Pericles Plot Synopsis

By Heather Helinsky,
Dramaturg

In Antioch, King Antiochus has offered his daughter to anyone who can solve a riddle, but the penalty for guessing wrong is death.  Pericles, prince of Tyre,  discovers the answer, but in correctly guessing, he reveals the incestuous relationship between Antiochus and his daughter. Pericles flees Antioch and returns to his kingdom of Tyre (modern-day Lebanon). Helicanus, Pericles trusted counselor, agrees that war with Antioch is likely and urges Pericles to leave Tyre until the danger has passed. Pericles appoints Helicanus to rule Tyre and then travels, setting sail for Tarsus, a city gripped by a two-year famine. Pericles delivers food to the city and while they hail him a hero and erect a statue to him, King Antioch has sent the assassin Thaliard to track Pericles down, so Pericles flees to Pentapolis (a small island off the coast of Greece, near Athens). On the way, the vessel is shipwrecked, and Pericles is the sole survivor.

Pentapolis is ruled by the benevolent King Simonides. Pericles has washed ashore the day before the king’s daughter’s birthday and many princes and knights are jousting in a tournament to win her love. Pericles enters the tournament and he is mocked for his lowly appearance and rusty armor.

Pericles wins the tournament and Princess Thaisa’s heart. They marry and hear the good news that King Antiochus is dead. Back in Tyre, the people want to crown Helicanus as king, but he is unwilling to accept the crown and cautions the people to wait six months for Pericles the true King of Tyre to return. Pericles makes preparation to sail home. His wife Thaisa is now well into her pregnancy. Their ship is struck by another terrible storm during which Thaisa gives birth to a daughter and then seems to have died. Sealing his wife in a water-tight coffin, Pericles gives Thaisa a burial at sea. Thaisa washes up on the shores of Ephesus (modern-day Turkey), the location of the ancient temple to the goddess Diana, where a doctor discovers she is alive and revives her. Thaisa assumes that Pericles is lost at sea and makes a vow to serve the goddess Diana in her temple.

En route back to his kingdom of Tyre, Pericles stops again in Tarsus (modern-day Turkey, near Antioch), the city he had saved from a famine. He asks King Cleon and his wife Dionyza to raise his infant daughter Marina. King Cleon and his wife are eager to return the favor. Pericles thanks them and vows never to cut his hair until Marina is married. Fourteen years pass.

Marina is educated well and bred as a princess according to their promise, but Queen Dionyza has grown jealous of Marina’s grace and beauty, and hires an assassin Leonine to kill Marina. She is spared only because a group of pirates scare Leonine away and capture Marina for themselves. The pirates take Marina to a brothel in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, Greece. The brothel keepers are thrilled to have a beautiful virgin to sell to their customers, but Marina swears that the goddess Diana will protect her chastity. Back in Tarsus, Queen Dionyza tells Cleon what she thinks is true: that Leonine has killed Marina on her request. Cleon is outraged and worries what to say to his friend Pericles and that the gods will be angry. Meanwhile, Marina uses her wits to convert the gentlemen at the brothel to goodness and they leave vowing to lead virtuous lives. She has a similar effect on Lysimachus, the governor of Mytilene. One of the keepers tries to rape Marina but she wins him to her escape plan. She leaves with her honor intact and finds work in a respectable house.

Lysimachus spots Pericles’ ship and sails out to meet him. On board, Helicanus explains to Lysimachus that Pericles has been grieving his daughter for three months and refuses to speak. Lysimachus thinks that the beauty and goodness of Marina might help Pericles in his grief over his double-loss of wife and daughter. As Marina sings to Pericles, he is amazed by her resemblance to his dearest wife. Pericles finally recognizes her and the two are happily reunited. Lysimachus asks for Marina’s hand in marriage. Pericles then encounters the goddess Diana in his dream, who instructs Pericles to go to Ephesus to her Temple before Marina is married. In the final scene, Pericles and his court travel to Ephesus and the family is reunited.