Pericles – Act Two: a shipwreck, a tournament, and a weird papa

Previously on Pericles: In the first act, we meet the narrative guide and chorus for the play, John Gower. He begins by taking us to Antioch where the king is having an incestuous relationship with his daughter. Her beauty brings on suitors, so he has come up with a riddle: if you get the riddle right, you get the girl; if not, the king gets your head. Many have failed. Pericles, though, is confident of his own success. And he understands the riddle and is deeply disturbed: it’s a (thinly) veiled admission of the incest. Pericles leaves the country, rightfully fearing for his life. When the king Antiochus sees that Pericles is gone, he sends one of his lords to find Pericles and kill him. In Tyre, Pericles is troubled by the thought of Antiochus sending an army to Tyre; his loyal lord Helicanus tells Pericles to travel a while; Pericles agrees. Thaliard, Antiochus’ lord, arrives in Tyre to hear that Pericles has left town. And in Tarsus, the governor and his wife, bemoan their drought and failing country. When word arrives that a naval fleet has arrived, they think the worst, but the ships belong to Pericles, and he has come not for invasion, but rather with food. He is welcomed and treated (as he should) as a hero.

And the second act?

The second act of Pericles begins much like the first, with a chorus from Gower (complete with stage-directed dumbshow). He recaps act one and tells us that Pericles moved on from Tarsus but that his ship was caught in a storm and sunk. Fear not, though, Pericles survives and is washed ashore.

And that’s how Act Two, Scene One begins: Enter Pericles “wet” (II.i opening stage direction). In soliloquy, he tells nature that he is at its mercy. Some fishermen come along and Pericles listens in on their discussion (think the gravediggers in Hamlet and the landscapers in Richard II). From the discussion, Pericles (and we) learn that the reigning king here is Simonides. Pericles comes forward and the fishermen assist him, clothing him. He learns too that they are in the country of Pentapolis, and that the king is known for his “peaceable reign and good government” (II.i.103-04). We also learn that tomorrow is the king’s daughter’s birthday, and that knights “come from all parts of the world to joust and tourney for her love” (II.i.110-11). Now, if I’m Pericles, I’ve heard enough and I’m getting the heck out of Dodge, given that my last experience of a contest to win a princess’ hand didn’t go so well. And Pericles has heard enough, too: only he wants to go there. As luck would have it, another fisherman comes on with a rusty armor he’s pulled from the sea. And it belongs to Pericles… so he’s happier now: “My shipwreck now’s no ill, / Since I have here my father gave in his will” (II.i.134-35). He asks that they allow him to keep the armor, and that he’ll repay their kindness when he can. They agree and wish him well in the tournament.

Act Two, Scene Two takes us to the court of King Simonides, and the day of the tournament. With the king is his daughter Thaisa, and as the knights enter, she describes each, and reads their motto. There’s one from Sparta, one from Macedon, one from Antioch (uh oh…maybe?), two without countries, and Pericles, who is the only one without a squire. Some of the lords make fun of Pericles, but good King Simonides rebukes them, saying, “Opinion’s but a fool, that makes us scan / The outward habit by the inward man” (II.ii.56-7). And all exit to watch the tourney. There are great shouts and a cry of “The mean knight!” (II.ii.59 stage direction). And no, it’s not that one of the knights wasn’t nice, they meant “mean” as in poor…so they’re cheering for Pericles.

Act Two, Scene Three gives us the party after the tournament. Thaisa crowns the victorious Pericles, who is humble in triumph. The king is gracious to both victor and losers alike. When offered the seat next to Thaisa, Pericles demurs, saying someone (anyone?) is more fit to sit next to her. He seems to be a little ashamed of his state. He’s convinced to sit, and both king and princess state their affection for Pericles in asides, Thaisa going so far as to say that she is “wishing him [to be her] meat” (II.iii.32). Yowza.

Pericles also speaks in an aside and says that the good king reminds him of his father. His melancholy is noticed by both king and princess. The king gets his daughter to try and talk to Pericles; she does and pulls his story from him. Fascinated, the king tries to cheer Pericles, even resorting to some bawdy humor (mixing dance and sex metaphors…as dancing begins at the party). The party comes to an end, and the king sends all off to their rooms, telling Pericles, “Yours, sir, / We have given order be next our own” (II.iii.109-110).

Act Two, Scene Four, takes us back to Tyre, where we hear from Helicanus that Antiochus and his daughter are now dead, killed by “a fire from heaven” (II.iv.9). Helicanus is then accosted by some other lords of Tyre, who want either to know about Pericles:

But if the Prince do live, let us salute him,
Or know what ground’s made happy by his breath.
If in the world he live, we’ll seek him out;
If in his grave he rest, we’ll find him there
And be resolved he lives to govern us,
Or dead, give ’s cause to mourn his funeral
And leave us to our free election.
  • II.iv.27-33

Makes sense…but then they add that if Pericles is dead, they want Helicanus to become king. The loyal lord replies that he agrees, if they give Pericles another year to return; if Pericles doesn’t return then he “shall with aged patience bear [the] yoke” (II.iv.46) of the throne. But he asks them to search the world for Pericles.

In the fifth and final scene of the second act, it’s back to Pentapolis, with King Simonides informing the knights (sans Pericles) that “for this [next] twelvemonth [his daughter]’ll not undertake / A married life” (II.v.3-4). The knights leave, then the king reveals that his daughter has written him a letter saying, “She’ll wed the stranger knight / Or never more to view nor day nor light” (II.v.16-17). But instead of feeling put out by a froward and wayward daughter, he reveals that he “commend[s] her choice and will no longer / Have it be delayed” (II.v.21-22).

When Pericles enters, however, Simonides in an aside reveals that he’s going to “dissemble” (II.v.23), and not let on. Now, just for full personal disclosure here, I hate uncomfortable situations, especially in fiction or entertainment. I cannot stand to watch shows like American Idol because the supposedly comic “bad audition” sequences are just too painful for me to watch, nor am I a big fan of scenes in which people make fools of themselves. Why do I mention this? Because the scene that follows feels like one of those sequences.

The king goes on to praise Pericles’ musical ability. Then he asks if Pericles thinks Thaisa is pretty. Then he says Pericles should become her schoolmaster. Pericles says that he isn’t worthy; Simonides says that Thaisa thinks otherwise…then hands Pericles the letter from his daughter. Pericles fears that Simonides may be trying to “entrap” (II.v.45) him. Then Simonides accuses Pericles of bewitching Thaisa. It escalates: Simonides calls Pericles a traitor, Pericles pulls his sword on the king.

And Thaisa walks in. Pericles tells her to explain to her father that he’s ever tried to make love to her. She responds, “Why, sir, say if you had, who takes offense / At that would make me glad?” (II.v.71-72). Then Simonides bounces back and forth between being “angry” with his daughter and giddily saying in asides how much he’s loving this. And within 20 lines, the couple pronounce their love and agree to marry.

And the scene and act ends with a fairly sketchy (bordering on creepy) declaration by papa Simonides: “It pleaseth me so well that I will see you wed; / And then, with what haste you can, get you to bed” (II.v.92-93).

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