Pericles (Vol. 51) - Essay


(Shakespearean Criticism)


For further information on the critical and stage history of Pericles, see .

Pericles has enjoyed a revival in scholarly interest during the twentieth century. Once ridiculed as so poorly written and disjointed that its authorship was questionable, the drama is now garnering more attention and praise as a transitional piece in Shakespeare's career. Most scholars now ascribe Pericles as the first of Shakespeare's romances, a genre in which the woes and troubles of the protagonist are miraculously reversed during the play's conclusion. Although critics note that the play is less complex and realistic than Shakespeare's earlier works, they argue that the playwright employs a dreamlike state and exotic setting purposefully to distance the audience from the distressing subjects of incest and prostitution. The majority of scholars agree now that Shakespeare did write the third, fourth, and fifth acts while an unknown author, possibly George Wilkins, is responsible for writing the lesser quality first and second acts.

In his study of Shakespeare's romance plays, John Dean argues that Pericles, like the other plays in this genre, centers upon the nature of love and on the juxtaposition between fidelity and moral love versus evil, self-serving love. Dean states that Pericles is about contrasts between good and immoral characters and about the cost of love. He states: "Like the use of the sea in his romances, the power of love is used to establish the marvelously fluid atmosphere which helps to keep the diverse ingredients of his romance plays in balance." Other criticism dealing with issues of love and romance focus on the varying nature and symbolic roles of the three couples at the center of the drama. In her comparison of Pericles, Hamlet, and King Lear, Kay Stockholder illustrates the similarities in sexual ideals in these plays, contrasting Pericles's struggles with incest with Hamlet's contentious relationship with Ophelia. Although Pericles ends in triumph, Stockholder argues that its fairytale structure "casts doubts on its possibility, a doubt that also attaches to the emotional veracity of the envisioned restoration of love and family." The issue of adultery has sparked considerable critical attention. Elizabeth Archibald, for instance, notes the contrasts between the true, romantic love shared by Pericles and Thaisa versus the unnatural and monstrous adultery between Antiochus and his daughter. Archibald states that in contrast to earlier versions of the story, Marina is not condemned, despite her purity, to a martyr's death for her exposure to brothel life, but rather Shakespeare redeems her through marriage. However, Archibald points out that Marina never expresses any opinion about her marriage nor her intended, and thus, there is no evidence that she loves Lysimachus, the prince whom she reforms. Other scholarship focuses on the pure and chaste nature of Marina, suspected to provide counter balance to the darkness of the incest theme and her role in the restoration of her father. Although much of the scholarship on Pericles deals with other issues, Hermann Ulrici argues that the play is centered around and unified by the triumph of love.

Love And Romance

(Shakespearean Criticism)

John Dean (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "The Theme of Love in Shakespeare's Romances," in Elizabethan and Renaissance Studies, Vol. 86: Restless Wanderers: Shakespeare and the Pattern of Romance, edited by Dr. James Hogg, Institut Für Anglistik Und Amerikanistik der Universitat Salzburg, 1979, pp. 264-77.

[In the excerpt below, Dean argues that Shakespeare contrasts healthy and immoral forms of love in Pericles.]

"Hear my soul speak."

The Tempest

1 Love in the Literature of Romance

Throughout all of Shakespeare's romances there is a strain of théâtre à thèse, that type of theatre which in an earlier form had all but destroyed the dramatic feasibility of Timon of Athens, The thesis which Shakespeare develops in each one of his romances is a variation on the theme of how love may be found, lost, and recovered. Each of Shakespeare's romances builds language and situation, character and tension to highlight a strong moral position, especially sexual conservatism, and to advance an argument in defense of fidelity. Whether or not Shakespeare held the views argued out by character and plot development in his romances is uncertain; it is clear, however, that certain ideas about love and human beings are the animating force in Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale and The Tempest. Like the use of the sea in his romances, the power of love is used to establish the marvellously fluid atmosphere which helps to keep the diverse ingredients of his romance plays in balance.

Reading these four romances both as a set and individually one finds Shakespeare concentrating on the masculine and feminine expression of love as two distinguishable forms of love, on love as the most powerful shaping force in the lives of human beings, the need for reciprocity and a moral attitude with regards to love, the decay and degeneration of human love as a precursor to death, a distinction between the love of youth and the love of maturity, love as a private and a social bond, and love as an element which extends beyond mortal bounds.

Love has always been a dominant strain in the literature of romance. For Homer in the Odyssey love was important first of all as a family emotion, that special circle of affection shared by Odysseus, Penelope, Telemachus, Laertes, and Antikleia. The word for this form of love in Homer is philos, by which Homer meant "that unalterable relation, far deeper than fondness and compatible with all changes of mood, which unites a normal man to his wife, his home, or his own body - the tie of a mutual 'belonging' which is there even when he dislikes them."1 It is this force of phílos which keeps Odysseus directed back towards Ithaca, which makes him long for his wife and home even when he shares the delicious sea cave of the goddess Calypso. It is also the emotion which Penelope feels for Odysseus and which helps her to stay faithful to him, an emotion which Telemachus feels for his father, and the power with which Odysseus' mother Antikleia reaches out to him in Hades. A love of sexual passion, éros, is also an important part of the love theme in the Odyssey. But Homer regards it as a far more ambiguous sentiment, one with many negative overtones. É ros is the name given to the destructive love which the suitors feel for Penelope (Od. xviii, 212), and their longing to express this kind of love with Penelope ultimately results in their death.

Love is a unifying and moral sentiment in the Hellenistic romances when expressed by the hero and heroine—especially when expressed by the heroine. It gives the wanderers the strength to endure their sufferings and carries them onwards even when they lack an immediate goal. The same basic distinction is made between philos and éros in the Hellenistic romances; all the heroines preserve their virginity and in the Aethiopica, Daphnis & Chloe, and Apollonius of Tyre the heroes preserve their virginity as well. The one exception is Clitophon in Clitophon & Leucippe who breaks the narrative tension established by the virginity theme by having sexual intercourse with the supposed widow Melitte at the end of the fifth book.2 The one female exception with regard to chastity is the heroine Chloe in Daphnis & Chloe, who, although she does not lose her virginity, still indulges in the deathbed embrace of Dorcon.3

The temper of the love expressed between the hero and the heroine in the Hellenistic romances is strictly adolescent. Apollonius of Tyre almost provides an exception here, but when the love between Apollonius and his wife matures the focus of the story shifts to his daughter's adolescent love. Also the love scenes between the hero and heroine in the Hellenistic romances are imbued with a tone of sweetness, or glukts, as the narrative slowly builds up a mood of expectation for their eventual marriage and discovery of their true identity. As noted earlier, in contrast to this strain of young, sweet, idealistic love in the Hellenistic romances there is also a strain of seasoned, sensual pleasures—a contrast of emotional sensibility which was suggested in the Odyssey only in Nausicaa's delicately expressed affection for Odysseus.

In marked distinction to both Homer's and Shakespeare's use of love is the lack of a sense of love as a family affection in the Hellenistic romances. With the exception of the second half of Apollonius of Tyre love is a sentiment expressed solely between two young lovers isolated from their families in the course of the narrative. In most cases their expressions of love are a kind of vernal phílos, a true love experienced by adolescents which is not expressed in family terms until the final reunion scene.

In Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur the theme of love matures throughout the long course of the narrative. At first it is strongly reminiscent of the adolescent affection one finds in Hellenistic romances, tempered by a more realistic approach to sensuality. But by the time the Sangrail narrative begins in Book XVII, and especially by the time of the "le Chevalier du Chariot" episode in Book XIX, the theme of love is treated in an extremely mature fashion.

Love in Malory is not normal family love, rather it is the ambiguous experience of mature passion between independent men and women. Guenever and Launcelot know what they are risking as long as they maintain their love, and they accept this risk as one of the attributes which makes their love rare and valued above all others. They act as if their love stands above human law, and the irony of Arthur's subsequent enforcement of human law is that it ends their love in as world-shattering and intense a fashion as such a rare love deserved.

The greatest sorrow of the love theme in Le Morte D'Arthur is that love does not lead the parted back together again. Until the appearance of the Sangrail and the quarrel over Guenever and Launcelot's adultery the force of love appeared to bind the Round Table fellowship. But then the Sangrail appears and offers the knights a higher, more-than-earthly love. The final exposure of Guenever and Launcelot irreparably divides the Round Table fellowship over the reality of mortal, imperfect love.

In Ariosto's Orlando Furioso love drives all human actions. Ariosto attaches love to every desire which a man or a woman may have, from a love of chastity and honour to a love of God and war. More particularly, love is important in the plot of Orlando Furioso because the rejection of Orlando's love by Angelica and her totally unreasonable preference for Medor drives Orlando temporarily insane. And thus the whole poem is built around "Orlando's acts . . . / Who fell bestraught with love, a hap most rare, / To one that erst was counted wise and stayd" (C.l, st. 1). All facets of human love are examined by Ariosto and love is rarely examined from one angle. Ariosto is careful to frame this driving motion through his distanced observations as narrator and then to return to the point of view of the individual character who is undergoing the experience of love. At times this narrative method will devalue the love which is being spoken of (as with Rodomont, Isabel, and Doralice, O.F. C.XXIX, st. l.f.), or these comments may intensify the love (as with Ariosto's comments on Bradamant's experience of jealousy, O.F., C.XXXI, st. l.f.). At the end of the whole work the many diverse forms of love are bound in the atmosphere of good will established by the love between Ruggiero and Bradamant, while the last great enemy of love, the pagan knight Rodomont, King of Algiers, is killed.

The experience of love is a very mixed brew in pre-Shakespearean romance plays. In the three romance plays which we examined at an earlier point in this study the theme of love was presented quite differently in each play. Thomas Hughes portrays love in The Misfortunes of Arthur either as an ill, sexual passion, as with the interpretation of Guenever's love for Mordred (T.M.O.A., I.ii., p. 267), or as a self-sacrificing power which great heroes can show for their country, as with Arthur's love for Britain (esp. in Arthur's death scene, T.M.O.A., V.i.). The Misfortunes of Arthur manufactures sharp theatrical dichotomies between good and evil forms of love and prefigures the same technique of sharp divisions as that used by Shakespeare in a far more sophisticated fashion in Pericles. Robert Green's portrayal of love in The History of Orlando Furioso is very reminiscent in spirit of Ariosto's depiction of love in the Orlando Furioso: once love has touched a person they are all heat and fire, suddenly quite altered from a previous state of calm self-control into a state of daemonic possession. Because Orlando takes leave of his sense in The History of Orlando Furioso it is not a faith in love which leads him back to his sanity and his beloved Angelica, but rather the workings of chance and fortune. In John Day's The Isle of Gulls the love theme is an incongruous mixture of bawdry and high sentiment, often expressed by the same characters at the same time.4 The play treats love as a robust game for courtiers and gallants, as a subject which is essentially lighthearted and offers little cause for pain.

Shakespeare's personal expression of the force of love which he showed in his sonnets portrays love as a guiding power in a changing world. As Shakespeare noted about the philos kind of love in Sonnet 116, it is not a love:

Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never-shaken;
It is the star to every wand'ring bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.

(St. 116, 2-8)

Whereas the eros kind of love leads to:

Th'expense of spirit in a waste of shame

. . . . .

Mad in pursuit, and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and prov'd, a very woe;
Before, a joy propos'd; behind, a dream.

(St. 129, 9-12)

Although Shakespeare probably wrote his Sonnets earlier than his romances,5 the ideas about love which he crystallized in the Sonnets quoted above are to be found again in the ordering principle of love which he used in his dramatic romances. In addition to what Shakespeare may have learned from earlier dramatic romances and his own ideas of love expressed in Sonnets 116 and 129, an argument for the superiority and permanence of philos love as contrasted to eros love is developed by John Gower throughout his poème à thèse, the Confessio Amantis—which served as the finest source work for Pericles. Finally in Pericles itself, which we shall now turn to, the dramatic progression is marked by a series of illustrations of the good and evil forms of love, with the plot tracing out a thematic pattern concerned with the protagonists' victimization or aid by different expressions of love.

2 Stable Pieces in A Shifting Tableau: Pericles

Pericles begins with a storm of passion as the adventurous and cocksure young prince confronts the primordial crime of incest. Shakespeare underlines Pericles' state of sexual excitement and confusion, as the young prince is portrayed as being deeply in love with the incestuous daughter of King Antiochus before he knows of her crime, while after he learns of it he regrets the loss of a love which he felt could have lasted forever (see esp. Per. I.i.76-77). Pericles notes how the Daughter of Antiochus' face is the "book of praises, where is read / Nothing but curious pleasures" (Per. I.i.15-16) and how he would give "my unspotted fire of love to you" (Per. I.i.53).

Yet while his sexual ardour is in this initial inflamed stage, his first bite into the apple of his desire shows him that it is pitted with...

(The entire section is 5553 words.)

Literary Genre

(Shakespearean Criticism)

R. S. White (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Shakespeare's Romances: Pericles," in 'Let Wonder Seem Familiar': Endings in Shakespeare's Romance Vision, Humanities Press, 1985, pp. 115-130.

[In the following excerpt, White defends Pericles as the most perfect example of the romance genre among Shakespeare's plays.]


Pericles is the one and only pure romance in the Shakespearean canon, and viewed as such it has a strange and moving beauty of its own. The courtly wit of the early comedies is replaced by a hushed honesty of poetic statement, and a sense of reverent awe, as a man finds himself at the...

(The entire section is 5726 words.)

Language And Structure

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Maurice Hunt (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Pericles, Prince of Tyre, " in Shakespeare's Romance of the Word, Bucknell University Presses, 1990, pp. 18-40.

[In the excerpt below, Hunt examines the language, dialogue, and speech patterns in Pericles.]

I shall approach my thesis about the importance of the word in Pericles by way of the play's most farcical dialogue. In Shakespeare and the Confines of Art, Philip Edwards remarks that "the uncouth fishermen who succour the shipwrecked Pericles are in the play only to show the warmth of kindness as a contrast to the previous coldness of both humanity and the elements."1...

(The entire section is 19317 words.)

Sexuality And Tradition

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Kay Stockholder (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Sex and Authority in Hamlet, King Lear and Pericles," in Mosaic, Vol. XVIII, No. 3, Summer, 1985, pp. 17-29.

[In the essay below, Stockholder reveals the thematic ties between Pericles, Hamlet, and King Lear, arguing that the plays reflect Shakespeare's views on gender roles, sex, and power,]

The central importance of the family to Shakespeare's plays has been discussed recently by many critics, notably by C. L. Barber who sees religious issues replacing domestic ones as the focus of meaning for Shakespeare's time. He argues that the consequent emotional pressure on the...

(The entire section is 22419 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Archibald, Elizabeth. " 'Deep clerks she dumbs': The Learned Heroine in Apollonius of Tyre and Pericles" Comparative Drama 22, No. 4 (Winter 1988-89): 289-303.

Compares the treatment of Marina's liberal arts education and high level of intellect in Pericles to earlier sources of the story, arguing that they are de-emphasized in Shakespeare's Pericles.

Bishop, T. G. "Pericles; or, the Past as Fate and Miracle." In Shakespeare and the Theatre of Wonder, pp. 93-124. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Examines the literary structure of Pericles...

(The entire section is 408 words.)