Book Review: Pericles

Pericles, by William Shakespeare, edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen

Pericles is one of the most obscure of Shakespreare’s plays, not least because it was (likely) written in collaboration with George Wilkins who was a vastly inferior playwright.  In addition, Pericles is a tragicomedy whose episodic nature plays well in the theater but not as well in the text, in particular its first two acts.  Yet although Pericles is without a doubt a flawed play, it demonstrates that Shakespeare was a compelling enough script doctor to be able to take the first two acts written by Wilkins and turn them into something deeply interesting.  I’m a bardophile [1], and this play is definitely a worthwhile test of whether someone is really on-board with Shakespeare as a playwright, showing how he can take inferior starting material and without doing violence to that text turn something that is at best mediocre into something that has genuine pathos and speaks some dark and serious truths about human existence and the problems of political power and sexuality.  Unsurprisingly, this play is one whose continued viability in the repertoire marks it as a minor but ultimately worthwhile effort on Shakespeare’s part.

As one might imagine, this book is not only about the play (which takes up less than half of the pages here) but about the play in the context of its critical reception and its staging.  The book begins with a discussion of the textual problem of Pericles, given that it is only found in a bad quarto version, and a discussion of how the play has fared at the hands of critics who have thought of it as a late play and a romance and as an inferior collaboration, especially in its first two creaky acts.  After this the play is given in its usual five act style, showing a strong chorus figure in Gower who summarizes the episodic plot in eight scenes interspersed with the action of the play.  After the text there are some textual notes, a scene-by-scene analysis, and some discussions about the performance of Pericles that, in my opinion, really make this book shine.  There is a discussion of Pericles in performance in the RSC and beyond, featuring some interviews with directors and an actress who discussed their philosophies and ways of handling the text.  The book then includes a discussion of Shakespeare’s career in the theater, a chronology of his works and a suggestion of books for further reading.

Is Pericles one of Shakespeare’s best plays?  I would not say so myself, but I say that sometimes it is the lesser works of a writer that often reveal their true greatness at work.  Here we see a case study of Shakespeare as someone who can take the imperfect beginning of another playwright and make something magical in the last three acts out of a pedestrian beginning.  Shakespeare’s skill at working with someone else’s original and partially finished materials made for a crowd-pleasing drama that still provokes people to reflect on the relationship of this play to the suitability of showing incest, the threat of rape and forced prostitution on virtuous but powerless exiles, the nature of political power and those who are reluctant to wield it despite having both the right and the ability to do so or those who abuse their power to cover up their sins and faults, and the nature of living as a refugee in a dangerous and complex world.  All of these are themes that remain worth investigating today, which add some heft to the play’s relevance and importance.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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