Pericles (Vol. 79)
Pericles (ca. 1607), Shakespeare's first romance, has been considered by some critics to be one of his least satisfying works. In this play, introduced by the choric narrator Gower, Shakespeare used a fairy-tale style to recount the misfortunes of Pericles, prince of Tyre, who is exiled and separated from his wife and daughter. Pericles is grief-stricken and wanders at sea until he is happily reunited with his loved ones at the play's end. Scholars have identified several causes for their dissatisfaction with Pericles: its disjointed, episodic construction; its weak characters, inconsistent dialogue, and implausible plot twists; and—perhaps most vexing—its suspect heritage. Critics have long questioned whether Shakespeare is the sole author of the play, with the general consensus being that he wrote most of the final three acts whereas other writers were responsible for the first two. Despite these long-standing aesthetic and textual concerns, Pericles has received a substantial amount of attention in the last century. Indeed, recent critics have been drawn to the play for some of the same reasons that it was once scorned. In addition to debating the extent to which Shakespeare was involved in creating the drama, critics have analyzed the stylistic deviations in Pericles for clues to larger shifts in the literary, religious, and political landscape during Shakespeare's lifetime.
Several literary scholars have examined the playwright's narrative technique and distinctive mode of presentation in Pericles. Many of these discussions center on the play's choric narrator, Gower—a fictional recreation of the fourteenth-century English poet John Gower—who frequently addresses the audience and comments on the story. Walter F. Eggers (1975) identifies Gower as an “authorial presenter” who serves to distance the audience from the illusion of the play. Eggers maintains that Gower's limited viewpoint of the dramatic events allows the audience to place the representational aspect of the play in its proper perspective and instead focus on the basic story. Similarly, Kenneth J. Semon (1974) demonstrates how Gower's archaic moral perspective influences the dramatic events of Pericles. Semon speculates that Shakespeare intentionally underscored Gower's strict moral opinions in an effort to persuade the audience to identify more closely with the wonder-filled reactions of the other characters in the play. F. David Hoeniger (1982) asserts that Gower's archaic observations and language are a means for Shakespeare to ridicule literary styles which he considered to be outdated, a technique that previously had been employed by Geoffrey Chaucer. Richard Hillman (1985) is less concerned with the character of Gower than with the work of the real-life poet. It has long been acknowledged that Pericles was inspired in part by a tale related in Gower's Confessio Amantis (1385-93); Hillman points out additional links between the two works.
Though popular with audiences during Shakespeare's time and well into the seventeenth century, Pericles later fell into disfavor and was almost completely absent from the stage during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. However, the play experienced a revival in the twentieth century. D. J. R. Bruckner (1998) notes that Pericles is a play that has everything, including “murder, kidnapping, drowning, lost children, resurrections, political intrigue, divine vengeance, a bordello redeemed by a virgin, admired rulers whose sex lives would arch Satan's eyebrow, pimps, homicidal jealousy, labor induced by a hurricane, birth onstage and eternal love.” Bruckner gives high praise to the Kings County Shakespeare Company production of the play, directed by Jonathan Bank, for its ability to pull all the elements of the play together and create “irresistible entertainment.” Charles Isherwood's 1998 review of the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival production, directed by Brian Kulick, is not so favorable. The critic faults the weak cast and stylistic treatment, and contends that the production lacked a “humanizing touch”; however, the critic grants that the “convoluted saga” presented in the play contributed to the production's failure. Also reviewing Kulick's production, John Simon (1998) strongly criticizes virtually every aspect of the play, especially the director's staging of the play as a farce. Lois Potter (2002) gives a positive review of the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Pericles, directed by Adrian Noble. The critic praises both the cast and the production's visual and musical splendor.
In recent years, a number of critics have maintained that Shakespeare imbued Pericles with a subtle commentary on the compelling social, political, and religious issues that England faced in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. Margaret Healy (1999) suggests that Pericles can be interpreted as a veiled criticism of the efforts of King James I to arrange marriage links between the English and Spanish royal families. Caroline Bicks (2000) detects references in Pericles to the tension surrounding the practice of traditional Catholic rituals in the Anglican church decades after the Protestant Reformation of the mid-sixteenth century. In particular, Bicks points out dramatic episodes that echo the controversy over church ceremonies involving women after childbirth. Peter Womack (1999) asserts that Pericles shares similarities with earlier dramas that venerated saints, most notably the play Mary Magdalen. The critic discusses the two plays in the context of the changing critical, political, and religious sentiment in England during the 1500s and 1600s, which denigrated improbable and miraculous stories because of their connections to Catholicism. Heather Dubrow (2002) analyzes the dynamic involving parents and children in Pericles, positing that Shakespeare's treatment of familial relationships reflected a widespread apprehension about parental loss in Elizabethan and Jacobean society. According to Dubrow, Shakespeare manipulated the anxiety surrounding this cultural issue not merely to dramatize the emotional toll that parental loss took on children, but also to expose a flawed social convention in which unscrupulous guardians of orphaned children took advantage of the process of inheritance.
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Hoeniger, F. David. “Gower and Shakespeare in Pericles.” Shakespeare Quarterly 33, no. 4 (winter 1982): 461-79.
[In the following essay, Hoeniger outlines the plot of Pericles, noting the play's appeal to live audiences and paying special attention to the figure of Gower. The critic maintains that at certain points in the play, Shakespeare attempted to create a burlesque that mocked antiquated literary conventions.]
In this essay I wish to propose an entirely new approach to Pericles which arises from the conviction that critics have not yet grasped the play's highly unusual character and technique. Because large parts of the play, particularly its first two acts, seem to critical readers so obviously defective and crude, both in style and in dramaturgy, we may be surprised by the evidence that in Shakespeare's own time and for a generation after, the play was highly popular. The First Quarto of 1609 speaks of it as “The late, And much admired Play … diuers and sundry times acted by his Maiesties seruants, at the Globe on the Banck-side.” Other references from the time tell us of large crowds flocking to see it, and of both the Venetian and French ambassadors watching an early performance. Between 1610 and 1631 it was revived several times, not only at the Globe, but on one occasion at Whitehall before distinguished guests; it was also performed by a traveling...
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Criticism: Character Studies
SOURCE: Semon, Kenneth J. “Pericles: An Order Beyond Reason.” Essays in Literature 1, no. 1 (spring 1974): 17-27.
[In the following essay, Semon argues that Pericles conveys a world where moral rules do not apply and where most of the characters respond to events with a sense of unexplained wonder. According to the critic, the only exception to this rule is Gower, who offers a strictly moral perspective that is inadequate in explaining the play's unusual events.]
Like the tragedies, Shakespeare's last plays work toward evoking the dramatic effect of admiratio, or wonder.1 But the effect of wonder in the tragedies depends upon the actions of a central character, usually those leading to the suffering and death of a great man; whereas, in the last plays, wonder derives from the fantastic and unexpected nature of events. The experience of wonder unique to Pericles derives not only from the nature of events but more specifically from the tension between the structure and content of the play—between Gower's mechanical understanding of the actions as he presents them, and the fantastic events which defy such a mechanical understanding.
The world of Pericles is morally inscrutable, and the audience, like the characters, can only respond with admiration for the fantastic reconciliations at the end of the play. Gower, who tells a tale of the...
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SOURCE: Eggers, Jr., Walter F. “Shakespeare's Gower and the Role of the Authorial Presenter.” Philological Quarterly 54, no. 2 (spring 1975): 434-43.
[In the following essay, Eggers focuses on the character of Gower as an “authorial presenter,” a dramatic role common during late 1500s and early 1600s. The critic suggests that this convention gives the play authority by linking it to the past and by providing the audience with a different perspective on the story.]
In 1606, the prologue to a private-theater play declared, “Inductions are out of date, and a Prologue in Verse, is as stale as a black Velvet Cloak, and a Bay Garland.”1 These lines testify to the popular fashion of presenters in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, a fashion that persisted in the public theater despite this private-theater caveat. Within the next two years, one of the most popular public-theater plays, Pericles, featured a presenter who spoke in archaic tetrameters, wore the traditional cloak, and carried bays.2 The presenter in Pericles is the author of the story behind the play, “ancient” Gower. In the vividness of his characterization, Gower is one of a kind, but as an “authorial presenter” he is also the epitome of a well-established conventional role.
The convention of the authorial presenter has not adequately been explored, and for this reason the...
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SOURCE: Hillman, Richard. “Shakespeare's Gower and Gower's Shakespeare: The Larger Debt of Pericles.” Shakespeare Quarterly 36, no. 4 (winter 1985): 427-37.
[In the following essay, Hillman compares Pericles to John Gower's Confessio Amantis. The critic maintains that the character of Pericles shares many traits with the character Amans in the Confessio and undergoes a similar journey of self-discovery.]
Shakespeare's Gower used to embarrass with his quaintness; nowadays, as often as not, he dazzles with his theatrical savoir faire. His choric role is increasingly recognized as an effective part of Pericles' dramatic method, while the effects themselves have become the chief subject of debate, most of which concerns the issue of mediation: does the Chorus create alienation or engagement, and exactly how?1 The proliferation of aesthetic arguments parallels a welcome tendency to approach the play, whatever the circumstances of composition, as an artistic whole for which Shakespeare at least made himself responsible. Abetted, no doubt, by Gower's considerable appeal as a character—we warm to him, despite his moralizing, as we do not to the members of the romance plot itself—the momentum of appreciation has carried commentary well beyond the simple issue of his presence.
Yet a reappraisal of that issue, this time premised on...
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Criticism: Production Reviews
SOURCE: Bruckner, D. J. R. “Hopscotching from Hilarity to Mourning, with Groundlings in Thrall.” New York Times (19 August 1998): E5.
[In the following review of the Kings County Shakespeare Company production of Pericles, directed by Jonathan Bank, Bruckner praises the wide range of emotional responses that the play elicited from the audience and notes the “disorderly” nature of the plot.]
If it's not in Pericles, maybe it isn't possible in theater. This wonderful old bag of tricks has everything—murder, kidnapping, drowning, lost children, resurrections, political intrigue, divine vengeance, a bordello redeemed by a virgin, admired rulers whose sex lives would arch Satan's eyebrow, pimps, homicidal jealousy, labor induced by a hurricane, birth onstage and eternal love. The opening scene portrays father-daughter incest so vividly that television would have to warn you to shield your children from it. What a play!
Of course, it is a little disorderly, taking place in six ancient cities and at sea over about 30 years and involving 40 characters. Shakespeare's name is usually attached to it since the members of his theater company registered it as theirs in 1607, and he probably did write a couple of striking scenes. But its language tells you it was composed by at least a few hands over many years; some lines are almost as medieval as the underlying wildly...
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SOURCE: Isherwood, Charles. Review of Pericles. Variety 373, no. 1 (16-22 November 1998): 42-3.
[In the following review of the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival production of Pericles, directed by Brian Kulick, Isherwood faults the weak cast and stylistic treatment, but grants that the “convoluted saga” presented in the play contributed to the production's failure.]
Shakespeare's late romance Pericles is a kind of hymn to the cycles of life, in which wrongs are miraculously righted, wounds healed, demises undone, so it's a pity indeed that Brian Kulick's new production at the Public Theater is so deadly. A chilly ceremonial style adds a distancing layer to a play that already contains enough disjunctions and fantastic reversals to give audiences pause. What's needed is a humanizing touch to bring to the fore the beauty in the play's conception of life as a series of storms over which only purity of heart can ultimately triumph. That's absent here, due to the stylized production and, more crucially, a cast that is simply not up to the demands of the text.
The talented young designer Mark Wendland has created an imposing set that probably seemed like a good idea on the page. It's a two-story metal contraption that slides back and forth, featuring various glowing gold panels that create distinct playing spaces. A giant blue wall slides out...
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SOURCE: Simon, John. “Parlous Pericles.” New York 31, no. 45 (23 November 1998): 87-8.
[In the following review of the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival production of Pericles, directed by Brian Kulick, Simon strongly criticizes the director's staging of the play as a farce.]
Pericles is so imperfect a play that scholars postulate either a collaboration with a lesser dramatist responsible for the first two acts or, likelier, a revision of a lost earlier play by a hack, to which Shakespeare warmed only in the latter part as his involvement grew. It is based presumably on a likewise lost Hellenistic novel about Apollonius, Prince of Tyre, hugely popular through many medieval and Renaissance versions. But in no version is this tale about the whims of fortune, the endurance of trials, and miraculous events a farce. For that, it took Brian Kulick, artistic associate of the Public Theater, to place himself, squarely and foolishly, beyond the pale.
Pericles reaches the heights of poetry in several scenes, but even the other ones are based on the wondrous, the spectacular, the awesome. Kulick turns almost everything into the farcical, and navigates even the deeply moving into those shallows. Visually, his notion of presenting the play largely in gilded boxes of various sizes suggests that the Bard's collaborator was Godiva Chocolatier....
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SOURCE: Potter, Lois. “Songs of Excess.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5180 (12 July 2002): 19.
[In the following excerpted review of the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Pericles, directed by Adrian Noble, Potter praises both the cast and the production's visual and musical splendor.]
Eminent theatre directors who turn from Shakespeare to musical comedy, like Trevor Nunn and Adrian Noble, have an obvious precedent in Shakespeare himself. Pericles was a famous crowd-pleaser in its own time: scholars and directors, baffled by its uneven, possibly collaborative, text, have usually concentrated on the themes that it shares with other “late plays”—suffering, loss and reunion—and on the tense poetry of the hero's farewell to his dead wife, about to be buried at sea, or his tremulous reunion with his long-lost daughter, miraculously spared after attempted murder, kidnapping, and imprisonment in a brothel. Though Noble's production, his farewell to the Royal Shakespeare Company, follows The Winter's Tale and The Tempest at the Roundhouse, he makes a good case for seeing Pericles not as late play but early musical.
Taking his cue from the plot's emphasis on the wheel of fortune and the moving spheres, Noble emphasizes the Roundhouse's shape both aurally and visually. Sounds and music surround the spectators, from the buzzing flies on the...
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SOURCE: Womack, Peter. “Shakespeare and the Sea of Stories.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 29, no. 1 (winter 1999): 169-87.
[In the following essay, Womack asserts that Pericles shares similarities with earlier dramas that venerated saints, most notably the play Mary Magdalen. The critic discusses the two plays in the context of the changing critical, political, and religious sentiment in England during the 1500s and 1600s, which denigrated improbable and miraculous stories because of their connections to Catholicism.]
It was long ago discovered, by the industry which neglects no conceivable Shakespearean origin, that the main action of Pericles oddly resembles the King of Marcylle episode in the fifteenth-century East Anglian play Mary Magdalen.1 In both, a monarch is shown on a ship at sea with his wife, who dies in childbirth in the midst of a storm. The sailors, believing that it is fatally unlucky to have a corpse on board, insist that the dead woman be jettisoned; the monarch loses both wife and child, but later both are miraculously restored to him. The parallels are distinct enough to be interesting, but for what Stephen Greenblatt acidly calls “the conventional pieties of source study” they are an embarrassment rather than an illumination.2 Since it is quite unlikely that the Magdalen play was...
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SOURCE: Healy, Margaret. “Pericles and the Pox.” In Shakespeare's Late Plays: New Readings, edited by Jennifer Richards and James Knowles, pp. 92-107. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.
[In the following excerpt, Healy asserts that in Pericles Shakespeare presented a veiled criticism of the efforts of King James I to wed his children to members of the Spanish royal family.]
Louis MacNeice's poem Autolycus (1944-7) gives aptly magical expression to the dominant apprehension of Shakespeare's late plays in our century. Autolycus evokes a picture of the Bard at the sunset of his career mysteriously moving away from the ‘taut plots and complex characters’ of the major tragedies, conjuring instead ‘tapestried romances … / With rainbow names and handfuls of sea-spray’, and from them turning out ‘happy Ever-afters’ (ll. 3-6). MacNeice's words capture a certain ambivalence towards this Shakespearean sea change: indeed, the romances, with their emphasis on the production of wonder, their tendency towards straggling plots and emblematic representation, and their preponderance of ‘childish horrors’ and ‘old gags’ (Autolycus ll. 14, 15), are often experienced as charming but enigmatic and not altogether satisfying puzzles—even as regressive aberrations. The latter is most true of the ‘unwanted child’ Pericles, a play of...
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SOURCE: Dean, Paul. “Pericles' Pilgrimage.” Essays in Criticism 50, no. 2 (April 2000): 125-44.
[In the following essay, Dean contends that Pericles is a pilgrimage tale, and outlines several literary works that may have influenced Shakespeare's creation of the drama, including two from the Bible: the tale of Jonah and the Acts of the Apostles.]
Had it been printed in the First Folio, Pericles (1608) might well have appeared among the comedies, with The Winter's Tale and The Tempest, rather than among the tragedies, with Cymbeline, which was perhaps placed there out of a feeling that it was more akin to the Roman plays or to King Lear. There was, as we know, no formal category of romance drama in Shakespeare's time.1 Nor did he invent the kind of play whose absurdities and improbabilities were already being derided by Sidney in the 1580s2 and which, as Leo Salingar has shown in detail,3 are themselves lineal descendants of medieval dramatic romances.
Given such uncertainties, and the relatively modern coinage—dating, it seems, from the 1870s4—of ‘romances’ as a descriptive category for Shakespeare's later work, the question ‘What kind of play is Pericles?’ still seems a reasonable one to ask, and it is reopened by a lively and provocative new edition of the play, by Doreen...
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SOURCE: Bicks, Caroline. “Backsliding at Ephesus: Shakespeare's Diana and the Churching of Women.” In Pericles: Critical Essays, edited by David Skeele, pp. 205-27. New York: Garland Publishing, 2000.
[In the following essay, Bicks detects references in Pericles to the tension surrounding the practice of traditional Catholic rituals as practiced in the reformed Church of England in the early 1600s. In particular, Bicks points out dramatic episodes that echo the controversy over church ceremonies involving women after childbirth.]
Our lodgings, standing bleak upon the sea, Shook as the earth did quake; The very principals did seem to rend, And all to topple. Pure surprise and fear Made me to quit the house.
Such an ordinarie service as yours is for every private woman … hath, in my opinion, neither legges nor foundation to stande on.
(Certaine Questions … concerning Churching of Women, 1601)
When Shakespeare's Thaisa awakens from her burial at sea to find herself on the shaken shores of Ephesus, her first words are to that city's goddess: “O dear Diana, / Where am I? Where's my Lord? What world is this?” (3.2.104-105). Except for her invocation of Diana, her words echo verbatim those of John Gower's heroine from the Confessio Amantis, the literary ancestor of the...
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SOURCE: Hopkins, Lisa. “‘The Shores of My Mortality’: Pericles' Greece of the Mind.” In Pericles: Critical Essays, edited by David Skeele, pp. 228-37. New York: Garland Publishing, 2000.
[In the following essay, Hopkins considers the treatment of geographical locations in Pericles, concluding that the travels depicted in the play are symbolic of an exploration of the characters' identities.]
In Pericles, Prince of Tyre, the eponymous hero undertakes a convoluted series of travels which take him from Tyre to Antioch, back to Tyre, thence to Tarsus, next to Pentapolis, back to Tarsus again (en route for Tyre), to Mytilene, where he meets his long-lost daughter, who has been brought up in Tarsus, and finally to Ephesus, where he is reunited with his wife. These fantastic peregrinations may seem to align the play with some of the other narratives of travel that had proved so popular on the English stage, such as The Three English Brothers or the heroic journeyings of Tamburlaine or Faustus, but in fact the locations of Pericles are realized and represented in ways very different from the careful correspondence to the map that marks Marlowe's imagined space, or the personal experience of exotic locations that informs The Three English Brothers.1 What we find in Pericles is not so much a Greece of the atlas as a Greece of the mind....
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SOURCE: Dubrow, Heather. “‘This Jewel Holds His Building on My Arm’: The Dynamics of Parental Loss in Pericles.” In In the Company of Shakespeare: Essays on English Renaissance Literature in Honor of G. Blakemore Evans, edited by Thomas Moisan and Douglas Bruster, pp. 27-42. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2002.
[In the following essay, Dubrow analyzes the dynamic involving parents and children in Pericles, positing that Shakespeare's treatment of familial relationships reflected a widespread apprehension about parental loss in Elizabethan and Jacobean society.]
Festschriften and romance are cognate literary genres in that the bonds between generations impel and inform both of them. But if those bonds are celebrated in collections like this one, they are variously celebrated and contaminated, lost and recovered, rejected and reinterpreted, in romance. More specifically, whereas many critics are prone to associate that genre with the loss of children, the death of parents and its consequences are no less central to romance in general and Shakespearean romance in particular.
The events surrounding parental loss are, indeed, among the principal sources of danger and defeat in Pericles and among the principal sources of recovery for Pericles. The consequences of such deaths impel most of the major episodes...
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Abraham, Lyndy. “Weddings, Funerals, and Incest: Alchemical Emblems and Shakespeare's Pericles, Prince of Tyre.” Journal of English and German Philology 98, no. 4 (October 1999): 523-49.
Argues that Pericles is a non-Christian miracle play that conveys its meaning through the use of alchemical emblems.
Arthos, John. “Pericles, Prince of Tyre: A Study in the Dramatic Use of Romantic Narrative.” Shakespeare Quarterly 4, no. 3 (July 1953): 257-70.
Analyzes the construction of Pericles to determine how Shakespeare was able to combine romantic material with the dramatic techniques he had developed in his comedies and tragedies.
Fawkner, H. W. Shakespeare's Miracle Plays: Pericles, Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1992, 194 p.
Book-length study of three plays from the final phase of Shakespeare's career which seeks to illuminate their “mysterious, almost hermetic, quality.”
Marks, Peter. “High Jinks on the High Seas, and a Little Shakespeare, Too.” New York Times (10 November 1998): E5.
Reviews a production of Pericles at the Joseph Papp Public Theater in New York, concluding that the play suffered from poor performances and an...
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