Pericles (Vol. 90) - Essay


(Shakespearean Criticism)


For further information on the critical and stage history of Pericles, see SC, Volumes 2, 15, 36, 51, 66, and 79.

Most literary scholars agree that Shakespeare wrote Pericles between 1606 and 1608. Along with Cymbeline (1609-10) and The Winter's Tale (1610-11), it is considered one of Shakespeare's late romances. Borrowing from such sources as John Gower's Confessio Amantis (1385-93) and Laurence Twine's prose romance The Pattern of Painful Adventures … That Befel Unto Prince Apollonius (1576), Pericles features many conventional characteristics of the romance genre: stock characters, an episodic plot, and absurd situations made believable through spectacle. Early on, Ben Jonson acerbically dismissed the play as “a mouldy tale,” but later critics have asserted that it represents a sublime departure from the clichéd romance tradition. According to these commentators, perhaps the most striking innovation was Shakespeare's invention of the overarching theme of the divided family. The travails of Pericles, his wife, Thaisa, and their daughter, Marina, provide a powerful theatrical device that serves as a matrix for conflict and interaction and that ultimately gives the play a rough unity. Critics have also argued that the lost child motif in Pericles serves as a metaphor for the protagonist's lost soul and that the climactic reunion of father and daughter brings about healing, redemption, and the restoration of order.

The paramount issue surrounding Pericles is that of authorship. Indeed, the 1623 Folio does not include the romance, prompting some scholars to question Shakespeare's involvement in the play from the outset. However, while most modern commentators concur that the last three acts belong to Shakespeare, they cannot agree on the author of the first two acts. Most critics have discarded the traditional view that George Wilkins—author of the novel The Painful Adventures of Pericles, Prince of Tyre (1608)—was a collaborator, but no viable alternatives have been offered. Modern critical studies of Pericles have been hampered by the corruption of the text, and much effort has been expended in attempting to justify the integrity of the work. Interestingly, despite the prevailing belief in collaboration, many modern scholars have detected a unity of design and overall structure. One supporter of this perspective, Barbara Mowat (2003), asserts that Shakespeare cleverly integrated and innovated, within the dramatic design of his romance, the imitatio tradition of transforming authoritative sources into a new and distinctly original literary work. Michael Baird Saenger (2000) also argues for the structural integrity of the work, insisting that the “flaws” of the play are really not flaws at all, but rather Shakespeare's adroit ability to manipulate the burlesque genre. According to Saenger, Shakespeare employed the figure of Gower as a meta-theatrical vehicle which subtly integrates and energizes the play with burlesque action. F. Elizabeth Hart (see Further Reading) weighs in for the integrity of the setting in Pericles, arguing that the exotic and metropolitan city of Ephesus is pivotal in communicating theme. According to the critic, the city was historically significant for being the home of Diana's temple, a device useful in highlighting the feminist issues implicit in the characters of Marina and Thaisa. The choice of Ephesus is also important, Hart contends, because the association with Diana indicates the credibility of positive female characters. For Hart, Ephesus therefore reconciles the powers of the virginal and the maternal both embodied in the figure of Diana.

Perhaps the most startling aspect of Pericles is the theme of incest, which motivates much of the play's action. Mowat suggests that Shakespeare utilized this theme not for its shock value, but to provide a structural balance between the beginning and the end of the play. The critic asserts that while the earlier versions of the Pericles tale describe a father who violently rapes his daughter, Shakespeare opted for a mutual seduction, with Antiochus and his daughter acting as willing partners. Mowat speculates that such a change allowed Shakespeare to create an indelible thematic link that unifies the play: the incestuous union of Antiochus and his daughter at the beginning contrasted with the glorious father-daughter reunion of Pericles and Marina at the conclusion. John Freeh (see Further Reading) provides a close analysis of the purity embodied in Marina, comparing Shakespeare's character to the heroine of T. S. Eliot's poem, “Marina” (1930). Within each of these works, Freeh maintains, Marina represents a kind of spiritual transcendence that transforms darkness into light. The critic further contends that, thematically, the action in both “Marina” and Pericles progresses from partly living in a temporal existence to a spiritual area of absolute good. Constance Jordan (see Further Reading) focuses on the political implications of Pericles, analyzing Shakespeare's dramatic treatment of good versus bad rulers. Whereas the incestuous Antiochus is the stark epitome of a tyrant, Jordan avers, the playwright fused Pericles's political leadership skills with Marina's humane, redemptive qualities to create a consummate ruler. However, Jordan concludes that while Shakespeare's play offers a reflection on two forms of government, it stops short of endorsing either model.

Many commentators have pointed out that the tale of Pericles is synonymous with journey, as the protagonist wanders the eastern Mediterranean ostensibly in an attempt to avoid Antiochus's vengeance but, in reality, to run from himself. Further, the episodic nature of the plot aligns Pericles with classical wanderers such as Odysseus and Aeneas as the physical journey serves as a metaphor for the passage through life. Such a view presents Pericles as a victim of circumstance, experiencing one ordeal after another as a cruel fate batters him. John P. Cutts (see Further Reading) challenges this traditional assumption, however, viewing Pericles as actively engaged in determining his own fate. According to Cutts, Pericles displays a brash confidence at the beginning of the play despite the danger that pervades Antiochus's court. Furthermore, he possesses a certainty of character that convinces him that he can be a son to Antiochus where other men have failed. Cutts insists that these are not the thoughts and actions of a man passively pulled to his fate. W. I. D. Scott (see Further Reading) is less sure of Pericles's strength of character. Scott provides a psychoanalytic interpretation of Pericles, determining that the protagonist enters a prolonged schizophrenic state due to his fear that he will commit incest like Antiochus. The critic contends that Pericles's conduct after learning of the incestuous relationship between Antiochus and his daughter is irrational and that his flight from Antioch is really a flight from himself. Scott maintains that the reasons and rationalizations that Pericles gives for his flight show a personality disintegrating due to shock. It is only the reconciliation with Marina and Thaisa that restores Pericles's psychic harmony. The divided psyche—or soul—is the paramount aspect of Pericles's character, avows Leo Paul S. de Alvarez (2002). In Alvarez's view, Pericles's journey represents a spiritual pilgrimage as he searches for beauty and goodness. Alvarez insists that the conjunction of good and beauty cannot be recognized without the intellective part of the soul, the knowing, and that Pericles recognizes, within Marina, that perfect combination. The coming together of the three aspects of the soul—the appetitive, the spirited, and the intellective—move the protagonist toward absolute harmony. Alvarez offers, as proof of this position, the fact that Pericles alone hears the music of the spheres.

Despite the dilemma of authorship and the complexity of its themes, Pericles continues to entice modern stage directors and actors with its potential for spectacle and profound insight. In 2002 Adrian Noble and the Royal Shakespeare Company staged Pericles at Stratford-upon-Avon in a production which evoked an exotic Middle Eastern milieu. In addition, Noble infused the production with an enormous amount of music, employing the talents of Shaun Davey and ten other musicians, who performed live accompaniment to the dramatic action. Critics generally agreed that this emphasis on music suitably elicited the romantic, sentimental tone of Pericles, although some reviewers admitted that Noble relied too heavily on this device. Commentators also praised the performances of the ensemble cast, particularly applauding Ray Fearon's Pericles, Kananu Kirmi's Marina, and Brian Protheroe's Gower. Critics were even more impressed with Yukio Ninagawa's touring production of Pericles, which premiered at London's Royal National Theatre in 2003. Reviewers generally agreed that this presentation combined imaginative directing, visual spectacle, and superb acting to interpret the romance as a metaphor for Japan's progression from a feudal state to a modern industrial power. They noted that Ninagawa employed such stylized images as dangling severed heads, multi-colored billowing silk waves, and water taps that streamed upon the stage to recreate an affecting, nightmarish mood that captured the melancholy essence of Shakespeare's romance. That same year, critics were equally enamored of Neil Bartlett's austere staging of Pericles at London's Lyric Hammersmith which—in stark contrast to Ninagawa's spectacle—evoked the monochrome clinical atmosphere of a hospital or a mental institution. Commentators agreed that Bartlett's uncluttered vision of the play worked brilliantly, with Sarah Hemming (2003) arguing that “this austere setting allows the play's emotional story to resonate.” Reviewers also admired the concept of presenting Gower as a janitor at the institution who guided the audience through the cumbersome narrative with the aid of a blackboard. All of the principal actors in Bartlett's production received critical approbation, including Bette Bourne as Gower, Will Keen as Pericles, Pascale Burgess as Marina, and Sara Malin as Thaisa.

Steven Mullaney (essay date 1988)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Mullaney, Steven. “‘All That Monarchs Do’: The Obscured Stages of Authority in Pericles.” In The Place of the Stage: License, Play, and Power in Renaissance England, pp. 135-51. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

[In the following essay, Mullaney argues that Pericles represents a dramatic experiment in which Shakespeare attempted to dissociate the dramatic art form from its popular context and instead re-imagines it as a “purely aesthetic phenomenon, free from history and from historical determination.”]


In 1605, the Queen's Revels Children performed Eastward Ho! at Blackfriars. The authors,...

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Barbara Mowat (essay date 2003)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Mowat, Barbara. “‘I tell you what mine Authors saye’: Pericles, Shakespeare, and Imitatio.Archiv für das Studium der neueren Sprachen und Literaturen 240, no. 1 (2003): 42-59.

[In the following essay, Mowat discusses Shakespeare's authorship of Pericles, maintaining that the dramatist integrated and innovated, within the dramatic design of his romance, the imitatio tradition of transforming authoritative sources into a new literary work.]

Near the beginning of Pericles, the Chorus introduces a shocking story of father-daughter incest with the apologetic line, “I tell you what mine Authors saye.”1 This...

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Criticism: Character Studies

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: de Alvarez, Leo Paul S. “The Soul of the Sojourner: Pericles, Prince of Tyre.” In Shakespeare's Last Plays: Essays in Literature and Politics, edited by Stephen W. Smith and Travis Curtright, pp. 197-215. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2002.

[In the following essay, Alvarez argues that Pericles's journey to understanding moves from external to internal as he realizes that the harmony of the soul is achieved through the union of three parts: the “appetitive, the spirited, and the intellective.”]


The story of Pericles1 is one that, like the story of Troilus and Cressida, was very popular in the...

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Alastair Macaulay (review date 10 July 2002)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Macaulay, Alastair. “The Valedictory Play That Wasn't.” Financial Times (10 July 2002): 16.

[In the following review, Macaulay maintains that Adrian Noble's Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production of Pericles was flawed, citing Noble's uninspired vision, Ray Fearon's Pericles, and the musical accompaniment.]

Behind all the Royal Shakespeare's muddles, there lies the single mystery of Adrian Noble himself. Even if you accept that both the RSC's London and Stratford sites needed changing, why did Noble decide to by uprooting the company in both London and Stratford at the same time? And why did he commit the company to such major upheaval but then...

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Susannah Clapp (review date 14 July 2002)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Clapp, Susannah. Review of Pericles. Observer (14 July 2002): 10.

[In the following excerpt, Clapp maintains that Adrian Noble's Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production of Pericles downplayed the unevenness of the play and notes that its setting reflected exotic absurdity in the juxtaposing of a chamber of horrors with Ali Baba's cave.]

Adrian Noble may be leaving the RSC in a mess, but he's brought a sparkle to its season at the Roundhouse. His production of Pericles is the liveliest thing seen there so far.

The exotic absurdity of Shakespeare's play is indulged to the hilt. In Peter McKintosh's design, the old...

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Alastair Macaulay (review date 1 April 2003)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Macaulay, Alastair. “Epic Tradition for Epic Tale.” Financial Times (1 April 2003): 15.

[In the following review, Macaulay hails Yukio Ninagawa's staging of Pericles at London's National Theatre, asserting that the director utilized rich theatrical imagery to paint the odyssey of Shakespeare's protagonist.]

Yukio Ninagawa's staging of Shakespeare's Pericles is sensational. Telling its epic tale—often employing one Japanese idiom or another—it moves through one thrilling effect after another. Severed heads hang in the air, streams of water pour from taps all round the stage, Pericles swims desperately through perspectived rows of painted...

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Richard Wilson (review date 11 April 2003)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Wilson, Richard. “Patterns of Impatience.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5219 (11 April 2003): 21.

[In the following excerpt, Wilson comments on Yukio Ninagawa's thematic fusion of Western and Japanese cultures in his interpretation of Pericles's odyssey, stressing its spiritual component as the protagonist rediscovers his soul.]

“Shakespeare leaves the sorting-out for later”, Unwin writes. One reason he remains our contemporary is certainly that the problems he poses are the unfinished business of today. His own attempts to sort them out in the late romances only confirm how hard this will be, but Yukio Ninagawa's Japanese reading of Pericles...

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Sarah Hemming (review date 26 September 2003)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Hemming, Sarah. Review of Pericles. Financial Times (26 September 2003): 19.

[In the following review, Hemming endorses Neil Bartlett's staging of Pericles at London's Lyric, Hammersmith, particularly noting the sparsely appointed stage which invited the audience to focus on the actors' fine performances.]

At first sight, Neil Bartlett's design for his own production of Pericles looks startlingly sparse. Shakespeare's late romance zig-zags across the Mediterranean, yet Bartlett gives us just an empty monochrome and rather clinical room. But very soon the setting makes sense. Rather than try to give us everything, Bartlett gives us nothing,...

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Kate Kellaway (review date 12 October 2003)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Kellaway, Kate. “Pericles and his Pulsating Pyjamas.” Observer (12 October 2003): 9.

[In the following excerpt, Kellaway applauds the audacity of Neil Bartlett's artistic vision in his Lyric, Hammersmith, staging of Pericles, noting that the sparse hospital-like setting foregrounded the vivid drama of each episode.]

Neil Bartlett's audacious treatment of Pericles suits it to perfection. This is a stunning production of a play that survives only in fragments—much of it not Shakespeare's handiwork. It would be good not to have to accept any substitutes—but necessary liberties have been taken: George Wilkins's The Painful Adventures of...

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Lyndy Abraham (essay date October 1999)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Abraham, Lyndy. “Weddings, Funerals, and Incest: Alchemical Emblems and Shakespeare's Pericles, Prince of Tyre.JEGP: Journal of English and Germanic Philology 98, no. 4 (October 1999): 523-49.

[In the following excerpt, Abraham argues that Pericles embodies emblems of alchemy in the treatment of its two romance themes: the difficult quest and loss and restoration.]

Pericles, Prince of Tyre is presented primarily by means of narrative and spectacle rather than through drama. Many of the play's enacted episodes, as well as the dumbshows interpolated in Gower's narrative chorus, take the form of three-dimensional emblems and tableaux....

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Michael Baird Saenger (essay date 2000)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Saenger, Michael Baird. “Pericles and the Burlesque of Romance.” In Pericles: Critical Essays, edited by David Skeele, pp. 191-204. New York: Garland Publishing, 2000.

[In the following essay, Saenger argues for the dramatic integrity of Pericles, insisting that the “flaws” are not really flaws, but rather Shakespeare's ingenious manipulation of the burlesque genre.]

Pericles has always been a play which is equally enthralling and perplexing. Some perplexity certainly comes from its status as a poorly transmitted collaboration. However, in this reading I explore the thesis that the play makes dramaturgical sense, partly because of...

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Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Cutts, John P. “Pericles: ‘downright violence.’” In Rich and Strange: A Study of Shakespeare's Last Plays, pp. 4-23. Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1968.

Maintains that Pericles is an active protagonist whose rash behavior sets into motion the harmony/disharmony motif in Shakespeare's romance.

Fawkner, H. W. “Miracle.” In Shakespeare's Miracle Plays: Pericles, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale, pp. 13-56. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1992.

Advocates a semiotic approach to exploring Pericles's “muteness” as a negative speech act that...

(The entire section is 359 words.)