Study Guide

Pericles, Prince of Tyre Mortality

By William Shakespeare

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To sing a song that old was sung,
From ashes ancient Gower is come;
Assuming man's infirmities, (1.Prologue.1-3)

The cool thing about Gower is that the dude literally comes back from the dead ("from ashes"). Here, he says that he's assuming a mortal, human form ("man's infirmities") so that he can help tell the story. FYI: the English poet John Gower (1327-1408) was the poet who wrote <em>Confessio Amantis,</em> which is the biggest literary source for this play. He died about 200 years before Shakespeare co-wrote <em>Pericles.</em>

To glad your ear, and please your eyes.
It hath been sung at festivals, (1.Prologue.4-5)

Another cool thing about Gower coming back "from ashes" in <em>Pericles</em> is that it reminds us how the play itself represents a kind of rebirth. After all, Shakespeare has taken a really old story that dates back to the 5th century and has given it new life.

But since he's gone, the King's seas must please:

He scap'd the land to perish at the sea. (1.3.27-28)

This is where Thaliard decides to lie to King Antiochus and tell him that Pericles died at sea. Of course, Pericles will nearly lose his life when he survives a shipwreck and washes up on shore. By the way, did you notice how people in this play are always running around saying Pericles is dead? What's up with that? 

Faith, master, I am thinking of the poor

men that were cast away before us even now. (2.1.18-19)

Just as the three fishermen are talking about the shipwreck they witnessed, Pericles, the sole survivor, shows up on shore and is all, "Ta da!" Naturally, the fishermen are completely shocked to see him—especially since they had thought everybody on board was dead.

Hymen hath brought the bride to bed.
Where, by the loss of maidenhead,
A babe is moulded. (3.Prologue.9-11)

This is where Gower tells us that Thaisa got pregnant on her wedding night when she lost her virginity to her new husband. What's interesting about this passage is that it emphasizes the relationship between loss and birth. In other words, it's the "loss" of Thaisa's "maidenhead" that leads to Marina's conception and her eventual birth at sea. 

[...] Take in your arms this piece

of your dead queen. (3.1.20-21)

Once again, loss and birth go hand in hand. As Lychorida hands Pericles his newborn daughter, she simultaneously delivers the devastating news that our hero's wife has died during labor. As we know, the ship's nervous crewmembers demand that Thaisa's body be tossed into the ocean to appease the angry storm gods.

[...] Even at the first
Thy loss is more than can thy portage quit,
With all thou canst find here. (3.1.34-36)

Thaisa's apparent death isn't just a terrible blow to Pericles. Here, he reminds us that his newborn daughter (Marina) has suffered a tremendous loss at the very beginning ("the first") of her life. This idea is repeated throughout the play, especially when Marina says "Thaisa was my mother, who did end / The minute I began" (5.1.211-212).

[...] How thou stirr'st, thou block!
The music there!—I pray you, give her air.
This queen will live: nature awakes; a warmth
Breathes out of her: she hath not been entranced
Above five hours: see how she gins to blow
Into life's flower again! (3.2.90-96)

Was Thaisa just unconscious, or was she really dead? Did Cerimon bring her back to life with his miraculous healing powers and some music? What does this tell us about the way the play sees death?

O, come hither,
Thou that beget'st him that did thee beget;
Thou that wast born at sea, buried at Tharsus,
And found at sea again! (5.1.194-197)

We talk about this quote in "Themes: Family" and also in "Symbols," but it's super important, so we need to mention it here, too. When Pericles is finally reunited with the daughter he thought was dead, he says he feels like he's experienced a rebirth. Here, he puns on 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.) But at the same time, Pericles feels like his daughter has also given him life. In other words, their family reunion has given him a renewed sense of hope and a new love of life. 

O, come, be buried

A second time within these arms. (5.3.42-43)

Pericles sure has a funny habit of punning when he's reunited with his loved ones. Here, he tells his long lost wife (the one whose body he "buried" in the ocean) to give him a big hug ("be buried" in his arms) so that they can begin their new life together.

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