This is an essay I wrote for a class called Problems in Late Shakespeare

Pericles: A play with a half, and a half not

            Pericles‘s status as a “problem play” comes from its dismissal by many critics as incoherent and preposterous. Regarding its lack of coherence, Frank Kermode writes in his book The Age of Shakespeare, “[t]he difference in quality between parts of the play is great enough to support the conjecture that Shakespeare reworked only parts of it. Nearly everybody agrees that apart from a few fine moments in the earlier acts, the voice of Shakespeare is fully audible only from the beginning of Act III” (Kermode 181). Thus the play’s inconsistency can easily be explained by its having been written by multiple authors. As for the play’s being preposterous, the OED defining the word as “contrary to nature, reason or common sense […],” that could not be farther from the truth, due to the play’s realistic illustration of bad kingship by its central character (“Preposterous” 811). In my own opinion, the play suffers from the fact that the first three acts, most of which Shakespeare did not write, deal largely with examples of faulty monarchy and thus correspond with the argument of this essay, while the play’s latter two acts concern themselves mainly with the dispersal and later reappearance of Pericles’ family.            

         From its very first scene, when Pericles is introduced to King Antiochus, the play invites a comparison of the relative virtues of the two sovereigns after Antiochus is exposed as an incestuous king. Pericles, at first courageous in his attempt to woo the King’s mistress, who is also his daughter, is forced to flee after he solves the Riddle, faced with a hypocrite who will kill him regardless of whether Pericles will make known Antiochus’s secret or not. Pericles says:

            Great King,

            Few love to hear the sins they love to act;

            ‘Twould braid yourself too near for me to tell it.

            Who has a book of all that monarchs do,

            He’s more secure to keep it shut than shown […]

            Kings are earth’s gods; in vice their law’s their will;

            And if Jove stray, who dares say Jove doth ill? (Shakespeare 1.1. 92-105)

This quotation is a master class on the dangers of hypocrisy. Pericles begins by defining a hypocrite in the second line as someone who denies their sins with the cloak of goodness, yet begins to rationalize these sins as all that royals must do, not only clearing Antiochus of his flaws and himself of his past errors but paving the way for their own in the future. Moreover, the last image of the king as a deity illustrates the zeal hypocrites cover themselves with in defending their actions. In fleeing the scene without condemning Antiochus, Pericles’ inaction and hypocrisy become themes revisited often throughout the narrative.

            Pericles’ motive for his inaction is shown in the next scene as not only his own hypocrisy, as a man afraid to name a ruler a sinner not only for fear of being murdered but also for fear of being named a sinner himself, but his own excessive modesty as well. When he describes Antiochus as a man “[…] whom I am too little to contend, / Since he’s so great can make his will his act,” the protagonist seems to forget that as a monarch he has the ability to perform that latter action (1.2.18-19). Pericles, like Henry VI in Shakespeare’s first historical tetralogy, seems ignorant of the Elizabethan view of the supreme ruler as having his symbolic animal equivalent be the lion, king of all creatures. Ergo he later compares himself to “[…] no more but as the tops of trees / which fence the roots they grow by” in a woefully inadequate simile, which serves to show his metaphorical weakness instead of his being conqueror of all he surveys (31-32). Helicanus, Pericles’ protégé, serves to flatter him but also is an important reminder that Pericles’ refusal to reveal Antiochus’s sins to the rest of the world serve as an implicit approval of them, “[w]hereas reproof, obedient and in order, / Fits kings, as they are men, for they may err” (43-44). The scene deals mostly with Pericles’ conscience reminding him that Antiochus may well send an army to kill him and destroy his state in preventing Pericles from divulging dangerous secrets, yet the hero never seems to realize that by launching a pre-emptive strike on Antioch he can bring peace to his mind. In turn, Helicanus encourages this inaction and ensures it will recur by suggesting that his monarch run away from the situation. Pericles responds by flattering them both in their ignorance when referring to their dangerous actions: “Thou showed’st a subject’s shine, I a true prince” (124). Only later does Helicanus admit to the folly of Pericles risking leaving his state kingless to the undulations of the unpredictable sea. This is one irresponsible prince, with few good examples of rulers nearby to shape his actions after. The play hammers on these themes, along with the emergence of Lady Fortune as a symbol of the divine providence needed by Pericles and other royals in the narrative to keep their status. In the following scene Cleon is introduced as a governor whose state is crumbling, yet instead of taking steps to remedy the situation he asks his wife Dionyza to join him in idle grieving of their plight.

            This providence is also symbolized by time in act two, scene three, which again serves to emphasize the point that most of the rulers in the narrative don’t realize the agency they have as the highest of creatures to ensure their own fate rather than leave it to chance. Hence Pericles in essence relinquishes his own power in defining the progress of his life and hands it off to supernatural forces with these lines: “Whereby I see that Time’s the king of men; / He’s both their parent and he is their grave, / And gives them what he will, not what they crave” (2.3.46-48). Of course, in fleeing Tyre Pericles has handed his realm to Helicanus, but he has left behind unfinished business there by not naming a successor in case of his death. He seems to forget what the Second Lord of Tyre remembers so well: “kingdoms without a head, / Like goodly buildings left without a roof / Soon fall to ruin” (2.4.36-38). Similarly, Pericles, though shown to be aware of, for the good of the state, his need to give birth to an heir as he speaks of “a glorious beauty / From whence an issue I might propagate / Are arms to princes and bring joys to subjects […,]” forgets this decorum when given an honest marriage proposal, in writing, from Thaisa (1.2.72-74). This time his modesty forces him to lie to Simonides as he pretends he never had any designs of wooing his daughter, and in a rare example of good monarchy Simonides gives the two his blessing, saving Pericles from having to defend his honor in a swordfight. Nevertheless the final impression of the title character is that he’s too deliberate as a moral man who weighs all the consequences but is ineffective as a king of action, which is demanded by Elizabethan decorum.

            However, it isn’t until the third act of the play that Pericles’ poor decisions truly affect him. In scene three he is left to meekly point out the superiority of nature to Cleon and Dionyza: “We cannot but / Obey the powers above us” (3.3.9-10). In assigning the blame to divine forces he again forgets his own agency but most importantly he does not learn from his mistakes. Though grief may have affected his judgment, Pericles cannot excuse himself from the main responsibility for committing two grave errors one after another and then adding to them: He follows the sailor’s advice in tossing his queen overboard without realizing she was still alive at the time (in Elizabethan custom if the king is next to God it would be beyond foolish for him to listen to the opinions of lesser people not already part of his inner circle), and he decides to sail the seas in aimless grief for his dead wife while leaving his only daughter, the heir to the throne, to be brought up by others. That these others are the unsuccessful monarchs Cleon and Dionyza only serves as the coup-de-grâce to Pericles’ immense recklessness.

            Acts four and five deviate from a progressive punishment of the myriad lamentable decisions made not only by Pericles but other incompetent rulers such as Cleon and Pericles’ successor Helicanus to a progressive account of Marina’s upbringing and her and her mother’s return to Pericles. Hence Shakespeare’s ironic indictment of Pericles’ reign via the happy ending which Margaret Healy derides as a dubious marriage in her essay “Pericles and the Pox” is subtler than the events portrayed in the first three acts, but less effective due to the occlusion of its meaning. The Jacobean context which Healy provides to prove her thesis is unavailable to most contemporary audiences including this reader; therefore, in conclusion, Pericles remains a “problem play” due to the conflicting paths acts one through three, in comparison to acts four and five, take in proving their one unifying argument: Pericles is an inept sovereign.

Works Cited

Kermode, Frank. The Age of Shakespeare. New York: Modern Library, 2005.

Shakespeare, William. Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Ed. Ernest Schanzer. Toronto: Signet Classics, 1965.

“Preposterous.” The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English. 7th ed. 1989.


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