Being essentially contrarian, I set out with the firm intention of finding some fine qualities in Pericles – and for maybe a few scenes in the first Act, I did actually feel it was pretty good. After that, its issues started to overwhelm it.
The essential problem with Pericles, it seems to me, is that it’s not a play. It was only later, reading the introduction, that I discovered what its origin was – and, once that’s understood, everything makes sense – but even reading it, one can’t help observing its essentially episodic nature. In general this is quite different to the other Shakespeare plays we have read – which ok, aren’t unified like, say, Greek tragedy, but are at least fairly compact and tightly coherent. Pericles, on the other hand, just rambles on from scene to scene .
It has a narrator (I was put off a little by the fact that he’s called Gower, when the play in otherwise set in the Greek World of c2BC), who introduces the action first of all, and then comes on at the beginning of ever act – or shift of scene – to keep us updated on all that’s happened since the last scene. In my benefit-of-the-doubt mood, I was at first inclined to see this – given the setting – as a post-modernist nod to Euripides (it’s easy to justify poor literary devices, when we wish to); but one feels, after a time, there’s something essentially artless and anti-theatrical about it all – that the structure is all wrong. Perhaps this isn’t such a problem, but in the first act in particular, what we are told by the narrator, we are then told again – by the characters – about four times.
If the play lacks coherent structure, it also lacks much of a plot – it just seems to ramble from scene to scene, as Pericles drifts about the Mediterranean having terrible things happen to him. We go to Antioch, where there’s a story about incest; and then to Tarsus, where the city is suffering starvation; and then to Pentapolis, where the king’s daughter is offering marriage to the victor in a tournament (an enjoyable anachronism); then to Ephesus; then Tarsus; then Ephesus. Plots are resolved off-stage (the incest episode), or not at all (the “murder” of Marina). If it were a modern work (like, say, something by Kleist), we could perhaps explain this lack of art and organisation, by suggesting Shakespeare was trying to portray life as it is really – that life isn’t a carefully controlled plot, but is indeed a sequence of arbitrary events from which one cannot draw very much meaning. There is something of Job about it all, certainly – a man suffers tremendous misfortune and yet continues (mostly) to be virtuous – but one feels there isn’t overall much meaning in the play, or at most it is some platitude, like virtue shall be rewarded and vice punished. One doesn’t come away with the sense that Shakespeare has taken us very deeply into things.
And besides all this, the events in the play are largely ludicrous. – I’m pretty good at suspending my disbelief, I feel; – I’ll shrug my shoulders at almost anything – but even I’m inclined to feel that parts of the plot of Pericles are a bit far-fetched. The pirates bit, for instance – when Marina is snatched from the jaws of death (it perhaps works better on stage); the whole business of the pure Marina, now made a prostitute, overcoming men’s lust by her pious virtue; the shipwrecks; the “dead” brought back to life; any of the unlikely reconciliations; – but simpler bits of plotting too, like, if Antiochus wanted to keep secret his affair with his own daughter, why did he use it as the basis of his riddle?
There is though an explanation for all this. And that is that the source of the play is an ancient Greek novel (a romance) by Apollonius of Tyre. (It also explains who Gower is – he wrote a poetic version of the tale). Now it’s worth noting a few things about Greek novels, for I have had the misfortune once to have studied them:
- They’re rubbish
- They involved a lot of shipwrecks, unlikely reconciliations and generally absurd happenings
- They’re episodic in nature
- They’re largely meaningless, mindless entertainment
- They were very, very popular in the Renaissance, for no particularly good reason
In this sense, therefore, Pericles is a very successful adaptation – a little too faithful, one might feel, to its source.
Next up: The Two Noble Kinsmen, “Shakespeare”‘s last play.