“What we need to do is to expand our notion of what ‘Shakespearean’ might mean when we use it to describe a play.”


An Introduction

By Dennis Abrams


pericles titlle pageLet me start out by saying – I’ve never read this play, so I’m going to be experiencing it for the first time right along with all of you.  And…in terms of our reading chronology, some say this should follow Antony and Cleopatra, others argue for Coriolanus.  I decided to go with Pericles (1) because I’ve been following the lead of the Oxford editors on chronology, and (2) I think it will make for a nice change of pace before we return go Rome for Coriolanus and then move on to the most glorious of the last plays, the “romances.”

At any rate.

Pericles shows the emergence of a new mode of work for Shakespeare – away from the run of tragedies we’ve been reading (with only Coriolanus to follow) and towards the world of romance. The playwright’s source was the medieval poet John Gower, a figure who actually appears on stage (or on the page) to tell the story of the Tyrean hero, his adventures and his hardships – all experiences comparable to those of the wanderers in classical epics such as Odysseus and Aeneas. The play itself, excluded from the all-important First Folio for reasons still unknown, has also endured hardship – criticism from scholars and still rarely performed. Which is odd, because even in the text we possess, which appears to be corrupt or in places unpolished (some think the first two acts were written with a minor dramatist named George Wilkins), it is still thought to contain more than its share of moments of outstanding beauty.  And those who have been fortunate enough to see it in a theater all testify that the finale is among Shakespeare’s most intensely moving.


Pericles was seen by the Venetian ambassador, probably in 1608, and was most likely written in the previous year.


The Greek story of Apollonius (Pericles) of Tyre was widely known, but John Gower’s version in Confessio Amantis (1390s) is the central source – indeed, the poet even stars as the play’s narrator. Lawrence Twine’s novella The Pattern of Painful Adventures (1576) also furnished some details


Pericles’s sole text was printed in 1609 in an unauthorized edition, perhaps reconstructed from memory. Because it was not included in the 1623 Folio, some have argued that Pericles is collaboration with the poet George Wilkins, whose novella, The Painful Adventures of Pericles Prince of Tyre (1608) recalls the play.


From Marjorie Garber:

PericlesSlant-331x252“Shakespeare’s Jacobean rival Ben Jonson had scant respect for Pericles, Prince of Tyre, and he resented its enormous popular success. He called it a ‘mouldy tale,’ not worth telling – by which he likely meant that it was both archaic and improbable. Jonson, the author of The Alchemist, Volpone, and other moral comedies, had little use for fairy tale and romance. And it is very easy to ridicule romance and fairy tale if you have no use for them.

A romance is a story of adventure, often involving a hero who suffers a disaster and then extreme privation, defeating overwhelming odds to emerge triumphant. Such romances were popular in the Greek Hellenistic period and in medieval and early modern Europe. Othello’s tale of ‘scapes i’th’ imminent deadly breach,’ which so enchanged Desdemona, is a good example of the extreme, often baroque shape of the romances of Shakespeare’s day. While the label ‘romance’ was not applied categorically to Shakespeare’s late plays until the  nineteenth century, the genre was a familiar and popular one. Some modern audiences – like some early modern ones – have found these plays deficient in realism, but, as we will see, what they actually do is shift the ‘real’ to a different plane,. One more aligned to dream, fantasy, and psychology, while retaining, at the same time, a topical relationship to historical events in Shakespeare’s day.

Consider the case of Shakespeare’s Pericles: a man who woos a wicked, incestuous princess, solves a riddle, and flees her land – and who just happens to be shipwrecked on the shore of another land, where there is another princess choosing a husband; a man who has no armor to fight in the princess’s tournament until there washes up onshore the very suit of armor, now rusted, once given him by his father; a man who is involved in a shipwreck and a storm at sea, and who therefore loses his new wife and parks his infant daughter with a supposedly friendly neighboring king and queen; a man who then neglects to visit his beloved daughter for a period of fourteen years, in the course of which the supposedly friendly king and queen attempt to murder her, and she is stolen away by pirates, sold to a brothel-keeper, and begins to convert the brothel’s clientele to chastity. Consider that this same man is finally reunited with both daughter and wife under the most improbable circumstances, including a doctor with miraculous powers and a personal visit, with instructions, from the goddess Diana.

If we consider all this, we will realize that dramatic romance, or, as it was then known, cannot and out not be judged exclusively by its realism or its social commentary. Romance speaks about society by speaking about poetry, art, dream, and transcendence – and about the quest of the individual, as human being and as art-maker, for identity and for eternity. In fact, Jacobean audiences loved Pericles. It was one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, reprinted no fewer than five times in under thirty years.  It was the first of his plays to be revived at the time of the Restoration, when theaters, closed by the Puritan Cromwell, were opened again – and women began for the first time to act upon the public stage. It became popular again in the early twentieth century, when fairy-tale improbabilities caught the public fancy and the play’s poetry began to catch the enthusiastic ear of critics; and it is popular again today.

Tragicomedy was an admired dramatic mode in the early years of the seventeenth century, one successfully practiced by Shakespeare’s contemporaries, and notably by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. Plays of this kind usually combined, as the name implies, elements of tragedy (serious diction, characters of high birth, and desperate events like shipwrecks and wars) and of comedy (‘low’ characters, bawdy jestings, songs, festivals, and love at first sight). The word ‘tragicomedy’ dates from Roman times, and was first used by the Roman dramatist Plautus, for whom the new genre meant, in part, that ‘high’ characters and ‘low’ ones changed places and swapped dignity for indignity: gods and men, masters and slaves. In Shakespeare’s time there was some tension between neoclassical taste, which deplored the mixing of genres, and the emergent popularity of no-holds-barred tragicomedy. (This is another reason why Jonson, a committed classicist, would have found Pericles unappealing.) Modern readers of Shakespeare, conditioned by their admiration for his tragedies, with their metaphorical and metaphysical language and the psychological suffering of their heroes, will sometimes criticize Pericles as a startling departure from the master’s true métier. There have been readers, like Lytton Strachey, who saw these plays as signs of Shakespearean dotage, a falling-off from greatness. But the admirers of the late plays are numerous – many critics have regarded them as the apogee of Shakespeare’s achievement – and the case for their evocative poetry and astonishing theatrical brilliance is strong.

It will help, I think, to remember that these are stage plays, designed for performance, and their elements of spectacle and wonder are – like twenty-first-century ‘special effects’ in films – in themselves appealing to theatrical audiences, however much they lose by being transferred to the medium of print. Indeed, many contemporary visual forms for storytelling, like cartoons and animation, have their analogies with the allegorical style of romance, from Spenser’s Faerie Queene to dramatic romance. The terms used to describe Shakespeare’s late style (‘romances,’ ‘late plays,’ ‘last plays’) all postdate his own categories. In the First Folio, compiled by two members of his company after the playwright’s death, The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale are listed among the comedies, and Cymbeline is among the tragedies. But Pericles is not included in the First Folio, and this adds to the complications of its reception. The only text we have for it is a quarto, not regarded as an authorized or very reliable copy, and the literary quality of the text varies considerably from scene to scene.

Theatrical taste, like taste in all the other arts, changes with circumstances, with fashion, and over time, so it should not be surprising to find a preeminent playwright like Shakespeare able to write convincingly in many modes. Again it may be useful to invoke a comparison with film, a medium in which, it is often said, Shakespeare would have excelled had it existed in his time (and for which Pericles, with its many exotic changes of scenery, seems to be ideally suited). We accept with equanimity the fact that a twentieth-century director like Steven Spielberg can create both E.T. the Extraterrestrial and Schindler’s List, or that Roman Polanski can make compelling films as apparently different – and also as similar – as Macbeth, Tess, and The Pianist. Pericles is as ‘Shakespearean’ as Hamlet or Lear, and indeed, as we will see, it has many correspondences with them. What we need to do is to expand our notion of what ‘Shakespearean’ might mean when we use it to describe a play. And, perhaps, to diminish our notion of what ‘Shakespearean’ means when it is applied, as it often is today, indiscriminately in the public press to denote a ‘human tragedy.’

Readers of Shakespeare’s plays often find it jarring to make the transition from the great tragedies, with their wealth of psychological detail and richness of character. Figures like Hamlet, Macbeth, and Othello seem to invite the audience into the inner workings of their minds, through devices like the soliloquy and through the elaborate deployment of metaphor. And yet Pericles deals with psychological richness and density, as it deals with politics and hierarchy and power, although it does so using a different language and different codes, on the level of cultural fantasy and cultural desire. The romances enact patterns of desire and loss and fear and passion and hatred and ambition, just like the tragedies, but they do so as if they were happening inside our own imaginations, rather than inside the minds of Shakespeare’s introspective and ruminative heroes. In my reading of the third act of King Lear, I suggested that the characters who appear onstage, one by one, are concretizations, or projections, of aspects of Lear’s emotional or mental state in the storm. Macbeth begins, as we noted, with the vivid image of a civil war like ‘two spent swimmers that do cling together/And choke their art.’ In Antony and Cleopatra, hearing the music of oboes playing beneath the stage, a soldier observes, ‘’Tis the god Hercules, whom Antony loved,/Now leaves him.’ In Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra, these remain figures of speech, just as in Othello the ‘green-eyed monster,’ jealousy, remains a figure of speech: no swimmer, no god Hercules, no monster is listed among the dramatis personae. But in romance, it is as if such figures do come to life upon the stage, not in metaphor but in actuality. This is one reason why it is possible to see the dramatic action of each of the last plays as taking the form of a dream: in this case Pericles’ dream, or Marian’s, in which monsters come to life, and impossible reunions, like wishes, come true.”

Bloom’s view of the play is very different:

Pericles-placeholder“Shakespeare was occupied with Pericles in the winter of 16-7-8, though scholars are not able to define the precise nature of that occupation. The first two acts of the play are dreadfully expressed, and cannot have been Shakespeare’s, no badly how garbled in transmission. We have only a very bad quarto, but the inadequacy of so much of the text is probably not the reason why Pericles was excluded from the First Folio. Ben Jon had a hand in editing the First Folio, and he had denounced Pericles as ‘a mouldy tale.’ Presumably Jonson and Shakespeare’s also knew that one George Wilkins was the primary author of the first two acts of the play. Wilkins was a lowlife hack, possibly a Shakespearean hanger-on, and Shakespeare may have outlines Acts I and II to Wilkins and told him to do the writing. Even by the standards of Shakespeare’s London, Wilkins was an unsavory fellow – a whoremonger, in fact, a very relevant occupation for a coauthor of Pericles, though the superb brothel scenes are Shakespeare’s work.

Pericles is not only uneven (and mutilated) but very peculiar in genre. It features choral recitations by a presenter, the medieval poet John Gower, who is atrocious in the first two acts but improves markedly thereafter. The play resorts to frequent dumb show, in the manner of The Murder of Gonzago, revised by Hamlet into The Mousetrap. Most oddly, it has only a sporadic continuity, we are given episodes from the lives of Pericles, his wife Thaisa, and their daughter Marina. The episodes do not necessarily generate one another, as they would in history, tragedy, and comedy, but Shakespeare has exhausted all of those modes.  After Antony and Cleopatra, we have seen the retreat from inwardness in Coriolanus and in Timon of Athens.

It would be absurd to ask, What sort of personality does Shakespeare’s Pericles possess? Libraries have been written on the personality of Hamlet, but Pericles has none whatsoever. Even Marina has every virtue but no personality: there cannot be that individual a pathos in the emblematic world of Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Shakespeare was not in flight from the human, but he had turned to representing something other than the shared reality of Falstaff and Rosalind, Hamlet and Cleopatra, Shylock and Iago. Pericles and Marina are a universal father and daughter, his only importance is that he is her father, who loses her and then receives her back again, and she matters only as a daughter, who suffers separation from her father, and then is restored to him. I am not suggesting that they are archetypes or symbols, but only that their relationship is all that interests Shakespeare. Lear is everything and nothing in himself, and Cordelia, in much briefer compass, also contains multitudes. Pericles is just real enough to suffer trauma, and Marina is strong enough to resist being debauched, but both scarcely exist as will, cognition, desire. They are not even passive beings. In that sense alone, the jealous Ben Jonson was right: Pericles are figures in a moldy tale, an old story always being retold.

Both performances of Pericles that I have attended, some thirty years apart, were student productions, and both confirmed what many critics long have maintained: even the first two acts are quite playable. Except for the astonishing recognition scene between Pericles and Marina in Act V, and the two grotesquely hilarious brothel scenes in Act IV, very little in the play can be judged dramatic, and yet performance somehow transfigures even the ineptitudes of George Wilkins. This puzzles me, because bad direction and bad acting have converted me to Charles Lamb’s party: it is, alas, better, especially now, to read Shakespeare than to see him travestied and deformed. Pericles is the exception; it is the only play in Shakespeare I would rather attend again than reread, and not just because the text has been so marred by transmission. Perhaps because he declined to compose the first two acts, Shakespeare compensated by making the remaining three acts his most radical theatrical experiment since the mature Hamlet of 1600-1601. Pericles consistently is strange, but it has nothing as startling as the gap in representation that Shakespeare cuts into Hamlet from Act I, Scene ii, through Act III, Scene ii. But then what is being represented in the last three acts of Pericles?


And finally, from Nuttall:

PericlesWebC“Many scholars believe that the first two acts of Pericles are not by Shakespeare at all. It is obvious, however, that the greater part of the play, including the brothel scene and the moving recognitions scene – the sequence that haunted T.S. Eliot – are unmistakably his. It is possible that Shakespeare was recruited to intervene in the writing – to ‘save’ a play begun by someone else. But it would still be a mistake to supposed that the first two acts, with their apparently primitive episodic movement, can simply be set aside. Obviously if Shakespeare took over the venture he could not have proceeded without a careful reading of what was already on paper. In fact the ‘cod-medieval’ doggerel given to ‘moral Gower’ must always have been in a certain sense sophisticated. In 1608 such writing, by whatever hand, must be consciously primitivist rather than primitive. The childlike character of the narration must have been registered and separately enjoyed. The whole enterprise reflects a mood of cultural nostalgia, but for Shakespeare the nostalgia may have had an extra, personal sting.

At the beginning of his career he had written a romance comedy about children lost at sea but found again at last, a play that drew on the old, originally Greek tale of Apollonius of Tyre. The story of Pericles is drawn from the same source. The Comedy of Errors, though built on a Plautine model, is not consciously archaic in the manner of the later play. it is a young man’s piece, explosive, fast-paced, gymnastically brilliant. But the haunting music of those Greek stories of children lost and found can be heard, and the presence of the sea is felt throughout. These are the deepest things in The Comedy of Errors, and it is to these that Shakespeare returns in Pericles.”


This is going to be interesting.  For me definitely, and I hope for you.

Our next reading: Act One, Pericles

My next post:  Sunday evening/Monday morning

Enjoy.  And enjoy your weekend.

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4 Responses to “What we need to do is to expand our notion of what ‘Shakespearean’ might mean when we use it to describe a play.”

  1. Mahood says:

    I always look forward to reading these lesser known plays. Perhaps it’s because one doesn’t have any preconceptions about them…and then there’s always the chance that one might be pleasantly surprised (as in Timon of Athens, for example).

    A ‘mouldy tale’ it may be, but I can’t wait to get started!

  2. Joe Simon says:

    I had not only not read Pericles, I knew absolutely nothing about it. So I decided to read the play in full first, before delving into your commentary. I remember thinking in the beginning, this is Shakespeare?? And apparently it was not. Having read it..once..I cannot call it one of my favorite plays. I can see how it would be better performed, but have never had the chance to see it before.

    • Joe: I’m going to out on a limb and say it’s probably safe to say that none of us in the group had read “Pericles” before reading it last month. It is one of my favorites? Hardly. Is it better than I’d expected it to be? Granted, my expectations were pretty low, but yes, it was. Not that it will make my top ten or even top twenty Shakespeare plays.

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