Like Romeo and Juliet and Henry V before, Pericles opens with a Chorus. Unlike those, however, this Chorus is not some anonymous storyteller. Pericles’ Chorus comes in the form of poet John Gower, a contemporary and friend of Geoffrey Chaucer. And after an introductory handful of mostly non-rhymed iambic tetrameter, Gower dives into exposition.
And what exposition it is…
Gower takes us to ancient Antioch and its king Antiochus the Great. Only not so great: Antiochus is having an incestuous affair with his own daughter. Because of her beauty, she has many suitors:
Made many princes thither frame
To seek her as a bedfellow,
In marriage pleasures playfellow;
Which to prevent he made a law
To keep her still, and men in awe,
That whoso asked her for his wife,
His riddle told not, lost his life.
The king has created a riddle for the suitors, and if one gets it wrong, he loses not only her hand in marriage, but his own head. At no point in this prologue do we hear word one about our title character.
That absence doesn’t last long, though.
Pericles and Antiochus enter the palace of Antioch at the beginning of Act One, Scene One, and Pericles announces his desire to hazard the riddle to win the daughter’s hand. Music is played and she enters. Pericles waxes poetic on her beauty, but Antiochus tries to warn him off, indicating the heads of the princes who have come before. Pericles confidently refers to himself as the “son to great Antiochus” (I.i.27), and takes the riddle to read:
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.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the riddle. One has to wonder why there have been so many failures in the past: were these princes stupid, or too afraid to state the obvious–that the daughter has become incestuous lover to the father. In an aside, Pericles reveals that he has figured it out. Antiochus calls for an answer, and Pericles’ response is a measured one of non-answer: he tells the king that people don’t like to have their sins shown, that a king would be smart to keep his sins under wraps, and–finally–that it’s enough that the king himself knows the answer.
Antiochus (again in an aside) realizes the truth is known, and in an immediate attempt to buy time, gives Pericles “forty days” (I.i.117) to figure out what he wants to do. The king and his entourage leaves Pericles alone on stage, where the prince decides that it’s time to take flight to “shun the danger” (I.i.143). He then exits while Antiochus enters and states that Pericles “must die; / For by his fall [the king’s] honor must keep high” (I.i.149-50). The king calls forth Thaliard, a lord of Antioch, and orders him to kill Pericles.
The second scene takes us to Tyre, where Pericles has returned. In soliloquy, Pericles announces his fear that Antiochus might send someone to kill him, or worse send “hostile forces … [to] o’erspread the land” (I.ii.24). Pericles explains the situation to, and then asks advice of his trusted lord Helicanus. The lord’s response? “Go travel for a while” (I.ii.105), and for some reason, Pericles thinks this is a good idea. And for some (other?) reason, Pericles thinks this makes him “a true prince” (I.ii.123).
In Act One, Scene Three, Thaliard arrives in Tyre, to find Helicanus explain to some other lords that Pericles has “gone to travel” (I.iii.130) because Antiochus “took some displeasure at [Pericles]” (I.iii.20). Thaliard figures Antiochus will accept Pericles’ further flight.
In the fourth and final scene of the first act, the scene shifts to Tarsus, where the governor and his wife, Cleon and Dionyza, bemoan their drought and failing country. It’s gotten so bad that husbands and wives “draw lots who first shall die to lengthen life” (I.iv.46) for the family. When word arrives that a naval fleet has arrived, they think the worst, than they’re being invaded. But no, the ships are flying “white flags” (I.iv.72) of peace.
The ships belong to Pericles, and he has come not for invasion, but rather “with corn to make your needy bread / And give [the people] life whom hunger starved half dead” (I.iv.95-6). He is welcomed and treated (as he should) as a hero.
And thus ends the strange first act of Pericles.