Pericles is something of a messy play--the plot is repetitive and silly at times, the characters lack depth, the presentation of a "chorus" figure is old-fashioned and undramatic. The style is uneven, and suspected by many to not be the work of a single author. Yet in Shakespeare's time the play was very popular and has been successfully performed in modern productions. Ben Jonson, one of Shakespeare's contemporaries, attributed the success to its use of "scraps out of every dish." For a play inhabited by incest, a lost daughter and a wife presumed dead, several tempests, several contests for the hand of a princess, and seemingly innumerable kingdoms ruled by men of greater or lesser tyranny, Johnson's assessment seems perfectly apt.
Structurally, the play divides in two; in the first 9 scenes, Pericles falls into unfortunate circumstances and his luck changes, and for the final 13 scenes, he repeats this pattern. One explanation for this may be the oft-mentioned claims that the authors shift after scene 9. However, the answer may be more complex. While some occurrences in the play are doubled almost exactly, others repetitions are subtly and crucially different. For example, the riddle contest in Antioch is echoed by the jousting competition in Pentapolis, with the second being a good, moral version of the first. The frequency of such occurrences makes a consistent pattern.
Pericles himself seems without personality, largely because Shakespeare does not delve into the workings of his psyche as he did with characters in the tragic plays he wrote immediately before. Overall, the play suggests that the collection of miseries suffered by Pericles's family ultimately leads to reward. In this structure of suffering leading to happiness the play fits the genre of tragicomic romance. Tragicomedy is modeled on the felix culpa, the "fortunate fall" of Adam and Eve that led to the coming of Christ.
Pericles and his cohorts live in a pagan world, where even the goddess Diana becomes a character. Following a classical model, the play emphasizes long periods of sufferings, perilous sea journeys, families split by distance and apparent death, followed by spiritual rebirths and eventual reunions. Yet the complex plot is unwoven at the end to reveal a version of Christian providence, masquerading as the workings of the Greco-Roman gods. The trajectory from suffering to triumph is Christian in content.
Without the significance of faith Pericles's sufferings may seem arbitrary. Tragic occurrences seem unconnected and unrelated and at times nonsensical. For example, Pericles's reasons for leaving Tyre seem vague, and his decision to leave Marina at Tarsus is unexplained. Why doesn't Dionyza just send Marina back to Tyre instead of killing her? Why doesn't Pericles notice that Thaisa is still alive? All the suffering he endures inspires little reflection on the nature of injustice. Pericles explains foggily that he feels he must continue on and endure, but not out of any sense that divine providence is at work. Rather, his sufferings seem like a catalogue of secular misfortunes.
Unlike a great many of Shakespeare's works, there is little connection made in this play between the royal classes and working classes. Scenes of working people barely link up with the rest of the plot. The fishermen who help Pericles are forgotten, despite his promise to remember them; their criticism of a world where the big fish eats up the little fish makes Pericles chuckle, but he ignores it when he goes off to win the princess of Pentapolis. In the brothel in Mytilene, Marina's main goal is to prove that she is above those who run the brothel, and she wants only to improve her lot. Lower class characters become merely caricatures.
The journey to self-knowledge from a place of unawareness is a repeating narrative for Shakespeare's characters, but no one in this play experiences that change. Pericles leaves his kingdom, fleeing one king who he thinks will kill him because of a contest for the hand of the princess, only to enter an identical contest. He loses his wife whom he barely knew, and then makes sure he won't know his daughter by leaving her in a different kingdom. At the end everyone is reunited, but Pericles divides the family again by sending Marina to Tyre and going to Pentapolis with Thaisa. Meanwhile, Marina is plucked from her royal station and hurled into prostitution, where she merely resists her surroundings but gains no wider knowledge of other people and lives--she just insists on her virtue. Thaisa confines herself to Diana's temple, remaining essentially in the same moment as when she first was separated from Pericles.
And to pull it all together, we have the figure of Gower, most of whose monologues merely repeat the plot of scenes just past, or narrate events that take place offstage. Only through Gower's conclusion are we given a sense of any kind of redemption plot. He explains to us, finally, that Antiochus and his daughter and Cleon and Dionyza are punished because they did evil, whereas Pericles and his family are rewarded. Gower also explains the role of the minor characters, who were living embodiments of their various virtues, such as loyalty (Helicanus) and charity (Cerimon).
If Pericles seems like a Job figure, doomed by a higher power to suffer in order to prove a point about faith and virtue, he certainly doesn't know it himself. No higher power makes itself known until Diana reminds him to go to her temples. No point is made about virtue except that one should have it. Faith has no obvious role. Pericles's travails have the form of a Christian retribution story, but without the background of faith, without any reason for his sufferings.
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."