[Please note: All line references are from the act and scene under discussion, except where otherwise indicated, and follow the Arden 1963 edition of Pericles-.]
Upon a background of the gate of Antioch crowned with the heads of unsuccessful and decapitated suitors the medieval poet John Gower steps forward to present his tale. Unlike the chorus in Henry V and the epilogues in numerous other plays, Gower does not speak anonymously, on behalf of a company of actors, but as an individual. He introduces a tale rather than a play, and as its author; the playwright has deferred to Gower to the extent that not only the story's events but also its style and text belong to the resurrected poet.
"If you, born in these latter times
When wit's more ripe, accept my rimes,
And that to hear an old man sing
May to your wishes pleasure bring
I life would wish, and that I might
Waste it for you like taper-light." (11-6)
Gower's own "rimes" are octosyllabic couplets (except at the beginning of Act 5, when the rhyme is alternate), and this is the most obvious archaic feature of his speech, which also includes lexical archaisms (e.g., "wight" in line 39, meaning "man") and close imitations of Gower's own lines in Confessio Amantis, for example "But custom what they did begin / Was with long use account'd no sin" (29-30) echoes "And such delit he tok thereinne, / Him thoghte that it was no Sinne" (CA 345-6). Shakespeare often uses other writer's texts as sources, for example Robert Greene's Pandosto in The Winter's Tale, but he does not usually acknowledge the other author, and certainly does not put him on the stage as "the author" as he does here.
Having negotiated the terms of his own presence on the stage with the audience ("If ... you accept my rimes") Gower goes on to give the background of the story: Antiochus, seduced by the beauty of his own daughter "her to incest did provoke", and to keep her from the many princes that came to seek her "as a bed-fellow / In marriage pleasures play- fellow", devised a test for the suitors: if they could solve his riddle they would win his daughter, if not they would die. The heads on the gate prove his ploy to have been successful, and serve to transfer the audience's attention from Gower's narrative to the spectacle on the stage.
"So for her many a wight did die
As yon grim looks do testify
What now ensues, to the judgement of your eye
I give my cause, which best can justify." (39-42)
This transfer from chorus to stage becomes more sophisticated in the last three acts of the play and as Gower begins to call upon the audience's imaginative participation in his tale, making them co-producers of the action.
Pericles accepts Antiochus' challenge; music strikes up, Antiochus calls for his daughter. He prepares her entrance with fervid praise; she is a bride fit for Jove himself. When she does enter, "apparell'd like the spring... Her face the book of praises" (13-7), Pericles is overcome by her beauty and eagerly calls upon the gods to help him win "the fruit of yon celestial tree" (22), as he calls her (Antiochus' daughter is never given a name).
Antiochus continues the image, warning Pericles of the "death-like dragons" that guard "this fair Hesperides" (Hercules' final labour was to pick the apples from a tree in the garden of Hesperus that was guarded by a dragon). According to him, because Pericles does not deserve her, her face "like heaven" only entices him to his death; he should listen to the "speechless tongues" of his predecessors, "martyrs slain in Cupid's wars", dissuading him from the attempt. Pericles is not daunted. He thanks Antiochus for teaching "his frail mortality to know itself", "For death remember'd should be like a mirror / Who tells us life's but breath, to trust it error" (46-7), and picking up on Antiochus' use of "heaven" describes himself as a man who having glimpsed the joys of heaven is unafraid to leave the joys of the world.
"So I bequeath a happy peace to you
And to all good men, as every prince should do." (51-2)
Angry at Pericles' noble reply to his threats, and its implied reprimand, Antiochus furiously throws down the riddle. His daughter breaks her silence to wish Pericles, out of all those who have yet assayed the test, happiness and prosperity. Once he has read the riddle and understood how Antiochus' daughter could be "mother, wife and yet his child" Pericles rebuts her with "Good sooth, I care not for you" (87) and is obviously on the point of pushing her away when Antiochus warns him not to touch her.
Incest has contaminated Pericles' senses; what attracted him as being outwardly full of light and music, now repels him. This new knowledge contaminates his perception of the world and will actively pursue him; effectively he suffers his own Fall at the hands of this "celestial tree." Pericles begs not to have to answer the riddle:
"It is enough you know; and it is fit,
What being more known grows worse, to smother it.
All love the womb that their first being bred,
Then give my tongue like leave to love my head." (93-109)
Knowing he has been found out, Antiochus grants Pericles forty days' grace; aware that "Murder's as near to lust as flame to smoke" (139), the latter decides to escape. It is a wise decision: we see Antiochus commanding his servant Thaliard to kill Pericles, and the scene ends with the assassin setting off in pursuit.
Back home in Tyre, Pericles is melancholy, prevented from enjoying his safety by the thought of Antiochus' anticipated attempts to silence him.
"Then it is thus: the passions of the mind,
That have their first conception by mis-dread,
Have after-nourishment and life by care;
And what was first but fear what might be done,
Grows elder now and cares it not be done." (12-16)
Ever since he understood the riddle, Pericles seems to be trapped inside one. He has no way to extricate himself from his "care", nor from the consequences of his knowledge that will involve not only him, but also all his subjects. His anxiety is not cowardice, for it comes of his understanding that his place in the social hierarchy means that if he is a victim, then those beneath him are victims too; the process is as inevitable as a secret, once known, is irrecoverable. Pericles has a fine understanding of this vulnerability, as he showed in the previous scene:
"The blind mole casts
Copp'd hills towards heaven, to tell the earth is thronged
By man's oppression; and the poor worm doth die for't
Kings are earth's gods; in vice their law's their will;
And if Jove stray, who dares say Jove doth ill?" (1.1.101-5)
His lords enter, or rather re-enter, for they rather absurdly appear at the beginning of the scene only to be ordered away again. The first two wish him joy, comfort and peace, both far from his mind. They are dismissed as flatterers by Helicanus who claims that "reproof, obedient and in order / Fits kings" (43- 4). In some respects Helicanus resembles Paulina in The Winter's Tale, who to Leontes is indeed "a physician... That ministers a potion" (67-8), but the difference is that Pericles has not committed any sin. Furthermore, Helicanus, unlike Paulina, does not reproach his master, but like a therapist, lets the prince unburden himself. The use of the word "reproach" and the attack on flattery, whilst inappropriate given Pericles' innocence, nevertheless reinforces an impression of guilt, a sense that the secret contaminates all that it touches. Helicanus convinces Pericles of his integrity by having the courage to speak out of turn, and is confided in; despite having been determined to keep it to himself, Pericles tells him the secret.
Helicanus suggests that since Pericles alone is the object of Antiochus' wrath, he should "go travel" while Helicanus looks after the kingdom; maybe Antiochus will forget, or die. Pericles will not have Helicanus swear loyalty: "I'll take thy word for faith, not ask thine oath / Who shuns not to break one will crack both" (120- 1). Meanwhile, the two assassins in the play, Thaliard and Leonine, both refer to their being bound by oaths. The disparagement of verbal assurances is typical of Shakespeare, part of the rhetoric of the stage that, by having the audience mistrust the characters, indirectly persuades them to trust the drama.
Reflecting on the danger of knowing kings' secrets - "for if a king bid a man to be a villain, he's bound by the indenture of his oath to be one" (6-7), the assassin duly arrives, only to hear Helicanus proclaim that Pericles, having in some unknown way offended Antiochus, has put himself "unto the shipman's toil" (23) and possible death in order to show his penitence. This is enough for Thaliard, who assumes he is dead.
The scene begins with Cleon, governor of famine-struck Tharsus suggesting to his wife Dionyza that they comfort each other with stories of others' misfortunes. Dionyza thinks this will only exacerbate their own, but Cleon feels impelled to at least tell his own story: "That, if heaven slumber while their creatures want, / They may awaken their helps to comfort them" (16-7). When arriving ships are sighted, Cleon assumes that this is fresh trouble - "I thought as much / One sorrow never comes but brings an heir" (63) - even though the ships are carrying a white flag. His distrust is transformed into gratitude and abasement when Pericles arrives, almost like help from heaven (but, significantly, from the sea), with ships full of food.
The argument at the beginning of the scene is about whether or not to narrate, and narration is a constant theme in a play whose most moving scene is one of telling. To be more precise, Dionyza's argument against narration effectively creates in opposition a need to narrate, or a need to be narrated, linking expression and emotion. However, the story Cleon tells is only meant to be moving; less a lament (e.g., the Lamentations of Jeremiah, or Spenser's On Mutabilitie) than a sermon - "But see what heaven can do by this our change," (32) he cries, "O, that cities that of plenty's cup / And her prosperities so largely taste, / With their superfluous riots, hear these tears! / The misery of Tharsus may be theirs" (52-5). Dionyza is asked to provide appropriate back up: "I'll then discourse our woes, felt several years, / And wanting breath to speak help me with tears" (18-20). Her reply, "I'll do my best, sir," does not convince.
The scene is a moral picture, a speaking emblem that advises against hubris and uncharitable pride; its didacticism renders its emotional appeal coercive and as wooden as its verse. In the last three acts of the play couplets like "Thou speaks like him's untutored to repeat: / Who makes the fairest show means most deceit" (74-5) make way for more supple verse, and while the play continues to demonstrate something beyond its actual events, it is no longer a diagram on the moral blackboard, but a depth of expression that the misery of Tharsus only barely sounds.