Study Guide

Pericles, Prince of Tyre Riddles

By William Shakespeare

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Shakespeare sure does love him some riddles, don't you think? Pericles begins and ends with riddles, and each of them is about family relationships.

We hear the first one in Act 1, when Pericles tries to solve a riddle in order to win a prize, which is to marry King Antiochus's daughter. Check it out:

I am no viper, yet I feed
On mother's flesh which did me breed.
I sought a husband, in which labour
I found that kindness in a father:
He's father, son, and husband mild;
I mother, wife, and yet his child.
How they may be, and yet in two,
As you will live, resolve it you.

Pericles solves it all right, but the riddle reveals a dirty little family secret—King Antiochus is totally having an incestuous affair with his daughter, and he's got no intention of letting her marry anyone, especially the guy who solves the riddle.

So let's take a closer look at this riddle, folks. Basically, Antiochus's daughter is being compared to a viper (a snake) that eats her own mother's flesh because she's sleeping with her mom's husband (husbands and wives were seen to be of one flesh). In other words, the daughter's incestuous desire for her dad is imagined as an act of violence against her mom.

By the way, baby vipers were thought to eat their way out of their mothers' bodies. Yikes.

The riddle goes on to say that by sleeping with her dad, Antiochus's "child" is acting like a "wife" to him. Same goes for Antiochus, who is his daughter's "father" but acts like he's her "husband" by taking her to bed.

Some parts of this riddle are super confusing and don't exactly make sense. We're not sure why Antiochus is compared to his daughter's "son," and we're not sure why his daughter is supposed to be like a "mother" to him. (By the way, the literary critics are just as confused as the rest of us. They've been arguing about these two parts forever.)

If you twisted our arm and forced us to come up with a theory, we'd probably say that the riddle is supposed to be confusing because it's about an incestuous relationship that's, well, super messed up and confusing. Once you cross one boundary, all the rest get confused, too.

Now, the last riddle we hear comes at the end of the play, when Pericles is reunited with his daughter, Marina. This is what he says to her:

O, come hither,
Thou that beget'st him that did thee beget […]

Huh? What's he talking about? Basically, he's playing around with the phrase "to beget," which is an old-fashioned way of saying "to give life to." On the one hand, Pericles calls Marina the daughter that he "did beget" with his wife. (Translation: he and his wife made her on their wedding night.) But at the same time, Pericles feels like his daughter has also given him life because their family reunion has given him a renewed sense of hope and a desire to live, despite all the heartache he's suffered.

So both riddles are about confusing family relationships, but this last one seems to resolve a lot of the play's anxieties about incest and family dysfunction. Basically, everything that was messed up in the beginning of the play finds its resolution at the end of the play.

By the way, the fact that this play is book-ended with riddles tells us one more thing about how the play sees the world: basically, as a riddle. What do we mean by that? Well, appearances are deceiving in the play: we've got a father and daughter who are actually lovers, we've got several deaths that get reported but that never actually happened, and we've got lots of confusion about who loves whom and who is loyal to whom.

It's as if the world itself a big riddle, right? Pericles thinks he knows what has happened to him and his family, and he suffers a lot for it, but in the end, everything was actually all right. It's like all the events in the play are riddles, and it isn't until the very end that Pericles figures out what they all mean.

Pericles, Prince of Tyre Riddles Study Group

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