Pericles | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Pericles | Quotes


I life would wish, and that I might / Waste it for you like taper light.

John Gower, Act 1, Chorus

Gower introduces the play in the first Chorus. He describes a story "that old was sung," a story meant "to make men glorious." He hopes the audience will enjoy his story and asks permission to waste the audience's lives "like taper light." A taper light is a slender candle that produces a weak light and burns for a relatively short time. By calling attention to the tapers likely burning in the salon in which the play is being performed, Gower suggests not only life itself is, like a burning taper, brief in duration, but the play too will not be long. As a character in the play, the "life" of Gower is also limited.


Death remembered should be like a mirror / Who tells us life's but breath.

Pericles, Act 1, Scene 1

As a suitor for the hand of Antiochus's beautiful daughter, Pericles is well aware of the consequences of failing to solve the riddle. Gower has already pointed out to the audience the row of heads on display of all the suitors who have tried and failed. This gruesome reminder (or mirror of what could happen to Pericles) doesn't deter him from making the attempt because he philosophically observes life is nothing more than a breath anyway. As it turns out he is right in this, for having solved the riddle exposing the incestuous relationship between Antiochus and his own daughter, Pericles is forced to flee for his life.


Few love to hear the sins they love to act.

Pericles, Act 1, Scene 1

Pericles's wise observation about how people protect the pleasures of their own sinful acts by keeping them secret is, in itself, a kind of riddle. But if it were not for Antiochus's attempt to keep his guilty pleasure in his daughter intact by preserving the secret of it, Pericles would not in the end have secured for himself a beautiful and virtuous wife (Thaisa) and daughter (Marina). His adventures in facing adversity are overcome by his patience and adherence to the truth, which eventually bring him aid in recovering his family.


But like to groves, being topped, they higher rise.

Dionyza, Act 1, Scene 4

Dionyza refers to the practice of topping fruit or nut trees grown in groves, or orchards. Growers cut back, or "top" each plant so it is stimulated into more vigorous growth and will produce more fruit. She compares the practice to the way in which grief, when an attempt is made to overcome it, puts out an even greater abundance of grief.


The great ones eat up the little ones.

First fisherman, Act 2, Scene 1

The first fisherman compares fish in the sea to human society. He has observed that a whale drives the smaller fish before it until, at last, it swallows them all in one mouthful. Likewise, the wealthy drive all before them until they have "swallowed the whole parish." Furthermore, he implies there is no end to the hunger. The more the whale eats the more it wants to consume, and the greed of the rich is also never satiated.


Opinion's but a fool that makes us scan / The outward habit by the inward man.

Simonides, Act 2, Scene 2

Five knights have arrived at the court of Simonides where they seek to win the hand of Thaisa. They have presented themselves and offered their shields as representations of who they are. The sixth knight, who is Pericles, makes a less impressive appearance as he wears rusted armor the fishermen recovered from sea after it had been lost in the shipwreck. Simonides silences the snide remarks his lords make at Pericles's appearance, telling them that opinions of a man's habit (in this case his armor) can be misleading because a man's true worth can only be measured by what is inside him. The audience has already observed the reverse of this lesson in Antiochus's daughter. She is beautiful and rich, making her seem of high worth, but she has been defiled by her father. Her beautiful exterior only masks a rotten core. The quote also speaks to the play's larger theme of deceptive appearances.


Since they love men in arms as well as beds.

Simonides, Act 2, Scene 3

Simonides makes a witty comment on the passions of young women stirred by men bearing "arms," or weapons, who prove their bravery to the ladies by fighting on the battlefield. He suggests the strength of the warrior's arms to wield a sword is the same strength of arm the ladies love to have wrapped around them in love.


The seaman's whistle / Is as a whisper in the ears of death.

Pericles, Act 3, Scene 1

Sailing ships such as the one on which Pericles is traveling depended upon sailors quickly and accurately following orders to manage the sails. These orders were transmitted by piping, or signaling, the order by a loud boatswain's whistle. The sound carried well on a ship, but even the sound of the shrill seaman's whistle is lost in the storm Pericles finds himself in. There is but a whisper of death itself, which is about to claim the lives of all on board.


... Than to be thirsty after tottering honor, / Or tie my pleasure up in silken bags.

Cerimon, Act 3, Scene 2

The healer Cerimon is responding to several gentlemen who have expressed surprise at finding him up and about so early in the morning after a terrible storm. Although highly respected, Cerimon has no interest in a "tottering honor," by which he means the flattery and sycophancy that distort clear judgment. "Silken bags" refers to bags full of gold that please the fool and death, because no one gets to keep any of it when he dies.


But if to that my nature need a spur, / The gods revenge it upon me and mine.

Cleon, Act 3, Scene 3

Cleon is in the process of making an extravagant promise to Pericles that he and his wife will raise Marina as their own. He calls to mind how Pericles had saved Tarsus from starvation by bringing stores of corn. Cleon's words prove false over the years as Marina grows into an accomplished young woman and Dionyza plots to kill her. In the end, according to Gower's account, Cleon and his wife are burned alive in their palace when the truth comes out.


She did distain my child and stood between / Her and her fortunes.

Dionyza, Act 4, Scene 3

Dionyza refers to Marina, whom she has raised as her foster child after having her entrusted to her care by Pericles. She is explaining to Cleon why she has ordered Marina murdered. Dionyza has become unbearably jealous of Marina, who in every way outshines her own daughter, as evidenced by the many comments of people at court. Gower has previously informed the audience of Marina's many glowing accomplishments. Dionyza has reasoned that the main obstacle to securing a good match in marriage for her own daughter will not be possible as long as Marina lives. Dionyza's cold cruelty is offset by the disturbed conscience of Cleon, which she cites as proof of her husband's cowardice.


No visor does become black villainy / So well as soft and tender flattery.

John Gower, Act 4, Scene 4

Gower has presented a dumb show in which Pericles grieves at the tomb of his daughter, Marina, which has been built by Cleon. A visor is a mask that obscures the face from scrutiny. Gower's point is that the show of grief presented in front of Pericles by Dionyza and Cleon hides the "face" of their false concern and flattery. They have betrayed Pericles's trust in them and fear retribution should he learn the truth. Dionyza is especially expert at shielding her true intentions behind this visor of flattery when she pretends concern over Marina by having her walk with the servant Dionyza has instructed to murder her.


She would make a puritan of the devil.

Bawd, Act 4, Scene 6

Marina's captors are at wits' end to know what to do with her, since she steadfastly adheres to a preservation of her chastity even though she has been sold into a house of prostitution. They expected her to accept her fate, but instead Marina has managed to turn a house of ill repute upside down by making reasoned appeals to the morals of the men who come intent upon taking their pleasure of her. So adamant is her determination that Bawd describes her as a puritan, or someone so committed to sobriety she does not wear bright colors or engage in frivolous pastimes like playing cards. Even the devil himself would make no headway in tempting her to put aside her virginity for pleasure.


Thou art a man, and I / Have suffered like a girl.

Pericles, Act 5, Scene 1

When Marina talks with the sorrowing Pericles and tells him the story of her sufferings, he recognizes the tremendous danger she has been in through no fault of her own. In other words, the risk of rape (which Marina has narrowly escaped by giving Bolt all the gold she has received from Lysimachus) is a more perilous condition to a virtuous woman than anything he himself has suffered. It is expected men undergo suffering without complaint while a girl will whine and cry at every inconvenience. Marina's calm strength and patience despite having been placed in virtual slavery and been expected to engage in the most degrading and sinful of professions for a woman is amazing to him, and he urges her to tell him more about herself.


Now our sands are almost run.

John Gower, Act 5, Scene 2

The sands to which Gower refers to are the sands of an hourglass that marks the passage of time. What he is telling the audience is there is but one more scene to play out that will complete the story.

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