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Pericles | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Pericles | Context


Authorship of Pericles

Dramatists such as Shakespeare often "borrowed" stories and characters from each other. Even when a play was performed, other theatrical companies hired people to attend and memorize as much of the dialogue as possible. At the time Shakespeare died, only about half of his plays had been printed as quartos, which are one-play editions generally based on the original script of the play. The first collection of his plays was published together in what is known as the First Folio (1623). However, even then some plays were left out, including Pericles. It wasn't until the publication of the Third Folio in 1663 that Pericles was included. The reason given was that authorship of Pericles was in question. It was believed to be one of five plays written in collaboration between Shakespeare and someone else. Other such plays include Titus Andronicus (1589–92), with English dramatist George Peele; Timon of Athens (1605–08), with English playwright Thomas Middleton; and Henry VIII (1613) and The Two Noble Kinsmen (1612–14), with English playwright John Fletcher. Such collaborations were not unusual at the time. As Shakespearean scholar Peter Thompson notes, "All ... dramatists in the Elizabethan, Jacobean, and Caroline theatres, collaborated in getting plays written and staged."

According to Sir Trevor Nunn, who directed a theater production of Pericles in 2016, the play is "a collaboration between Shakespeare and the pamphleteer and pub owner George Wilkins." Nunn continues to speculate that Wilkins was interested in the story of Pericles as told by the 14th-century English poet John Gower, who was a contemporary of English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, and Shakespeare helped Wilkins write it. Nunn cites a marked difference in the quality of the writing between the first two acts of the play and the third act as evidence.

Pericles (or some version of it) was probably first performed in the winter of 1609 at the Globe Theatre, although there is some uncertainty about this date. It had a 1610 performance in Yorkshire and was likely, as writer for The New Yorker Cynthia Zarin notes, "performed at the Queen's chambers at Whitehall as an after-dinner entertainment."

The play has served as the basis for movies in recent years. The play was made into a movie directed by David Hugh Jones in 1984. The Adventures of Pericles is a 2016 Canadian movie by Barry Avrich based on Shakespeare's play. Pericles by Shakespeare on the Road (2016) is an Italian movie performed in English and directed by Roberto Quagliano.

Origins of the Story for Pericles

Pericles derives most of its plot from a story written by the English poet John Gower (c. 1330–1408). It appears in Book 8 of his Confessio amantis (begun about 1386). Gower's writings included, as noted in Encyclopedia Britannica, tales of "courtly love and moral allegory," some of which can be found in Pericles. One example of this kind of poetic expression of courtly love is found in the admiration the young prince Pericles expresses upon seeing Antiochus's daughter in Act 1, Scene 1, which begins with, "See where she comes, appareled like the spring ... Of every virtue gives renown to men!" But as is discovered later in the play, this vision of beauty is an illusion of moral perfection because this young woman is discovered to be in an incestuous relationship with her father.

John Gower appears as the Chorus in the play. It is from him that the moral lectures to the audience come most frequently. As Gower states in the Epilogue, "In Antiochus and his daughter you have heard / Of monstrous lust the due and just reward. / In Pericles, his queen, and daughter seen ... / Led on by heaven, and crowned with joy at last." Additional parts of the story came from The Pattern of Painful Adventures (1576) by English author Laurence Twine.

Late Romance

Pericles is sometimes included with what are called the late romance plays of William Shakespeare. Although these plays include many tragic events over the course of their stories, they end with the gratifying reunions of family members. However, they are not considered comedies because the main characters face a number of obstacles before a happy ending is found. The main character of Pericles faces the threat of murder when he solves the riddle of the princess of Antioch, mistakenly believes his wife has died, and trusts the treacherous Cleon and his wife to raise his infant daughter, Marina. However, the main character is rescued from his despair by the care of a loving daughter and a reunion with his wife.

Elizabethan versus Jacobean Drama

The later plays by Shakespeare, of which Pericles is one, reflect a shift in drama and character development from his earlier work. This change may be partially attributed to changes in his audiences impelled by the end of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (reigned 1558–1603) and the beginning of the reign of her successor James I (reigned 1603–25). Some theater historians make a clear distinction between the Elizabethan and the following Jacobean drama movements in England. Others classify plays written near the end of Shakespeare's time and produced in the years of King James I as Jacobean.

Shakespeare's company was adopted by James I soon after he ascended the throne. As a result they became known as "The King's Men." During this time wealthy and aristocratic patrons and their courts constituted a smaller and more intimate theater audience. Thus, some theatrical events were moved out of the playhouses like the Globe (owned by Shakespeare and his company) and into the salons of palaces, especially after the 1613 fire that destroyed the original building. Jacobean plays were often performed alongside other court entertainments, and this shift of venue influenced the style of Pericles. Shakespeare attempted to integrate music, dance, and several dumb shows (or action given without dialogue), such as follows the Chorus in Act 2, Scene 1. This makes the play difficult to read (and stage) because although these interludes represent significant developments in the plot, they are not described in detail. However, these elements in the play suggest it was written with the idea of performing it indoors. This conclusion is supported by the reference made to "taper light" by Gower's spirit in the first Chorus.

Shakespeare also anticipated an inattentive and unruly audience. The spirit of Gower addresses them directly as if he were an elderly grandfather telling a story to children before they are sent to bed. Such audiences were probably closer to the performers than they could have been at the Globe playhouse. Members of a Jacobean audience who wished to pay for it could even sit in a chair on the stage itself. There was also plenty of eating, drinking, talking, and smoking of pipes while the play was going on. Gower flatters the audience in his Act 1 Chorus by saying to them, "If you, born in these latter times / When wit's more ripe, accept my rhymes, / And that to hear an old man sing / May to your wishes pleasure bring." Gower also constantly addresses this unruly audience by telling them to pay attention. "Be quiet, then," he says "as men should be, / Till he hath passed necessity" (Chorus, Act 2).

The moral Epilogue delivered by Gower at the conclusion of Pericles is similar to those of Shakespeare's later plays. He sums up the justice meted out to each character. In conclusion Gower says, "So on your patience evermore attending, / New joy wait on you. Here our play has ending." A similar conclusion appears in the Epilogue of The Two Noble Kinsmen: "Pray yet, stay a while, / And let me look upon you. No man smile?" The plea for the audience to stay a while yet longer until the Epilogue is finished suggests Shakespeare was well aware some people had the habit of getting up and leaving before the end of the play.

Another change that makes Pericles different from earlier plays by Shakespeare is that its characters are more symbolic than realistic. The main character Pericles is a good and noble man facing painful separation from his wife and daughter. He is driven by the certainty of a moral principle that enables him to overcome all misunderstandings and obstacles. He finds his lost wife by paying attention to a vision given to him by the Roman goddess Diana. But Pericles starts out in the play as a virtuous and intelligent nobleman. He remains the same at the end. In other words, Pericles always knows what to do in any given situation. The uncertainty of a situation comes from outside the character, notably the riddle posed by the princess and the stormy seas during which Pericles is separated from his daughter and wife. The eponymous character of Hamlet in Shakespeare's 1599–1601 play is, on the other hand, plagued by self-generated doubt. Instead of being definitively set on a course of action after hearing the ghost of his father declare Hamlet's uncle has murdered him, Hamlet hesitates. He is more realistically human than the Pericles of the later play.

In some ways Pericles resembles something like a "proto-operatic" form, according to critic Northrup Frye in Writings on Shakespeare and the Renaissance (2010). "The structure of Pericles anticipates opera," according to Frye. Evidence for this idea can be drawn from the incorporation of dumb shows, dance, and song to forward the plot of the story. And much like the earliest operas performed in Italy (the courts of which were important influences on the court of Queen Elizabeth I), Pericles includes human characters guided by the aid of an immortal (the goddess Diana). Furthermore, the time period and location of Pericles is set in an ancient Roman network of principalities accessible by sea travel, including Tyre, Pentapolis, Tarsus, Mytilene, and the Temple of Diana at Ephesus. These dramatic features were also elements of the earliest Italian operatic form, which, sprung from Greek drama, began in Florence in the late 1500s. This operatic form combined singing and dancing as well as recitation in poetic form.

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