Pericles, Prince of Tyre is one of the late romances in the Shakespeare canon. However, unlike Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest, it is a collaboration, possibly between Shakespeare and George Wilkins; it also wasn’t included in the First Folio.
1/ My first impression was that it didn’t sound like Shakespeare.
“PERICLES […] Who has a book of all that monarchs do,
He’s more secure to keep it shut than shown,
For vice repeated is like the wand’ring wind
Blows dust in others’ eyes to spread itself;
And yet the end of all is bought thus dear:
The breath is gone, and the sore eyes see clear
To stop the air would hurt them. The blind mole casts
Copped hills towards heaven, to tell the earth is thronged
By man’s oppression; and the poor worm doth die for’it.
Kings are earth’s gods; in vice their law’s their will;
And if Jove stray, who dares say Jove doth ill?...”
(Act 1 scene 1)
I can’t be the only one who read the first scene of Pericles and thought about The Merchant of Venice: Pericles wants to marry Antiochus’s (unnamed) daughter and, like other men, has to solve a riddle—if he gets it right, he can have her; if wrong, he has to die.
However, the similarity ends there. The riddle is designed so that nobody can “win”: Pericles understands the meaning and realises that Antiochus and his daughter are having an incestuous relationship (I know, sick), so he flees.
I won’t recount the entire plot—there’s lots of plot—but not long after and in another kingdom, named Pentapolis, there’s another contest for a princess (Thaisa, daughter of Simonides) and Pericles also shows up. They’re nothing like the father and daughter in Antioch though.
2/ In Act 2, the language is still clearly not Shakespeare, i.e. not great. But once in a while there’s an interesting bit, such as when Pericles looks at Simonides and thinks about his late father:
“PERICLES [Aside] Yon king’s to me like to my father’s picture,
Which tells me in that glory once he was;
Had princes sit like stars about his throne,
And he the sun for them to reverence;
None that beheld him but, like lesser lights,
Did vail their crown to his supremacy;
Where now his son’s a glowworm in the night,
The which hath fire in darkness, none in light.
Whereby I see that Time’s the king of men;
He’s both their parent and he is their grave,
And gives them what he will, not what they crave.”
(Act 2 scene 3)
There are also some jokes that sound like the kind of jokes Shakespeare makes (probably the kind of things that appeal to Jacobean audiences). For example:
“THIRD FISHERMAN […] Master, I marvel how the fishes live in the sea.
FIRST FISHERMAN Why, as men do a-land: the great ones eat up the little ones. I can compare our rich misers to nothing so fitly as to a whale: ’a plays and tumbles, driving the poor fry before him, and at last devours them all at a mouthful: Such whales have I heard on a’ th’ land, who never leave gaping till they have swallowed the whole parish, church, steeple, bells, and all.”
(Act 2 scene 1)
Or this one:
“SIMONIDES […] I will not have excuse with saying this:
Loud music is too harsh for ladies’ heads,
Since they love men in arms as well as beds.”
(Act 2 scene 3)
3/ There are many words in this play I’ve never seen before. Some of them look strange.
Like y-slacked (meaning: reduced to inactivity).
Or y-ravished (meaning: enraptured).
4/ Act 3 (probably after Gower’s part) is where the play starts to sound more like Shakespeare:
“PERICLES The god of this great vast rebuke these surges,
Which wash both heaven and hell, and thou that hast
Upon the winds command, bind them in brass,
Having called them from the deep! O, still
Thy deaf’ning dreadful thunders; gently quench
Thy nimble sulphurous flashes! O, how, Lychorida,
How does my queen? Thou stormiest venomously;
Wilt thou spit all thyself? The seaman’s whistle
Is as a whisper in the ears of death,
(Act 3 scene 1)
That does sound more like Shakespeare. Compare it to the unimaginative description of the famine in Act 1, or the shipwreck in Act 2—very different.
I don’t think Pericles particularly cares for Thaisa—she seems to love him a lot more than he loves her—but his speech after her death is moving:
“PERICLES A terrible childbed hast thou had, my dear;
No light, on fire. Th’ unfriendly elements
Forgot thee utterly; nor have I time
To give thee hallowed to thy grave, but straight
Must cast thee, scarcely coffined, in the ooze;
Where, for a monument upon thy bones,
And e’er-remaining lamps, the belching whale
And humming water must o’erwhelm thy corpse,
Lying with simple shells…”
There’s a shipwreck in The Winter’s Tale, and a shipwreck in The Tempest, but two in Pericles.
“CERIMON […] If the sea’s stomach be o’ercharged with gold,
’Tis a good constraint of fortune
It belches upon us.”
(Act 3 scene 2)
What does that make me think of?
“ARIEL You are three men of sin, whom destiny—
That hath to instrument this lower world
And what is in’t—the never-surfeited sea
Hath caused to belch up you and on this island,
Where man doth not inhabit…”
(The Tempest, Act 3 scene 3)
5/ In Pericles, Boult is a servant to a Pander and a Bawd, and for a couple of scenes, he’s no more than one of the people trying to get Marina to lose “her maidenhead”. Then comes the exchange between Boult and Marina:
“BOULT What would you have me do? Go to the wars, would you? Where a man may serve seven years for the loss of a leg, and have not money enough in the end to buy him a wooden one?”
(Act 4 scene 6)
Shakespeare is brilliant at getting you to see a character differently and care for them, with just a few strokes (the best is “I was adored once too” in Twelfth Night).
6/ Tony Tanner’s essay, as usual, is very good. I like the King Lear comparison:
“So what brings about the miraculous denouement—has the harsh old Wheel of Fortune ameliorated into a benign Wheel of Providence, as some suggest? Do they gods finally intervene as they so conspicuously did not in King Lear?” (Introduction)
I also like his idea about the reunion scene:
“… there is possibly a shadow of the story not told, or avoided—the Oedipal story of a man who sets out on his travels to avoid incest, only to discover that that has been his destination.” (ibid.)
Pericles may have fallen for his daughter Marina but Shakespeare avoids it, the same way he avoids it in The Winter’s Tale (whereas in the original Pandosto by Robert Greene, that is what happens).
7/ The plot of Pericles is frankly very silly: there are 2 husband contests, 2 tempests and shipwrecks, 2 killing orders; there are a bad king and a bad queen; there are even pirates and bawds. Both are like fairytales, though it’s much sillier than Cymbeline, and less neat.
But it’s a fun play and I do like it. I can’t help thinking that as Shakespeare was writing (part of) Pericles, he found a few things of interest that he recycled in later romance plays, especially in The Winter’s Tale: shipwreck, separation and reunion, and return from death.
In both plays, a man reunites with his wife and daughter after a long time, but if the scenes in Pericles are filled with rapture and happiness, the joy in The Winter’s Tale is more subdued—nothing can undo the pain, the separation, and the lost years.
As Shakespeare recycles ideas in the later play, he also improves on them. Firstly, in Pericles, nothing explains why Pericles doesn’t return to Tharsus to find Marina, nothing explains the separation of 14 years, and nothing explains why Pericles, after a brief marriage to Thaisa, doesn’t marry again; whereas in The Winter’s Tale, Leontes doesn’t know where Perdita is, and Shakespeare creates the character of Paulina to act as the voice of conscience and make sure that Leontes doesn’t remarry.
Secondly, even though it should be extraordinary, the scene of Thaisa’s revival doesn’t quite have the magical quality of the scene in The Winter’s Tale, which, whether you read it in the fairytale way or the realistic way, is a vision of resurrection. And it is miraculous.
The reunion scenes in Pericles are satisfying though.