Culture Check: 'Pericles, Prince of Tyre' is Shakespeare’s 'Game of Thrones'
George R. R. Martin by no means invented action-packed stories of political tension, long anticipated reunions, necromancy, or incest. This makes Game of Thrones one of the most controversial and talked-about series in modern television, but the same exciting themes can be found in classic plays, one of which is showing here in Ball State’s own Strother Theatre.
Pericles, Prince of Tyre is a Shakespearean work first published in the 1600s. However, the story was already a familiar one to those who knew their Athenian history because the headlining hero Pericles was an actual person back in ancient Greece.
The play revolves around Pericles’ various adventures: fighting pirates, ending famines, and generally being an incredibly fantastic guy. One might think it’s unrealistic, annoying even, to have a character that is so good and perfect, but the Shakespeare version of Pericles actually tones down the legacy of the true Pericles who was heralded as a powerful leader, an excellent strategian, and a compelling orator, which was all the rage in Athens during the “Age of Pericles” in the 460 BC.
The real Pericles
Contemporary historians hailed him as “the first citizen of Athens” and modern museum goers have probably seen his face before. Busts of his image abound and all feature his signature look: a helmet on his head that denoted his rank of general. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, there may have been another reason behind Pericles’ favoring of his helmet. It’s said that Pericles’ mother Agariste, a member of a powerful but controversial family, dreamed just nights before Pericles’ birth that she had actually been pregnant with a lion.
Lions are symbolic for greatness. Alexander the Great’s own father had had a similar dream predicting his son’s greatness. However, lions also have big heads. It’s theorized that Pericles had some sort of deformity that led him to wear a helmet at all times. Comedians at the time essentially called him “onion head.”
Nevertheless, the prediction of Pericles being a lion in the political sphere rang true as he became a notable prosecutor in the Athenian senate and eventually gained ultimate authority in 461 BC.
As the leader of Athens’ armies he launched several unsuccessful bids at expanding his rule, but was ultimately admired for the orations he gave after soldiers’ deaths and for “expelling barbarians.”
Widely known as a clever and an unwavering leader, it was personal blows that crushed him at the end of his life when plague took his sons and his wife, after which he fell into a depression before the epidemic took him as well.
The play Pericles
In Shakespeare’s work, Pericles is a Tyrian prince rather than an Athenian senator. Tyre was the richest city in the Phoenician empire, a neighbor of Athens on the Mediterranean. Rather than conquering for his country, he’s sailing on the high seas and looking for love.
Like the Athenian Pericles, the Tyrian Pericles’ troubles come from personal tragedies—the perceived death of his wife and child. Other than that, their histories are vastly different, but their seemingly flawless characterization of being strong, smart, and kind is equally annoying.
Incest has always been bad
In the Game of Thrones universe, incest is taboo and the same rings true in Pericles, Prince of Tyre. While ancient Greece might have the reputation of having loose morals when it came to prostitution and pedophilia, incest was something punishable by death. It also served as a kind of ultimate punishment in many stories at the time. Think Oedipus or Antigone. Not exactly happy endings.
This is why Pericles knows that if the King Antiochus discovers that Pericles is aware Antiochus is in an incestuous relationship with his own daughter, then he’s as good as dead. Which is what leads to Pericles’ high seas adventures—he’s on the run from an assassin.
Throw her overboard
Sailors are famously superstitious, especially when it comes to women. At the time, women were generally not present on sea-faring vessels. Women—along with bananas for some reason—were considered bad luck for sailors. I can’t speak to what destruction bananas might cause, but women were said to distract the crew, and therefore enrage the jealous maiden that was the sea.
Following this logic, when there is a terrible storm while Pericles’ wife Thaisa gives birth to their daughter Marina, the sailors insist that the only way to calm the waves would be by throwing Thaisa’s dead body overboard.
Jon Snow-esque plot twists
If you’re not caught up on Game of Thrones and/or if you want no spoilers for a play hundreds of years old, read no further.
Seemingly dead, Thaisa is revived by a physician. While Jon Snow was certainly deader than a doornail when The Red Woman brought him back, it was likely that Thaisa had been very much alive when tossed overboard in her conveniently located casket.
Back in the day, it was actually quite difficult to tell whether or not someone was well and truly dead. This made for some famous mistakes—finding claw marks inside coffins and loved ones’ traumatized when grandpa suddenly sat up at his own viewing.
Without modern medicine, people had to go off of what they could immediately observe—a lack of heartbeat, a cold, non-responsive body, and an ailment that had already claimed lives. Faint heartbeats were hard to distinguish, along with shallow breathing, so those unconscious or in comas were often mistaken for deceased.
Therefore, we can’t blame Pericles for prematurely giving his wife an impromptu burial at sea. Maybe this is his one flaw as an otherwise Gary Stu of a character.
Murder plots, brothels, assassins, pirates, and more: Game of Thrones fans can find all the things they love in Ball State’s production of Pericles, Prince of Tyre. The play premieres February 16th at 7:30 in Strother Theatre, with encore performances the 17th, 20th-24th, and Sunday the 18th at 2:30PM.
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