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.