As the Globe Turns

as the globe turnsIn 1608, a new play graced the stage of the Globe Theatre in London. Shakespeare’s latest, Pericles: Prince of Tyre was an immediate hit. It’s rarely seen these days, because frankly, it’s a total soap opera: salacious, silly, and completely full of unbelievable coincidences.

The hero is Prince Pericles, and his first adventure is to try and win the hand of a princess.  This particular babe is such a guy magnet that knightly bachelors from all over Christendom are lining up to try and win her hand, even at the risk of losing their lives. She’s so hot that her salacious father has taken her to his bed and the two of them are having an incestuous affair.

To get the girl, you have to solve a riddle; get it wrong, you lose your head. All previous suitors before Pericles have died, but (ta da!) Pericles figures out the answer – which is that the king and daughter are committing incest.  (Why they would advertise that fact in their riddle is never explained.)  Anyway Pericles realizes that if he answers correctly, they’ll probably kill him anyway for giving out their secret, so he asks for some extra time and runs away.

The evil king sends an assassin after Pericles, who escapes by taking a sea voyage and lands in Tarsus where the governor, Cleon, is fighting a drought. Pericles just happens to have (ta da!) a few shiploads full of grain in tow, which he gives to Cleon, and becomes his best friend. (Why Pericles is running from assassins with shiploads of grain in tow is never explained.) Pericles sails off again, and this time he’s caught in a storm and shipwrecked and discovered by some fishermen.

The fishermen tell Pericles he’s in Pentapolis and that the king here has a daughter that’s up for grabs, only this time there’s no riddle, but a tournament among all the knights vying for her hand. The fishermen cast their nets again, and (ta da!) reel in a suit of armor which they give to Pericles and he’s off to win the girl.

Pericles is victorious and charms the princess, who is named Thaisa. They marry and are about to have a baby when they get a note from Helicanus, the guy Pericles left in charge back in Tyre. (How he managed to find out that Pericles was shipwrecked in Pentapolis is never explained.) Helicanus tells Pericles it’s safe to come back to Tyre, since (ta da!) the evil king and his daughter where burnt up by fire raining down from heaven. (Why they’d be consumed by fire at this point rather than when they started doing the nasty is never explained either.)

At this point the assassin disappears from the plot entirely. This is sort of like starting a James Bond movie with Bond escaping the villain, and while he’s hiding out and seducing some girl, he gets a message from M saying the villain died in a car crash. Where do we go from here?  Home, I guess.

So, Pericles and Thaisa set sail for Tyre. But another storm arrives and batters their ship. Frightened by the bad weather, Thaisa goes into labor early. She delivers a child and dies. Pericles names the girl Marina. The sailors, afraid of having a dead body on board, make Pericles throw Thaisa’s body into the sea. He does so, and the coffin washes up in Ephesus, where it’s brought to a great physician who realizes (ta da!) that Thaisa isn’t really dead and revives her. She, however, assumes that Pericles’s ship went down in the storm and joins a convent…well, the ancient Greek equivalent, she becomes a vestal virgin in the temple of Diana.

Pericles drops anchor back in Tarsus, which is conveniently where the storm has left them, and since baby Marina needs to be fed, leaves her with Cleon to raise. Cleon takes the girl, since he owes Pericles for saving his hash during the drought. (Why Pericles doesn’t just get a wet nurse and take the baby home with him is never explained.)

So Pericles returns to Tyre, and Marina grows up in Tarsus. She turns out to be not only to be totally gorgeous, but talented in singing, dancing, needlework, you name it. It turns out that Cleon is married to the wicked-stepmother type, and she thinks that Marina is overshadowing her biological daughter and hires an assassin to bump off Marina. Just as he’s about to do so (ta da!), pirates show up and kidnap the girl. (Shakespeare had a thing for pirates. He pulled a similar stunt in Hamlet. Just as Prince Hamlet was sent off to England to be murdered, the freaking pirates show up and rescue him.)

The pirates, apparently short on cash and seeing that they’ve got a pretty girl on their hands, sell her to a brothel in a town called Mytilene. She’s still a virgin at this point, apparently the pirates were more interested in treasure-style booty than female booty, or maybe they were gay pirates, the text doesn’t say.

Things get pretty steamy now as Shakespeare set the next few scenes in the brothel. But, whenever poor Marina is about to be deflowered, she is so pure, and so virtuous, that she convinces the clients that they should go to church (or at least visit the vestal virgins) instead of having sex with her. She does the same thing with the governor of the region, who not only doesn’t pop her cherry but gives her money for the privilege of not popping her cherry.  Marina uses the cash to buy her way out of the brothel and becomes a music teacher (or something).

Meanwhile, Pericles (remember him?), decides it’s time to pick up Marina and bring her home.  (Why he waited sixteen years to do so is never explained.) When he shows up in Tarsus, Cleon and the evil stepmother tell him that Marina died. Pericles, realizing he’s now lost both a wife and a daughter, vows to never shave or cut his hair and returns to his ship to mope below decks.

At some point, when the ship just happens to be near Mytilene, the sailors decide that Pericles, who now looks like Robinson Crusoe, needs help and drop into to town for advice.  It just so happens (ta da!) that the governor of Mytilene (who paid Marina not to have sex with him) takes a look at Pericles and says “Hey, I know this babe who can really sing, maybe she’ll bring this guy back to his senses.

Marina shows up and sings. Pericles asks what her name is, they figure out they’re related and everybody is thrilled.  And if that weren’t enough, Pericles faints and the goddess Diana appears to him and says, to go Ephesus and recount your story in my temple.  He does so, and naturally, one of the vestals who overhears the story is Thaisa (remember her?) who says, “Dude, I’m your wife!

Now everybody is really happy and they go back to Mytilene for a big reunion at which point Pericles, who has now been with his daughter for about two days in sixteen years, gives her away again, this time to be married to the governor of Mytilene (who paid Marina not to have sex with him). Shakespeare does not say what Marina thought about being given to the same guy who wanted to screw her in the brothel, but hey, daughters are property, right?

Finally the narrator appears and in one final bit of happy news, tell us, “Oh by the way, the people of Tarsus have found out about Cleon and the evil stepmother and burned them alive in their palace. Hope you liked the show!”


One comment

  1. It’s probably fair to note that, as usual, Shakespeare did not invent this plot. The story is copied directly from another poet from Chaucer’s era, John Gower (though the story itself is much older). In Pericles, Shakespeare uses Gower as the narrator. In the original tale, the hero’s name is Apollonius. It’s not clear why, since Shakespeare is effectively crediting Gower by putting him on stage, the name of the hero has been changed.

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