Pericles (Vol. 66) - Essay


(Shakespearean Criticism)


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.”

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Bloom, Harold. “Pericles.” In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, pp. 603-13. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998.

[In the following essay, Bloom presents an overview of Pericles, concentrating on the last three acts.]

Shakespeare was occupied with Pericles in the winter of 1607-8, though scholars are not able to define the precise nature of that occupation. The first two acts of the play are dreadfully expressed, and cannot have been Shakespeare's, no matter how garbled in transmission. We have only a very bad quarto, but the inadequacy of so much of the text is probably not the reason why Pericles was excluded from the First Folio. Ben Jonson had a hand in editing the First Folio, and he had denounced Pericles as “a mouldy tale.” Presumably Jonson and Shakespeare's colleagues also knew that one George Wilkins was the primary author of the first two acts of the play. Wilkins was a lowlife hack, possibly a Shakespearean hanger-on, and Shakespeare may have outlined Acts I and II to Wilkins and told him to do the writing. Even by the standards of Shakespeare's London, Wilkins was an unsavory fellow—a whoremonger, in fact, a very relevant occupation for a coauthor of Pericles, though the superb brothel scenes are Shakespeare's work.

Pericles is not only uneven (and mutilated) but very peculiar in genre. It features choral recitations by a presenter, the medieval poet John Gower, who is atrocious in the first two acts but improves markedly thereafter. The play resorts to frequent dumb show, in the manner of The Murder of Gonzago, revised by Hamlet into The Mousetrap. Most oddly, it has only a sporadic continuity: we are given episodes from the lives of Pericles, his wife Thaisa, and their daughter Marina. The episodes do not necessarily generate one another, as they would in history, tragedy, and comedy, but Shakespeare had exhausted all of those modes. After Antony and Cleopatra, we have seen the retreat from inwardness in Coriolanus and in Timon of Athens.

It would be absurd to ask, What sort of personality does Shakespeare's Pericles possess? Libraries have been written on the personality of Hamlet, but Pericles has none whatsoever. Even Marina has every virtue but no personality: there cannot be that individual a pathos in the emblematic world of Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Shakespeare was not in flight from the human, but he had turned to representing something other than the shared reality of Falstaff and Rosalind, Hamlet and Cleopatra, Shylock and Iago. Pericles and Marina are a universal father and daughter; his only importance is that he is her father, who loses her and then receives her back again, and she matters only as a daughter, who suffers separation from her father, and then is restored to him. I am not suggesting that they are archetypes or symbols, but only that their relationship is all that interests Shakespeare. Lear is everything and nothing in himself, and Cordelia, in much briefer compass, also contains multitudes. Pericles is just real enough to suffer trauma, and Marina is strong enough to resist being debauched, but both scarcely exist as will, cognition, desire. They are not even passive beings. In that sense alone, the jealous Ben Jonson was right: Pericles and Marina are figures in a moldy tale, an old story always being retold.

Both performances of Pericles that I have attended, some thirty years apart, were student productions, and both confirmed what many critics long have maintained: even the first two acts are quite playable. Except for the astonishing recognition scene between Pericles and Marina in Act V, and the two grotesquely hilarious brothel scenes in Act IV, very little in the play can be judged dramatic, and yet performance somehow transfigures even the ineptitudes of George Wilkins. This puzzles me, because bad direction and bad acting have converted me to Charles Lamb's party: it is, alas, better, especially now, to read Shakespeare than to see him travestied and deformed. Pericles is the exception; it is the only play in Shakespeare I would rather attend again than reread, and not just because the text has been so marred by transmission. Perhaps because he declined to compose the first two acts, Shakespeare compensated by making the remaining three acts into his most radical theatrical experiment since the mature Hamlet of 1600-1601. Pericles consistently is strange, but it has nothing as startling as the gap in representation that Shakespeare cuts into Hamlet from Act II, Scene ii, through Act III, Scene ii. But then what is being represented in the last three acts of Pericles?

Gower, speaking the Epilogue, tells us that Pericles, Thaisa, and Marina are “Led on by heaven, and crown'd with joy at last,” so that the play represents the triumph of virtue over fortune, thanks to the intercession of “the gods,” which must mean Diana in particular. Shakespeare, in his final phase, frequently seems a rather belated acolyte of Diana. No dramatist, though, would have understood better than Shakespeare how impossible it is to bring off a staged representation of triumphant chastity, virginal or married. Shakespeare's poem The Phoenix and the Turtle is exactly relevant on this subject:

Love hath reason, reason none,
If what parts, can so remain.

Whether the heart's reasons can be staged was always Shakespeare's challenge, and kept his art a changing one. How to represent the mystery of married chastity—“If what parts, can so remain”—remained a perplexity to the end. Shakespeare's Gower and Pericles so remove us from our world (except for the whorehouse scenes!) that the play indeed answers the Bawd's rhetorical question: “What have we to do with Diana?” (IV.ii.148).

Essentially, there are only two deities in Pericles, Neptune and Diana, and Diana wins. What are we to make of that victory? Neptune has oppressed Pericles, almost in the pattern of Poseidon's operations against Odysseus. Northrop Frye, noting the processional form of Pericles, remarks that the play's manner of presenting its action makes it one of the world's earliest operas, and then compares it to Eliot's The Waste Land, and necessarily also to Eliot's “Marina.” I suppose that Diana's triumph is operatic enough, as is Marina's victory over both the staff and the clientele of the brothel. Frye's reading of the play, rather like Wilson Knight's more baroque interpretation, seems to me a little remote from Pericles's curious and deliberate emptiness, akin to much of The Waste Land and Eliot's “Marina.”

Such an emptying-out of Shakespeare's characteristic richness is a kenosis of sorts; the most sophisticated of all poet-playwrights surrenders his greatest powers and originalities—God becoming man, as it were. Frye calls Pericles “psychologically primitive,” but this is true only in the sense of Shakespeare's knowing abnegation of inwardness, not in asking the audience for a primitive response. Our participation is not uncritical; we give up the Shakespearean lifelike, but not the Shakespearean selfsame. Gower is there to keep telling us that this is a play, but so redundant a message takes us back from Pericles and Marina not to “mouldy tales” and the authority of the archetypal, but to Shakespeare himself. The audience does not attend without the foregrounding of knowledge as to who the playwright is, and how different Pericles is from the more than thirty plays preceding it. Nor can anyone now read Pericles without the awareness that the creator of Hamlet, Falstaff, and Cleopatra is giving us a protagonist who is merely a cipher, a name upon the page. Wonder is always where one starts and ends with Shakespeare, and Shakespeare himself, as poet-playwright, is the largest provocation to wonder in Pericles. One suspects that the scenario for the play originated with Shakespeare, but that he had some distaste for what was to go into the first two acts and casually assigned them to a crony, Wilkins.

Pericles begins at Antioch, where its founder and ruler, Antiochus the Great, gleefully piles up the heads of suitors for his unnamed daughter, executing them for not solving a riddle whose solution would reveal his ongoing incest with her. Getting the riddle right, Pericles of Tyre flees for his life. After making a voyage to Tharsus, to relieve starvation there, the colorless hero suffers his first shipwreck, and then finds himself ashore at Pentapolis, where he marries Thaisa, daughter of the local king. All this out of the way, Shakespeare himself takes over to start Act III. Pericles and Thaisa, who is about to deliver...

(The entire section is 3638 words.)

John P. Cutts (essay date 1969)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Cutts, John P. “Pericles' ‘Downright Violence.’” Shakespeare Studies 4 (1969): 275-93.

[In the following essay, Cutts argues that the outer disharmony Pericles encounters reflects the inner disharmony of his own character.]

F. D. Hoeniger, in the introduction to his edition1 of Pericles, asserts that G. Wilson Knight2 is wrong in his argument that Pericles is somehow infected by the evil of Antiochus' daughter whom he tried to woo, and that Kenneth Muir's3 suggestion that Thaisa upon suddenly marrying Pericles broke a vow to Diana is equally misleading, and that to seek for a moral cause of Pericles' troubles is...

(The entire section is 10498 words.)

Annette C. Flower (essay date 1975)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Flower, Annette C. “Disguise and Identity in Pericles, Prince of Tyre.Shakespeare Quarterly 26, no. 1 (winter 1975): 30-41.

[In the following essay, Flower explores how the relationship between disguise and identity in Pericles reveals and defines character.]

The paradox in Pericles, Prince of Tyre is the paradox of fantasy: that not “realism” but conscious illusion, artfully handled, can most satisfyingly interpret reality. A “mouldy tale” it may be, but such a label is not so much a charge of failure as a badge of success, for Pericles is meant to be a mouldy tale. Its mouldiness and its narrative basis are...

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Stephen J. Lynch (essay date 1993)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Lynch, Stephen J. “The Authority of Gower in Shakespeare's Pericles.Mediaevalia: A Journal of Medieval Studies 16 (1993): 361-78.

[In the following essay, Lynch argues that Gower serves as the “surrogate author” of Pericles, 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.”]

The presence of so ancient a figure as Gower in so late a play as Pericles poses a series of immediate questions. Why, so late in Shakespeare's career, does he resort to a chorus? Why John Gower as chorus? Most importantly, what is the...

(The entire section is 6165 words.)

Criticism: Production Reviews

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Delvecchio, Doreen and Antony Hammond. Introduction to Pericles, Prince of Tyre, edited by Doreen Delvecchio and Antony Hammond, pp. 1-78. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

[In the following excerpt, Delvecchio and Hammond trace the production history of Pericles from the seventeenth through the twentieth century.]



From the beginning Pericles has been a play that has divided opinion. It is evident that it was a popular play on stage, and this success surely was at least in part owing to the opportunities it (like the other romances) offered...

(The entire section is 4143 words.)

James O. Wood (essay date 1977)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Wood, James O. “Shakespeare, Pericles, and the Genevan Bible.” Pacific Coast Philology 12 (October 1977): 82-9.

[In the following essay, 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 the assertion that the surviving text is an amalgam of an early draft by Shakespeare and his later revisions.]

The singular play Pericles, Prince of Tyre, published in quarto as Shakespeare's in 1609, somehow failed to appear in the Folio of 1623. Though it is universally agreed that much of the latter half could have been written only by...

(The entire section is 3308 words.)

Constance Jordan (essay date 1992)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Jordan, Constance. “‘Eating the Mother’: Property and Propriety in Pericles.” In Creative Imitation: New Essays on Renaissance Literature in Honor of Thomas M. Green, edited by David Quint, Margaret W. Ferguson, G. W. Pigman III, and Wayne Rebhorn, pp. 331-53. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1992.

[In the following essay, Jordan argues that the incestuous relation of Antiochus and his daughter in Pericles constitutes a metaphoric representation of political tyranny, and that Antiochus represents Pericles's desire for absolute rule.]

Bot yit it is a wonder thing,
Whan that a riche worthi king …
Wol axe and...

(The entire section is 9914 words.)

David Solway (essay date 1997)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Solway, David. “Pericles as Dream.” The Sewanee Review 105, no. 1 (winter 1997): 91-5.

[In the following essay, Solway examines the dreamlike qualities of Pericles.]

Some to the Lute, some to the Viol went,
And others chose the Cornet eloquent.
These practising the Wind, and those the Wire,
To sing Mens Triumphs, or in Heavens quire.

—Andrew Marvell, Musicks Empire

Pericles, despite its earlier composition and disputed status, best sums up, of all the late plays, the character of Shakespearean romance. Its schematic form, its “gaps” and archaisms, its unadorned outlines and loose texture enable the...

(The entire section is 1985 words.)

F. Elizabeth Hart (essay date 2000)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Hart, F. Elizabeth. “Cerimon's ‘Rough’ Music in Pericles, 3.2.” Shakespeare Quarterly 51, no. 3 (fall 2000): 313-31.

[In the following essay, Hart argues that analysis of the adjective “rough” in Cerimon's phrase “rough music” points to the mother goddess Diana as the controlling deity of the play.]

Shakespeare's use of “rough” in The Tempest to describe the magic that Prospero must “abjure” (5.1.50, 51) has inspired debate over the adjective's meaning, some critics finding in it the key not only to Prospero's powers but to the play as a whole.1 A less well-studied but similarly ambiguous use of “rough”...

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Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Becker, Marvin B. “A Historian's View of Another Pericles.” Michigan Quarterly Review 15, no. 2 (1976): 197-211.

Argues that for an understanding of Pericles, knowledge of the complex historical context of the play, especially with regard to the medieval idea of “spiritual education through misfortune,” is essential.

Dean, Paul. “Pericles' Pilgrimage.” Essays in Criticism 50, no. 2 (April 2000): 125-44.

Explores Pericles as a pilgrimage tale with Biblical and medieval antecedents.

Fawkner, H. W. “Miracle: The Muteness of Pericles.” In Shakespeare's...

(The entire section is 502 words.)