Whenever a discussion turns to Pericles, critics are always at pains to delineate the various problems associated with the play—that Shakespeare had no part in the writing the first two acts, that the piece is devoid of fully-fleshed characters, that the title character is more sinned against than sinning, thus depriving him of any tragic tension, that only the magnificent brothel scenes are worthy of comparison with the playwright’s best efforts, and that the play’s major significance is in its foreshadowing of the romances to follow.
While all the above criticisms may be true to a greater or lesser degree, what they fail to acknowledge is the sheer theatricality of the play. Throughout his career Shakespeare was fascinated by the reverberations of the reality of the theatre beyond the confines of the formal stage. Life seems to have unfolded before him as a medley of theatrical events in a more profound way than with any other playwright, indeed to such an extent that the central metaphor of his dramatic imagination became the theatre itself. In the comedies and tragedies he had used the theatre in a myriad metaphorical devices. In Pericles, the experiment appears to be an exercise in unabashed theatricality. Value judgments and comparisons with earlier and later plays only reveal the limits of our own narrow imaginations and would deny Shakespeare free rein in his artistic experiments.
Even if the first two acts seem a bit unwieldy on their pages, a good director and actors with an understanding of the expansive nature of the play can negotiate a skilful path through an apparently cumbersome plot not by ignoring it or cutting a swath around it, but by embracing it in all its theatrical aspects, of which there are plenty—a self-incriminating riddle created by Antiochus which, if solved, would lift the curtain on the heinous crime of incest, a murder plotted, an escape, a hurried journey, a shipwreck, a resurrection, a tourney for the hand of a princess, and a marriage, all in the first two acts.
Envisioning the world of the play as a play itself—an entire play within a play—Shakespeare seeks a stage-manager for this production and turns, significantly, to a medieval poet, Gower, adorning him in choric garb to set the stage, define the changes in time and space, and control the rhythm of the drama. The playwright as poet employs a poet as playwright to comment on the action and oversee the arrangement of the scenes. In keeping with the theatrical structure of the piece, Shakespeare eschews the use of dramatic narrative language in some moments and replaces them with prologue-like dumb shows, thus enhancing the beauty of the visual feast that the play provides. This also allows him to compress time, space, and action, and to leap over them whenever his narrative desires. The dumb shows and divine manifestations utilize marvelous and sacred elements to knit together the threads of this sprawling play as it zigzags around its theatrical corners, flinging itself across a network of far-flung cites—Antioch, Tyre, Tarsus, Pentapolis, Ephesus, and Mytilene. Linking them is a turbulent ocean which, at different moments, becomes a birthplace, a cemetery, and, in the case of Thaisa, a passageway from death to life.
But this play is not merely a visual spectacle; the theatricality woven into the action has a purpose similar to that of tragedy—to lay bare in all its glory the beauty and power of the indomitable human spirit in the face of a crushing fate. If Pericles is about anything, it is about the vicissitudes of Fortune, the spinning wheel of one man’s shifting destiny and its effects on his family. A birth at sea is countered by a death, a quasi-death, at sea. Death thwarted by pirates leads to the verge of a fate worse than death and the valiant stand of virtue against impending moral disaster. An assassin on the prowl and faithless foster parents are balanced by loyal ministers and a ruler with healing powers. Integrating the whirling episodes are the romantic themes of reconciliation and reunion as sundered families are miraculously restored and lost loves find one another.
What many scholars agree upon is the power of the brothel scenes. As always, Shakespeare paints his most vivid pictures on the canvas of “low life” in the remarkable tone and flavor of the whorehouse and its denizens. The plaintive figure of Marina, armed only with her virtue, is set in lovely counterpoint to the vibrant if unscrupulous characters who would profit from her virginal allure. The broad comic overtones of the “marketing” of Marina’s maidenhead never overshadow the gravity or menace of imminent danger, and Marina’s healing of the distraught Pericles, the revelation of her identity, and the subsequent restoration of Thaisa to him are as moving as any scenes in Shakespeare. To suggest that these moments are merely prologues to what would follow in the later romances is to deny the power of both. Resurrections are the stuff of miracles as well as of the most theatrical imaginations. The fascinating aspect of this ending is that not only are Marina and Thaisa resurrected to Pericles, but that he himself is revitalized from his moribund state of despair to hear “the music of the spheres.” That which was lost is finally found, and under instructions from Diana the virgin goddess (whose protective mantle is now revealed to us) Pericles is promised happiness only if he tells his tale “before the people all.” In this play we can expect nothing less than a call to narrate this most theatrical story, which of course reminds us that that indeed is what has just occurred.
All that’s left is for Gower to tie up loose ends, to clear the stage, as it were, and pull down the curtain on the epilogue informing us that justice has been meted out to the wicked foster parents and their family.
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