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11 january 2016

Perhaps the best professional production of Shakespeare I ever saw was a performance of Pericles. It was directed by Jesse Berger and performed by New York's Red Bull Theatre in 2003, at the East Village venue 45 Below. As the name suggests, the theater space was downstairs, in a basement dotted with pillars holding up the building above. Throw pillows provided most of the additional set elements, and subway trains passing nearby provided random sound effects. The cast – small and extensively doubled – was kinetic and fervent. There was lots of stage combat, an unashamed approach to the hokey story, and a really fun evening in the theater.

The irony, of course, is that Pericles is a critically-derided play, doubtfully Shakespearean, with a plot that you could drive a trireme through, and verse of less than Olympian proportions – as when a fellow prince named Simonides says to Pericles

Let me ask you one thing:
What do you think of my daughter? (Act 2, Scene 5)
To top it off on the scholarly side, Pericles isn't even in the 1623 First Folio, and exists solely because a "bad" Quarto was printed in 1609 and seems, despite its badness, to have become a bit of a bestseller. There is no accounting for early-modern taste.

Pericles remains one of the mysteries of literature. The editors of the First Folio can't have been unaware of its existence, and it's hard to imagine them not being able to print it if they wanted to. At least its first two acts, and a bit of the last three, seem not to be written by Shakespeare or anybody moderately competent. Candidates have been proposed for authorship of the lousy stretches, but the project runs into the same problems as trying to sort out divided authorship of more canonical plays like Titus Andronicus, Henry VIII, or of The Two Noble Kinsmen, usually attributed to Shakespeare and John Fletcher but on the basis of no direct evidence. [UPDATE 2.10.2024: No, that's wrong; The Two Noble Kinsmen is attributed on the title page of its 1634 quarto to Shakespeare and Fletcher, which is pretty direct if you ask me.]

The connections between the latter acts and The Winter's Tale and The Tempest are so strong that most critics conclude Shakespeare took over major creative direction of Pericles at some point. It's intriguing to think of Shakespeare having written the first two acts of Pericles when he was thirteen or so, and then dusting off the play and finishing it in his 50s. Many critics have in fact proposed that somebody else wrote the first two acts and Shakespeare took the play over and finished it up. The problem with all these theories is the question "why didn't he take a few days to rewrite the opening acts?"

No other Shakespeare play has such a picaresque structure. Our title character is out on the search-for-a-princess circuit when he runs into a no-win situation in Antioch. The local king there will let you marry his daughter if you solve his riddle, and kill you if you don't. The answer to the riddle is that he's sleeping with his daughter, and if you guess that, he'll kill you anyway. Pericles wisely runs away instead, and finds another princess (Thaisa), only to lose her to childbirth and shipwreck, whereupon he proceeds to lose his infant daughter (Marina) as well. Carelessness! Still worse, he's prematurely sealed up Thaisa in her coffin while she's still alive. Fortunately he seals her well enough that she bobs unharmed into port and is stowed away by some local princes for a decade-and-a-half.

Marina grows up adopted by some other princes, who then decide they want to kill her, but she's luckily abducted by pirates who sell her as a prime piece of virginity to a whoremaster. She ends up converting her customers to goodness of some description – not Christianity exactly, these folks are a little too mythical for that – but at any rate, she becomes more popular as a revival preacher than a potentially deflowerable maiden.

Somehow everybody gets reunited and lives HEA. The scenes where Pericles rediscovers both his daughter and his wife are really pretty good. But you can see why the Red Bull company decided to set them off with some slapstick and corny business.

The most famous lines in the play come in an exchange between a couple of fishermen:

3 Fisherman. Maister, I maruell how the Fishes liue in the Sea?
1 Fisherman. Why, as Men doe a-land; the great ones eate vp the little ones. (Act 2, Scene 1)
This is from one of the acts usually ascribed to an anonymous writer, and that makes sense thematically. Shakespeare's working men and women either know their place, are idiots, or both. The Gravedigger in Hamlet is exceptional for being a quick-witted social critic. The acerbic leveling wisdom of the First Fisherman here seems to be written by somebody politically a bit to the left of William Shakespeare. But it's impossible to turn that "seems" into certainty.

Shakespeare, William. Pericles, Prince of Tyre. 1609. Edited by J.C. Maxwell. 1956. Cambridge: University Press, 1969.

Shakespeare, William. Pericles, Prince of Tyre. 1609. Quarto old-spelling transcription edited by Tom Bishop. Internet Shakespeare Editions.