Sample Questions

What is the role of virtue in "Pericles"?

Pericles is not an especially heroic hero. His exploits include solving a riddle, winning a tournament, feeding a starving city, and enduring shipwreck and a double bereavement. His wanderings have something in common with those of Odysseus, but he has none of the Greek's cunning, and does very little to help himself except, it seems, patiently abstaining from action, which might have obstructed the workings of divine intervention. This does not lead to a dramatic play, and fans of Titus Andronicus might find it rather disappointing.

"In Antiochus and his daughter you have heard
Of monstrous lust the due and just reward.
In Pericles, his queen and daughter, seen,
Although assail'd with fortune fierce and keen,
Virtue preserv'd from fell destruction's blast,
Led on by heaven, and crown'd with joy at last."

According to Gower's epilogue the play and the audience's attention to it are motivated by moral concerns: what we hear is the reward of evil, what we see is the preservation of the virtuous. Gower goes on to let the audience "descry" in Helicanus a figure of "truth, of faith, of loyalty", and in Cerimon a figure of worthy "learned charity", as if this was what the audience wanted to see all along. Virtue, according to this picture, is why we look at Pericles - not heroism, looks or wit. Equally, a more cynical view would agree that in the absence of these three assets, virtue is all that is left.

The play is not the kind of play Gower's epilogue suggests it is, nor does the audience watch the play the way it seems to imply. The epilogue suggests we look at Pericles for virtue, but the play invites us to look at Marina.

This is obviously the case in the brothel scenes, where Marina's virtue and her virginity are nearly synonymous. Marina is an emblem of virtue because of her situation - a virgin in a convent would not be news - but she also stands out because she is physically beautiful, the reason why her chastity is threatened in the first place. When charm and virtue are combined in this way, the didactic scheme of the epilogue that makes characters examples of goodness or evil is complicated because examples are illustrative but not sensual; Marina on the other hand is exemplary because of her charms - her appearance, and her music.

Pericles associates Marina with the specific virtues of modesty and patience, as with the ideals of Truth and Justice. Caught between being unable to believe that someone who looks like her would lie: "thou look'st / Modest as Justice, and thou seem'st a palace / For the crown'd Truth to dwell on" (5.1.120-2) and the inability to envisage that she has suffered: "yet thou dost look / Like Patience gazing on kings graves, and smiling / Extremity out of act" (5.1.137-9), Pericles demonstrates that Marina's charm and her virtue are inextricably entwined.

Both Marina and Thaisa are very iconic characters, and both are strong followers of Diana, goddess of chastity. Thaisa's resurrection by Cerimon is pure spectacle, she too is someone who is chiefly looked at and who appeals to the imagination. It is possible that the emphasis on chastity in the play - as in the other romances - is the result of protestant attacks on the theatre (for example, Stephen Gosson's School of Abuse, to which Sidney's Defence of Poetry was a riposte). The Victorians, shocked by the brothel scenes, might have been missing the point - that even when showing these areas of life the theatre could avoid being indecent or corrupting.

Cerminon is a figure of "learned charity", and therefore virtuous, but his chief role is that of a good magician. As much powerful as charitable, Cerimon is a prototype of Prospero, a true magician of the stage who has to fight his own human nature in order to use his power rightly.

Virtue, in Pericles, is chiefly female and strongly linked to imagination, especially the male imagination which is so prone to pervert it. In one sense the play attempts to demonstrate virtue - not virtuous conduct but virtuous representation, virtuous theatre. Hence the world of the play is more imaginative than moral, and the characters do not demonstrate the moral complexity that can be found elsewhere in Shakespeare's work.

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