Pericles | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Pericles | Plot Summary

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Summary

Act 1

Gower, as the Chorus, enters alone to deliver a short speech to the audience. He reminds them the topic of the play is a familiar one. Gower describes the Syrian kingdom of Antioch, and he lays out the incestuous relationship between King Antiochus and his daughter. Young princes want to wed the daughter, but the king has kept them at bay, and his daughter to himself, by demanding they answer a riddle. If they fail they face execution. So far, none has gotten it right.

At this point Pericles, Prince of Tyre, appears in Antioch. As soon as the princess appears Pericles is smitten and agrees to the conditions to win her. He reads the riddle and in doing so realizes it reveals the incestuous relationship between daughter and father. Pericles doesn't reveal the answer but says enough that Antiochus knows he has discovered the answer. Pericles retracts his interest in the princess and flees for his life.

Pericles needs to get as far beyond the reach of Antiochus as he can. He goes first to his home in Tyre. There, with his faithful Lord Helicanus, Pericles discusses the power of rulers to take the lives of those who serve them, prompting such servants to resort to flattery. Helicanus recommends Pericles travel until Antiochus cools down, and Pericles decides to go on to Tarsus, knowing Antiochus isn't going to give up hunting him down. He leaves Helicanus to rule Tyre in his absence.

Thaliard, the assassin Antiochus has assigned to murder Pericles so the secret of his incest will remain unknown, arrives at Tyre only to be told Pericles has left. Helicanus pretends not to know why Antiochus is angered with Pericles. He invites Thaliard to a feast before sending him back to where he came from.

As Pericles arrives in Tarsus, Cleon, the governor, and his wife, Dionyza, are discussing the dire conditions in the city. The land has been suffering from famine for years, and the citizens are starving. News of the arrival of ships worries Cleon, who thinks they must be enemies seeking to overpower Tarsus while it is weak. The ships are Pericles's, however, and he tells Cleon his ships are well stocked with food to relieve the suffering. Pericles is made welcome, and he plans to stay a while.

Act 2

Gower reminds the audience of Antiochus's sin, and after cautioning them to be quiet for yet a while, he reveals a dumb show in which Pericles is given a letter. Gower explains the letter tells Pericles he is still in danger of being murdered. Pericles takes ship again, but this time it is wrecked in a storm and all are lost except for Pericles himself.

Three fishermen find Pericles nearly dead on the shore and help him to find his armor. Pericles learns he is in Pentapolis, a land ruled by the king Simonides, whose fair daughter is about to celebrate her birthday. Pericles determines to present himself as one of the suitors for her hand.

Pericles is the last of six knights to present suit for the hand of Thaisa, daughter of King Simonides. The rusted condition of his armor draws comment from the court, but Simonides warns them the outward appearance of a knight may be deceptive. They retire to the field where the knights will complete in a tournament for the favor of Thaisa. The noble Pericles is victorious over the other five knights, and Thaisa crowns him with a wreath. At the feast that follows, both father and daughter pretend indifference to Pericles, each not wanting the other to perceive how taken with him they are. There is a general celebratory dance before everyone retires for the night.

Meanwhile, back in Tyre, Helicanus tells Escanes the story of how Antiochus and his daughter were struck by a fire from heaven and killed as they rode in a chariot. He states Pericles wishes to be careful yet a while longer, and advises everyone to be patient about his absence from Tyre for yet a while.

Simonides informs the suitors for his daughter's hand that Thaisa has taken a vow of chastity before she will marry. Not willing to wait for her that long, the knights leave. This elimination pleases both Simonides and Thaisa, leaving their preferred choice, Pericles.

Act 3

Gower tells the audience Pericles has married Thaisa and they are expecting a child. He introduces a dumb show depicting the departure of Pericles with his pregnant wife, and explains they have taken ship back to Tyre. But Gower explains a storm has struck, setting plans askew for Pericles once again.

In the midst of the terrible sea storm and while on board the ship, Thaisa gives birth to a baby girl. But in so doing Thaisa appears to have died, and the superstitious sailors demand Pericles give up the body to the sea. Unable to make it to Tyre, Pericles orders the ship to make for the closer shores of Tarsus.

The box with Thaisa inside it makes it to shore at Ephesus, and all who gaze upon her marvel that such a queen has been so well laid with rich clothing and a letter stating who she is. The healer Cerimon declares she isn't dead and revives her.

Pericles has been too long absent from his kingdom and prepares to leave. His little daughter, who he has named Marina, is to remain with Cleon and his wife to bring up, with the aid of the nurse Lychorida. Thaisa, meanwhile, has been gently treated and returned to health by Cerimon. She despairs of ever seeing her husband again and determines to dedicate herself to the nearby Temple of Diana.

Act 4

Gower informs the audience that time has passed and Marina has grown into a young woman of great beauty and accomplishment. The problem is she far outshadows Cleon and Dionyza's own daughter. Dionyza plots to murder Marina out of jealousy. For that purpose, Dionyza engages a murderer to kill Marina, an act made easier because the faithful nurse has died. But before the killer has a chance to do Marina any harm, three pirates appear and carry her off.

Pander, Bolt, and Bawd arrive at the market of Mytilene in search of fresh girls to buy for Pander's brothel. The pirates sell Marina to them.

Cleon is worried about what will happen when Pericles returns for his daughter, but the evil Dionyza reassures him that since the nurse is dead their word that Marina has died should be enough. Cleon and Dionyza end their conversation by calling each other names. Gower explains to the audience that Pericles has arrived in Tarsus to see his daughter and take her home. A dumb show portrays Cleon and Dionyza showing Pericles the tomb of his daughter, and Pericles laments before returning to Tyre. Gower reminds the audience of Marina's plight in Mytilene. There, two gentlemen of Mytilene are amazed to have found a house of prostitution in which vestal singing takes place.

Marina has had more of an effect on the house of prostitution to which she has been sold than it has had on her, and this does not please Pander and Bawd, who run it. The Lord Lysimachus arrives and Marina is brought to him. But she has the effect of convincing everyone who wants to defile her to adopt a virtuous way of life.

Act 5

Gower presents Marina's case, saying she does everything except give her body to prostitution. She dances, sings, and does needlework, dutifully giving the proceeds to her owners.

The sorrowing Pericles's ship has been blown by the winds to the shores of Mytilene. His arrival arouses the curiosity of Lysimachus, but Pericles will speak with no one. Lysimachus figures perhaps Marina might be able to draw him out. She is brought to Pericles and tells him her story. Pericles recognizes her as his long-lost daughter. Lysimachus asks Pericles for his daughter's hand in marriage. A vision from Diana sends them to the Temple of Diana at Ephesus.

Gower enters to tell the audience that Lysimachus, Marina, and Pericles have arrived at the temple to make appropriate sacrifices to Diana. At the temple Pericles opens his heart to the goddess in front of her priestesses. One of the priestesses is Thaisa, who faints upon recognizing her long-lost husband. Cerimon fills in the events by which Thaisa was rescued.

Pericles Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675

Introduction

1 Pericles flees after solving Antiochus's riddle.

Rising Action

2 Pericles marries Thaisa, and they have a daughter.

3 Thaisa seems to die in childbirth at sea.

4 Marina is captured by pirates.

Climax

5 Marina tells Pericles her story.

Falling Action

6 Pericles recognizes Marina as his daughter.

Resolution

7 Pericles and Marina find Thaisa at the Temple of Diana.

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