John Gower comes onstage and addresses the audience, saying that he has donned mortal flesh for the purpose of telling a diverting story. He tells of the setting in Antiochus, a city in Syria where King Antiochus rules. His sources, he says, relate that the king's wife died, leaving a daughter so attractive that the king took a liking to her, and enticed her to incest. Eventually young princes began approaching the king to request marriage with his daughter; in order to keep her for himself, he made a law that whoever asked for her hand had to answer a riddle correctly or face execution. Many have already tried and died. Gower exits.
King Antiochus and Pericles, the Prince of Tyre come on stage. Antiochus asks Pericles if he understands the danger he places himself in by trying the riddle, and Pericles says he does. Antiochus's daughter enters, and Pericles speaks of her apparent virtues: "Her face the book of praises, where is read nothing but curious pleasures" (I.i.58-9). Antiochus reminds Pericles of the other princes who tried the riddle and died, but Pericles says that he is ready to die if he must. Antiochus, frustrated at the willingness of Pericles to throw away his life, hurls the written riddle on the floor. Antiochus's daughter wishes him well.
Pericles reads the riddle and realizes that it refers to Antiochus's daughter finding a father and lover in the same body. Recognizing that the secret of the court, and the riddle, is incest, Pericles rejects his feelings for Antiochus's daughter. When Antiochus asks for Pericles's answer, Pericles says that he knows the truth, but it is a truth that is better kept concealed. Antiochus understands that Pericles has unraveled the riddle but does not publicly admit it. Thus Pericles is doomed to die, having not answered the riddle correctly–but Antiochus allows him forty days before his sentence will be completed. The court departs, leaving Pericles alone.
Pericles speaks with scorn of the sinful incest between Antiochus and his daughter, and thinks that surely his life is in danger if he remains in Antioch, now that he knows the truth. He determines to flee the city, and exits.
Antiochus enters and admits that he wants Pericles's head, before Pericles tells his secret to the world. Thaliart enters, and Antiochus offers him gold to kill the Prince of Tyre. They receive news that Pericles has fled. Antiochus tells Thaliart to hurry after him, and Thaliart exits. Antiochus concludes, saying he will not be calm until Pericles is dead.
The manuscript of Pericles is unique in that there is no known version of the play that draws directly on an authorial manuscript of a transcript of it, such as a promptbook. Hence the play as we have it in the First Quarto was probably reconstructed from reports of actors or spectators. Certain editors choose to follow the scene numbers of the First Quarto, wherein the play has 22 separate scenes, and others (including this SparkNote) insert the more standard Act, Scene framing.
The figure of Gower is an interesting one; if other characters in the play seem to return from the dead, Gower really is reborn. He is the onstage presence of a fourteenth century author who wrote the most important source for Pericles. In his Confessio Amantis, John Gower told the tale of Apollonius of Tyre, who led a life of similar incident to Pericles's. The shift in the name from Apollonius to Pericles may come from other sources, such as Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia or Plutarch's Lives or other classical sources.
Gower functions in the play as a kind of chorus, commenting on the action that has passed and initiating dumb shows, in which actions are pantomimed to move along the plot of the play. Gower is designed to give a medieval feel to the play. Initially he speaks in rhymed tetrameter couplets, and echoes the language of the medieval poet Gower himself. His eight monologues, filled with moralizing speeches, recount much of the action of the play.
Antiochus's challenge for the hand of his daughter echoes other scenes in Shakespeare and classical literature. A father's insistence that all suitors solve a riddle before marrying a daughter is central to Merchant of Venice, where Bassanio answers the riddle and marries Portia. However, for Bassanio, punishment for getting the riddle wrong was celibacy rather than death, and Portia's father was already dead. The riddle scene, coupled with the theme of incest, also evokes Sophocles's Oedipus Rex, when Oedipus solves the riddle of the Sphinx and proceeds onto his fate of killing his father and sleeping with his mother.
While Pericles discovers the truth of the riddle, he decides not to reveal it, claiming that something so awful ought to be kept secret. Antiochus understands that Pericles knows the truth but doesn't admit it. Pericles is doomed to death for not answering the riddle–yet Antiochus gives him forty days before his sentence, clearly leaving a window for escape for Pericles. Why doesn't the king kill Pericles then and there? Of course, the simple answer is that then there would be no play–the impetus for the action is Pericles's need to flee Antiochus and his assassins, and similarly to flee the idea of incest. Antiochus, for his part, may have offered the forty-day reprieve to Pericles as a gesture of thanks to Pericles for not spouting the truth of the riddle in front of his court. Or he may have opened a possibility for Pericles's flight out of an unconscious desire to have his secret known, while he still sends a murderer after Pericles to make sure the secret is contained. With Oedipus Rex and the taboo of incest at the heart of Sigmund Freud's exploration of the nature of unconscious desires, unconscious desires in Antiochus, another incestuous king, can't be ignored.
Antiochus is the first of many kings we meet in the play. Look for doubling of the relationship between Antiochus and his daughter and the relations between other kings and daughters elsewhere in the play.