Overall, the production was a decent attempt at a bloody difficult play.
Prologue: spoken by old Gower in iambic tetrameter: The king of Antioch is having an incestuous relationship with his daughter. She is so beautiful that lots of princes try for her hand; they have to answer a riddle which alludes to the incest; if they fail to guess it right they die.
Act One: Pericles discovers that the princess he fancies is having an incestuous relationship with her father King of Antioch. He realises that this is going to make the King fear him, and hate him, and
"Murder's as near to lust as flame to smoke"The King pretends to be nice but Pericles realises
"'Tis time to fear when tyrants seem to kiss."so he decides to flee to Tyre. But even there he isn't safe.
Pericles flees to Tyre but, realising that Antioch might invade to silence him and tailed by assassin Thaliard (who when he gets to Tyre finds Pericles has gone sailing and decides he will probably die at sea so gives up the search), moves on to Tarsus where there is a famine. The King Cleon is on the beach with his wife Dionyza; Cleon decides to go among the starving people and share their woes so they might feel solace in companionship although the waspish Dionyza sneers:
"That were to blow at fire in hope to quench it."In the nick of time Pericles and his ships arrive with supplies.
Act Two: Pericles is shipwrecked at Pentapolis whose king just happens to have a beautiful daughter whose hand Pericles wins at a knightly tournament. meanwhile we hear that Antiochus and his daughter/ mistress have been killed by a bolt of lightning and that the Lords in Tyre want Helicanus to be King in place of the absent Pericles. This was the bit with the rather silly knightly tournament and dancing at the subsequent ball. It started with the fisherfolk finding Pericles on the beach which included some great knockabout humour but little of this Act served to advance the plot of elucidate the characters.
"Opinion's but a fool, that makes us scan
The outward habit by the inward man."Act Three: does the hard work. Again it is introduced by Gower. Pericles has married Thalia; she is pregnant. The letter from Tyre reaches them telling P that Antiochus is dead and Helicanus is, for the present, refusing the throne. P and his wife set out by sea for Tyre. But a storm blows up:
"the grisly north
Disgorges such a tempest forth"The nurse brings him the baby and tells him that his wife has died in child-birth.
"O you gods!
Why do you make us love your goodly gifts,
And snatch them straight away?"The sailors tell Pericles that the only way to calm the storm is to tip the corpse overboard. They have a sealed chest which will act as a coffin. P assents and tells them to make for Tarsus because the baby won't survive until they reach Tyre. He leaves newly named Marina there. But the chest comes ashore at Ephesus where the lord, who trained in medicine, revives Thalia.
"Virtue and cunning were endowments greater
Than nobleness and riches: careless heirs
May the latter two darken and expend;
But immortality attends the former,
Making a man a god."So at the end of the act we have Thalia serving the temple of Diana in Ephesus, thinking Pericles and the baby dead, Marina in Tarsus and Pericles on his way back to Tyre, having sworn to Diana not to cut his hair till Marina be married.
Act Four: Gower comes on again to tell us that that Marina is such a great kid that she well outshines the King's own daughter so the Queen, jealous, hires a murderer to kill Marina. But just as he is about to kill her, pirates kidnap her and sell her to a brothel in Mytilene.
The pander and the bawd have a problem: too many customers and too few whores. So they get their servant to buy Miranda from the pirates. The bawd will try to teach her the ropes though she foresees problems:
"You're a young foolish sapling, and must be bowed as I would have you."
The servant asks for 'commission':
"If I have bargained for the joint .../ Thou mayst cut a morsel off the spit."
Miranda hopes to kill herself.
Meanwhile Cleon rages at his wife for killing Marina and she rages back at him for being a pussy.
"such a piece of slaughter
The sun and moon ne'er looked upon!"This argument between man and wife is at last worthy of Shakespeare. She is ashamed of his cowardice, he is ashamed of her lack of honour. But as she points out:
"Yet none does know, but you, how she came dead,
Nor none can known, Leonine being gone."And then she plays the angry jealous mother:
"She did disdain my child, and stood between
Her and her fortunes: none would look on her
But cast their gazes on Marina's face;
Whilst ours was blurted at and made a malkin [slattern]
Not worth the time of day. It pierced me through"Cleon tells her:
"Thou art like the harpy,
Which, to betray, dost, with thine angel's face,
Seize with thine talons."But as Dionyza remarks
"But yet I know you'll do as I advise."
When Pericles finds out his daughter is dead he is distraught. But Miranda is busy persuading the bad folks of Mytilene to preserve her honour. The governor of Mytilene goes to the brothel for a virgin but Miranda persuades him not to. He pays her anyway. She uses the money to persuade Boult the doorkeeper to find her a job teaching in an honest house.
Act Five: In a wonderful scene Pericles goes mad with joy on being reunited with Marina. At first he disbelieves her:
"O, I am mock'd,
And thou by some incensed god sent hither
To make the world to laugh at me.
This is the rarest dream that e'er dull sleep
Did mock sad fools withal: this cannot be:
My daughter's buried."But when he believes he becomes almost incoherent with joy:
"Give me a gash, put me to present pain;
Lest this great sea of joys rushing upon me
O'ergear the shores of my mortality,
And drown me with their sweetness."
and Shakespeare treats us to a wonderful moment of a man hearing music, ordering people about, exulting, and falling asleep, exhausted by happiness.
"Give me my robes. I am wild in my beholding.
O heavens bless my girl! But, hark, what music?
The music of the spheres!
Rarest sounds! Do ye not hear?
Most heavenly music!
It nips me unto listening, and thick slumber
Hangs upon mine eyes: let me rest."Then he goes to Ephesus and finds Thaisa and everyone is happy ever after (except for Mr and Mrs Cleon who are burned in their palace.
This is a fascinating play. It breaks all the rules. There are so many locations that it stretches theatrical incredulity to breaking point; furthermore the first few scenes in Antioch and the first wooing by Pericles have very little relation to the rest of the play (Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch in Shakespeare's Workmanship suggests that the first two acts make up a stand-alone plot which has “scarce anything to do with the story, and no necessary bearing on it whatsoever” and that it is to Shakespeare's credit that he took this botched job by Wilkins and turned it into what became a popular triumph) and the time scale (Pericles leaves his new born daughter in Tyre for fourteen years before deciding to reclaim her) is ludicrous. Even for Shakespeare who really could write a plot this is poor stuff.
The narrator was a real person. John Gower was a contemporary of Chaucer who wrote the poem, in tetrameters, that the play is based on. He introduces every act, appears sometimes mid-act in a scene and normally but not always speaks in rhyming tetrameter couplets. He also uses a number of old-fashioned words as if he really is contemporary with Chaucer. The frenetic scene changing of the play needs such a character.
They say that the first half was written by George Wilkins and that Shakespeare came on from Act Three. Certainly Act Five Scene One is the best bit of it. But it is also said that the text we have is probably corrupt and may have been stiutched together from ear-witness copies.
Other Shakespeare plays reviewed in this blog include (productions mentioned in parentheses; RSC = Royal Shakespeare Company; NT = National Theatre):
- Timon of Athens (RSC 2019)
- As You Like It (RSC 2019)
- Antony and Cleopatra (NT 2019)
- Richard II (NT 2019)
- Merry Wives of Windsor (RSC 2018)
- Romeo and Juliet
- Macbeth (RSC 2019)
- A Midsummer Night's Dream (Lazarus, 2018)
- Hamlet (RSC 2013, RSC 2018)
- The Taming of the Shrew
- Cymbeline (RSC 2016)
- King Lear (RSC 2016, BBC 2018)
- A Winter's Tale (RADA 2016, Branagh 2019)
- The Tempest (RSC 2017, Royal Northapton 2016, Lazarus 2019)
- Othello (Tower Theatre 2015)
- Measure for Measure (Young Vic 2015; RSC 2019)