Pericles: Prince of Tyre? or King?

Yesterday, I discussed that troublesome Act One, Scene Two of Pericles, what with its weird entering and exiting lords, and references to actions not done. Today, I want to talk about what might seem to be the troublesome title.

Pericles, Prince of Tyre

title page from 1609 folio

In Act One, Scene One’s opening stage direction, our titular hero is referred to as “Prince Pericles,” and throughout the scene Antiochus refers to him as “prince” (I.i.1, 26, 88, 111, 158). In the next scene, when he’s back in Tyre, talking to Helicanus, he (obliquely) refers to himself as “prince” (I.ii.62, 63). And yet, Helicanus chides the lords for flattering “the king” (I.ii.38).

The third scene of the play is a mish-mash of references. Thaliard refers to “King Pericles” and “the king” (I.iii.2, 14), but also “princely Pericles” (I.iii.32). Interestingly, he makes his “king” references in asides and to himself, but the “princely” one to Helicanus, who uses “king” in reference to Pericles when talking to the lords (I.iii.11).

In the Chorus for the second act, Gower refers to Pericles as “prince” twice (II.Ch.21, 33). In Act Two, Scene Four, in speaking to the lords, Helicanus refers to Pericles as “prince” twice (II.iv.25,42), before then (within the same speech as the latter usage) calling him “your king” (II.iv.46).

And from this point on, it’s all kingly references: twice by Gower in the third act Chorus (III.Ch.30, 37), once in Act Three, Scene Two, in a note from Pericles himself (III.ii.71), once by his wife in Act Three, Scene Four (III.iv.7), once by Dionyza in the fourth act (IV.i.32), and finally two more by Gower in his Act Four, Scene Four Chorus (IV.iv.18, 36).

So after the beginning of Act Three, it’s only “king” (save for one “prince” spoken by Pericles when the storm and news of Thaisa’s death have brought him low [III.i.32]).

[note: there is one more usage of “king” in reference to Pericles: at the celebration after the tournament, Thaisa “crown(s Pericles) king of this day’s happiness” (II.iii.12)]

So what is it? Prince or King?

I ask this from a twenty-first century perspective, where “prince” has the common meaning of “son of the king.”

Only… it didn’t always have that meaning. In fact, it didn’t get that meaning until around 1300 (“prince, n.II.7” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, December 2016. Web. 14 February 2017). Yes, I know, that’s pre-Shakespeare. But the word’s older, classical meaning was “sovereign, monarch, king” (“prince, n.I.1.a” OED Online), which was around for at least 100 years before that.

So what is it? Prince or King? It doesn’t matter. It’s both.

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