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Act I, Scene 1
Prince Pericles and Antiochus enter a room in the palace. Antiochus' daughter, dressed as a bride, enters. Her beauty enchants Pericles. The king cautions Pericles that though he is enchanted, if he fails to answer the riddle correctly, he will perish. Pericles replies that he is ready to take on the challenge, even though failure means death. The riddle is read aloud:
"I am no viper, yet I feed On mother's flesh which did me breed. I sought a husband, in which labour I found that kindness in a father: He's father, son, and husband mild;
I mother, wife, and yet his child. How they may be, and yet in two, As you will live, resolve it you"
Pericles understands at once that the riddle reveals the incestuous relationship between Antiochus and his daughter. He is horrified and fears a correct answer will be as dangerous as a wrong answer. Pericles requests time. Antiochus suspects that his secret has been guessed and pretends to go along with Pericles' request. Pericles uses his time to flee Antioch. The king then orders a nobleman, Thaliard, to follow Pericles and kill him, since he knows the dirty secret of the palace.
The introductory scene is a very dramatic, and takes the audience directly to the first challenge faced by the hero in his quest for love and success. The way the situation develops also brings out striking qualities in the protagonist's character; his courage, intelligence, and ability to see beyond a beautiful exterior are all revealed in the way he handles the potentially dangerous situation. The scene introduces a major theme of the play, which is the importance of morality in the ruling class. Antiochus is a remarkable example of how a king should not be. He misuses his influence over his daughter in his private life. He does the same in his public life by ruthlessly killing innocent young men.
The poet uses a rich metaphorical verse to stress his moral theme. When the princess appears, Pericles speaks of the "inflamed desire in my breast to taste the fruit of yon celestial tree." Yet after solving the riddle, he calls her "this glorious casket stored with ill." Both father and daughter are compared to serpents who "though they feed on sweetest flowers, yet they poison breed." A seductive exterior is seen as a covering for the moral ugliness within. The poet emphasizes the gap between appearance and reality--yet another theme which will hold great significance later in the play .
Music is used as a symbol of the different manifestations of love and sex. In scene 1, Pericles mourns that the princess is like a beautiful violin "played upon before your time," so that "Hell only danceth at so harsh a chime." So true love is called "lawful music" while a sinful relationship is portrayed as harsh discord.