What happens in Pericles

The Roman goddess Diana is associated with hunting, wild places, and the moon. But most germane to Pericles, the late Shakespeare romance that critics love to hate, Diana was also the goddess of chastity. The play is set during Diana-worshipping times, which serves to highlight all the plot points having to do with sex, or at least having to do with incest, rape, and prostitution. The story also has an Odyssey-like feel, what with the multiple shipwrecks, the endless journey home, and the general sense that the main character is living out a horrible fate predestined by the gods.

Diana was celebrated with a festival in August. To honor her this month you can shave your head, as young worshippers supposedly did in Roman days, or if you’re attached to your hairstyle you can join me in a read of Pericles for this month’s installment of What Happens in Shakespeare.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “Don’t ask someone to solve a riddle whose answer will reveal you’re committing incest.”

What happens in Pericles

Pericles, Prince of Tyre, enters a riddle contest to guess Antiochus’ secret and marry Antiochus’ daughter. He correctly guesses that the secret is incest. He loses interest in the whole sick family and sails away from Tyre because now Antiochus wants to kill him.

Pericles’ boat is shipwrecked. He washes up on shore at Pentapolis, and in a somewhat odd first move, fishes his rusty armor out of the ocean and enters a tournament for the hand of Thaisa (the man badly wants to get married). He wins the tournament and marries Thaisa.

News arrives that Antiochus is dead and the people of Tyre want their prince back.

Pericles sails for Tyre with Thaisa, who is now pregnant. Thaisa appears to die giving birth to their daughter Marina during a storm.

Pericles seals Thaisa’s body in a watertight coffin and buries her at sea because his crew thinks having women on board is icky and female corpses are even ickier.

The coffin washes up on the shores of Ephesus, where Cerimon revives the understandably bewildered Thaisa.

Thaisa assumes Pericles was lost at sea during the storm. She becomes a priestess in the temple of Diana.

Still on his way back to Tyre, a very miserable Pericles leaves his infant daughter at Tarsus to be raised by Cleon and his wife Dionyza.

Fast forward sixteen years.  The by-now gorgeous and talented Marina has inspired the jealousy of Dionyza, who instructs a servant to have her murdered.

Dionyza’s servant has just decided he can’t kill Marina after all when she is, no joke, kidnapped by pirates. The servant reports back that Marina is dead. Cleon builds a monument to her memory.

Pericles encounters the monument on a visit to Tarsus, falls into despair, and stops speaking or shaving.

Meanwhile, the pirates sell Marina to a brothel in Mitylene, where she proves to be a disastrous investment because she drives all the customers away with her virtuous talk. Just as one of the brothel staff is, horrifyingly, about to rape her so she will no longer be a virgin, the governor comes along, is ensorcelled by her charms, and sets her free.

Pericles sails into Mitylene still despairing about the loss of his daughter. He encounters Marina, who is locally famous by now for separating men from their desire to visit prostitutes. He eventually recognizes her and begins to speak again.

Pericles is visited by a dream that instructs him to visit the temple of Diana at Ephesus. There he and Marina are reunited with Thaisa. Marina marries the governor of Mitylene. Pericles celebrates all this happy news by shaving.


For actual scholarship and analysis, visit the Shakespeare Resource Center’s page on Pericles.

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