Although there were quarto editions starting in 1609, this play did not appear in the First Folio, possibly because only shoddy texts of it were available. It was included in the Third Folio (1664) and gradually was adopted into the canon. The current state of this play may indicate that it was an incomplete draft left unfinished at the playwright's death and patched together by another hand (to whom orthodoxy credits the first two acts); or, more likely, since Ben Jonson called it a "stale" and "mouldy tale" (Farina 98), it was another very early work of Oxford's that the playwright was revising near the end. The first two acts particularly either do not seem Shakespearean (Goddard, II 241; Wells 330) or at best resemble his earliest style. [Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen are thought to be other such "collaborations" -- there may be others that were left in various stages of (in)completion.] The name George Wilkins has been put forth as the possible "collaborator" here, though Bloom notes that Wilkins was a "low-life hack" and "whoremonger" (Bloom 603). The apparent change in style takes place at Act III, where revision seems to be suddenly thoroughgoing regarding the story of father and daughter at this point.
The Pericles of this play has nothing to do with the Pericles of Golden Age Athens; instead, Shakespeare is using the story of Apollonius of Tyre, originally a Latin prose romance based on a lost Greek version (Asimov 186). "Pericles" is often said to have come "Pyrocles" in Philip Sidney's work. Key sources are the Confessio Amantis by John Gower (Chaucer's contemporary) and Laurence Twine's The Patterne of Paynfull Adventures from 1576. Twine and his brother "contributed to the 1573 translation of The Breviary of Britain, a book dedicated to de Vere and praising his interest in history, geography, and all learning in general" (Farina 99). E.T. Clark thinks the play is very early, based on Oxford's maritime adventures in the mid-1570s, and the elder Ogburns agree, adding that it was lateer retouched (Ogburn and Ogburn 962). Indeed, Dryden decided it was Shakespeare's very first play (Ogburn and Ogburn 963). An entertainment presented at Richmond in 1577 titled A Pastorell or Historie of a Greeke Maide may have been an early version of Pericles (Ogburn and Ogburn 127). In this play, perhaps, Oxford "expressed the passionate gloom which had darkened his mind after his return from his travels" (Ogburn and Ogburn 128). The incest discovered in Act I has prompted a dark theory within Oxfordianism regarding Anne Cecil's problematic 1575-76 pregnancy.
Although romances tales can be expected to have "highly improbable, often event miraculous, happenings, asking us to suspend disbelief and to watch and listen with the wide-eyed wonder of children at pantomime" (Wells 329), Pericles is still rather a disappointment because it's so sprawling and lacks those universal themes that make other plays so rich. Jonson's gripe about it being "mouldy" "likely meant that it was both archaic and improbable" (Garber 754). It's at best "an exciting series of adventures that violate the unities of time and place in most undramatic fashion. It is held together by narrative suspense and a certain interest in the three main characters, not by any dominating theme" (Goddard, II 242). Clearly, though, Shakespeare in his later years liked working with the father/daughter relationship.
To sing a song that old was sung,Shakespeare resurrects "From ashes" (2) John Gower, the medieval English poet considered quaint and old-fashioned by Shakespeare's time and contemporary of Chaucer, as a "chorus" character, since his Confessio Amantis, Book VIII, is the primary source for the story, "Et bonum quo antiquius, eo melius" (I.10) -- and the older a good thing is, the better. It is only in this play and The Two Noble Kinsmen "that Shakespeare so openly announces his source" (Asimov 183). "An archaic style is adopted for Gower's choruses, a naïve tone in order to induce the proper mood for a tale of womder" (Wells 331). "He has come from the grave to tell his tale, and the tale itself will tell of restorations from death to life" (Wells 332). Gower's "archaic" style is represented by "'killen' for 'kill,' 'spoken' for 'speak,' 'eyne' for 'eyes'" (Garber 758). And in his characteristically godawful iambic quadrameter couplets, Gower introduces the first part of the tale to be dramatized: Antiochus' incest and the riddle established to kill off his daughter's suitors.
From ashes ancient Gower is come,
Assuming man's infirmities,
To glad your ear and please your eyes.
"The first two acts of Pericles can easily be seen as a sentimentalized portrait of the young Edward de Vere" -- jouster, husband, traveller, and one who had "at least one encounter with pirates" (Farina 100). King Antiochus of Antioch welcomes Pericles of Tyre to a challenge: answer a riddle win the hand of the King's daughter, or fail and have his severed head mounted like those of others who have attempted. The glorious entrance of Antiochus' daughter prompts eloquence in Pericles, who refuses to shrink from the challenge. The daughter wishes him well, but we're never told her name: "her lack of a name underscoring the need for Marina, later on, to find the meaning of her own name and birth" (Garber 763).
The rhyming riddle is presented:
I am no viper, yet I feedObviously the answer is something like "you are a daughter having an ongoing incestuous relationship with your own father." Pericles indicates to the Princess that now that he knows how vile she is, "I care not for you" (I.i.86).
On mother's flesh which did me breed.
I sought a husband, in which labor
I found that kindness in a father.
He's 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.
Time's up. What's the answer? Pericles realizes it would probably be less than tactful, or safe, to come out with the answer, so he prevaricates.
Few love to hear the sins they love to act;Thus Pericles makes it clear he knows the answer but stops short of revealing it. For some, the book reference has evoked the secret Book of Babies Oxford was accused of owning (Ogburn and Ogburn 962). Antiochus feigns friendship and gives Pericles forty days to answer. Pericles figures he'd best run away: "One sin, I know, another doth provoke: / Murther's as near to lust as flame to smoke" (I.i.137-138). Indeed, Antiochus hires a noble, Thaliard, as a hit man, but Pericles is already gone. Thaliard leaves Antioch in murderous pursuit.
'Twould braid yourself too near for me to tell it.
Who has a book of all that monarchs do,
He's more secure to keep it shut than shown;
. . .
The blind mole casts
Copp'd hills towards heaven, to tell the earth is throng'd
By man's oppression, and the poor worm doth die for 't.
Pericles has run home to Tyre and in he comes with his lords. "Let none disturb us" (I.ii.1), he says, and all the lords immediately exit. Pericles frets about Antiochus' power, even though he intends to keep quiet about the incest. Antiochus might even instigate military aggression against Tyre. Some of this (esp. I.ii.16-23) makes Antiochus sound like Lord Burghley (Ogburn and Ogburn 128). Then all the lords come back in. Among these friends of Pericles, Helicanus irrelevantly pontificates on flattery. Pericles then dismisses all the lords again except for Helicanus. (Postulated "major textual dislocations in this scene" notwithstanding, the pointless shuffling back and forth of all these lords must be a riot on stage.)
Pericles knows that Helicanus is no flatterer, "and heaven forbid / That kings should let their ears hear their faults hid!" (I.ii.61-62). Helicanus acknowledges Pericles' heavy grief. "Thou speak'st like a physician, Helicanus, / That ministers a potion unto me / That thou wouldst tremble to receive thyself" (I.ii.67-69). Pericles tells Helicanus about the incest and about his own fears over the consequences of his knowing. Helicanus validates the logic of Pericles' fears and recommends that he travel: Tyre is the first place they'll look for him. "Your rule direct to any; if to me, / Day serves not light more faithful than I'll be" (I.ii.109-110). Pericles resolves to sail to Tharsus.
Thaliard, now in Tyre, overhears Helicanus tell others that Pericles is gone, and Thaliard is glad that his mission is all over with then. He comes forth, telling Helicanus that he brought a message for Pericles but has already found that the Prince is departed. Helicanus invites him to feast.
In Tharsus, Cleon the Governor and his wife Dionyza grieve about the famine. The land's former bounty and prosperity are gone and people are now at the point of cannibalism. The sighting of ships makes Cleon expect "some neighboring nation, / Taking advantage of our misery" (I.iv.65-66). Even the white flags don't alter his despair. But Pericles arrives and announces that the ships are filled with corn for Tharsus' relief. Cleon heartily thanks him.
It's difficult to see how this scene could have been written by Will Shakspere of Stratford, who hoarded grain in famine years.