The play opens with Gower, the chorus, who says that he brings us an ancient tale, one of King Antiochus and his incestuous relationship with his daughter. Pericles, Prince of Tyre, travels to Antioch, where he hopes to win the hand of the king’s daughter, accepting, as other suitors have, the condition that if he is unable to solve the king’s riddle he must face immediate death. Horrified when he identifies the answer to the riddle as incest, he loses interest in the daughter. He decides not to tell Antiochus the answer, knowing that revealing this secret will also cost him his life. Concerned that Pericles has indeed discovered the answer and will tell others, the king tells Pericles that he may have additional time to solve the riddle, but in fact intends to use this time to have him killed. Pericles, fleeing Antioch and returning home to Tyre, expresses his concerns to Helicanus, his trusted advisor. The two agree that, both for Pericles’ sake and to avoid war with Antioch, Pericles should leave for a while Helicanus should serve as Regent. Pericles travels to Tarsus, where the governor Cleon and his wife Dionyza in desperation are facing the famine ravaging their city. Pericles offers them shiploads of corn in exchange for safe haven.
Gower tells us that Helicanus has sent word to Pericles that he is being pursued and is no longer safe in Tarsus. Pericles encounters a storm at sea and is shipwrecked in Pentapolis. There, on the shore, he encounters fishermen who discuss the inequality of the world. The fishermen retrieve a suit of armor from the sea, which Pericles announces to be the long-lost armor given him by his father. Wearing this armor, he wins a jousting tournament in front of the good King Simonides and his daughter Thaisa in celebration of her birthday. Thaisa and Pericles fall in love, and Simonides approves of the match.
Gower informs us that the evil King Antiochus and his daughter are dead. Thaisa is pregnant, and she and Pericles set sail for Tyre, where it is now safe to return. The citizens of Tyre, meanwhile, have been frustrated with Pericles’ absence, and want to crown Helicanus as king. Helicanus, convinces them to wait a year for their ruler to return. At sea in the midst of terrible storm, Thaisa dies giving birth to a daughter, and her body, in accordance with the sailors’ superstitions to quell the sea’s fury, is thrown overboard in a coffer. On land in Ephesus, the healer Cerimon finds this chest and uses music and magic to revive her. Thaisa, believing that she will never see her husband again, devotes her life to the goddess Diana. Pericles, fearing that the newborn will perish at sea, decides to detour to Tarsus, where he leaves his infant daughter, Marina, with Cleon and Dionyza, who promise to raise her as their own child.
Years have past. Gower turns our attention to Marina, who, growing up in Tarsus, has garnered love and admiration everywhere she goes. Dionyza, envious that Marina has been taking attention away from her own daughter, instructs a servant, Leonine, to kill Marina. Marina attempts to dissuade Leonine from killing her, but at that very moment, she is kidnapped by pirates—who sell her in Mytilene to a Pander and a Bawd to become a prostitute in their brothel. From Gower, we learn that Pericles has returned to Tarsus, only to hear that Marina has died. In grief, he swears never to cut his hair or wash his face. Back in Mytilene, the governor, Lysimachus, visits the brothel as a customer and is presented with Marina. In listening to her, Lysimachus develops admiration and respect for her, and departs without compromising the young woman’s virginity. As Marina similarly turns more and more men with her virtue away from the brothel, in a fury, Boult, who works for the Pander and Bawd, attempts to rape Marina, but again she is able to use her speech and persuasion to convince him to help her instead gain honest work as a teacher.
Gower introduces the final act by telling us that Marina has become a teacher and that Pericles, who for the past three months, has refused in his withdrawal from the world to speak to anyone, has with Helicanus landed in Mytilene. Lysimachus learns from Helicanus of Pericles’s present state, and asks Marina to speak with the unhappy man. Marina sings a song and speaks to him, and through her speech and their conversation, they gradually uncover one other’s identity. After much rejoicing, Pericles is overtaken by sleep, where the goddess Diana visits him, commanding him to attend her at her altar and recount his story. When he does, Thaisa, who has served the goddess Diana as a votary for the past sixteen years, recognizes Pericles through the story he tells. Gower’s epilogue closes the play, which ends in a spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness, as the reunited family rejoices and celebrates Marina’s upcoming marriage to Lysimachus.