Pericles (ca. 1607), Shakespeare's first romance, has been considered by some critics to be one of his least satisfying works. In this play, introduced by the choric narrator Gower, Shakespeare used a fairy-tale style to recount the misfortunes of Pericles, prince of Tyre, who is exiled and separated from his wife and daughter. Pericles is grief-stricken and wanders at sea until he is happily reunited with his loved ones at the play's end. Scholars have identified several causes for their dissatisfaction with Pericles: its disjointed, episodic construction; its weak characters, inconsistent dialogue, and implausible plot twists; and—perhaps most vexing—its suspect heritage. Critics have long questioned whether Shakespeare is the sole author of the play, with the general consensus being that he wrote most of the final three acts whereas other writers were responsible for the first two. Despite these long-standing aesthetic and textual concerns, Pericles has received a substantial amount of attention in the last century. Indeed, recent critics have been drawn to the play for some of the same reasons that it was once scorned. In addition to debating the extent to which Shakespeare was involved in creating the drama, critics have analyzed the stylistic deviations in Pericles for clues to larger shifts in the literary, religious, and political landscape during Shakespeare's lifetime.
Several literary scholars have examined the playwright's narrative technique and distinctive mode of presentation in Pericles. Many of these discussions center on the play's choric narrator, Gower—a fictional recreation of the fourteenth-century English poet John Gower—who frequently addresses the audience and comments on the story. Walter F. Eggers (1975) identifies Gower as an “authorial presenter” who serves to distance the audience from the illusion of the play. Eggers maintains that Gower's limited viewpoint of the dramatic events allows the audience to place the representational aspect of the play in its proper perspective and instead focus on the basic story. Similarly, Kenneth J. Semon (1974) demonstrates how Gower's archaic moral perspective influences the dramatic events of Pericles. Semon speculates that Shakespeare intentionally underscored Gower's strict moral opinions in an effort to persuade the audience to identify more closely with the wonder-filled reactions of the other characters in the play. F. David Hoeniger (1982) asserts that Gower's archaic observations and language are a means for Shakespeare to ridicule literary styles which he considered to be outdated, a technique that previously had been employed by Geoffrey Chaucer. Richard Hillman (1985) is less concerned with the character of Gower than with the work of the real-life poet. It has long been acknowledged that Pericles was inspired in part by a tale related in Gower's Confessio Amantis (1385-93); Hillman points out additional links between the two works.
Though popular with audiences during Shakespeare's time and well into the seventeenth century, Pericles later fell into disfavor and was almost completely absent from the stage during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. However, the play experienced a revival in the twentieth century. D. J. R. Bruckner (1998) notes that Pericles is a play that has everything, including “murder, kidnapping, drowning, lost children, resurrections, political intrigue, divine vengeance, a bordello redeemed by a virgin, admired rulers whose sex lives would arch Satan's eyebrow, pimps, homicidal jealousy, labor induced by a hurricane, birth onstage and eternal love.” Bruckner gives high praise to the Kings County Shakespeare Company production of the play, directed by Jonathan Bank, for its ability to pull all the elements of the play together and create “irresistible entertainment.” Charles Isherwood's 1998 review of the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival production, directed by Brian Kulick, is not so favorable. The critic faults the weak cast and stylistic treatment, and contends that the production lacked a “humanizing touch”; however, the critic grants that the “convoluted saga” presented in the play contributed to the production's failure. Also reviewing Kulick's production, John Simon (1998) strongly criticizes virtually every aspect of the play, especially the director's staging of the play as a farce. Lois Potter (2002) gives a positive review of the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Pericles, directed by Adrian Noble. The critic praises both the cast and the production's visual and musical splendor.
In recent years, a number of critics have maintained that Shakespeare imbued Pericles with a subtle commentary on the compelling social, political, and religious issues that England faced in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. Margaret Healy (1999) suggests that Pericles can be interpreted as a veiled criticism of the efforts of King James I to arrange marriage links between the English and Spanish royal families. Caroline Bicks (2000) detects references in Pericles to the tension surrounding the practice of traditional Catholic rituals in the Anglican church decades after the Protestant Reformation of the mid-sixteenth century. In particular, Bicks points out dramatic episodes that echo the controversy over church ceremonies involving women after childbirth. Peter Womack (1999) asserts that Pericles shares similarities with earlier dramas that venerated saints, most notably the play Mary Magdalen. The critic discusses the two plays in the context of the changing critical, political, and religious sentiment in England during the 1500s and 1600s, which denigrated improbable and miraculous stories because of their connections to Catholicism. Heather Dubrow (2002) analyzes the dynamic involving parents and children in Pericles, positing that Shakespeare's treatment of familial relationships reflected a widespread apprehension about parental loss in Elizabethan and Jacobean society. According to Dubrow, Shakespeare manipulated the anxiety surrounding this cultural issue not merely to dramatize the emotional toll that parental loss took on children, but also to expose a flawed social convention in which unscrupulous guardians of orphaned children took advantage of the process of inheritance.