Harrison Middleton University

Pericles, the Problem Play

Pericles, the Problem Play

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


May 21, 2021

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s blog.

One thing that I love about Shakespeare is his ability to develop rich characters. King Lear, Hamlet, Falstaff, Henry V, Richard II: though problematic, they have vivid internal battles and complex natures. I can imagine Richard lamenting his fallen status on the beach as he recalls many sad tales of deposed kings. Or I think of Lear walking the heath, and Macbeth struggling with ghosts and witches and prophecies. In each instance, Shakespeare provides a depth of dialogue that is nearly unparalleled. We turn then, to Pericles, Prince of Tyre, where one would expect the title character to have a similar internal battle. Only, he doesn’t. Shakespeare often develops the title character in a way that demonstrates their flaws. Pericles, Prince of Tyre does not focus, however, on Pericles’s flaws. Rather, I think we are meant to believe he is without flaw, which allows Pericles and his daughter to become the play’s heroes.

We meet Pericles in Antioch where he has traveled to woo the princess. However, upon learning of her incestuous relationship with the king, Pericles flees. He wants no part of evil. Yet, upon arriving back in Tyre, Pericles shuts himself into a room in the palace and laments his sad state of affairs. Pericles cannot imagine a way to win or avoid a war against Antiochus. Instead, he says, “And finding little comfort to relieve them [doubts and concerns], I thought it princely charity to grieve them” (Act I, Scene ii, 99-100). Though other characters in Shakespeare plays (Hamlet, or Richard II, for example) have been known to sit and lament, the audience does not feel the same kind of sadness at Pericles’ tale of woe. In this case, Helicanus, lord to Pericles, enters the room and immediately generates a plan. He sends Pericles to Tarsus for a period of ten years to avoid Antiochus’s wrath. Meanwhile, Helicanus governs in the name of Pericles. Problem solved.

While abroad, Pericles does experience a number of trials. His first shipwreck lands him in Pentapolis, where he begs for help from local fishermen. Pericles thinks to himself: “What I have been I have forgot to know;/ But what I am, want teaches me to think on” (Act II, scene i, 75-6). In other words, he begins to rethink position and status. Yet, the fishermen quickly aid him and they even recover his armor so that he can join the knights in order to battle for the princess. He falls in love with the princess and after the king of Antioch dies, they intend to return to Tyre. However, at sea, Pericles loses his wife in childbirth. They put her body in a coffin and set it in the sea. Miraculously it gets to land unscathed, and is met by Cerimon who, even more miraculously, brings Pericles’s wife back to life. Of course, it takes many years and many more journeys before Pericles reunites with his wife, but it is a play with a happy ending after all.

While Pericles’s character remains somewhat flat throughout the play, it is reasonable to consider in what ways he might be seen as heroic. For example, he immediately flees the scene of incest. He wants no part in evil-doing. Therefore, he says,

[W]isdom sees, those men
Blush not in actions blacker than the night,
Will shun no course to keep them from the light.
One sin, I know, another doth provoke;
Murder’s as near to lust as flame to smoke;
Poison and treason are the hands of sin,
Ay, and the targets, to put off the shame;
Then, lest my life be cropp’d to keep you clear,
By flight I’ll shun the danger which I fear. (Act I, scene i, 134-142)

His quick decision links directly to his wisdom. Furthermore, Pericles claims that “Tis time to fear when tyrants seem to kiss” (Act I, scene ii, 79). In other words, he has a straightness about him that is free from greed and tyranny. He does what is right and just. An unbent will is part of his heroic virtue.

Furthermore, he accepts help and advice not only from Helicanus, but also from poor fishermen. Though fairly little time is spent on this transformation of humility brought about by the wrecks at sea, he does seem to understand the nature of reduced circumstances. These actions make him more accessible to the common man, and he perhaps empathizes more with them as a result. Finally, he is steadfast and faithful to his family, though he believes them to be dead. His dedication to them reinforces his virtue.

Pericles does not gain any honor in order to be the hero. He simply is honorable. After joining the knights in an attempt to win the princess’s hand, King Simonides responds, “Art hath thus decreed/ To make some good, but others to exceed;/ And you are her labour’d scholar” (Act II, scene iii, 13-15). To put it another way, art has somehow made Pericles perfect from the beginning. This may help to explain why his daughter, Marina, ably avoids evil and instead transforms others into excellence and goodness. We are meant to believe that virtue is, in the case of Pericles and Marina, divine and steadfast.

Though this play is full of twists and turns, and lacks some character development, it is rather fun to read. If you have the time, I recommend reading Pericles, Prince of Tyre by William Shakespeare. Then you can answer, who is the hero of this play?

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