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MonkeyNotes-Pericles, Prince of Tyre by William Shakespeare
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Themes

Virtue versus vice:

The characters in the play are clearly distinguished as representing Virtue (Pericles Thaisa, Marina, Helicanus, Cerimon, and Simonides) and Vice (Antiochus, his daughter, Dionyza, Cleon, the brothel keepers, the assassin). Of these, Cleon crosses the line from virtue to vice, under the influence of Dionyza. Lysimachus, too, is dishonorable and lecherous, but is reformed by Marina. The rest are consistent in their virtue or their vice.

In some respects, the characters are almost allegorical figures, representatives of good and evil. Neither Pericles, Thaisa or Marina is shown to possess any negative traits. In The Winter's Tale, the events are set in motion by Leontes' unjust jealousy and suspicion of his chaste wife Hermoine, and his friend Polixenes. Again, in Cymbeline, King Cymbeline's blind love for his selfish wife, and the manipulations of the evil Iachimo provide the resistance to the triumph of goodness. In both these later plays the happy ending is brought about after the main character undergoes suffering and penitence. In Pericles, however, the suffering is undeserved and not the result of any serious flaw in the protagonists. This absence of conflict within the protagonist's personality takes Pericles closer to the morality plays of medieval England and reduces the play's dramatic tension. It makes the play more heroic, more idealistic.


Only the brothel keepers remain in their sins without repercussion. The brothel keepers present themselves as being involved in a struggle for survival, rather than in a battle between good and evil. They justify their use of women as necessary for their existence. Their one saving grace, other than the justification of survival, is that they allow Marina to earn her keep in more pure ways than prostitution. All this serves to further highlight the purity of purpose of Marina. Thus, even with this exception, the central theme in the play is the conflict between Virtue and Vice.

Appearance versus reality:

This theme is closely linked with that of virtue and vice. The link lies in the fact that virtue is not always beautiful, and vice not always ugly. Hence, the protagonist in search of truth or happiness can easily be misled. Pericles is for a short while misled by the great beauty of Antiochus' daughter. He believes at first that "her thoughts the king of every virtue gives renown to men", only to realize soon that she is a "glorious casket stored with ill." At Pentapolis, he is far more cautious until at last he tells Thaisa, "you are as virtuous as fair." An unattractive appearance can also hide true worth, as happens with Pericles. When shipwrecked, he appears in Simonides' court as a shabby pauper. Simonides himself describes the young prince to Thaisa:

"From the dejected state wherein he is, He hopes by you his fortunes yet may flourish"

However, father and daughter refuse to "scan the outward habit by the inward man" and are impressed by Pericles' obvious inner worth. This reflects the ability of wisdom to discern real value.

Yet another expression of appearance versus reality is the contrast between the generosity of Pericles and the fearful suspicion of Cleon. This is juxtaposed with the scene in which Pericles, expecting kindness and care for his daughter at Tarsus, receives betrayal and sorrow. This treachery is hidden under the magnificent tomb with an epitaph in glittering golden letters, expressing praise of Marina. This theme is carried further in the irony that Marina is not really dead. Thus virtue is more resilient than vice thinks it is.

One more manifestation of this theme is the aspect of the natural royalty of kings and princesses shining forth, even when their appearance is poor. This occurs in the case of both Pericles, after the first shipwreck and of Marina, after she escapes from Leonine the assassin. This thematic thread is based on the acceptance in Shakespeare's age of the natural leadership qualities and innate superiority of kings. This semi-divine quality of royalty is common in all his last plays. This theme is woven into the play's structure itself.

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