Summary [Spoiler-laden]: Prince Pericles of Tyre visits King Antiochus to check out prospects for wedding the King’s daughter. Pericles confirms that the daughter of Antiochus is as beautiful as she is renowned to be, but perhaps too beautiful for her own good. In preliminaries to a courting process, Pericles learns that the King has been incestuously dipping his wick in said gorgeous daughter. Pericles says thanks-but-no-thanks, and goes on his way. However, Pericles – rightly – gets the impression that King Antiochus is a bit mafia in his approach, and isn’t the kind to rest well with his secret out in the open. Pericles narrowly escapes Tyre before the assassin of Antiochus arrives, and the Prince goes traveling, hoping Antiochus will calm down and (providing Pericles keeps his mouth shut) rescind the kill order. [Which is more or less what happens; the assassin questions one of Pericles’ Lords and it becomes apparent that his King’s secret is not in danger.]
Pericles first stops at Tarsus, and, bearing gifts, builds good relations with the governor, Cleon. However, his next stop is more tragic when a storm wrecks his ship and he is washed ashore at Pentapolis. While he has no gifts because they all sank, the King of Pentapolis, Simonides, recognizes Pericles royal virtue and offers the hand of his daughter, Thaisa, in matrimony. The happy couple marry, consecrate the marriage, and all is going along when Pericles finds out that his people (quite reasonably) think he’s dead and they’ve been pressuring Pericles’s right-hand-man, Helicanus, to lead. Helicanus is an upright fellow and not eager to usurp the throne, but he does recognize the need for a king. He tells everybody to wait one year, and if Pericles hasn’t shown himself, he’ll take the job. This puts a clock on things for Pericles and forces him to head home to Tyre with his pregnant wife. Pericles gets caught in yet another terrible storm, but – to make matters worse – his wife delivers the child. The delivery is successful, but Thaisa does not survive it, or so it seems. The sailors tell Pericles that, while they appreciate his sorrow, it’s bad luck to haul a body through a storm, and so they pressure him to make a burial at sea. Pericles seals a note and some jewels in the coffin so that if it should wash ashore the finders will be justly compensated for giving Thaisa a proper burial rather than kicking her coffin back into the water. Pericles recognizes that storm-ridden waters are no place for a baby, and so he drops his infant daughter, Marina (so named for her birth on the high seas) and Marina’s nurse at Tarsus with Governor Cleon and his wife Dionyza.
Pericles gets back to Tyre in time to reclaim his throne, and apparently there is a backlog of Kingly duties because he doesn’t head back to pick up his daughter until she’s in her tween or junior teen years. (I guess a nicer interpretation is that Pericles is scared to take a young child through waters that have proven storm-prone.) At any rate, before he can get back to Tarsus, the governor’s wife, Dionyza, asks a servant to murder Marina. Marina’s nurse recently died, so the girl has no protector, and it turns out the governor and first lady have a daughter about Marina’s age who is inferior to Marina in every way. Dionyza thinks her daughter will get more of Cleon’s attention (and perhaps have more luck with suitors) if the daughter doesn’t have a smarter, prettier, and more competent competitor hanging around. However, before the butler-turned-assassin can kill Marina, some pirates abscond with her, and sell her in the style of “Taken” (the Liam Neeson film) into the sex trade. However, unlike the brutality of “Taken” Marina thwarts the exuberance of all bidders by basically saying [wildly paraphrasing] ‘You know, raping a virgin isn’t a very Christian thing to do, and God is watching you.’ Among those she scares straight is Lysimachus, governor or Mytilene.
Pericles gets to Tarsus, and is shown Marina’s grave (which, of course, doesn’t contain Marina, but Pericles doesn’t know that.) Having lost his wife and child, all due to a decision to rush back to a title, Pericles becomes a broken man. Deep in grief, on the way back to Tyre, Pericles is oblivious when they stop in Mytilene to escape more foul weather. (It’s possible there is a divine hand in this particular fortuitous happening.) Lysimachus goes to see Pericles, but the grief-stricken man can’t even speak let alone hold a conversation. Lysimachus believes that if anyone can snap Pericles out of it, it’s the lovely Marina. (Not because he knows she is Pericles daughter, but rather because he finds her sweet and likeable – like handing Pericles a puppy – Lysimachus is sure Marina will improve King Pericles’ mood.) Marina does, in fact, get Pericles to speak, and from there they realize quite quickly that they share a common story. (Though, Pericles briefly thinks he’s lost his mind and is hallucinating Marina because he so trusted Cleon spoke the truth.)
Before Pericles can go rip Cleon a new one, the goddess Diana pops up and tells him that: By the way, your wife – who was revived by a bystander — is hanging out a shrine to me, and is ready for pickup. And, so, the family is reunited.
Analysis: If this play seems a bit unusual for Shakespeare in tone and story devices, you’re not alone. There is a prominent theory that this play had a co-author and that the first couple acts were not written by the same hand as the balance of the play. While this isn’t formally considered among Shakespeare’s “problem plays” (i.e. “Measure for Measure,” “Troilus and Cressida,” and “All’s Well That Ends Well,”) neither is straight-forward comedy or tragedy. As you can tell, it’s quite dark, though all does work out in the end.
I enjoyed this play, whether despite or because of its darkness, I’m not sure. It certainly does have a lot of intrigue to keep one guessing about how and whether it will be resolved. Diana’s deus ex machina appearance is forgiven as that is in character for Greek mythology / literature. (As is the fact that medieval English terms and descriptions seep in that are incongruous with the world of Ancient Greece. The work had to make sense to the audience who would be viewing it, only a fraction of whom would have been versed in Homer, Sappho, etc.) The bigger deus ex machina moment is when the pirates abscond with / rescue Marina, but it’s good drama and advances the plot.
Read it. It’s definitely worth your time.