06. Pericles, by William Shakespeare

I like Pericles. A lot of people don’t, or find its weirdness too weird, its lacunae and unreliability and dreaminess offputting. It is weird and unreliable and dreamy, but those, I think, aren’t bad things. Of all the plays Shakespeare had a hand in, surely the odd ones, the ones that don’t totally work or don’t work the way you think they should, are the ones we ought to be most interested in.

Pericles is particularly interesting for a lot of reasons, not least because Shakespeare is thought to have collaborated fairly heavily on it. His co-writer has been identified as a playwright called George Wilkins who was artistically active only for about three years, writing more or less competent comedies, and then spent most of the rest of his life as a pimp. He does not appear to have been a terribly nice man (Mark Haddon’s recent novel, The Porpoise, which takes inspiration from Pericles, deals with Wilkins in a most satisfactory manner). Most of Acts 1 and 2 are thought to be Wilkins’s, primarily because they’re the ones in which the verse (and the prose, frankly) is less impressive. Shakespeare’s influence allegedly begins in the Prologue to Act 3. If you’re paying attention, you can see it, I suppose, a difference in the quality of the verse; everything gets tighter, the scansion less limp, the rhymes more pungent. But then that might easily be confirmation bias. It doesn’t feel like crossing a Rubicon of any kind. The improvement is noticeable, but not jarring.

One of the other tricky things about Pericles is the state of the text we have, which is shocking. Publishing an edition of the play is a question of reconstructing–sometimes just guessing–what might be meant by lines that are often punctuated in a way that renders them nonsensical, have too many syllables to fit the metrical scheme (or too few), and sometimes just don’t exist. (There’s a gap of probably three or four lines at one point that no one has been able to fill.) General academic opinion is that the text was recounted from memory by one or two of the actors who’d performed the play (one of them might have been the boy who played Marina, Pericles’s daughter): they were probably trying to sell it to a publisher, somewhat unscrupulously, because theaters closed for a year, thanks to the plague, almost immediately after Pericles‘s first performance. They were hungry.

The point is that Pericles is not one of the more accessible of Shakespeare’s plays. Even if a theatrical ensemble can get past the textual problems, and can make the less impressive prosody sound convincing, it is odd. Bouncing from location to location, it follows Pericles as he 1) flees the wrath of a provincial governor who, it turns out, is sleeping with his own daughter; 2) wins the hand of another princess in a tournament; 3) marries, impregnates, and is immediately shipwrecked with said princess, who gives birth to their daughter and promptly dies; 4) leaves his newborn daughter with the governor of another city-state while he returns to Tyre to take up his throne upon the death of his father; 5) forgets to come back for her for the next fourteen years; 6) returns for her after fourteen years only to be told that she’s died [she hasn’t]; 7) after quite a lot of faff and much mourning, is reunited with her in a different city, as well as 8) being reunited with his wife, who isn’t actually dead and has been working as a priestess of Diana all this time. That is A Lot. There is also a chorus figure, who represents the medieval poet John Gower (which is something that doesn’t happen in any other Shakespeare play: a named individual functioning as a chorus between scenes). If what you want is something with a clear narrative trajectory, at least one memorable speech, some naughty jokes, and either a wholesome group marriage scene or a cathartic tableau of dead dramatis personae at the end, do not go to Pericles for it.

If, on the other hand, you are willing to take it for whatever it is, there’s a lot to be had. Most notably, it’s a play obsessively concerned about incest: it’s the opening impetus for Pericles’s flight when he uncovers it in a rival court, it’s a tension when he first meets his wife (whose father is, to everyone’s relief, a doting and appropriate parent keen to settle her in marriage), there’s the constant threat of it when he first meets his daughter, whom he doesn’t recognize. The whole play is overshadowed by the representation of deviant, non-generative sexuality, sexuality that, instead of allowing for growth and forward movement, curls back in on itself like a snake eating its tail. Fathers and daughters must be parted; even as Shakespeare and Wilkins bring Pericles and Marina back together at the end, their reunion is only possible because Marina has caught the eye of a handsome and wealthy young man outside of the family grouping, a socially appropriate match. There’s more to this–the father/daughter relationship and controlling interest in adolescent female sexuality is reminiscent of The Tempest; the lost/not lost wife subplot appears again in The Winter’s Tale–and if you’re at all interested in Shakespeare, or even (especially) if you think that he’s overtaught and overpraised and has nothing more to surprise you with, give Pericles a go.


Pericles was probably written in 1607 or 1608. My copy is the Arden Shakespeare 2nd edition, edited and introduced by Suzanne Gossett and published in 2004.

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11 thoughts on “06. Pericles, by William Shakespeare

    • Yay! It’s a very odd one but a very rewarding one too. I’ve always found it quite moving. (Mark Haddon’s novel is great, too, either to read before reading Pericles itself, or afterwards.)

  1. This sounds like a very difficult play to stage which explains why I haven’t seen it included in the programmes of our leading theatre companies. Is there a half way decent film version by any chance?

  2. I probably won’t read this for several more years as I want to fill the more noteworthy gaps in my Shakespeare knowledge first (like, I’ve never read Othello or R&J, somehow) but I’m making a mental note to come back to this post before I give Pericles a go, I feel like this post is a very valuable introduction.

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