For further information on the critical and stage history of Pericles, see SC, Volumes 2 and 15.
Likely composed and first performed in the years 1606-08, Pericles is a tale of loss and reconciliation between father and daughter, based upon the classical legend of Pericles of Tyre. Despite the considerable age of this folk story—Ben Jonson once called it a "mouldy tale"—scholars have identified the primary sources that Shakespeare probably used to compose his drama as John Gower's Confessio Amantis (1385-93) and Lawrence Twine's The Paíteme of Paynfull Adventures (1576). Since the recognition of these and other sources of the work, much scholarly interest in the play has been devoted to the question of its authorship. While contention still exists, the majority opinion seems to favor the theory that Shakespeare collaborated with another author, who is said to have written the somewhat inferior first two acts of Pericles, while Shakespeare himself is generally credited with having composed the last three acts of the play. Further areas of twentieth-century critical inquiry have included an exploration of the relationship between Pericles and his daughter Marina as well as the characterization of both, and discussions of the play's imagery and treatment of sexual motifs, especially regarding the theme of incest that pervades the work.
Critical observations on the authorship of Pericles and its lesser quality typically originate from the corruption of the text as part of the 1609 quarto version of Shakespeare's works and its exclusion from the more reliable First Folio edition (1623). Still, many scholars, including Kenneth Muir, have located significant evidence of Shakespeare's authorship in the work's language and imagery. Muir and others have observed that the play represents a departure for Shakespeare, and is a transitional drama that bridges the gap between the great tragedies of his middle period, such as Hamlet and King Lear, and his later plays, including The Winter's Tale and The Tempest. Overall the work has been seen as less complex and less realistic than either group, with more simplified characters and a thinner plot. Other commentators, while accepting Muir's conclusions for the most part, have nevertheless observed the literary richness of Pericles. Andrew Welsh has noted the unifying theme of tradition in the play, and traced its classical, medieval, and folklore sources in the appearance of riddles, the Seven DeadlySins, and knightly emblems. Ruth Nevo, taking a psychoanalytic approach to the drama, has outlined its symbolic power as a dream-fantasy which meditates on the repressed subjects of death and incest.
The characters of Pericles and Marina have also attracted the attention of modern scholars. Their assessments have offered a reevaluation of the prince as a patient sufferer and analyzed the play's themes of suffering, loss, repentance, and reconciliation between father and daughter. As for Marina's character, critical estimations have typically emphasized her chastity and purity. Michael Taylor has noted the juxtaposition of innocence and wisdom in Marina, while Nona Fienberg has associated her with the value of "moral discourse." Both critics have observed that her character stands in opposition to the darker aspects of the play, including the incestuous relationship between Antiochus and his daughter, and the degradation of the brothel where she finds herself in Act IV.
Shakespeare's use of imagery in Pericles, especially as it applies to the motifs of sexuality and incest, has also provided additional topics for modern critics of the play. Alexander Leggati has commented on the riddle of incest and Antiochus's illicit relationship with his daughter, arguing that the fear of deviant sexuality informs the drama throughout. Anthony Lewis has seen the prevalent imagery of eating in Pericles as an indication of the play's theme of sustaining and nourishing oneself and others. Several commentators, including Mary Judith Dunbar and W. B. Thorne, have argued that through its symbolic devices the play presents a unified poetic, moral, and comic vision. For Thorne, the oppositions in the play, between generations and between loss and reconciliation, form the dramatic structure of the work and represent an evolution of Shakespeare's earlier comedies. Overall, these assessments of the mechanics of Pericles have demonstrated a small critical shift in the evaluation of a play that was popular in Shakespeare's time, but has since fallen into relative disregard. However, while scholars acknowledge that the work suffers from certain flaws, most agree that it offers an abundance of form and a quality of language that surpasses its weaknesses of character and incident.