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Introduction & Overview of Pericles

This Study Guide consists of approximately 29 pages of chapter summaries, quotes, character analysis, themes, and more - everything you need to sharpen your knowledge of Pericles.
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Pericles Summary & Study Guide Description

Pericles Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Further Study on Pericles by William Shakespeare.

Pericles is the first in a group of Shakespeare's last plays called romances or tragicomedies. This group of plays, which also includes Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, The Tempest, and The Two Noble Kinsmen is characterized by improbable situations, and often includes the discovery that characters presumed dead are, miraculously, still alive. In Pericles, for example, the title character thinks both his wife Thaisa and his daughter Marina are dead and suffers terribly in his grief over their deaths. There is great joy and celebration at the end of the play when he is reunited with first Marina and then Thaisa. The audience, however, knows throughout that Pericles's wife and daughter are still alive. Shakespeare brings characters back from the dead with similar, perhaps greater, dramatic effect in The Winter's Tale when a statue of Hermione comes to life and surprises both the audience and her husband Leontes, who has presumed her dead for nearly twenty years. In the romance plays, there is the lamentation of tragedy and the sense that the will of the gods cannot be opposed by human actions. There is also comic resolution, the plays ending in marriage, reaffirmations of love, and social harmony. The romances are a strange blend of completely different genres, yet they most certainly found an interested audience in Shakespeare's day. They are also curiously appropriate to our own age, an age in which many people are too cynical to believe in a seamlessly comic resolution to all of life's problems, yet not so pessimistic as to believe that all events in life are controlled by a destiny beyond human influence. Additionally, the romances are not so different from today's popular romantic comedy films. Characters in these movies often are touched by pain and grief in some way, but, typically, in the end all is resolved with a happy ending. Of all the romances, Pericles is, perhaps, the most strange, a hodgepodge of styles and themes. On stylistic grounds, critics maintain that Pericles was not written entirely by Shakespeare. It has been suggested that the first two acts were written by someone else, Shakespeare adding touches to the first two acts, here and there, and writing the last three acts himself. Despite its stylistic inconsistencies, Pericles presents an absorbing story which delights the imagination with its depictions of pirates, storm-tossed ships, and knightly tournaments. The story of Pericles is an old one, having been in circulation at least since the fifth century. It is based on the story of Appolonius of Tyre and always proved popular in the telling. In the fourteenth century, the poet John Gower, a contemporary of Chaucer's, presented the story in Confessio Amantis. Gower has a place in Shakespeare's play as the Chorus, and his presence is one of a conglomeration of elements accounting for the play's oddities of style.

Gower introduces each scene and provides the audience with a kind of pre-packaged moral attitude toward the characters and their actions. For example, he stresses the abhorrent nature of Antiochus's incest, the goodness of Helicanus, and the generosity and patience of Pericles. Since audiences would, undoubtedly, adopt, on their own, the moral attitudes upon which Gower insists, there is no reason for him to be so didactic, or deliberately instructive. In providing a shorthand version of morality, Gower gives Pericles the flavor of a medieval morality play, in which there are no gray areas between right and wrong, good and evil. The play also has an element of folklore. When Pericles first arrives in Tharsus, Dionyza is a tearful woman lamenting the ruin of her fair city by famine and grateful to Pericles for bringing that city grain with which to feed itself. Later, she becomes the wicked stepmother of folklore, intent upon killing Marina because her own daughter Philoten appears ugly in that fair girl's presence. Still another element of the play is that of chivalric romance. When Pericles appears at the knightly tournament hosted by King Simonides in Pentapolis as the disheveled knight in rusty armor who vanquishes the field, it is the stuff of Arthurian legend.

Thrown into this mixture which is Pericles, is a theme that can be read in different ways. The moral corruption of Antiochus's daughter is clearly opposed to Marina's moral virtue in the play. The contrast is wonderfully expressed in terms of musical discord and harmony. Pericles expresses his disgust with Antiochus's daughter after he discovers her incestuous relationship with her father. He tells her, "You are a fair viol, and your sense the strings" (I.i.81), completing the analogy with, "But being play'd upon before your time, / Hell only danceth at so harsh a chime" (I.i.84-85). In contrast, when Pericles is reunited with Marina, who has remained chaste despite being deposited in a Mytilene brothel, Pericles hears heavenly harmony, "The music of the spheres!" (V.i.229). Between these two polar extremes, though, the behavior of Pericles is ambiguous. He is repulsed by his experience at Antioch, and he returns home to Tyre, where he becomes fearful for his life, or, as he insists, the lives of his subjects. He then goes on the run instead of exposing Antiochus's corruption to the world, a brave act of moral integrity that would have been more commendable than what is arguably an act of cowardice. But whether we view Pericles as a morally virtuous hero, who ultimately is rewarded. for his patience and generosity, or as a morally weak man, who brings suffering upon himself through his avoidance of a direct confrontation with Antiochus, depends on whether we wish to stress the comic or tragic aspects of Pericles.

It is the variety of Pericles that is its chief delight. The play mixes genres and writing styles; it presents elements of morality plays, folklore, and Arthurian romance; and it suggests the ambiguous nature of its protagonist's actions.

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