Shakespearing #34: Pericles

Shakespearing #34 by David Foley


34 Pericles lighter

Last week I mentioned a tug-of-war I’d felt in college between the Shakespeare-as-literature and the Shakespeare-as-drama camps, but now I wonder if I just don’t get academics in general. In his introduction to the Pelican edition of Pericles, Stephen Orgel of Stanford calls the play “a masterpiece—which is to say that by the standards of the Renaissance stage, it was very good theater.” At the same time, he says, Pericles “excites whatever interest it does today only because Shakespeare’s name is attached to it.” And even as I try to get my head around an understanding of “masterpiece” as “very good for its time” (or even of Pericles as “very good”), it occurs to me that if anything is keeping Pericles alive today it’s not Shakespeare’s name but Shakespeare.

Orgel makes his claims while wrestling with the authorship question. The second half of Pericles is understood these days to have been written by Shakespeare and the first by someone named George Wilkins. In making his case for Pericles as a whole masterpiece, Orgel cites the play’s choral figure, John Gower, as its “most striking element.” But Gower changes in both form and intent halfway through the play. The change is pronounced enough to make you feel that Shakespeare has seized the reins of the play from Wilkins with a certain irritable impatience.

Gower, a contemporary of Chaucer, wrote the narrative poem on which the play is based, and in the first half of the play, he narrates the story in a fusty tetrameter sprinkled with archaisms (“iwis,” “speken”). This is the kind of slightly academic conceit that can seem, to the amateur playwright, like a good idea, but in Wilkins’ hands it adds to the static, novelistic development of the early scenes. Shakespeare’s Gower moves; he sweeps the audience along with him, urging them to “think [Pericles’] pilot thought” as he “[thwarts] the wayward seas.”

Perhaps because the division of labor is so marked in Pericles, it’s easier here to see the difference not just between Shakespeare and his co-author but between a dramatist and someone just writing a play. The difference you feel when Shakespeare takes over is a sense of being lifted up into a livable world, a world of motion, of lives both animated and animating. You feel it in the reply of the villainous Dionyza when Leonine, charged with murdering Marina, objects that “she is a goodly creature”: “The fitter then the gods should have her.” You feel it in the intractable reality of the Bawd, who, like the Nurse, can’t leave a room when she’s dismissed. You feel it in Marina who, like many of Shakespeare’s women, anneals deep feeling to sharp intellect, whether she’s arguing with Leonides for her life or with Lysimachus and Boult for her chastity. “Do anything but this thou doest,” she tells the panderer Boult. “Empty/Old receptacles, or common shores of filth,” and you understand that the key to Shakespeare’s drama is the mind and heart in fierce motion.

It’s insane how moving Marina and Pericles’ recognition scene is, given the often clunky path that got us there (and the improbable set-up; it depends on no one actually mentioning Pericles’ name to Marina). It’s as if, in taking over from the clumsier playwright, Shakespeare reconnected with his own powers and at the same time began to imagine, after the bitterness of Coriolanus and Timon, a new dramatic world of clemency and reconciliation. “Did you not name a tempest,/A birth, and death?” Thais asks her rediscovered husband in the final scene. Well, yeah.


David Foley

David Foley is a playwright and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. His plays include Cressida Among the GreeksParadiseNance O’NeilThe Murders at ArgosA Hole in the Fence, and Sad Hotel, among others. His novel The Traveler’s Companion is available on Amazon. He teaches at New York University.

One response to “Shakespearing #34: Pericles”

  1. […] I went to see Red Bull Theater’s production of ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, I’d just begun my Pericles posting, and therefore had the issues of academicism and problematic old plays in my head. I was also quite […]

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