Murder’s as Near to Lust as Flame to Smoke

Pericles, Act I: Scenes 1-4

I haven’t ventured past the first act of the play and already I’ve been smacked upside the head by a lesson: never, never, never try and anticipate whether a play will be good or bad based on its fame or popularity. Score another round for the St. John’s method. Read each and every work — especially those of the great authors — for yourself.

What can I say? I was expecting a yawner, and instead I’m turning pages as if I’d stumbled upon a Dan Brown barn burner. Or, better yet, a lost tale from 1001 Nights.

So far it’s sex and intrigue and high adventure and action and suspense. In my notes I have written: oh, what a fool am I!

The play begins with a brief introduction by a character named Gower. Mr. Asimov tells me that Gower was a contemporary and friendly rival of Chaucer (which only goes to prove how time chooses favorites). This all has to do with the source material for the play, which Shakespeare is more or less fessing up to having riffed from somebody else.

But we needn’t be shocked by this. The greatest authors of all time have outsourced their materials since time immemorial. And Shakespeare was doing it all the time.

It’s no wonder that lesser writers considered him such a nuisance. For he could take a plot about a popular theme and render it his own in a way that pulverized the source material into the footnotes of literary history. Whatever Shakespeare touched became his own.

Perhaps then it shouldn’t surprise us that this is one of Shakespeare’s later plays, that of 1608. In it you find that ease with dialogue that became instantly apparent in The Winter’s Tale. There is a tautness, a tension — and very little fat. It’s a firecracker of a play.

If it does not have the status of, say, Hamlet, still it has character resemblences. You could almost derive an SAT question from the similarities:


a) Pericles:Hamlet b) Helicanus: Horatio

c) Incest:Revenge d) All of the above

e) None of the above

The crackling action of the play begins thusly:

Pericles has come to Antioch to woo the daughter of King Antiochus. Why? Why else — because she’s hot as all get out, some exotic combination of Olivia Wilde and Megan Fox and thus worthy of dying for. (Literally “to die for,” since any guy approaching her father must observe the skulls of the suitors who perished before him, like a scene from an Indiana Jones movie.)

Exhibit A

(For instructional use only)

Exhibit B

(So okay, yeah, death begins to make more sense)

To win her, Pericles has to solve a riddle — snakes, why snakes?:

I am no viper, yet I feed

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.

We learn right away that Pericles is a smart dude, for he doesn’t even need to ask for more time.

The word he first utters must surely have gotten bleeped out of Shakespeare’s early drafts, but I’m assuming it began with an “F” followed thereupon by a “me.”

To paraphrase: Pericles knows he’s screwed. For if he solves the riddle, he outs the king who has been incestuously sleeping with his own daughter. But if he fails to answer the riddle, he has to die — and for a woman he now no longer wants.

That’s must-see TV. Somebody alert NBC. They don’t want Jay. They need Will!

What does Pericles do? He stalls, of course. He slyly suggests to the king that he knows the answer, but is holding off with all due respect.

And then what does the king do? Repeat those deleted words suggested above. Because now he knows that somebody smarter than he has come along — as in every good fairy tale they must. And now the brat has good gossip for TMZ.

So what will he do now? He bluffs back, granting Pericles a stay on his imminent execution for failing to abide by the rigged rules of the game. But no sooner is Pericles out of his sight, then Antiochus orders his… MURDER. Murder you say? Duh duh duh…

But never fear, kids. Pericles has a premonition and sets sail under cover of night. But even back in Tyre (I’ll take Ancient Geography for $500, Alex.), Pericles thinks through his position and realizes that even here he’s not safe. Antiochus’s crime is so black that the might of Antioch will come after the only man who knows of the crime.

He isn’t sure what to do. But his trusty aid Horatio Helicanus bids him to take an extended leave till things cool down. No sooner is this advice heeded than Thaliard, the man assigned to kill Pericles, arrives in Tyre to do the deed.


Pericles arrives in Tarsus (where?) to give Cleon, the governor there, the scare of his life. For Tarsus is suffering from famine, and a strong wind could tip the kingdom over. Yet once again, Pericles proves he’s a good guy by announcing that he has brought shiploads of provisions for the starving people, and that all he asks in return is that his cover be kept.

And that’s just in the first 22 pages!


2 Responses to “Murder’s as Near to Lust as Flame to Smoke”

  1. As I was watching the BBC version of this, certain lines from Indiana Jones kept popping into my head (“Nice try, Lao Che” when Pericles escapes the incestuous father). When he was leaving Hellicanus to flee from an assassin I almost expected his friend to shout “Indy, your whip.” Then his armor washes up on shore, and it’s like he’s ready for adventure. Who would have thought Shakespeare (and someone else) wrote an Indiana Jones adventure?

    • Well…as Harold Bloom will tell you, Shakespeare’s influence is everywhere. He’s in our language, in our metaphors, in our understanding of ourselves. Indiana Jones has a mythological structure so again, I would be the last person to dismiss such comparisons. Part of the reason I started the blog was to tear down the stuffy walls that make Shakespeare so unapproachable for many people.

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