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The play begins with Pericles the Prince of Tyre's quest for love. He is attracted to the great beauty of the princess of Antioch. In order to win her hand in marriage, Pericles tries to fulfill the condition put forth by her father. Her father, King Antiochus, proposes a riddle. He is stunned when the riddle reveals to him that father and daughter are having an incestuous relationship. He gives an indirect answer in order to gain time for escape, since he knows the truth will bring about his death. He flees to his own country of Tyre. Antiochus, realizing the truth has been discovered, sends an assassin after him.
On reaching his own country, Pericles is afraid of an invasion by Antiochus. Taking the advice of Helicanus, a trusted nobleman, he leaves Tyre. He sails to Tarsus, a famine stricken city, with gifts of grain. Cleon, the governor happily greets him, after some initial suspicion. However, Helicanus sends a message that Antiochus has dispatched an assassin and that Tarsus may not be safe. Pericles sails away only to face a severe storm and subsequent shipwreck.
Pericles loses his companions and all his possessions in the storm. He is washed ashore at Pentapolis, a prosperous Greek state. Some fishermen help him. They tell him about a contest for their princess' hand in marriage. He enters and wins the tournament. His identity is not known but the princess Thaisa and King Simonides are impressed by his skills and manners. Thaisa reveals her love for Pericles and he responds. The king also approves. They are married and soon Thaisa conceives a child.
Pericles and Thaisa, who is in an advanced stage of her pregnancy, leave for Tyre. A second storm strikes. A terror-stricken Thaisa goes into premature labor and a daughter, Marina, is born. Thaisa apparently dies and Pericles is forced by superstitious sailors to dispose off her body by throwing her overboard in a sealed casket. He encloses a note, rich spices, and jewels for anyone who will bury her. He then sails to Tarsus. His plan is to leave the infant Marina with his trusted friends Cleon and Dionyza before the dangerous voyage back to Tyre.
Thaisa is deposited by the waves on the shore of Ephesus, famous for the goddess Diana's temple. Cerimon, a doctor-priest, finds her and is able to revive her. She believes her husband to be dead, and knows nothing of a living child. She decides to become a priestess of Diana at Ephesus.
Pericles takes up his work in Tyre. Cleon and Dionyza bring up Marina, along with their own daughter, Philoten. Marina outshines Philoten in beauty, intelligence, and talents. Dionyza, who is a jealous mother, decides to kill Marina and hires a murderer for the purpose. However, when he is about to strike, a band of pirates kidnap the young girl. They sell her to a brothel in Mytilene, near Ephesus. Marina stubbornly resists being involved in the trade. She spouts moralistic speeches at the clients and even reforms some of them. Lysimachus, the young governor of Mytilene, comes there in disguise to purchase a prostitute. Marina brings about a change of heart in him too. He gives her money as assistance. She starts working as a teacher of fine arts and gives her earnings to the brothel.
Pericles is informed that Marina has died. Grief-stricken, he goes into a depression and sails around the area, living as a recluse. His ship lands at Mytilene. Lysimachus visits him and hears about his plight. He introduces Marina, hoping her music will soothe and help Pericles. When this fails, Marina tells Pericles of her own sad loss of her parents. He is astonished to realize his "dead" daughter is before him! Diana appears in his dream and commands him to visit her temple at Ephesus. He does so, and reveals his story at the altar. Thaisa, a priestess there, swoons on hearing him. Cerimon reveals her past. All the three are overjoyed at their reunion. Marina is to marry the reformed governor, Lysimachus. Pericles thanks the gods for their kindness to him, after all the past suffering. The play ends on a joyful and harmonious note.