Despite warnings against bringing the horse inside the city gates, the horse is brought in and at night the soldiers climb out and open the gates of Troy to Greek forces. The Greeks overwhelm the sleeping city and bring an end to the 10-year siege of Troy. Unlike the deception of the Trojan horse, however, the holds of Pericles's ships do bring a gift of food to relieve the famine in Tarsus instead of soldiers intent on conquest. However, the reference does, to some extent, foreshadow the problematic relationship Pericles will have with Tarsus.

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