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Act I, Scene 4
The action moves to Tarsus. The Governor, Cleon, and his wife Dionyza are discussing the terrible famine in their land. The once prosperous city has been reduced to starvation. They receive the news that a fleet of ships bearing white flags is approaching their city. Cleon fears it is an invasion by a neighboring state, which in their miserable condition, the people of Tarsus will be unable to resist. Cleon is cynical about the meaning of the white flags. He believes that "the fairest show means most deceit." Just then, Pericles enters explaining that he and his ships carry grain to aid the starving people of Tarsus. Cleon welcomes him effusively, and Pericles decides to stay in Tarsus till his situation improves.
It is not yet obvious in this scene that Cleon and Dionyza are among the play's villains. There is irony in the fact that Cleon, suspecting treachery, instead receives generosity from Pericles. Later, Pericles, expecting kindness and gratitude from Cleon, receives only treachery from he and his wife.
This scene has been severely criticized by Shakespeare scholars for the clumsy opening speech of Cleon, in which he describes the famine to Dionyza. Obviously, the situation would be well known to her. The speech comes across as contrived and artificial, designed to reveal information in an indirect way. Shakespeare is usually much more subtle in his exposition scenes, allowing necessary information to reveal itself naturally.
However, the episode's positive value is that it reveals Pericles' generosity and reinforces his goodness. At the same time, it prepares the ground for Cleon and Dionyza's future treachery. As already evidenced in a comparison of Antiochus and Pericles, suspicion is the crutch of a poor leader. Cleon and Dionyza's mistrust of a white flag is a sign that their leadership is easily threatened and insecure.