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Pericles: Shakespeare's Blockbuster

Photo: Danforth Comins (left) as Pericles and Desirée Mee Jung as Thaisa in Pericles.

Photo: Danforth Comins (left) as Pericles and Desirée Mee Jung as Thaisa in Pericles*.*

By Ryan D. Paul

Pericles is the first Shakespeare play that I can remember reading. It is not the first of the Bard’s work that I had read, but I can recall the exact moment and place when I finished it. I can still feel the excitement of dropping the book on the desk, picking up my phone and calling my friends. I was convinced at that moment, and still am today, that Pericles is the coolest thing Shakespeare wrote.

Now, to be fair, there is ample evidence that Pericles was written in collaboration with pamphleteer George Wilkins; in fact, the first two acts are attributed to him. Wilkins would write a small novel entitled The Painful Adventures of Pericles, Prince of Tyre a year after the play was produced, perhaps the first novelization of a theatrical work in history. Collaboration alone, however, is no reason to discount the wonder of the play. David Scott Kastan, the general editor of the Arden Shakespeare series argues that Henry VIII, Henry VI, Titus Andronicus, Macbeth, Timon of Athens, Measure for Measure, and All’s Well that Ends Well all were collaborative. He states, “No doubt there are other collaborations in the Shakespeare canon. That’s the way plays were composed. The plays of the Elizabethan theater were not written like Lord Byron’s poems or Virginia Woolf’s novels in a room of his or her own. They were more like our movie or TV scripts, which might combine several ideas from a writers’ room or get reworked by one or more ‘script doctors.’ In the account book of the theater manager Philip Henslowe—the most important surviving document testifying to how plays were written in Shakespeare’s time—nearly two-thirds of the plays mentioned are in some sense collaborative.” (https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2019/06/shakespeares-plays-had-other-authors-too/590389/).

Pericles is loosely based on the ancient Greek tale Apollonius of Tyre. In 1554, poet John Gower translated the story in his De Confessione Amantis and this became the base for Shakespeare to build on. In Shakespeare’s play, the narrator, the character shaping the proceedings, is given the name Gower. Each section of the play begins with Gower providing context, telling us what we need to know as the miles and the years pass by. The dumb show, an old-fashioned theatrical use of dramatic mime illuminates Gower’s language, letting us as an audience know that this is tale that must be shown, more than told. That is one of the brilliant facets of this work. We, as the audience, watching in our time, our era, are visited by Gower, a contemporary of Chaucer, showing us an ancient tale. Shakespeare scholar Marjorie Garber puts it this way, “Repeatedly, at the end of his prologues Gower reminds us of the inadequacies of telling – just as do the prologues of Henry V. By stressing the fictionality of the events he is describing, by emphasizing the degree to which they are products of poetic imagination, he brings his audience into the process of creation.” (Marjorie Garber, “Shakespeare After All” Pantheon Books, New York, 2004, 759.) And what a creation it is.

Pericles is an adventure tale full of storms, shipwrecks, pirates, prostitutes, death, and resurrection. Looking deeper, however, it is a play about healing, transformation, reconciliation, and redemption. Consider this: Pericles, fearing for his life for solving a truly disturbing riddle, ends up shipwrecked on a foreign shore. There, thanks to some solid luck and courageous fisherman he prepares himself to compete to win the hand of a princess. Triumphant (see, he is a man skilled in the arts and armaments) he sets sail with his pregnant wife, only to lose her in childbirth during the midst of another torrential storm. Having buried his wife at sea, he leaves his daughter with a pair of monarchs, who seem to be friendly, but in the ensuing fourteen years will eventually try to murder her. However, before the foul deed can be committed, she is saved by pirates, only to be sold to a brothel, where she begins to convert the patrons to the virtues of chastity. Finally, due to the help of a really talented doctor and a personal visit from a goddess, Pericles is reunited with those he loves.

Actor Christian Carmargo, who played Pericles in a 2016 production directed by Trevor Nunn describes it this way: “Pericles starts young and reckless, and his desire leads him into a difficult situation. He’s Hamlet. Then he matures. Lear goes down into a dark hole, but Pericles comes out into the light, as, Leontes and Prospero do in the later plays. To me, the play is a portal. It’s a play about how, when all is lost, one can reestablish a connection with a benevolent universe. When Trevor asked me to play it, my mind went immediately to the Latin quote on Pericles’ shield: ‘In hope I live.’” (https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-continual-riddle-of-shakespeares-pericles). 

Pericles was one of the most popular plays in Shakespeare’s day, reprinted five times in less than thirty years. Pericles, according to Margorie Garber was the first of Shakespeare’s plays “to be revived at the time of the Restoration, when theatres, closed by Cromwell, were opened again—and women began for the first time to act upon the public stage. It became popular again in the early twentieth century when fairy-tale improbabilities caught the public fancy and the play’s poetry began to catch the enthusiastic ear of critics; and it is popular again today” (Garber 755).

The Utah Shakespeare Festival has presented Pericles twice before, once in 1997 and again in 2010. This year’s production is helmed by Kent Thompson, who last directed the Festival’s 2012 production of Scapin. In his unpublished director’s notes, Thompson states that “Pericles is a strange and tantalizing play that feels like an experiment by Shakespeare in the development of his late Romance plays.  It is an epic tale of a hero’s journey that reminds me of other great adventures, such as The Odyssey or sections of The Bible. Being an adult fairytale, it is magical but also a very dark—misfortune and loss are faced repeatedly by Pericles, Thaisa, and Marina, only to end in the thrilling restoration of the family at the Temple of Diana. As Gower says: “Virtue preserved from fell destruction’s blast / Led on by heaven and crowned with joy at last.”  Indeed, endurance, faith, and virtue are required for the family to achieve a happy ending after a wild and painful adventure. It has moments of unimaginable beauty and unspeakable tragedy, but it ends in the wonder-filled restoration of the family.  The good are rewarded; the bad are punished.  In this way, Pericles is an Everyman.”

Pericles is not just an “Everyman” as Thompson notes; Pericles is a play for everybody. Noted Shakespeare scholar James Shaprio said, “I don’t know why we do any other play” (New Yorker). Noted director Trevor Nunn put it this way, “Pericles, is also about someone who is known to us. He’s a man who has attracted bad luck, he’s a noble man, he’s a modest man, he’s in the shadow of his wonderful father. How many people does one know like that? A crisis of bad luck throws him into a depression early on, he bravely sets out again, misfortune strikes, and he goes very far down and becomes a hermit. We know people like this. The play asks, What kind of species are we? Must the canker always eat the rose? The stars continue to exist in our contemporary world. The gods are on every page” (Director’s Notes).

We cannot but obey the powers above us – Pericles Act 3 Scene 3

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