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Pericles is a deceptively simple play. Although it was popular in its own time and in recent years has proved to be successful and deeply moving on stage, the play may seem naive and trivial on the printed page. Its apparent lack of depth seems espe- cially striking when we compare it with its contemporaries, King Lear, Macbeth, Timon of Athens, and Antony and Cleopatra. It purports to be the work of a medieval poet, John Gower, who, as presenter, or chorus, apologizes to his sophisticated Jacobean audience (“born in these latter times / When wit’s more ripe”) for the “lame feet of my rhyme” and the quaintness of his ditty (1.0.11–12; 4.0.48). The narrative offers a series of sea voyages, separations, hairbreadth escapes, and reunions. Thrilling circumstances abound: Pericles fleeing the wrath of Antiochus; Pericles’s wife, Thaisa, giving birth to their daughter, Marina, on board ship in the midst of a gigantic storm; and Marina later being rescued by pirates from a would-be murderer only to be sold by her new captors to a house of prostitution. Time leaps forward from Pericles’s own youth to that of his daughter. The action takes place in remote lands, shifting constantly back and forth among six eastern Mediterranean localities: Antioch, Tyre, Tarsus, Pentapolis, Ephesus, and Mytilene. Conventional devices of plot include the expounding of riddles, the discovery of incest at court, the exposure of infants to the hostile elements, the miraculous restoration of life after seeming death, the appearance of the gods in a vision, and recognition of long-lost loved ones by means of signs or tokens.
These are the attributes of popular romance, a distinctly old-fashioned genre in 1606–1608, when Pericles was apparently written. Robert Greene had composed prose romances of this sort in the 1580s and early 1590s, including Pandosto, Shakespeare’s source for The Winter’s Tale. Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia had endowed romance with noble eloquence and literary fashionableness, but that, too, was in the late 1580s. (The name “Pericles” may well owe something to the Arcadia’s Pyrocles, though Shakespeare may also have been attracted to the Pericles of fifth-century Athens and to the mellifluous quality of the name.) One source for Pericles itself, a prose history of Apollonius of Tyre by Laurence Twine, was registered for publication in 1576, although no edition exists before that of 1594 or 1595. Earlier accounts of Apollonius (as the hero was originally named), going back to Greek romance, include a ninth-century Historia Apollonii Regis Tyri, Godfrey of Viterbo’s Pantheon (c. 1186), John Gower’s Confessio Amantis (c. 1383–1393), and the Gesta Romanorum. Why did Shakespeare’s company refurbish such an outmoded romantic story in 1606–1608?
The puzzle is aggravated by questions of authorship and textual reliability. The editors of the First Folio did not include Pericles in the canon of Shakespeare’s plays. Perhaps they experienced copyright difficulties or could not lay their hands on the playbook, but it is also possible they either suspected or knew that Shakespeare was not the sole author. Printed editions were available to them: the First Quarto of 1609 and the subsequent quartos of 1609, 1611, and 1619, each based on the preceding edition. The First Quarto was, however, a bad text with occasional glaring contradictions. In 1.2, for example, Pericles’s lords wish him a safe journey when no one has yet spoken of his departure, and Helicanus rebukes these same lords for flattery even though they have not said anything remotely sycophantic. Other scenes present similar difficulties, especially in the first two acts. The characters do not always seem consistent: Cleon is condemned in Act 5 for having tried to murder Marina, even though our earlier impression of him is of a man who is genuinely horrified at his wife’s villainy. He weakly bends to the will of Dionyza but is no murderer. Such inconsistencies and errors, and the naïveté of the whole, have generally led to three hypotheses: that Shakespeare worked with a collaborator such as Thomas Heywood or George Wilkins, that he revised an older play and left the first two acts pretty much as they were, or that he wrote the entire play, which was then “pirated” by two unemployed actors whose portions differed markedly in accuracy.
To complicate matters still further, a prose version of the story called The Painful Adventures of Pericles by George Wilkins appeared in 1608, purporting to be “the true History of the Play of Pericles,” that is, to be a prose account of a dramatic performance. This redaction is indeed close at times to the play we have, but at other times it departs widely. The departures of the later work are sometimes explained with the hypothesis that Wilkins based his account on an older play, to which he himself might have contributed; another and more current opinion favors the notion that Wilkins took what he needed from the play we have, borrowing also from Twine’s prose version or from his own imagination. Apparently, then, Pericles was such a popu- lar stage success that it inspired Wilkins’s Painful Adventures in 1608, a new reprint in 1607 of Twine’s Pattern of Painful Adventures on which the play itself had been partly based, and a botched surreptitious quarto edition of the play in 1609. Shakespeare’s sole authorship must remain in doubt, although the incongruities, especially in the first two acts, are sometimes explained as the result of faulty memorial reporting and compositorial error. On stage, to be sure, even the first two acts make fine dramatic sense, establishing motifs and situations that are essential to the rest of the play, so that the overall impression in the theater is of cohesion.
The naïveté of Pericles is probably deliberate. Its romantic motifs continue on into that group of plays known generally as the late romances: Cymbeline (c. 1608–1610), The Winter’s Tale (c. 1609–1611), and The Tempest (c. 1610–1611). Nor are these motifs entirely new in Pericles: the “problem” comedies All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure use a tragicomic structure in which miraculous cures or providential interventions triumph over the semblance of death. Pericles occupies an integral place, then, in the development of Shakespearean comedy during the period of his great tragedies. To that development, it offers a new emphasis on the simplicity of folk legend. Of the four late romances, Pericles, the earliest, is also the nearest in tone to the romances of the 1580s. The play seems to have constituted a revival of that old genre and was so immensely popular that it did much to establish the vogue of tragicomedy exploited by Beaumont and Fletcher.
The Chorus, old Gower, gives to the episodic materials of the play a unified point of view. He speaks with the authority of one who has told the story before, even though his Confessio Amantis (c. 1383–1393) was probably not Shakespeare’s immediate source. Gower adopts a kind of Chaucerian persona, appealing to “what mine authors say” (1.0.20) and apologizing for his rude simplicity. Like the Chorus of Henry V, he repeatedly urges his auditors to transcend the limitations of his naive art, using the power of imagination to bridge gaps in time and to suppose the stage a storm-tossed ship or the city of Antioch. His appearances divide the actions into seven episodic segments, surely a more authentic structure than the five “acts” conventionally employed by later editions. He offers moral appraisals of his various characters, often before we have had a chance to see them, contrasting the good with the bad. Most important, he presides as a sort of benign deity over the changing fortunes of his characters, assuring us that as narrator he will not allow the virtuous to come to grief or the wicked to escape punishment. He thus paces our expectations and provides a comic reassurance appropriate to romance. He promises to “show you those in trouble’s reign, / Losing a mite, a mountain gain.” To the virtuous, he will ultimately give his “benison.” Under his direction, the vacillations of fortune take on a predictable rhythm, whereby the rewards of virtuous conduct may be delayed but cannot eventually fail. Pericles, he tells us, will suffer adversity “Till fortune, tired with doing bad, / Threw him ashore, to give him glad” (2.0.7–38). This pattern is repeated several times.
The characters often remind us of the personages at a fairy story, outwardly stereotyped and one-dimensional, divided for the most part into contrasting types of villainy and virtue, and yet suggesting beneath their conventional surfaces the conflicts in family relationships that are essential to the fairy story. Incest is a recurrent motif, from its most blunt and evil manifestation in the court of Antiochus to more subtle inversions and variations in the relationships of Simonides and his daughter Thaisa, and, most centrally, of Pericles and his daughter Marina. The interest in fathers and daughters, and in the difficulties fathers have in coming to terms with their daughters’ marrying other, younger men, continues to fascinate Shakespeare from Othello and King Lear into all of his late romances. The mystery of incest is posed in terms of a riddle at the start of Pericles, and the moving dramatic conclusion in which the hero is reunited at last with his daughter seems to represent at some level a resolution of conflict between father and daughter. Pericles and Marina have “found” each other and themselves, literally in the narrative sense and also in some deeper psychic and spiritual way.
The characters expressing this and other conflicts are repeatedly paired opposite one another as contrasting foils, il- lustrating a type of human depravity and its ideal opposite. One such contrast is that of tyranny and true monarchy. For example, both Antiochus and Simonides seem to welcome the various suitors who flock to their courts, seeking the hand in marriage of the two kings’ daughters. Antiochus does so deceitfully, however, since he is his daughter’s incestuous lover. Pericles learns in Antioch the danger of perceiving too much about the private affairs of a suspicious and vengeful tyrant. Simonides is, on the other hand, a true prince, beloved by even the simplest of his subjects, generous, lacking in envy, courteous to strangers, and more impressed with inner substance than with outward show. He approves of Pericles as a son-in-law, though (like Prospero in The Tempest) he imposes artificial restraints on the lovers to make their ultimate triumph of love seem all the more sweet. Antiochus and his daughter are eventually shriveled up by a fire from heaven, whereas Simonides and Thaisa earn the just rewards of gracious hospitality. Another opposing pair of characters, Thaliard and Helicanus, are conventionally typed as false and true courtiers. Thaliard, ordered by Antiochus to murder Pericles, is evasive and self-serving; Helicanus, when offered the opportunity to supplant Pericles as ruler of Tyre, loyally awaits his master’s return.
Pericles is apparently conceived in these same conventional terms as a prince of chivalry, young, brave, admirable both as a romantic wooer and as a resolute adventurer. His visit to the city of Tarsus, which has recently been toppled from wealth to poverty, shows him practicing the generosity that befits his lofty rank and innately noble qualities. Even when fortune strips him of his finery, his princely bearing is evident to discerning observers like King Simonides and Thaisa. Pericles thus differs outwardly from the flawed tragicomic protagonists more often found in the late romances, such as Posthumus in Cymbeline and Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, who bring grief upon themselves and must suffer agonizing contrition before gaining an unexpected second chance. Pericles seems to be virtually without fault, a hero of romance rather than of tragedy. His soliloquies and eloquent speeches are not darkly introspective and psychological, like Leontes’s. Although he grieves in sackcloth and ashes, he does so for undeserved misfortune rather than for his own follies. The play accordingly has little to say about humanity’s perverse instinct for self-destruction. Yet critics have been unable to agree as to whether Pericles is simply a good man buffeted by misfortune or a man somehow perplexed by inner conflict. Are there unresolved wishes in his relationships to Thaisa and Marina that link him to the manifestly flawed protagonists of Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale, and, more explicitly, to Antiochus and his daughter in this play? What is it that causes his excessive despair in his grief and his withdrawal into absolute silence? On the surface, his story is one of undeserved misfortune, leading at last to happy reunion and an end of his trials. He learns a more affirmative and patient response from his courageous daughter Marina, whereupon his trials have run their necessary course. Even his learning such a lesson is of less importance than the sublime sense of mystery and joy that accompanies his reunion with Marina.
In several ways, Marina is a typical heroine of Shakespeare’s late romances. Her name, like that of Perdita in The Winter’s Tale, signifies loss and recovery. Marina is the gift of the sea, that mysterious power of fortune in Pericles that takes with one hand even while it gives with the other. Just as the sea tosses Pericles on the coast of Pentapolis and then returns to him the suit of armor in which he will joust for the love of fair Thaisa, so in another storm at sea Thaisa apparently dies giving birth to Marina. The child is a “fresh new seafarer” on the troubled voyage of life (3.1.41). The sea parts her from her mother and father and leads to the misunderstandings whereby Marina is supposed dead, but the sea also eventually deposits Pericles on the coast of Mytilene, where he finds his long-lost daughter. Like Perdita, Marina is associated with flowers and with Tellus, a divinity of the earth. The inscription on her monument, when she is thought dead, speaks of elemental strife between the sea and the shore caused by her death, in which the angry sea gods “Make raging battery upon shores of flint” (4.4.39–43). She is a princess from folk legend, like Snow White or like Imogen in Cymbeline, who must flee the envious wrath of a witchlike stepmother and queen. Her true mother, Thaisa, another princess in a folktale, is washed ashore in a treasure-filled chest, smelling sweet and betokening some miraculous change of fortune.
Most important, Marina is one who can preach conversion to the sinful and cure distempered souls. She recovers her husband-to-be, Lysimachus, from the brothels of Mytilene, and even converts pimps and prostitutes by her innocent faith. As one with a strange power to bring new life to dead hope, she resembles a number of mysterious artist-figures and magicians in the late romances (or, earlier, in All’s Well That Ends Well). One such is Cerimon, who restores life to Thaisa. Like him, or like Paulina in The Winter’s Tale, whose devices are “lawful” though seemingly magical, Marina offers cures that can be rationally explained and yet appear to be miraculous. To Pericles, her ministrations seem “the rarest dream that e’er dull sleep / Did mock sad fools withal” (5.1.166–7). Yet what she has taught him, by her own example, is simple patience; she has suffered even more than he but nevertheless knows how to endure, how to “look / Like Patience gazing on kings’ graves and smiling / Extremity out of act” (lines 140–2). Marina has the power to renew her father and restore him to life, perhaps because she represents the way in which the sexuality of women can be legitimated: she dwells for a time in a house of prostitution and is eminently desirable to men, and yet at the same time is so pure that she can teach men the way to control their own libidinousness. She is thus whore and saint in one person, able to refute the low premise about the carnality of the human condition that Pericles elsewhere finds so threatening. In his recovery of Marina and in his glad disposing of her as the bride of Lysimachus, Pericles at last comes to terms with the incestuous bond between father and daughter that had posed itself so menacingly for him in the court of King Antiochus.
Through Marina’s ministrations, Pericles is reunited with his wife as well. Here, too, the narrative suggests a successful resolution of guilt after long years of inner conflict. Pericles is obliged to throw his wife’s body overboard in a storm after she has died in childbirth. The fault is not his, since the sailors insist that the storm cannot be abated until the ship is cleared of the dead (3.1.47–9), but the emotional burden of loss is incalculable. Thaisa’s miraculous recovery makes possible an eventual reunion that coincides with the rediscovery of the daughter. Viewed in these terms, the tale is one in which a husband finds it possible to love again a wife he lost and in a sense abandoned long ago. As in The Winter’s Tale, where King Leontes causes the death of his queen at the time of her childbearing and then regains her after years of penance, the husband learns again, late in life, to cherish a long-lost wife who has aged and whom he is now able to love in spite of that aging. In Pericles, the husband’s guilt is not manifest, nor is his wife’s sexuality an open threat to him in her youthful childbearing vitality, and yet the narrative itself of separation and reunion resembles a slow and difficult coming to terms with the emotional demands of marriage. Perhaps it is significant in some way that Shakespeare lived apart from his family most of his working life and that when he wrote his late romances he was about to retire from London to Stratford.