Few love to hear the sins they love to act
Pericles is a collaborative play by Shakespeare and (most likely) George Wilkins. At about 2400 lines it is one of the shortest plays, and Shakespeare is believed to be the author of about half of those. Rather than follow the usual 5-act structure of Shakespeare plays, it is divided into 23 scenes, the performance interval between scenes 14 and 15. It is not in the Folio, and the text survives in a single contemporary reconstruction. Wilkins is pointed as collaborator because he had published a novella titled “The painful adventures of Pericles Prince of Tyre”.
Which title more or less sums the play up; the story follows Prince (later King) Pericles and his peripatetic journey around the eastern Mediterranean. In the beginning, Pericles goes to woo the daughter of the King of Antioch. The King is in love with her himself, and doesn’t want to give her up to any other man – only her famous beauty has attracted hordes of suitors. To deter them, the King has given them a task, a riddle to solve. Anyone failing to do so will not only not get the girl, they will be killed.
I am no viper, yet I feed
On mother’s flesh which did me breed.
I sought a husband, in which labour
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.
Reading it out, Pericles understands immediately what it means – the King and his daughter are having an incestuous affair. Mildly disgusted, Pericles doesn’t answer the riddle, and flees to Tarsus, knowing his life is in danger. In Tarsus he saves the locals from famine. Pursued by an assassin set on his trail by Antioch, he then flees to Pentapolis, where he takes part in jousting and wins the hand of Princess Thaisa. On their way back to Tyre, Thaisa gives birth during a storm and appears to die in labour; her body is thrown in the sea, and Pericles takes his newborn daughter Marina to Tarsus to be brought up by Cleon and Dionyza. Thaisa in her coffin washes ashore in Ephesus and is revived by Cerimon; she can’t remember a thing and is taken to the temple of Diana.
Marina grows into a beautiful young woman, making Dionyza jealous enough of her to arrange her to be murdered. Amazingly enough, before this can happen, Marina is kidnapped by pirates, taken to Mytilene, and sold to prostitution. She meets the governor Lysimachus and pleads to him for help, which he gives. Pericles has gone to Tarsus and is told that his daughter is dead; he goes to Mytilene and is rejoined with her when Lysimachus sends her to sing to him, not knowing that she’s his daughter. The goddess Diana appears in a vision to Pericles, and tells him to go to Ephesus, where he is reunited with Thaisa. Marina becomes engaged to Lysimachus, and they all live happily ever after.
Pericles is a peculiar play in the sense that it doesn’t rouse any particular passion or provoke much thought; the text is surprisingly good but as a whole it is neither as funny nor as romantic as it could be. I get the sense though that here staging is everything – for some reason I’m reminded by the 1980s children’s animation Around the World with Willy Fog and imagine Thaliart as Transfer, the fabulously ineffective saboteur with a glass eye. Pericles could have that similar wink-and-nod quality, the audience always in the know that the tragic events are not what they seem, the melodrama played up for comic effect.
Is it any good?
It’s more enjoyable than I expected, but still from time to time a bit boring.
Although the play is not based on his character in any way, there was a historical Pericles (5th century BC), an Athenian statesman, orator, and general, active during the years between Persian and Peloponnese wars. By coincidence, he was married to “a very close relative” of his, most likely a first cousin.
What say thou?
While a lot of the text is poetically elegant, none of it is particularly gripping. But if favourite passage must be chosen, I’ll go with the Prologue. It sets the scene nicely.
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 holy-ales;
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 these 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.
This Antioch, then, Antiochus the Great
Built up, this city, for his chiefest seat:
The fairest in all Syria,
I tell you what mine authors say:
This king unto him took a fere,
Who died and left a female heir,
So buxom, blithe, and full of face,
As heaven had lent her all his grace;
With whom the father liking took,
And her to incest did provoke:
Bad child; worse father! to entice his own
To evil should be done by none:
But custom what they did begin
Was with long use account no sin.
The beauty of this sinful dame
Made many princes thither frame,
To seek her as a bed-fellow,
In marriage-pleasures play-fellow:
Which to prevent he made a law,
To keep her still, and men in awe,
That whoso ask’d her for his wife,
His riddle told not, lost his life:
So for her many a wight did die,
As yon grim looks do testify.
What now ensues, to the judgment of your eye
I give, my cause who best can justify.
I like Thaisa and especially Marina – Pericles is a bit of a wet blanket, but his daughter is clever and resourceful.
BBC Television Shakespeare, the only filmatisation available. Whatever spirit the play has, this adaptation kills it – there’s little humour (the fishermen with silly accents don’t count) and none of the melodrama is particularly dramatic. Still, interesting to see some later-famous actors, especially women. Annette Crosbie is Dionyza, Juliet Stevenson Thaisa and Amanda Redman Marina. No idea who Antioch’s daughter is, but she’s suitably creepy. And oh, Mike Gwilym is a slow-talking, inconsequential Pericles.
One thought on “Shakespeare Saturday: Pericles”
Thank you for this thoughtful piece of writing. I love Pericles and agree completely re the BBC version. The production this year at the Globe’s Wanamaker was an absolute joy by contrast, full of magic, mystery and hilarity. I am hoping someone has recorded it somewhere.