Monday, April 7, 2014

Oddities in Pericles Prince of Tyre

Pericles, Prince of Tyre

                      “Enjoyable” is usually too tame a word to describe a Shakespeare play but in some ways it fits Pericles.  It moves along quickly with some surprising twists and turns and it has a happy ending.
                      I wonder. How much did Shakespeare write and how much did someone else write?  I haven’t read the introduction to the Norton edition yet.  Maybe it will say something there. I’ll get back to that.
                      But my first spontaneous and uninfluenced reaction upon reading the play – this one is different!  And filled with small oddities, even by Shakespearean standards. So let’s take a look at them.
                      The first oddity is John Gower, the Presenter.  Why does he have a name? In the other plays this role is called the Chorus. This presenter tells an awful lot of the action that could have been shown on stage – storms and messages and murderous plots and righteous punishment. Rather dramatic things that could have made the play very exciting. Instead these are glossed over in rather simple rhyming couplets. But it certainly moves the action along and that in itself provides a lot of interesting surprises and makes it a quick read, if that’s what you want.
                      Another oddity is the incestuous relationship that got the whole intrigue started.  We have a king in an incestuous relationship with his daughter.  Why set the stage with this? And why does Pericles come to woo her, along with a lot of other princes? But he does and figures out from a rather obvious riddle that the king and princess are incestuous so his life is threatened and he flees.  King and princess are struck by the lightning of the gods for their sins and that’s the end of that. It all plays a rather small part in the story. Odd, don’t you think? As far as I can remember incest wasn’t so obviously used in other Shakespeare plays and although incest undoubtedly took place then as always, was it generally used as a toss-away intrigue starter? I don’t think so.
                      Next oddity. Shakespeare’s murderers often have pangs of conscience, not always, but sometimes, but the would-be assassin Thaliart is just relieved when he hears that Pericles has fled and he goes off with Pericles’s friends to party. A very small detail, I agree, but an odd one.
                      Dionyza is also a puzzle. In Scene 4 she is eloquent in responding to husband Cleon’s suggestion that they relate “tales of others’ griefs” brought on by the famine in the land to “see if ‘twill teach us to forget our own” (Scene 4).  She says

That were to blow at fire in hope to quench it,
For who digs hills because they do aspire
Throws down one mountain to cast up a higher.
O my distressèd lord, e’en such our griefs are;
Here they're but felt and seen with midge’s eyes,
But like to groves, being topped, they higher rise

I really felt for her here but then some fifteen years later she coolly plans on and seemingly succeeds in carrying out the murder of the daughter of the man who saved her and Cleon’s lives and that of their people. That’s treacherous, I’d say. I liked her and then I didn’t. It’s not unusual for Shakespeare’s villains to be likeable but I still found this odd. She really turns nasty in the end and there’s no sign of remorse or any hint of why she’s so awful.
                      Also a bit odd is the sincerity of the revolutionary speech of the fishermen. Shakespeare often slips in some incendiary class conflict into the lines of workers, peasants and craftsmen but usually the radical rhetoric is shouted by uncouth louts as if Shakespeare is sneaking a hint of politics past his aristocratic fans without arousing their irritation. Here the fishermen are nice serious fellows, rough but hardworking and kind, but they “would purge the land of these drones that rob the bee of her honey” and “Here’s them in our country of Greece gets more with begging than we can do with working” (Scene 5.) And Pericles, the wayward king, says, “God lads, I’ll join you.” (And then forgets them...)
                      In my notes made while reading the play I called Scene 9 “odd”. Here Thaisa has informed her father King Simonides that she’ll marry Pericles or lock herself up.  Simonides wants her to marry Pericles but has to pretend he doesn’t. Why?  Can’t he just say, “Oh good. Let’s have a wedding”? Apparently not.  And here follows a convoluted scene in which Simonides accuses Pericles of being a traitor for sneaking around wooing the princess and Pericles throws himself at Simonides’s merciful feet crying, “Not me! I wouldn’t do such a thing!”  Why is Pericles so humble? Anyway after a page or two of this Simonides says to the loving couple:

It pleaseth me so well that I will see you wed.
Then with what haste you can, get you to bed. (Scene 9)

Subtle, old King Simonides.
                      So they get married, Pericles is called back to Tyre to be king there, Thaisa has a baby aboard ship during a storm and dies in childbirth (she doesn’t really) and Pericles gives the baby to his old friends (they’re not really) Cleon and Dionyza to raise and continues on his journey to Tyre wifeless and daughterless and grieving.  It was of course perfectly natural for a widowed father to leave his infant in the care of others. Nobles always left the rearing of their children to others. But it seemed odd to me that Pericles doesn’t show any interest whatsoever in staying in contact with baby/ child Marina. He certainly should have, as things develop.  Marina grows up beautiful and talented in many skills, Dionyza is jealous for her own daughter’s sake, tries to have Marina murdered but the girl is kidnapped by pirates and ends up in a brothel where she’s so virtuous and eloquent that she talks everyone involved into giving up debauchery and she and Pericles and Thaisa are happily reunited.  It really does all happen nearly this quickly in the play too.
                      Two more oddities: Unlike in all of Shakespeare’s other plays where the major – and often minor – characters are a complex mixture of good and evil and have unclear but often painful motivations for somewhat less than noble deeds – the characters of Pericles are quite simple. Good or evil. Sinful or virtuous. And unlike nearly all of Shakespeare’s parents, Pericles and Thaisa – other than giving up very easily – are really very kind and loving towards Marina in the few minutes they’re together.
                      Hmmm. What to do with all these oddities? It’s time to read the Norton intro and other scholarly texts for help.
                      First to the question of how much of Pericles was written by Shakespeare. It seems to be agreed that the first two acts (Scenes 1-9 in the Norton edition) were not written by Shakespeare but by George Wilkins. Professor Bloom goes so far as to say that these two acts are “dreadfully expressed and cannot have been Shakespeare’s” but were written by Wilkins, “a lowlife hack, possibly a Shakespearean hanger-on” and “an unsavory fellow”. Shakespeare tossed the idea of the first two acts to Wilkins then “compensated by making the remaining three acts into his most radical theatrical experiment since the mature Hamlet” (pages 603-605).  Professor H.W. Fawkner, on the other hand, suggests that the writer of these scenes is in fact Shakespeare. “Is not Shakespeare’s real collaborator here Shakespeare himself? Could he not have collaborated with a fellow writer and with himself?  And could he not have collapsed those two collaborations into one another: not only technically, but metaphysically?” (page 29). Shakespeare, Fawkner suggests, has “cancelled” his own “[a]uthorial self-presence and the name of creative shattering” (page 27).  If you had to read these sentences a few times and still have a hard time making sense of them, well, that’s Fawkner for you.  He was one of my professors at the university and he rarely made much sense. I’m surprised he didn’t ruin Shakespeare for me forever.
                      On to Gower.  That oddity is quickly explained. The historical John Gower lived and wrote Confessio Amantis in the 14th century. It was Shakespeare’s main source for Pericles.  Shakespeare also retains the medieval form of episodic narration of the play (Norton, page 2723-2724). Enough said.
                      More interesting is the oddity of the incest.  Walter Cohen, who wrote the Norton intro, explores the idea, promoted by some scholars, that the incest of Antiochus and his daughter mirrors “an overtone of incest” (page 2729) in the relationship between Pericles and Marina, a very pure relationship. Cohen puts this into a general view that the play is, in the manner of the medieval mystery plays, filled with Christian symbolism (pages 2729-30). Bloom disagrees. He dismisses the incest question as unimportant: “Doubtless there is an implied contrast between incest and chaste father-daughter love but it is too obvious for critical labor” (page 611).
                      On the notion of Pericles as a Christian play Bloom writes, “Shakespeare avoids the patterns of Christian miracle plays...the divinity that haunts Shakespeare’s late romances is located by him outside the Christian tradition” (page 608).  For once I agree with Bloom and not with Cohen. (That doesn’t happen often).
                      It seems that I’m the only one to find Thaliart and Dionyza to be oddities. They’re hardly mentioned in my books though Cohen wonders why “the play does not explain why Pericles leaves his daughter at Tarsus or why Dionyza, eager to be rid of Marina, does not consider sending her home instead of murdering her” (page 2727).  Several other of my “oddities” are ignored or glossed over so let me move on to the question of the simplicity of the characters.
                      As we have seen, Cohen attributes this in part to what he sees as the play’s similarity to the medieval mystery plays and writes that the play’s theatricality encourages “the audience to view events from a certain distance, to attend to the larger pattern that unfolds rather than becoming emotionally engaged...” (page 2724). Not only events – he might have added characters.
                      Bloom puts it more bluntly: “It would be absurd to ask, What sort of personality does Pericles possess?...none whatsoever. Even Marina has every virtue but no personality...their relationship is all that interests Shakespeare” (page 604).  No personality, OK. One might ask, however, what relationship?  Shakespeare sees to it that they don’t have one!
                      Bloom again touches on the lack of character depth when pointing out that this play is “very peculiar” (page 603) and emphasizes “how different Pericles is from the more than thirty plays preceding it” (page 606).  Bloom comes close to echoing Fawkner (in tone and meaning and obscurity) when he writes of “the sense of Shakespeare’s knowing abnegation of inwardness” (page 606). One cannot now “read Pericles without the awareness that the creator of Hamlet, Falstaff and Cleopatra  is giving us a protagonist who is merely a cipher, a name upon a page.  Wonder is always where one starts and ends with Shakespeare, and Shakespeare himself, as poet-playwright, is the largest provocation to wonder in Pericles” (page 606).
                      Well, that cleared things right up. Or didn’t. Fawkner puts it simply (for him): “Pericles - a Shakespearan world free from Shakespeare fever” (page 60).
                      I can’t say that my view of Pericles is all that much clearer now. A couple of my questions have been answered but most of the oddities remain.
                      That’s all right. Shakespeare doesn’t have to be explained or understood. Maybe “enjoyed” isn’t such a bad word after all.
                      Now it’s time to watch the BBC production. I intend to enjoy it, oddities and all.

Works cited:
  • The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen et al. Second edition. 2008.
  • Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare – the Invention of the Human. 1998.
  • Cohen, Walter.  “Introduction” in The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition.
  • Fawkner, H.W. Shakespeare’s Miracle Plays – Pericles, Cymberline and The Winter’s Tale. 1992.
Films seen:
  • Pericles, Prince of Tyre, BBC, 1984. Director: David Jones. Cast:  Pericles – Mike Gwilym; Gower – Edward Petherbridge; Thaisa – Juliet Stevenson; Marina –Amanda Redman; Simonides – Patrick Allen; Lysimachus – Patrick Ryecart; Dionyza – Annette Crosbie; Boult – Trevor Peacock.  One of the best of the box! Mike Gwilym, Juliet Stevenson and Amanda Redman are all excellent in their roles, as in fact is the whole cast. This is one of the later productions in the BBC project, maybe that’s why it’s so much better than many of the others.  I did indeed enjoy it.
Seen on stage:
  • Sadly, no.


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