Pericles, Prince of Tyre: Novel Summary

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Act 1, Scene 1b

Summary – Act One Introduction, Scene One and Scene One b
Gower, who serves as a narrator and introduces most of the acts and gives the epilogue, enters before the Palace of Antioch where heads are displayed above the entrance. He tells how Antiochus the Great built up this city ‘for his chiefest seat, the fairest in all Syria’ and how he committed incest with his daughter. Antiochus made a law to prevent others marrying her and ‘that whoso ask’d her for his wife / His riddle told not, lost his life.’ The heads displayed testify to this.
Scene One is set in Antioch and Antiochus, Pericles and Attendants enter. Antiochus asks Pericles if he has learned fully of ‘the danger of the task’ he is about to undertake. Pericles says he has and ‘think death no hazard in this enterprise’. Antiochus asks for music, and for his daughter to be brought in. Pericles scorns his advice and Antiochus angrily throws down the riddle he must solve before he may marry her; Antiochus’s daughter wishes Pericles happiness.
Pericles reads the riddle, which is as follows:
‘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 a 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.’
As an aside, Pericles says how ‘if this be true’, it makes him ‘pale to read it’. He has solved the riddle, and sees that it says the princess has committed incest with her father; he describes her as ‘this glorious casket stor’d with ill’. He turns to her and says he does not care for her and Antiochus tells him his time has run out. He orders Pericles to ‘expound now’ or receive his sentence.
Pericles suggests he knows the answer to the riddle when he says, ‘few love to hear the sins they love to act’, but does not tell Antiochus clearly. Antiochus says in an aside that he can see Pericles has found the meaning, and then talks to him with lies. He tells Pericles he has forty days respite to solve it and become his heir.
Everyone leaves but Pericles and he says how the courtesy of Antiochus covers sin. He describes him as being both a father and a son, and his daughter as ‘an eater of her mother’s flesh’. He also says they both breed poison. He then decides to take flight as he knows his life is in danger:
‘One sin, I know, another doth provoke,
Murder’s as near to lust as flame to smoke.’
In Scene One b, Antiochus enters and says how Pericles has solved the riddle and that ‘he must not live to trumpet forth my infamy’. He adds that the Prince must die ‘instantly’ to keep his honor high. Thaliard enters and Antiochus orders him to poison Pericles. He also gives him gold and tells him not to ask why. Thaliard agrees to do as he is bid. A messenger then enters and tells them Pericles has fled.
The messenger exits and Antiochus orders Thaliard to fly after Pericles and kill him. He tells him not to return unless he is able to say ‘Prince Pericles is dead’. Thaliard agrees and exits. Alone, Antiochus says, ‘till Pericles be dead / My heart can lend no succour to my head’.
Analysis – Act One Scene One and Scene One b
These early scenes mark the beginning of the odyssey of Pericles. His first adventure is, as stated, concerned with solving the riddle set by Antiochus. The heads adorning the palace stand as testament to the number of other men who have died trying to secure the princess as a wife. Their presence also suggests that they have not solved the riddle as he did, or did not act so wisely and flee when they realized the import of the answer (that Antiochus has had incestuous relations with his daughter). Because Pericles both solves the riddle and escapes death, he lives up to the role of (eponymous) hero.

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