Act One, Part Two
By Dennis Abrams
Before returning to Pericles; a personal note. On Sunday night, I was watching Watch What Happens Live on Bravo (Yes, I watch bad television as well as read Shakespeare). The guests were Ian McKellan and Orlando Bloom. I called in to ask Sir Ian a question and got through. After introducing myself and our site, I mentioned Auden’s comment that if he could save just one of Shakespeare’s plays from a fire, he’d save Antony and Cleopatra, and asked Sir Ian which play he’d save. His answer? Macbeth. Very cool.
Now, back to Pericles:
What seas what shores what grey rocks and what islands
What water lapping the bow
And scent of pine and the woodthrush singing in the fog
What images return
O my daughter.
(T.S. Eliot, Marina)
Did you not name a tempest,
A birth and death?
This queen will live
The play opens with the appearance on stage of a single figure who announces that he is the fourteenth-century poet, John Gower. There was a Chorus in Henry V, but to have a long-dead poet coming on to announce (and effectively to direct) the play is something entirely new in Shakespeare. Let’s consider what he says:
To sing a song that old was sung,
From ashes ancient Gower is come,
Assuming man’s infirmities,
To glad your ear, and please your eyes.
It hath been sung at festivals,
On ember-eves and holidays,
And lords and ladies in their lives
Have read it for restoratives.
The purchase is to make men glorious;
Et bonum quo antiquius eo melius.
If you, born in those latter times,
When wit’s more ripe, accept my rhymes,
And that to hear an old man sing
May to your wishes pleasure bring,
I life would wish, and that I might
Waste it for you, like taper-light.
An old song, sung by an ancient poet – so, for the audience, it is doubly old. Gower has risen from ashes – a miraculous Phoenix-like resurrection. He is going to address the ears and the eyes – he will tell, and he will show. The song is habitually performed at festivals, pre-fasting evenings, and holidays – a customary part of public, communal celebrations. It has been read for its restorative power. The ‘purchase’ (gain or benefit) is to make man ‘glorious’ – a strange line, to which I will return: followed by the apparent non sequitor in Latin, meaning – the more ancient a good thing is the better. Then a final rather self-deprecating, indeed self-sacrificing (wasting), an apologetic hope that these wittier ‘latter times’ will accept his inevitably rather old-fashioned presentations. We have heard this acknowledgement of generational difference before, with the sense that the smart young things no longer have time for the older pieties, as in the King of France’s quoting of the late Count Roussillon’s feeling of alienation from ‘younger spirits, whose apprehensive senses/All but new things disdain’ (All’s Well That Ends Well. I.ii.60-61). The fundamentals of the play’s form and consent are, in fact, adumbrated or pre-figured in these lines (my italics act as rather crude pointers), and what we are about to watch and listen to will be emphatically an old tale – ‘like an old tale…like an old tale still,’ as the wondering Gentlemen in The Winter’s Tale keep reiterating (V.ii.30, 65)
Why this stress on the oldness of the tale (or ‘song’)? Why is ‘ancient Gower’ there at all? For a start, it is a very old tale, probably from an ancient Greek romance concerning Apollonius ( = Shakespeare’s Pericles) of Tyre. It survived in a Latin version of the sixth century AD, and it entered the Gesta Romanorum (a Latin collection of tales from the thirteenth century – this was the 153rd story), and was disseminated in versions all over Europe. It is the main story in Book VIII (which treats of ‘unlawful love’) of John Gower’s Confessio Amantis (1393), which was Shakespeare’s main source – so Gower’s appearance as the presiding impresario is very proper. There was also a prose version by Laurence Twine, The Patterns of Painefull Adventures (1576 and 1607), which Shakespeare undoubtedly drew on. The adventures of Pyrocles (sic) in Sidney’s Arcadia (1590) might also have been in Shakespeare’s mind – shipwrecks, chests from the sea, helping shepherds, found armour, pirates, and so on – though all this may simply argue a common older source. Also relevant are legends of Christian saints, particularly that of St. Agnes (again known in many versions from the seventh century onwards). Among other features of her life, she was sent naked to a brothel where an angel protected her life, much to the consternation of the brothel regulars; she also revives an apparently dead Roman. So – yes; old, old, old. (‘Some mouldy tale like Pericles’ – Ben Jonson.)
Just why this particular story should have exerted such a hold on the European imagination (and be it said, going by contemporary evidence, Pericles was by some way the most popular of Shakespeare’s plays before the theatres were closed in 1642), can only be a matter of speculation – conceivably, it has something to do with the worrying proximity, and the felicitous avoidance, of incest (of all taboos, apparently the most universal). An old tale, then, being again retold. (It may also be an old play rewritten. I will not address the unresolvable question of whether the first two acts are wholly, or partly, by Shakespeare; or not by him at all. The writing there is certainly not in Shakespeare’s mature style – Geoffrey Bullough thinks it’s ‘jejune and rigid’ – but whether Shakespeare was building on the cruder efforts of a now unknown minor dramatist, or rather taking up one of his own earlier abandoned beginnings and seeing it through to a richer conclusion, is undecidable. But he had shown an interest in this old tale in his very first play, and, having alerted readers to alternative theories, I shall treat the whole of Pericles as Shakespeare’s play.) [MY NOTE: Reasonable enough] Shakespeare duly gives his play an ‘atmosphere of the antique,’ as Bullough says, with Gower using obsolete words and forms and having recourse to old-fashioned devices – pageant, ceremonial scene, tableau-like dumb shows, and so on. This makes it all seem curiously distant – violent deeds muffled by frames and long perspectives. But this archaic feel and flavor is hardly gratuitous or diversionary. The implication is, surely, that some old and abiding truths are best displayed in an avowedly archaic (‘mouldy’) mode, leaving the audience undistracted by innovational technical flair. Brockbank has a more general suggestion; ‘It happened at the beginning of the seventeenth century, and would happen again at the end of the eighteenth, that a society with a highly complex and civilized literary culture looked back to old tales and to the Middle Ages in search of rich simplicities, expressed in innocent speech and show.’ Shakespeare is de-sophisticating his audience.
‘To make men glorious’ – Gower’s announced intention – was the aim of the medieval legends of the saints and of the miracle plays derived from them (these plays were called simply ‘miracles,’ so if you saw one you could indeed say you had ‘seen a miracle’ – relevant for Shakespeare’s audience). It was F.D. Hoeniger who first persuasively argued that Pericles closely parallels the structure of certain miracle or saints’ plays. Such plays (performed all over England from around 1100 to 1580) depicted events and stages in the lives of saints and martyrs, and were like holy romances, showing happiness (or triumph, beatification, salvation – some heavenly reward) after long suffering. You could see romance as a secularized ‘miracle.’ Here is Hoeniger:
‘All that was need in Pericles was to carry one step further the process of secularization, already much in evidence in some of the later miracle plays: to replace God or Christ by Diana or Neptune, and the Christian saint or apocryphal character by a prince or princess; for there is no greater difference between the saints’ legends and the romance of Apollonius of Tyre. They are both biographical romances. The fate of Pericles, like that of St. Andrew or Mary Magdalene or Tobit, is governed by Providence. Like them, he undergoes manifold adventures, which bring upon him great suffering. Like them, he is lifted out of despair by a miraculous-seeming intervention of a god – a Christ or a Diana.’
This, then, is the sort of thing that Gower is going to put on for us. By as it were handing over the presentation of the play to Gower, Shakespeare ensures that it is almost entirely undramatic. Gower habitually tells (narrates, reports, summarizes) and then shows (leaves ‘to the judgment of your eye’); the acted scenes are more like illustrations or demonstrations than agonistic discoveries. This means that whatever else the audience experiences, it is seldom suspense, until the final act, when showing effectively overtakes, supplants, and relegates telling, and we are left to witness what T.S. Eliot called ‘the finest of the “recognition scenes.’”
And old tale, then; but in fact a very new kind of play which involves evoking and invoking more archaic modes, both of thinking and depicting, of telling and showing. The tale itself is of a prince who leaves his city to seek a bride. [MY NOTE: THE PLOT IS GIVEN HERE – IF YOU DON”T WANT TO KNOW IT AHEAD OF TIME SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH!] A renewed beauty attracts him, but to gain her he must solve a riddle – or forfeit his life. He sees that the answer to the riddle is that the beautiful princess is committing incest with her father, the king. The Prince flees in horror and, after shipwreck, finds himself in a happier kingdom where he wins a fitting bride. Marriage is swiftly followed by pregnancy and, with auguries of felicity, the couple set sail for the Prince’s own kingdom. There is another shipwreck, in which the mother apparently dies in childbirth and is buried at sea. The devastated Prince takes the baby girl to another country where seeming friends promise to bring her up alongside their own daughter. Some sixteen years later this traitorous couple plan the murder of the girl, because her many imperfections are serving to eclipse their own daughter. The scheme is foiled, and the girl is abducted by pirates, who sell her to a brothel in another country. Just at this time, the Prince (now King) arrives to take his now grown-up daughter back, only to be told that, sadly, she has died. Prostrate with grief, the King enters what seems to be a terminal silence, refusing all human communication. The daughter meanwhile has miraculously chastened the brother world, and become a renowned and accomplished teacher of the arts. Her father’s ship unwittingly puts in at the very port where she practices her skills. Told of the King’s aphasic melancholy, the local ruler suggests that the amazing young girl should be allowed to try out her ‘sacred physic’ on him. The King initially rebuffs her (in Twine, he kicks her in the face and she falls bleeding; in Gower he punches her; Shakespeare, habitually more sparing of visible violence, has him simply push her away). She persists and recognition follows in due course. An oracular vision reveals that the mother is still alive, having in fact been saved after her sea burial. An ecstatically happy reunion ensues in the temple of Diana, and the profound, simple (archaic) romance pattern of love, loss, and restoration, is completed. Bonds thought severed are rejoined, and the wretchedly scattered and miserably separated family is finally reassembled and at one.
Even thus crudely summarized, the story shows itself to be totally unamenable to neat, tight plotting. There are so many cities; so many spaces and gaps; so much wind-driven hither-and-thithering; so much storm and ‘tempest’; such blank stretches of time; such various magics; so much that is utterly, almost unutterably, extra-ordinary – and everywhere the sea, the sea. The climatic recognition scene takes place on board a ship riding at anchor off Mytilene; we actually see Pericles ‘on shipboard’ helplessly remonstrating with the fierce storm during which his wife (apparently) dies, while at the end he succumbs gratefully to ‘this great sea of joys rushing upon me’ (V.i.195); and two key scenes take place on the seashore, that bottomlessly, endlessly suggestive liminal area where our constitutive elements meet, and the firm gives way to the flowing – with Pericles emerging from the sea, and Marina (so named by Shakespeare because she was ‘born at sea’), as it were, returning to it. There is, indeed, a very ‘elemental’ feeling to the play – where we come from, what we are exposed to, to which we will return.
The river is within us, the sea is all about us;
The sea is the land’s edge also, the granite
Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses,
Its hints of earlier and other creation
T.S Eliot’s lines are particularly apt for this play.
The dislocated, apparent randomness of events; the prevailing feeling of man being adrift in floods and tides of uncharitable, unplottable contingency; the sense, indeed, of human helplessness, is poignantly expressed in Marina’s opening speech:
Ay me, poor maid,
Born in a tempest, when my mother died,
This world to me is as a lasting storm,
Whirring me from my friends.
‘Whir’ is not, not properly, a transitive verb; but of course, once Shakespeare has used it in this way – as he does only this once – we are stunned by its rightness, and realize that no other word would do. We have entered an actively ‘whirring’ world. It is a question whether there is any supervising, supervening power controlling or directing this fragmented, tempestuously unpredictable world. ‘The gods’ are very frequently invoked, with Jove, Juno, Apollo, Aesculapius and Priapus named, and Diana actually appearing, albeit in a dream, in Shakespeare’s first theophany, which takes place during an annual celebration of Neptune – we are certainly in a pagan world. But ‘the gods’ were invoked in King Lear, and much help they were there. Are these all just helpless gestures to an empty sky?
That is not quite the feeling here. Wilson Knight thinks these are more active and potent gods: ‘there is a greater sense of their reality, beneficence, and intervention.’ He senses an increasing ‘religious reverence’ and maintains that ‘Shakespeare’s drama is aspiring towards the eternal harmony and the eternal pattern.’ More generally, Bullough thinks that the ‘old tale’ of Apollonius with its oracular vision and final temple scene ‘helped to revive in Shakespeare the sense of an overriding benevolent Providence which he had rejected in Lear and ignored in Coriolanus, and to evoke the note of healing and forgiveness which he was to seek in the last three romances.’ Many commentators agree that, while the play is undoubtedly secular in both content and intention, it has some Christian relevance – a classical world with biblical resonances (as one might see Pericles now as a pagan prince, now as Job or Everyman). The old tale itself, says Hoeniger, presents ‘a pattern of the course of human life partly analogous to the biblical one,’ the basic similarity being that man has to suffer much before he will see and understand God’s purposes. ‘Shakespeare’ conceived the significance of the tragicomic pattern of the story of Apollonius of Tyre more deeply than did Gower or Twine…he was led to a view of the place of suffering in a great man’s life more like that of another profound view, the Christian one.’ The stress should be on ‘analogous’ – the play is in no way adjunct to orthodox Christianity. But you could certainly say that in both the Bible and the play, God/gods move(s) in a mysterious way His/their wonders to perform. And wonders there certainly are, however brought about.
That being said, as Gower tells it, it is always Fortune that is responsible for events. ‘Providence’ is never mentioned (Shakespeare only used the word half a dozen times, and we have to wait until The Tempest for ‘Providence divine’), while we hear of Fortune on some eighteen occasions. And a pretty rough-handed Fortune it is:
Till fortune, tired with doing bad,
Threw him ashore
(II, Gower 37-8)
Let Pericles believe his daughter’s dead
And bear his courses to be ordered
By Lady Fortune
Marina is placed in a brothel (‘this sty’) by ‘most ungentle fortune’ (IV.vi.102), and Gower’s fortune is never less than ‘fierce and keen’ (V.iii.87). So what brings about the miraculous denouement – has the harsh old Wheel of Fortune ameliorated into a benign Wheel of Providence, as some suggest? Do the gods finally intervene as they so conspicuously did not in King Lear? Or is it all up to inscrutable chance – miraculous luck finallybalancing out atrocious luck, but don’t bank on it? People will respond in different ways. Certainly we sense the presence of something mysterious and wonderful in the enraptured unfoldings of the last act. I think the prevailing feeling is that fortune has suddenly, inexplicably, begun to exercise a calming, self-rectifying influence on events – confusion yields to coherence, and the tempest gives way to music. But the experience is theatrical, not theological, and none the less valuable for that. ‘Pericles offers its reassurance, creating a world in which death is an illusion and the dream of immortality is appeased without the postulate of an afterlife.’ (Brockbank).
The only unit in this whirring, scattering play has – apart from Gower standing their pointing, narrating, and moralizing – is the fact that all the incidents bear directly on the weal and woe of Pericles and his daughter, Marina. The minor characters are relatively undeveloped, often nearer to types than to individuals. And Pericles is an unusual sort of hero in that he is completely passive. He initiates almost nothing on his own behalf (he brings relief to a starving city.) He travels in search of a wife, and wins one in s medieval tournament rather fascinatingly being held in ancient Greece, but he is far from being a passion-driven lover. Mainly we see him escaping or departing. He does not, like many heroes, take things (or people) by the scruff of the neck, one way or another, and try to shape them to his desires or aspirations – rather, things happen to him. He simply endures the slings and arrows – and finally the gifts – of outrageous Fortune. He is not the maker, and certainly not the master, of his fate. We see no moral failings, no struggling with conflicting emotions – no mistakes or errors, in fact. He certainly does nothing to deserve or to bring down the calamitous suffering visited on him; consideration of tragic flaws or hubris are irrelevant here. As put on by Gower, the man is wholly good (and thus, as a character, almost wholly uninteresting). The fact that he has no meaningful or revealing relation to his destiny increases the sense that accident rules all – call it fortune, call it gods. In his next two romances, Shakespeare shows the hero initially guilty of wicked mistakes and thus to a large extent responsible for the events thereby set in train; in his last romance, the hero has been the victim of wickedness. Either way, the old tail of restoration and recognition is given an ethical meaning. This is accomplished, as Kenneth Muir succinctly puts it, ‘by replacing the workings of an arbitrary providence by the operations of sin and forgiveness.’ Meanwhile, Pericles simply suffers in self-imposed silence.
He is thereby sometimes held up to be demonstrating an exemplary Christian-type patience, even piety. It is pointed out that whereas Lear rages at the angry elements on the stormy heath, Pericles almost respectfully submits to them:
Wind, rain, and thunder, remember, earthly man
Is but a substance that must yield to you;
And I, as fits my nature, do obey you.
Shortly thereafter, the elements, as he thinks, take his wife’s life. He is often enjoined to ‘Patience,’ yet he scarcely seems to need such exhortations. Again:
We cannot but
Obey the powers above us. Could I rage
And roar as doth the sea she lies in, yet
The end must be as ‘tis.
‘O, sir, things must be as they may,’ as the First Fisherman says to him on the beach (II.i.119). This sounds more like stoicism, or just fatalism, than Christian humility. It has been suggested that Shakespeare took the name ‘Pericles’ from Plutarch’s life of an Athenian with that name and whose great patience is stressed; but I think Ernest Schanzer is right to discount this and point instead to the Pyrocles in Sidney’s Arcadia with whom Shakespeare’s Pericles shares many qualities and accomplishments. Now, the only defect in Pyrocles’ knightly perfection is a lack of patience in adversity, which might seem to spoil the fit. On the contrary, says Schanzer, it clinches it.
‘He shuts himself away from all human society, and when Marina visits him, he has not spoken to a living soul for three months. Can Shakespeare really have thought that this is the way in which exemplars of patience accept the blows of fortune?’ Schanzer finds support for this view in a prose narrative by one George Wilkins, entitled The Painfull Adventures of Pericles Prince of Tyre, published in 1608 and almost certainly based on viewings of Shakespeare’s play. The Quarto of the play, published in 1609, is a notoriously bad one, and the reporter(s) who offered this reconstruction of the play certainly got things wrong and possibly left things out. Be that as it may, in Wilkins’ version, Lysimachus comments on Pericles’ behavior thus: ‘though his misfortunes have been great, and by which he hath great cause for this sorrow, it is a great pity he should continue thus perverse and obstinate,’ while Marina comments that ‘it was most foule in him to misgoverne himself.’ Put it this way: if you are plunged into near-unbearable grief by the death of a loved one, and if you had a strong tendency to extreme reactions, you might try to kill yourself by beating your head against the wall, as Sidney’s Pyrocles does when he thinks his beloved Philoclea is dead; or you might simply die to the world, petrifying yourself into a sealed-up vessel of unassuagable cosmic fury – which is perhaps what Pericles does when he thinks his beloved Marina is dead. Perhaps he is warned so often to be patient because those who know him are aware of a proclivity for the opposite. (There is at least a hint of this in his first reaction to the loss of his wife at sea: ‘O you gods!/Why do you make us love your goodly gifts,/And snatch them straight away? We here below/Recall not what we give, and therein may/Vie honor with you’ (III.i.22-6). As who should say – ‘You bastards!’) True patience is extremely important in all these late romances, and I will come back to this. Here we may just note that Marina does show real, positive endurance and patience in her very extreme adversity, not retreating into a helpless grief but entering and engaging with the world as an admired teacher of artistic skills. Remember Milton’s ‘I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue,’ which seemed apposite for Isabella in Measure for Measure. Perhaps Shakespeare also deprecated a ‘fugitive and cloistered’ grief as well, no matter how understandable. Arguably, we are meant to see a contrast between the reactions and behavior of the father and the daughter. In the last act, the man is manifestly psychically ill – he is indeed called ‘a kingly patient’ (V.i.72), the noun not the adjective – and Marina has to engage him in a long session of therapy.
The play is very definitely about the father and the daughter, and their very different lives up to the time of their strange reunion in the last act. The title page of the first Quarto makes this very clear (it also makes it clear that it was staged primarily at the globe and not Blackfriars):
‘THE LATE, and much admired Play, Called Pericles, Prince of Tyre. With the true Relation of the whole Historie, adventures, and fortunes of the said Prince: As also, The no lesse strange, and worthy accidents, in the Birth and Life, of his Daughter MARINA. As it hath been divers and sundry times acted by his Majesties Servants, at the Globe on the Banckside, by William Shakespeare.’
This dual focus, or double plot, is something new in Shakespeare’s plays, and it occurs in three of the last romances. The sort of love interest which drove most of the earlier comedies is reduced or vestigial. The emphasis and interest has moved to familial relationships, particularly that of father and daughter. In this play, the proposed marriage between Lysimachus and Marina is arranged in a peremptory three lines (V.i.262-4), and Marina is never heard to assent to it – her last words are for her rediscovered mother. And the whole play moves, in its disjunctive, episodic way, from the bad incest between father and daughter of the opening act, to what we may call the good ‘incest’ of the last act.
Gower starts by telling us of the incest of Antiochus and his daughter, a relationship Antiochus protects with a riddle which his daughter’s suitors never solve and thus pay the penalty of losing their lives – ‘as yon grim looks do testify’ says Gower, pointing to a row of heads displayed on the palace walls. (‘You’ is used frequently, as is the imperative ‘see’ or ‘behold.’ There is a lot of pointing in the play, as there is of moralizing – a sort of ethical pointing.) We then see the King and his daughter, with Pericles enthusiastically praising her virtues and beauty. He has recourse to a standard trope:
See where she comes, appareled like the spring,
Her face the book of praises, where is read
Nothing but curious pleasures
She turns out to be a false spring (Marina will be the true one), and Pericles misreads the book (‘curious’ then meant ‘exquisite,’ as any edition will tell you, but our more common meaning of strange or odd was emerging in the seventeenth century, and it turns out that her pleasures are ‘curious’ – curiouser and curiouser, as you might say). Willing to ‘hazard’ his life, Pericles asks for the riddle, which concludes:
I sought a husband in which labor
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.
We might note that the riddle is somewhat different in the sources, where the answer is Antiochus himself. Moreover, only Shakespeare has the daughter present while Pericles is reading the riddle in front of her father – he wants to foreground daughters – and of course here she is the answer. As in the sources, the daughter remains nameless. In Twine’s version, confessing to her nurse that her father has ‘violently forced her,’ the daughter laments ‘O my beloved nurse…even nowe two noble names were lost within this chamber…Where is my father? For if you well understoode the matter, the name of Father is lost in me, so that I can have no remedie now but death onely.’ The dread of incest must have something to do with the threatened loss of distinct identity; for if, like Oedipus in the most famous incest legend, you can become at once son, husband, father, and brother (to your own children), then all generational differences and demarcated kinship roles have collapsed into each other and individuation is lost. Most societies stigmatize and taboo incestuous sexuality as perverse: perhaps, as used to be surmised, because it distinguishes us from animals who seem to be indifferent about the matter; perhaps because it destroys the family, and endangers the future – for a father ‘forcing’ his daughter is the past devouring the future. Daughters are to be exchanged, and given in marriage out of the family. Antiochus’ daughter is right; she has lost her name – and her future.
Pericles has no trouble with this text, and it makes him ‘pale to read it’ (I.i.76). His shocked realization – a constantly recurring one in Shakespeare – is that appearances cannot be trusted; the beautiful girl is a ‘casket stored with ill’ (I.i.78). Realizing that if he answers the riddle correctly and thus reveals that he knows their guilty secret he will be killed, Pericles asks the King’s permission to remain silent – and does so with an elaborate image which I find extraordinary but have never seen commented on:
All love the womb that their first being bred;
Then give my tongue like leave to love my head.
This conjoining – strong to the point of near identification – of the child in the womb and the tongue in the head is somehow deeply suggestive in a play about a lost child and her dumb-struck father. More seriously, if loving the womb wherein your being is bred were to be translated into an adult activity, it would indeed be the ultimate Oedipal incest. With his image, Pericles – no doubt unconsciously – could be pleading for far more than the right to silence. Antiochus realizes that Pericles has discovered his secret, but feigns courtesy and friendship while planning murder. But Pericles has learned the lesson of deceptive Antioch – ‘How courtesy would seem to cover sin’ (I.i.122), and duly makes his escape.”
Our next reading: Pericles, Scenes 5-9 (or Act Two if you will)
My next post: Thursday evening/Friday morning