Study Guide

Pericles, Prince of Tyre Sex

By William Shakespeare

Advertisement - Guide continues below


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: (1.Prologue.25-28)

We learn almost right away that Antiochus has been sleeping with his own daughter. The incestuous relationship is so terrifying to our hero that Pericles high-tails it out of Antioch about 0.5 seconds after he figures out what's going on. We've got some questions, Shmoopers. When Pericles discovers the ugly truth about Antioch and his daughter in Act 1, Scene 1, why doesn't he rat out the king? Why keep the guy's secret? Also, if Pericles is supposed to be our hero, why does he run away from the problem instead of confronting Antiochus? Let us know when you work that one out.

But custom what they did begin
Was with long use account no sin. (1.Prologue.29-30)

Apparently, Antiochus and his daughter have been hooking up for such a long time that neither one of them thinks there's anything wrong with it. Gower, on the other hand, makes it pretty clear that he disapproves.

Before thee stands this fair Hesperides,
With golden fruit, but dangerous to be touch'd;
For death-like dragons here affright thee hard: (1.1.27-29)

You probably noticed how Antiochus's daughter is always getting compared to yummy fruit in this scene of the play. It starts with Pericles, who compares his desire for her to a desire to "taste the fruit of yon celestial tree"(1.1.21).

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: (1.1.64-67)

These are the first lines of the infamous riddle. We talk about it in more detail in "Symbols," but here, we want to point out that Antiochus's daughter is associated with a viper that "feeds" on its mother's flesh (because she's been sleeping with her dead mother's husband). What's interesting is how incest is associated with cannibalism and violence. 

You are a fair viol, and your sense the strings;
Who, finger'd to make man his lawful music,
Would draw heaven down, and all the gods, to hearken:
But being play'd upon before your time,
Hell only danceth at so harsh a chime. (1.1.81-85)

When Pericles realizes the truth about Antiochus's daughter, he uses a metaphor to compare her to a musical instrument (a viol) that's been "play'd" by the wrong man—her father. Okay, we get it, Shakespeare: making music is a metaphor for sex. Basically, Pericles says that if Antiochus's daughter were married and engaged in a "lawful" sexual relationship with a husband, their lovemaking would be heavenly, instead of "hell[ish]" and sinful. (By the way, in Sonnet 8, Shakespeare totally makes a famous comparison between harmonious music and healthy family relationships among husband, wife, and child.) Here, Pericles associates the incestuous relationship between Antiochus and his daughter with musical discord.

By Juno, that is queen of marriage,
All viands that I eat do seem unsavoury.
Wishing him my meat. (2.3.30-32)

In earlier passages, we saw how desire for food is a metaphor for sexual appetite. Here, we learn that Thaisa is so hot for Pericles that she loses her physical appetite and can't stop telling us all how yummy or "meat[y]" he looks to her. Shakespeare is reminding us that, unlike the daughter of Antiochus (who is compared to a flesh-eating viper), Thaisa expresses her sexual desire in a much healthier way.


Thou sayest true; they're too unwholesome, o'
conscience. The poor Transylvanian is dead, that
lay with the little baggage.


Ay, she quickly pooped him, she made him

roast-meat for worms. But I'll go search the market. (4.2.21-25)

We can't talk about the play's sex theme without discussing the brothel scenes, can we? Here, Pander and Boult have a frank conversation about how their prostitutes have been giving all their customers some nasty STDs. (Um, we're pretty sure it works the other way around, too.) In fact, one woman gave the Transylvanian client syphilis, which ended up killing him. Yikes. The moral seems to be that cheap casual sex literally leads to death. (This isn't just garden-variety sex outside of marriage we're talking about here; it's prostitution.)

That the gods

Would safely deliver me from this place! (4.6.179-180)

The extraordinary thing about Marina is that the girl manages to do the following after she's sold to a brothel and threatened with rape: 1) she remains a virgin, and 2) she manages to convert a bunch of the brothel's customers into virtuous men who swear off prostitutes forever.

I am great with woe, and shall deliver weeping.
My dearest wife was like this maid, and such a one
My daughter might have been: my queen's square brows;
Her stature to an inch; as wand-like straight;
As silver-voiced; her eyes as jewel-like

When Pericles is introduced to his long-lost daughter, he doesn't recognize her, but he thinks she looks a lot like his beautiful dead wife—same brows, same stature, same lovely voice, and same gorgeous eyes. Hmm. Is Pericles attracted to Marina? You can argue either way, but before Pericles can ask Marina out on a date or something, father and daughter recognize each other and have a big family reunion. Is it just us, or is the play still just a little anxious about the threat of incest here? 

In Antiochus and his daughter you have heard
Of monstrous lust the due and just reward:
In Pericles, his queen and daughter, seen,
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: (5.3.85-90)

This play really does celebrate chastity in the end, don't you think? According to Gower, incestuous Antiochus and his daughter totally got what they deserved. (Remember how they get struck by a ball of fire while they're out joyriding in their chariot?) On the other hand, the play's "virtu[ous]" characters are rewarded. (And by virtuous, we're referring to virginal Marina and to Thaisa, who remains chaste in Diana's temple.) What's not totally clear is whether the play has an issue with all sex outside of marriage, or whether it has an issue with sex without love or respect. The second kind of sex generally happens in marriage in <em>Pericles</em>, but since the other kinds of sex we see we are incest and prostitution (which are definitely extremes), it's not totally clear where the play falls on the morality spectrum.

Pericles, Prince of Tyre Sex Study Group

Ask questions, get answers, and discuss with others.

Tired of ads?

Join today and never see them again.

This is a premium product

Please Wait...