Pericles, Prince of Tyre
This is one of the late plays that are sometimes categorized as comedies and sometimes put into the distinct category of romances. It is useful to bear in mind what makes up a romance in literary tradition: those who did Western Literature to Dante have already encountered it in the likes of Chrétien de Troyes (and, by extension, Dante). The story is based (proximately) on a fragment of John Gower’s Confessio Amantis, though there are many other versions going back to ancient times; Gower himself is brought on stage as the narrator. Curiously, he even speaks a conspicuously archaic form of English — not strictly Middle English, but Shakespearean English adorned with a variety of Middle English forms (like participles beginning in y-, and old forms like “eyne” or “eyen” for “eyes”).
The thing to keep in mind about romance is that it takes place in a chiefly internal landscape. It’s not about physical realism (which is a good thing, since this elevates improbability to a high art) or even realism of character or psychology. In a sense, all the characters are aspects of the self — they may be at war, or separated, or at odds, but the ultimate resolution of their story must of necessity entail their final harmonization and reconciliation. If one looks at the play this way, it is (even in the midst of its most sordid stretches — and there are a few) a strikingly beautiful piece of work.
The play has never been hugely popular, but there have always been those who have been fond of it. T. S. Eliot (who, as you may recall, scorned both Titus Andronicus and Hamlet) apparently found something in it to which he could respond, and wrote a poem “Marina” based on the story.
Things to consider while reading Pericles, Prince of Tyre
The nature of the romance structure. What gives it its own particular spin?
What does purity mean in this context, and why is it important? What is the role of morality and retribution here? Does justice emerge from the situation, from human interaction, or by fate or divine intervention? What does that do for you?
Pericles, Prince of Tyre and what has come before
- Those who have encountered The Winter’s Tale or Cymbeline may find the lack of Aristotelian dramatic unities fairly pointed here as well. How important are those to you? (Just as a reminder, those are the unities of story, time, and place. According to Aristotle, a play should tell one story, not several; it should be set in just one location; it should be in continuous "real" time. That is, no scene changes, or "meanwhile, back at the ranch...", or "ten years later...")
- Compare the forms of retribution here with those in, say, Titus Andronicus. How do they relate to them? What do they have to say to us?
- How does this kind of romance square up with, say, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, or Cymbeline, if you’ve encountered any of those?
- This is, I believe, the only Shakespeare play that refers to John Gower, and probably the only one that so explicitly cites its source as well. Gower is interesting in that he does come from within the English tradition, rather than from the Greek and Roman or Italian ones, and he was writing in English.
- It has been plausibly hypothesized that there are several other sources for this play as well, but some of them apparently are themselves derivative of Gower. What do we do with this information?
Themes that emerge in the play (only a few of the many)
- Purity is probably the leading moral issue here. The treatment of it may initially seem rather superficial, but I think Shakespeare is digging into it more deeply than may at first appear.
- Travel — constantly changing venues — color this play as few others. It’s largely about going places. While that may theoretically have violated the Aristotelian canons of drama, how does it affect your experience of the play as a modern reader or viewer, since you are probably used to seeing such things in television and movies?
Symmetries in the play
- The continuing return of John Gower as a narrator/chorus tends to create a symmetry in the play akin to that of the Chorus in Henry V; it also puts overt emphasis on the fact that this is a narrative. What’s the point of that? What are we to take from it, and how can it (or should it) affect our readings?
- The play presents a perhaps charming, but surely bizarre, mixture of the sordid and the naive. Pericles’ own more revulsion at the situation with Antiochus, and Marina’s apparent success in reforming the clients of the brothel to which she has been sold, create a rather odd model of thought. It seems unlikely that this is to be seen as any kind of realism. But if not, what is it about?
Problems in the play
- How does the flagrant defiance of the Aristotelian “dramatic unities” affect the play? Do you care? Should anyone care? What does the fragmentation of time and space do for us here?
- Do you relate to any of the characters as individuals? If so, to which ones? If not, is there some other way of apprehending the play?
- The possible disunity of composition. Do you sense that one part of it may be by a different author (as some have suggested)? If so, where do you think the seams are?
Contents of this page © Copyright 2008, 2011, 2014 by Bruce A. McMenomy.