Elod P Csirmaz:


“In reading riddles who so skilled as thou?”[1]

The Stories of Pericles and Marina as Versions of the Same Myth


In this essay, I shall attempt a brief structuralist analysis of Pericles, Prince of Tyre following the method of Claude Lévi-Strauss to show that in many respects, the play can be interpreted as a myth—or, rather, as two variants of the same myth. The analysis shall be done on the level of the plot as large units that can be argued to be repeated are searched for in the play. The argued mythic quality of the play shall not only account for the alleged fact that “its plot is preposterous” and that the play is messy,[2] but might also shed some light why, despite its apparent defects, the play is reported to have been popular in its time and to be successful nowadays.[3]

The close relationship between incest and riddle in the very first scene of Pericles, Prince of Tyre[4] may call to one’s mind Claude Lévi-Strauss’s argument that the two are closely related in all cultures: “Chastity is related to ‘the answer without a question’ as incest is related to ‘the question without an answer’;”[5] “Like the solved puzzle, incest brings together elements doomed to remain separate.”[6] If such a universal rule can be established, then, as Lévi-Strauss himself observes, Oedipus’s marriage with Jocasta does not arbitrarily follow, but is actually a consequence of solving the riddle of the sphinx. In Pericles, the relationship is even more intimate, and at the same time more complex, for solving the riddle and accepting the hand of Antiochus’s Daughter would not lead to actual incest but would imply the recognition and legalization of it on Pericles’s part.

Before investigating how Pericles is able to escape the fate implied by solving the riddle, and whether he does manage to escape it, let me call attention to a reversal of genders in the first scene. Although, as suggested by The Norton Shakespeare, the first nine scenes, most probably composed by George Wilkins, lack the complex imagery typical of Shakespeare,[7] one may find a series of phallic symbols that describe the Daughter. Pericles describes her as a “celestial tree” (I.1.21), and Antiochus identifies her with the Garden of the Hesperides and with a thing that is “with golden fruit” (I.1.27–28), implying a tree again. Notably, the image of this masculine Daughter immediately dissolves after Pericles reads the riddle. One of the meanings of glass (the Daughter is a “fair glass of light” [I.1.76]) can be interpreted as a female symbol, as can be casket (I.1.77) and gate (I.1.80). The femaleness of the Daughter is further emphasized by identifying her with a viol that can be fingered (I.1.81–82). No clearly male symbols accompany her after the riddle. Furthermore, along with the feminisation of the Daughter, tree appears now related to Pericles, in particular, to his descent (I.1.114).

 This reversal of genders show that the riddle does have an effect on the protagonist, which effect might be more far-reaching than simply supplying the story with a reason why Pericles has to flee first Tyre (I.2) and then Tarsus (Dumb Show in Act II), both cases on Helicanus’s advice. In order to see what these consequences might be, I shall investigate the plot following, more or less closely, the way of analysis put forward by Lévi-Strauss when investigating the Oedipus-myth: by searching for “gross constituent units” or “mythemes.”[8] I shall disregard the sectioning of the text into acts and scenes, as will disregard the problem of multiple authorship. Below, I will list the units or elements I found to be of importance in this structuralist analysis in the order they appear in the text. Parenthesised letters refer to the character (Pericles or Marina) to whom the given element is related.

Incest I. Pericles is faced with incest committed by Antiochus and his Daughter (I.1).

Intended murder I. (P) Antiochus sends an agent (Thaliard) to kill Pericles for something Pericles has not committed in the sense that he had no choice but to know about the incest (I.1).

Gift I. (P) Pericles brings food to Tarsus, to a city before this point unknown to the audience (I.4).

Saved I. (P) Pericles can be said to be saved by the fishermen who at first appear to be selfish and unwilling or unable to help (“here’s nothing to be got now-a-days, unless thou canst fish for’t” [II.1.70]) and not welcoming Pericles warmly (“What a drunken knave was the sea to cast thee in our way!” [II.1.59]), but they help him after all (“Die quoth-a? Now gods forbid’t, an I have a gown here; come, put it on” etc. [II.1.80]). We have not met the fishermen before this point.

Death in fire I. (P) Those (he) who sent an agent to kill Pericles are consumed in fire. “He [Antiochus] was seated in a chariot […] and / His daughter with him, a fire from heaven came, / And shrivelled up their bodies” (II.4.8–11).

Marriage I. (P) Pericles is to marry Thaisa. (II.5) The marriage is not acted out on stage.

Marina is born. (III.1)

Thaisa is disposed of. Thaisa is thrown overboard (III.1), then, after she is restored to life (III.2), she is placed in Diana’s temple (III.4).

Intended murder II. (M) Dionyza sends an agent (Leonine) to kill Marina for something she has not committed in the sense that she cannot help but be superior to Dionyza’s daughter (IV.1).

Saved II. (M) Marina is saved by the pirates (IV.1) who (by their profession) can be argued to be supposed cruel by any audience. However, they turn out to be the opposite, as they do not ravish Marina (“BOULT. […] You say she’s a virgin? 1 PIRATE. O, sir, we doubt it not.” [IV.2.40–41]). We have not met the pirates before this point.

Gift II. (M) Marina teaches Mytilene her virtues (chastity, singing, weaving, sewing, dancing, etc.). Before Marina is brought here, this city is unknown to the audience.

Incest II. The possibility of incest is hinted several times before and after Pericles’s recognition of Marina: “She, questionless, with her sweet harmony / And other chosen attractions, would allure, / And make a batt’ry through his [Pericles’s] deafened ports, / Which now are midway stopped.”[9] (V.1.44–47); Pericles himself addresses Marina as “Thou that beget’st him that did thee beget” (V.1.199);[10] and Marina’s description of her parentage by constantly relating it to “a king” (“My father, and a king” [V.1.152], “My mother was the daughter of a king” [V.1.160]) uneasily identifies—vaguely—her mother with the daughter of her father, thus recalling Antiochus’s household. Moreover, at the end of the play, Marina might be argued to identify herself with her mother by creating a bodily link: “My heart / Leaps to be gone into my mother’s bosom” (V.3.45–46), which identification again would result in incest.

Marriage II. (M) Marina is to be married, but the marriage is not acted out on stage (V.3).

Death in fire II. (M) Those who sent an agent to kill Marina are consumed in fire: “For wicked Cleon and his wife, when fame / Had spread their cursèd deed to [and] th’honoured name / Of Pericles, to rage the city turn, / That him and his they in his palace burn” (V.3.96–99).

Based on this selection of various elements in Pericles, it can be seen that after the birth of Marina, many units (all of the ones here related) are repeated, but now with Marina as the heroine. Although the order of the elements is mixed up, one may be led to believe that Marina’s story is actually a version of Pericles’s, only rendered differently. Especially if the mythic tendencies of the play (based on the mutual presence of a riddle and incest) are taken into account, the story of Pericles might be interpreted as a myth, another version of which is presented in the robe of Marina’s fate. Mythic variations, one may argue, allow jumps and shifts in time so characteristic of this play, as well as partially disregarding the strict chronology of essential elements.

The two stories have other common features as well. Both Pericles and Marina are alone in their stories. Not only Marina is separated from Pericles at her birth, but even Thaisa is carefully disposed of as soon as she becomes Pericles’s wife. And while Pericles is moved by the sea and his fear of Antiochus (which might be a psychological fear of incest), Marina is also moved by outside agents, by men (Pericles, Leonine, the pirates and Lysimachus).

Moreover, both stories bear resemblance to Oedipus’s story. If we interpret Antiochus and Thaliard as not physical threats to Pericles, but as a psychological threat of incest, then both Pericles and Oedipus can be said to flee incest (Oedipus shuns Corinth where the couple he thinks his parents live). (According to this line of thought, Helicanus can be interpreted as the double of Pericles, who is pure as he persuades Pericles twice to flee.) But both are unsuccessful in this respect: Oedipus for well-known reasons, and the possibility (not the actuality) of Pericles committing incest is suggested in Incest II. Marina resembles Oedipus in the respect that she is brought up by foster parents. (Although she is aware of it, see the recognition scene, so there is no possibility of anagnorisis, as in Oedipus.)

The notion of intended murder, present in both Pericles’s and Marina’s story, can also be found in Oedipus, as his original parents gave him to a herdsman to make away with him. In this case, as in the two stories of Pericles, an agent is introduced to commit the murder.

Even the element of Gift can be argued to have a parallel in Oedipus: Oedipus’s gift to Thebes (a city he arrived in while travelling, and which had probably been unknown to him beforehand; in this respect, Thebes is paralleled with Tarsus and Mytilene) was to solve the riddle and thus to end the plague.

It might be also argued that even a riddle is present in all three stories. That the stories of Pericles and Oedipus contain one is straightforward. I think the way Pericles recognizes his daughter by way of words can be interpreted as a special case of solving a riddle. To the question why solving this riddle does not end in incest, but actually prevents Pericles from committing one, let me return later.

The question remains, however, how Pericles is able to avoid his fate and the play to end in a merrier tone. I think it not only the consequence of different genres (if one may apply this term to Greek tragedies) the plays belong to; an intratextual difference can also be found which may account for the different outcomes. This, namely, is that Pericles avoids solving the riddle presented to him in the first scene. He does so only for the audience (or internally), but not in the realm of the stage. He may relate his finding to Helicanus, but not to Antiochus; the Antiochian sphinx still awaits the answer. The question has been asked, but he chooses to remain silent: “[Antiochus] will think me speaking, though I swear silence.” (I.2.19), just like the hero of the Holy Grail cycle, who, “in the presence of the magic vessel […] dare not ask, ‘What is it good for?’.”[11] Lévi-Strauss argues for a one-dimensional range:


From a hero who misuses sexual intercourse (since he carries it as far as incest), we pass on to a chaste man who abstains from it; a shrewd person who knows all the answers gives way to an innocent who is not even aware of the need to ask questions.[12]


The first riddle, as it has been asked but not answered, stands somewhere in the middle of this range. It has its bad consequences, the misfortunes of Pericles, but they can be redeemed. In the second riddle, however, there is no question, just the answer: ‘you are my daughter.’ This set-up is what Lévi-Strauss argues to be the mythic representation of chastity, which indeed appears to be one of the central motifs of Pericles, and the immediate consequence of the recognition scene. By not answering a riddle, and by answering a nonexistent one, Pericles checks the course of a Greek tragedy, and the play ends by rewarding the good and punishing most of the bad.

But more support can be found for the argument that Pericles’s and Marina’s story are actually variants of the same myth. Lévi-Strauss argues that between variants of one myth, more than one inversions are necessary. First, a term must be replaced by its opposite; and second, “an inversion must be made between the function value and the term value of two elements.”[13] He also relates this finding to Freud’s idea that two traumas are necessary for the generation of neurosis, which, in reality, is an individual myth.

Both kinds of inversions can be found in Pericles. The hero is male in the first story; the second has a heroine. Also, Pericles is portrayed as a son in the first story; he becomes a father in the second. And Pericles can be argued to cross from function value to term value as in Incest 1, he is an onlooker, but in Incest 2, he is already a participant.

All these arguments show that Pericles can be interpreted as a myth. Its apparent ‘preposterousness’ is actually a consequence of the different rules that govern its plot: they are not probability and causality, but belong to what might be termed a ‘mythic logic’, whose laws manifest themselves on the level of larger constituents, on that of ‘mythemes’.

The facts that the play can be interpreted in a way that its messiness becomes not a hindrance but a feature, and that it becomes mythic in many respects might show why it “was one of the most popular plays of its time and has proven effective in modern productions as well:”[14] because its story is not a random aggregation of pieces but can be seen as an effective collage, and because it can be argued to combine a mythic order with the features of a romance.


[1] Sophocles, Oedipus the King, trans. F. Storr <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/31/31.txt> (cited 5 May 2006) (from the Loeb Library Edition, originally published by Cambridge: Harvard University Press and London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1912).

[2] Walter Cohen, “A Reconstructed Text of Pericles, Prince of Tyre,” in The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al. (New York, London: W. W. Norton &Co, n.d.), 2709–2715, 2709.

[3] Cohen, 2709.

[4] William Shakespeare, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, in The Complete Works, The Cambridge Text (New York City: Gallery Books, 1988), 998–1020. All parenthesized references are to this edition.

[5] Claude Lévi-Strauss, “Incest and Myth,” n.t., in 20th Century Literary Criticism: A Reader, ed. David Lodge (London: Longman, 1972), 546–550, 549.

[6] Lévi-Strauss, “Incest and Myth”, 549.

[7] “Textual Note”, in The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al. (New York, London: W. W. Norton &Co, n.d.), 2715–2717, 2715.

[8] Claude Lévi-Strauss, “The Structural Study of Myth,” n.t., in Literary Theory: An Anthology, ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1998), 101–115, 104.

[9] For more on this excerpt and on textual uncertainties, see Cohen, 2714.

[10] Also quoted by Cohen, 2714.

[11] Lévi-Strauss, “Incest and Myth,” 549.

[12] Lévi-Strauss, “Incest and Myth,” 549.

[13] Lévi-Strauss, “The Structural Study of Myth,” 113.

[14] Cohen, 2709.