Pericles, Day 3

Pericles, Day 3

Pericles, Incest, and Patriarchy

In my last post, I posed questions about the significance of Antiochus’ incestuous relationship with his daughter to the rest of the play, given the fact that Antiochus is only present during the play’s first scene.  While I do believe that this taboo father/daughter pair serves as a foil to some of the healthier (though this isn’t saying much) pairings of this kind in the play, I realize I was only examining their function literally, probably becausethe  motherless daughter who goes on to serve as her father’s bedmate is after all a convention of the romance genre.  And in my own defense, this is my first time reading the play.  After rereading it and consulting some helpful articles, however, I have now come to appreciate the symbolic significance of incest in Pericles.  

Early modern England was a deeply patriarchal society in which male domination and female submission were cornerstones.  Male heads of household were to rule their homes with the same force and conviction as a monarch ruled the kingdom.  King James, whose court incidentally received several allegations of incest, was intensely concerned with how and by whom power was wielded.  As I discussed in an earlier post on Cary’s Tragedy of Mariam, women were expected to follow a tripartite code of chastity, silence, and obedience.  Bearing this all in mind, a family, especially a royal family, that practices incest, represents a polluted and hyperbolic strain of patriarchy.  Antiochus and Simonides, much like Leontes (in The Winter’s Tale) and Othello, suffer from extreme jealousy as well as a tyrannical hunger for power.  The two love contests in the play–first, for Antiochus’ daughter; then, for Simonides’ daughter, Thasia–depict an excessive and unhealthy jealousy between fathers and their daughters’ suitors. The title hero is also implicated in the play’s exploration of polluted patriarchy.  For one, his departure from Antioch hinges on his unwillingness to disclose the answer to the riddle which would publicly impugn Antiochus for incest.  As critic Deanne Williams notes, Pericles’ silence on this subject is pivotal, for it marks a clear departure from Shakespeare’s source materials, Gower’s “Confessio Amantis” and Twine’s “The Patterne of Painefull Adventures,” in both of which the hero speaks out.  Critics have also suggested that Pericles’ decision to have Marina raised in Tarsus by surrogate parents, Cleon and Dionyza, reflects his own attempt to avoid the unhealthy and incestuous precedents of other patriarchs in the play.  

According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, incest is the most common form of child abuse, and father-daughter sexual encounters are the most common manifestation. Today incest continues to be cloaked in the same veil of silence as it was in Shakespeare’s day.  Like Antiochus’ nameless daughter, who utters only two lines, neither of which reveals the ugly truth about her relationship with her father, victims of incest, most often statistically  young girls, do not speak out against their perpetrators. By contrast, Pericles’ daughter Marina is exceptionally vocal, exhibiting particular rhetorical agility during her encounter with Lysimachus in the brothel, preserving her chastity and converting him to her viewpoint.


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