Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 587
By scholarly consensus, it appears that in the case of Pericles, Prince of Tyre, William Shakespeare finished a play that someone else had been commissioned to write. Recent scholarship indicates that Shakespeare revised the entire play of Pericles, Prince of Tyre from an earlier version by another playwright, probably Thomas Heywood. The play was tremendously popular in its day and was the basis of a prose version by George Wilkins. Pericles, Prince of Tyre is now considered to have been the first of the tragicomedies, or dark romances, that became so popular on the Jacobean stage. The play disregards considerations of time and place, delights in romantic improbabilities, and employs the obscure, compact style of Shakespeare’s late plays. Probably it paved the way not only for Cymbeline (pr. c. 1609-1610, pb. 1623), The Winter’s Tale (pr. c. 1610-1611, pb. 1623), and The Tempest (pr. 1611, pb. 1623) but also for the plays of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher.
Although seldom performed, Pericles, Prince of Tyre possesses an interesting, romantic story and a certain sentimental beauty. It abounds in situations and surprises, although parts of its theme might be considered unpleasant. The similarities between it and Shakespeare’s other late plays are striking. The likeness between Marina in Pericles, Prince of Tyre and Perdita in The Winter’s Tale is clear. The meeting between father and daughter, long separated, is suggestive of Cymbeline, and the reunion of Pericles and Thaisa anticipates that of Leontes and Hermione. Pericles and Cerimon are wise and superior men in the manner of Prospero. The themes of reunion after long division, reconciliation, and forgiveness seem to recur in all of these late plays, beginning with Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Storms appear twice in the play, perhaps as a symbol of the storms of life; this resembles The Tempest. In Shakespeare’s last plays, children are lost and found again, parents are divided and reunited, a wife is rejected and ill used and restored again. The recurring myth of royalty lost and recovered apparently had some special significance for Shakespeare and his audience.
The play is heavy with symbols and is particularly concerned with the concept of lost authority or control, without which life cannot properly be conducted. It is possible that some allusion to the late queen is intended, but the meaning may have been more personal to Shakespeare and may reflect a change or confusion in his life. The atmosphere, like that of The Tempest, is all sea and music. The brothel scenes are decidedly Shakespearean, with their joking references to disease. There is a hint of the attitudes of Timon of Athens (pr. c. 1607-1608, pb. 1623), namely, a certain anger and disgust with humanity in the midst of the poetry and music.
Up to the third act, Shakespeare’s revisions apparently were mostly confined to style, but comparison to the prose story based on the earlier version of the play suggests that with the fourth act he began to make extensive revisions in the plot as well. Certainly, the later scenes are superior in quality to the earlier ones. There is a subtlety and delicacy in the handling of certain scenes—such as when Pericles strikes Marina when she reproves him for his stubborn grief—that mark them as clearly from the hand of Shakespeare. Pericles, Prince of Tyre, because of its uncertain place in the canon, has long been underrated as a play. Its importance, however, as the beginning of a new style for Shakespeare and other Jacobean playwrights cannot be overestimated.