Pericles and the Universal Odyssey Story
By Kathryn Neves
Warning: This article reveals part of the ending and other “surprises” inPericles*. If you don’t want to know this information before seeing the play, you may want to reconsider reading more.*
If there’s one thing that William Shakespeare was good at, it was telling universal stories. Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, *Othello—*they’re all stories that dive deep into themes and messages that we all understand. And this season’s Periclesis no different. Though it’s one of the Bard’s lesser-known works, at its heart, the story of the prince of Tyre is one of the most universal stories there is. Pericles is an odyssey story.
Obviously, the most famous odyssey story is—well—The Odyssey. The poet Homer in ancient Greece told the tale of a war hero who travelled from place to place, encountering monsters and damsels and kings on his way home. This is the classic quest story, and it spawned millions of others: the Arthurian Legend, Lord of the Rings, and even The Wizard of Oz just to name a few. The quest story is so universal that it can be found in every culture from every time period. It’s one of the things that humanity has in common: we all love quest narratives. And Periclesis perhaps Shakespeare’s best example.
From the very beginning, our hero Pericles is on a quest: he wants to find a wife. He travels from country to country, encountering deadly secrets and dangerous contests until he wins the hand of Thaisa, a princess of Pentapolis. Together they have a daughter, Marina, born during a storm at sea. All three are separated during the storm, believing each other dead. Marina is raised by a jealous queen, and is sent from a palace to a brothel and finally back to her mother and father; all three reunited by the help of the gods.
The gods themselves are a key part of odyssey stories. The Odysseywas written in the time of ancient Greece, when everyone believed in a pantheon of gods. There was a god for everything: for the ocean, for wisdom, for death, for beauty, for purity. The gods directly intervene in Odysseus’s journey, helping—and sometimes hindering—him on his path. Periclesis no different. Though it was written more than two thousand years later, it’s set loosely in ancient Greece—based on the story of an ancient hero. So the gods are a huge part of the story of Pericles, too. In fact, Diana appears directly to Pericles and tells him where to find his long-lost wife. Pericles is one of the few Shakespeare plays to feature a god or goddess as a character.
Pericles is, at its core, a journey story. LikeThe Odyssey, Pericles goes on a treacherous journey, defying the odds and risking his life in order to fulfill his quest. He faces an evil king with a murderous secret; he saves a kingdom from starvation; he competes against a band of knights to win Thaisa’s hand in marriage; he encounters shipwrecks and storms and great losses. Marina, too, goes on a journey—nearly as odyssey-like as her father’s! She’s born during a terrible storm and given to an evil, jealous queen; she survives a murder and pirates and a brothel before being reunited with her long-lost parents. In many ways, Marina is as much the hero of the story as Pericles himself.
LikeThe Odyssey, Pericles is about a long journey. But also like The Odyssey, Pericles is about an inner journey. This is a common theme in quest stories: we like to hear about the travels of a hero, because they are exciting and entertaining. But hidden within the hero’s quest is a journey of discovery and growth. Through his travels, Pericles learns how valuable his loved ones are; he learns the importance of virtue and morality; he discovers the significance of hope and faith in the long years of separation from his wife and daughter. Marina, too, goes on a hidden inner journey. Through her years of disaster and hardship, she learns to protect herself, she relies on her inner convictions and strength, she learns the power of the gods in shaping her life, and she understands the value of enduring her many disasters. And at the end, both Pericles and Marina discover the power of love and family when they are reunited with each other and with Thaisa.
Odyssey tales have been passed down for centuries. We can all connect with these stories. Whether or not we’ve been on a perilous journey like Pericles or Marina (or Odysseus, for that matter), we can all relate to their adventures. Their journeys are more than just travels; they’re universal stories of discovery and endurance. It’s no wonder, then, that Periclesis such a beautiful play. As a quest story, it’s a part of one of humanity’s oldest—and best—traditions.