Study Guide

Pericles, Prince of Tyre Family

By William Shakespeare

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This king unto him took a peer,
Who died and left a female heir,
With whom the father liking took,
And her to incest did provoke:
Bad child; worse father, to entice his own
To evil should be done by none[...]
(Act 1, Prologue, 21-28)

Right away we know that this play is going to be about the following family issues: 1) marriage (Antiochus was married but his wife died); 2) children being abandoned or left by their parents (Antiochus's daughter has been left without a mother); 3) bad parents who hurt their kids (Antiochus has seduced his own daughter and has been sleeping with her).


Young prince of Tyre, you have at large received
The danger of the task you undertake.


I have, Antiochus, and, with a soul
Embolden'd with the glory of her praise,
Think death no hazard in this enterprise. (1.1.1-5)

In a lot ways, Pericles is a typical hero on a quest—along with a bunch of other young adventure-seekers, he travels to Antioch for the chance to win a beautiful princess. At the same time, we realize just how important creating a family is to Pericles. When we first meet our hero, he's not just on a quest for adventure. He's looking for a wife, and he's willing to risk his life solving a riddle in order to make that happen. (It's just too bad he has no idea what he's in for.)


Prince Pericles—


That would be son to great Antiochus. (1.1.26-27)

It seems like Pericles is just as interested in gaining a father-in-law as he is in gaining a wife, don't you think? This makes us wonder about Pericles's own parents. Where are they? Are they alive? We don't learn until later in the play that Pericles's father is dead and that his dad "loved [him] dearly" (2.1.138).

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. (1.1.64-71)

This is the riddle Pericles solves but is reluctant to say anything about. That's because it reveals King Antiochus's secret—he's been sleeping with his daughter. The riddle can be a little confusing (hey, it's a riddle, right?), so let's break it down. Antiochus's daughter is being compared to a viper (snake) that eats her own mother's flesh because she's sleeping with her mom's husband. (Back in the day, baby vipers were thought to eat their way out of their mothers' bodies.) The riddle goes on to say that by sleeping with her dad, Antiochus's "child" is acting like a "wife" to him. And Antiochus, who is his daughter's "father," is acting like he's her "husband" by taking her to bed.

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. But it seems like Shakespeare wants us to be confused. Why's that? Because incestuous relationships are confusing, that's why. They blur the boundaries between traditional family dynamics.

Why is Antiochus even asking this particular riddle? It's hard to be sure, but we have a good guess. It's hard to solve, first of all, which means that most of Antiochus's daughter's suitors will just get their heads lopped off. If someone does solve it, that guy—like Pericles—is probably not going to want to reveal the answer. That means that Antiochus can pretty much keep his daughter either way.

Those mothers who, to nousle up their babes,
Thought nought too curious, are ready now
To eat those little darlings whom they loved.
So sharp are hunger's teeth, that man and wife
Draw lots who first shall die to lengthen life: (1.4.42-46)

The famine in Tharsus is so bad that families are turning against each other. Here, we learn that mothers are beginning to think about eating their own children. (In the riddle above, the opposite happens—baby vipers were thought to eat their way out of their mother.) So what do you think is up with all the references to families and cannibalism?

When he was seated in a chariot
Of an inestimable value, and his daughter with him,
A fire from heaven came and shrivell'd up
Their bodies, even to loathing; for they so stunk,
That all those eyes adored them ere their fall
Scorn now their hand should give them burial. (2.4.7-12)

Note to wicked parents everywhere: according to this play, you deserve to die a seriously painful and fiery death for treating your children badly. Here, we learn that King Antiochus has been struck by a fireball sent "from heaven" and has been burnt to a crisp, along with his incestuous daughter. At the end of the play, we also find out that Marina's wicked foster mother and foster father are burned alive in Cleon's palace as punishment for Dionyza's attempted murder of Marina (5.3.95-98). 

Thou sayest true: 'tis not our bringing up of poor
bastards,—as, I think, I have brought up some eleven—(4.2.13-14)

Oh, wait a minute. You know how we said earlier that all the bad parents get punished in this play? Well, we forgot to mention that Bawd and Pander (who are kind of like foster parents to Marina and all the "bastard" kids born in their brothel) never really get punished. That's weird, don't you think? Why do you think Shakespeare lets these two lower-class characters off the hook? Do we get the sense that they have fewer options than the upper-class characters, so their actions are somehow less horrible? Or is it something else?

[...] Pericles
Is now again thwarting the wayward seas,
Attended on by many a lord and knight.
To see his daughter, all his life's delight. (4.4.9-12)

We've got one question, Shmoopers: why the heck does Pericles leave his daughter in Tharsus for so long (about fourteen years) without visiting her? 

O, come hither,
Thou that beget'st him that did thee beget; (5.1.194-195)

This quote is hugely important. When Pericles discovers that he's just been reunited with his long-lost daughter, he experiences a kind of rebirth. Here, he speaks a kind of riddle that plays on the phrase "to beget," which is an old-fashioned way of saying "to give life to." Let's break it down. On the one hand, Pericles calls Marina the daughter that he "did beget" with his wife. (Translation: he and his wife made her.) But at the same time, Pericles feels like his daughter has also given him life. Why? Is it because their family reunion has given him a renewed love of life? It seems that way to us.

We also notice that the play ends and begins with two riddles. (Remember the incest riddle in the opening prologue? It opened up a giant can of worms by revealing King Antiochus's sexual relationship with his daughter.) Both riddles are about confusing family relationships, but this one seems to resolve a lot of the play's fears about family dysfunction. 

We'll celebrate their nuptials, and ourselves
Will in that kingdom spend our following days:
Our son and daughter shall in Tyrus reign.
Lord Cerimon, we do our longing stay
To hear the rest untold: sir, lead's the way. (5.3.80-84)

You know how we've been saying that <em>Pericles </em>is all about the restoration of families? Well, here we find out that just as soon as everyone has been reunited, Pericles's family is going to be separated again. Marina and her new husband are going to rule in Tyre, while Pericles and his wife will go to Pentapolis to take over, now that Thaisa's father is dead. What's going on? Why is poor Marina being separated from her parents... again?

The play seems to be saying that it's totally natural for a kid like Marina to grow up and leave her parents in order to lead a new life and start a new family. After all, this is exactly what Pericles was trying to do way back at the beginning of the play, right? When we first met him, the guy was on a quest to marry a princess and start a family. All of this reminds us that, even though our hero's journey is (sort of) coming to an end, Marina's journey is just beginning. It's easy to imagine this cycle repeating itself with each new generation. 

Pericles, Prince of Tyre Family Study Group

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