Likely the most influential writer in all of English literature and certainly the most important playwright of the English Renaissance, William Shakespeare was born in 1564 in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, England. The son of a successful middle-class glove-maker, Shakespeare attended grammar school, but his formal education proceeded no further. In 1582, he married an older woman, Anne Hathaway, and had three children with her. Around 1590 he left his family behind and traveled to London to work as an actor and playwright. Public and critical success quickly followed, and Shakespeare eventually became the most popular playwright in England and part owner of the Globe Theater. His career bridged the reigns of Elizabeth I (ruled 1558-1603) and James I (ruled 1603-1625); he was a favorite of both monarchs. Indeed, James granted Shakespeare's company the greatest possible compliment by endowing them with the status of king's players. Wealthy and renowned, Shakespeare retired to Stratford, and died in 1616 at the age of fifty-two. At the time of Shakespeare's death, such luminaries as Ben Jonson hailed him as the apogee of Renaissance theatre.
Shakespeare's works were collected and printed in various editions in the century following his death, and by the early eighteenth century his reputation as the greatest poet ever to write in English was well established. The unprecedented admiration garnered by his works led to a fierce curiosity about Shakespeare's life; but the paucity of surviving biographical information has left many details of Shakespeare's personal history shrouded in mystery. Some people have concluded from this fact that Shakespeare's plays in reality were written by someone else--Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford are the two most popular candidates--but the evidence for this claim is overwhelmingly circumstantial, and the theory is not taken seriously by many scholars.
In the absence of definitive proof to the contrary, Shakespeare must be viewed as the author of the 37 plays and 154 sonnets that bear his name. The legacy of this body of work is immense. A number of Shakespeare's plays seem to have transcended even the category of brilliance, becoming so influential as to affect profoundly the course of Western literature and culture ever after.
Pericles, probably written in 1607-8, came late in Shakespeare's career, after some of his most powerful dramas, such as Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, and Othello. Yet this play is far different from those previous tours-de-force. This character-laden tale of families fragmented by shipwreck and mistaken deaths harks back to some of Shakespeare's earliest work, such as Comedy of Errors.
As in most of Shakespeare's other plays and the writings of his contemporaries, Shakespeare used earlier authors and common stories as source material for the play. The fourteenth century poet John Gower, who appears in the play itself as a kind of chorus, wrote the most important direct source for Pericles, a story about Apollonius of Tyre in his Confessio Amantis. Via intermediaries, this story probably dates back to a fifth or sixth century Latin text, and before that perhaps from a Greek romance influenced by The Odyssey. Other sources, including that of Pericles's name, may have been Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia and Plutarch's Lives, one of Shakespeare's favorite sources.
The actual authorship of Pericles has been long debated and never resolved. It is probable that another playwright named George Wilkins wrote the first nine scenes and Shakespeare wrote the remaining thirteen. Dual authorship is a good explanation for the stylistic differences between the two parts of the play. In the first part, the language closely reflects John Gower's fourteenth century language rather than that of Shakespeare or his contemporaries. Though both Wilkins and Shakespeare use iambic pentameter, Wilkins uses more rhyming couplets ending with the end of the line, while Shakespeare relies on his characteristic use of enjambment, where a phrase or idea doesn't end at the end of a line, but carries over to the next. Structurally the dual-author theory works as well, since the actions of the first half of the play repeat themselves for the most part in the second half, with various episodes repeating or reflecting each other.
Another interesting problem about Pericles is the unreliability of its source text. Almost all of Shakespeare's other plays, first published in Quarto form, draw directly on the author's manuscript or the actor's promptbooks. Pericles, however, was assembled out of reports by actors and spectators. Elizabethan citizens and actors lived in a world where far less printed text was available, so memorization was common. Their memory capacities were probably much greater than our own--but certainly they were not flawless. For this reason no really authoritative text of Pericles exists.
Various editors approach the problem of reliability differently, making greater or lesser efforts to increase the intelligibility of the play. Editors of the Oxford edition of the plays, which many further adaptations draw from, decided to use a First Quarto version of this play, largely unchanged. Other editors have drawn on another of Wilkins's plays about Pericles to add more to the story. But if the First Quarto edition was already based on reported speech, than any edition that tries to further reconstruct what the original Pericles may have been probably strays even farther from any "original text."
But it is important to remember that none of Shakespeare's texts are really word-for-word "original." Shakespeare worked in collaboration with a company of actors, and he probably worked with them to change or improve speeches, so his plays were constantly in the process of changing and adapting. It is incorrect to conceive of the "original text" as one that Shakespeare wrote at his desk and then simply presented to his actors, which they performed verbatim. Most likely what he first wrote substantially changed during rehearsals and again during performances. What was published in the First Quarto is probably a combination of the first text, the changes, and reportage from actors. Pericles is an extreme example, a play based almost entirely on reportage.
A fun play, hopeful message, and the last Shakespeare comedy/romance on my way to reading all of Shakespeare by his 450th birthday.
In case you're interested, here's my blog on Pericles:
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This is the Bard's truest fairy tale. Long-lost daughters, wicked step parents, spouses reunited, and even fire from heaven. If it weren't for the incest and brothels - Disney would have a field day with this story. An even better fairy tale than "The Tempest," or "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and most likely a precursor to "The Winters' Tale."
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