Pericles, Prince of Tyre Pericles and the Wonder of Unburdened Proof
by William Shakespeare

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Pericles and the Wonder of Unburdened Proof

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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Peter G. Piatt, Barnard College

2. Gent. Is not this strange?
  1.  Gent. Most rare.

At the beginning of act 5 of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Theseus and Hippolyta discuss the reports of the lovers from the previous act, and in doing so, they provide an enactment of the two models of wonder that I attributed . . . to Jonson and Daniel. An examination of their speeches will help take us toward an exploration of the Shakespearean marvelous.

Hippolyta begins the discussion by emphasizing the wonder of the stories: "'Tis strange, my Theseus, that these lovers speak of."1 Interested in downplaying the strangeness of the claims—and separating them from truth ("More strange than true" [2])—Theseus skeptically links lovers with madmen and poets as people who possess "seething brains" (4) and "shaping fantasies" (5), basing their interpretations of the world on imagination—"of imagination all compact" (8)—and apprehension (5), instead of on "cool reason" and comprehension (6). In short, all three create what does not exist, "as imagination bodies forth / The forms of things unknown" (14-15). These are the "tricks" (18) that imagination plays, forcing one to confuse apprehension—or mere perception, implying error—with comprehension—or full understanding, implying truth (19-20). To believe in the imagination, the strange, the wondrous, is to suppose a bush a bear (22).

Hippolyta has more room in her interpretive world for the marvelous. She draws a distinction between the "fancy's images" (25) dwelt upon by Theseus and the "something of great constancy" that is "strange and admirable" (26-27); she seems comfortable with this paradox, Puttenham's "Wondrer."2 Suggesting that something true or constant can come out of the "minds transfigur'd" (24) by the marvelous events in the forest, she turns a skeptical, Montaignian eye on Theseus's skepticism, suggesting that the marvelous can lead one to previously unimaginable realities. Instead of clouding minds and leading them into error, Hippolyta suggests (as do Patrizi, Montaigne, and Daniel), that the strange and admirable can transfigure minds.

In examining Shakespeare's use of the marvelous, I build on the notions of wonder underlying the work of both fiction and the masque explored in chapters 4 and 5: the link between intellectual and epistemological destabilization on the one hand, and visual, often theatrical, awe on the other. The present chapter, then, explores the significance of wonder to both the philosophical issues raised by and the dramatic strategies of the late plays, before examining Pericles within this framework.

This double sense of wonder—an ongoing inquiry and an aesthetic astonishment, both caused by an acceptance of and openness to the previously unimaginable—is crucial to an understanding of the late plays. While recent criticism has tended to focus on "skepticism" or politics, the late plays inevitably move beyond these concerns, and part of this move is a connection with the audience, the importance of which Patrizi's theory of wonder recognizes.3 Late Shakespeare operates within this framework, in a kind of philosophical and aesthetic contingency, and invites the spectators to engage in—and in some cases to shape—the marvels on the stage before them.4

The urge to locate Shakespeare intellectually has led in recent years to several books that address Shakespeare's skepticism.5 Although different in argument and meth odology, these studies share a sense of a tradition of "learned ignorance" that includes Plato, Nicholas of Cusa, Erasmus, Agrippa, and Montaigne (particularly the Montaigne of book 2 of the Essays, and even more particularly, of "Apology for Raymond Sebond"). In his important study, Richard Popkin distinguished "Academic" from "Pyrrhonian" skepticism in the third and fourth centuries B.C. and traced the significance of this dualism for the Renaissance and beyond. Popkin makes a distinction between the Academics—who argued, following Socrates's dictum...

(The entire section is 7,381 words.)