Study Guide

Pericles, Prince of Tyre Fate and Free Will

By William Shakespeare

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Fate and Free Will

You gods that made me man, and sway in love,
That have inflam'd desire in my breast
To taste the fruit of yon celestial tree,
Or die in the adventure, be my helps,
As I am son and servant to your will [...] (1.1.19-23)

Right off the bat, it becomes clear that Pericles doesn't see himself as a man who is in control of his own fate. According to our hero, his life is determined by the gods' "will." As an example, he insists that the gods are the ones who have "inflam'd" his desire for the princess and that they will decide whether or not he'll win her for a wife.

But see what heaven can do by this our change [...] (1.4.33)

Pericles and his family aren't the only ones who suffer at the hands of the gods in this play. Tharsus was once a thriving city... until "heaven" sent a famine that has brought the place and all the people in it to their knees.

Till Fortune, tired with doing bad,
Threw him ashore, to give him glad [...] (2.Prologue.37-38)

When Gower describes how Pericles is the sole survivor of a shipwreck, he personifies Fortune in a way that makes it sound like the fickle goddess has totally got it out for mankind—as if the only reason Pericles survived the shipwreck is because Fortune got bored torturing the guy and just decided to toss him ashore.

Yet cease your ire, you angry stars of heaven!
Wind, rain, and thunder, remember, earthly man
Is but a substance that must yield to you;
And I, as fits my nature, do obey you:

Let it suffice the greatness of your powers
To have bereft a prince of all his fortunes [...] (2.1.1-9)

Pericles has a pretty good reason to be ticked off at the gods. After all, he just experienced a terrible shipwreck that killed his entire crew. What's interesting about Pericles is that he's not all that defiant toward the "angry stars of heaven." Here, he insists on his obedience and his human weakness.

[...] but fortune, mov'd,
Varies again; the grisly north
Disgorges such a tempest forth [...] (3.Prologue.46-48)

Just as things seem to be going well for our hero (he marries Thaisa and sets sale for home with his pregnant wife), moody fortune whips up another tempest that tears apart Pericles's family. Is it just us, or does this remind you of that famous passage in Shakespeare's King Lear? "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods / They kill us for their sport" (King Lear 4.1.4). In other words, the gods seem totally indifferent to human suffering and can be incredibly cruel.

                                                O you gods!
Why do you make us love your goodly gifts,
And snatch them straight away? We here below
Recall not what we give, and therein may
Use honor with you. (3.1.22-26)

Pericles is pretty ticked off when he hears that his wife has died giving birth to the couple's child, and he demands to know why the gods are always taking away the things we love the most in this world. What's interesting about Pericles is how this is as close as he ever really comes to rebelling against the gods and fate.

O dear Diana,

Where am I? (3.2.103-104)

Gee. Thaisa sure is lucky her coffin just so happened to wash up on shore near a brilliant doctor who would be able to revive her, don't you think? It's also quite a coincidence that the first words out of Thaisa's mouth invoke the name of the goddess who will later lead Pericles to Thaisa. In other words, it seems like Diana is totally looking out for Thaisa, even though her husband thought she was dead and tossed her body into the ocean. 

If you require a little space for prayer,
I grant it: pray; but be not tedious,
For the gods are quick of ear, and I am sworn
To do my work with haste. (4.1.67-70)

When murderous Leonine says the "gods are quick of ear," he means that the gods really aren't going to be interested in Marina's prayers, so she should just hurry up and spit them out. As we've said, this often seems true in the play. But, here's the thing: it seems like the gods <em>are</em> listening to Marina's prayers, because her life is saved about two seconds later, when a bunch of random pirates show up and kidnap her. So, we sort of get the sense that someone really is looking out for Marina.

And yet he rides it out. (4.4.31)

After hearing that his daughter is dead, Pericles hops back on his ship and encounters yet another tempest. What does Pericles do? He "rides it out," of course. Is this a metaphor for our hero's unwavering patience and determination? Or does it seem like Pericles has just given up all hope at this point in the play?

Although assail'd with fortune fierce and keen,
Virtue preserved from fell destruction's blast,
Led on by heaven, and crown'd with joy at last: (5.3.88-90)

Gower certainly seems to think that there's a divine presence in the world that's been looking out for Pericles and his family. He also thinks they've been rewarded for their "virtue." (Unlike, say, wicked King Antiochus, who was punished with a fireball sent down from the heavens.) 

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