For further information on the critical and stage history of Pericles, see SC, Volumes 2, 15, 36, and 51.
Pericles, likely composed in 1607 and considered Shakespeare’s first romance, is a tale of loss and recovery based on “Apollonius of Tyre,” an ancient legend with roots in Greek and Roman antiquity. Although Pericles was extremely popular during Shakespeare’s time, and was often successfully re-staged and reprinted throughout the seventeenth century, it was neglected for two centuries thereafter. Long considered to be one of Shakespeare’s least satisfying plays, critics have cited its flawed text, controversy over the play’s authorship, lifeless characters, and shapeless plot as reasons for its marginalization. Recently, however, Pericles has enjoyed a revival in scholarly interest. Twentieth-century commentators continue to explore the play’s questionable authorship, characterization, and major themes. Pericles also has experienced a revival on the stage, as productions of the play have had much success in the twentieth century.
Questions regarding the play’s authorship continue to interest critics. Some scholars maintain that parts of Pericles are so flawed that they could not have been composed by Shakespeare. Proponents of this theory maintain that Shakespeare collaborated with another author, who wrote the somewhat inferior first two acts of the play. Other critics, such as James O. Wood (1977), contend that the play was written entirely by Shakespeare. Wood uses the theme of flattery as it appears in the second act of Pericles to support an argument for Shakespeare as the play's sole author, and as the basis for his assertion that the surviving text is an amalgam of an early draft by Shakespeare and his later revisions.
The character of Pericles as well as the other major characters in the play have also continued to attract the attention of modern scholars. John P. Cutts (1969) examines the character of Pericles, and suggests that the outer disharmony Pericles encounters reflects the inner disharmony of his own character. Annette C. Flower (1975) studies the disguises of the three main characters—Pericles, Marina, and Thaisa—and explores how the relationship between disguise and identity in Pericles reveals and defines character. Stephen J. Lynch (1993) focuses on Gower, who functions as the play’s chorus, or narrator. Lynch argues that Gower serves as a “surrogate author” of the play, claiming that Shakespeare's use of Gower “involves a double strategy: a confession of authorial limitations matched with a claim to authorial elevation and mystification.”
Just as scholarly interpretations of Pericles have proliferated, the twentieth century has seen a revival in productions of the play. J. Thomas Rimer (see Further Reading) studies Japanese productions of Pericles, showing how similar the traditional Japanese Noh and Kabuki forms are to the narrative and dramatic strategies represented in Pericles. Doreen Delvecchio and Antony Hammond (1998) trace the production history of the play from the seventeenth through the twentieth century. The critics remark on the opportunities the play offers for theatrical spectacle and musical embellishment, but find that a minimalist approach works equally well.
While some scholars still view Pericles as a dramatic failure, others, like T. S. Eliot, who called it a “very great play,” have achieved a new, more positive understanding of the work. In his 1955 essay, Derek Traversi argues that Pericles is a complex transitional work, bridging the gap between the tragedies and the last bittersweet plays of loss, miracle, and restoration. Likewise, Harold Bloom (1988) maintains that the play represents Shakespeare's first attempt to fashion a play that was neither a comedy nor a tragedy, but could incorporate elements of both. Paul Dean (see Further Reading) argues that Pericles derives its unity from being a pilgrimage tale, echoing Biblical antecedents like The Book of Jonah and medieval models like Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Critics argue, moreover, that Pericles is a play with universal themes. David Solway (1997) sees it as a “voyage through time to an atemporal destination,” whose theme is the “universal dream of retrieval and atonement.”