Shakespeare: Pericles

February 6, 2016

41CK9T+8zsL._AA160_This was the only Shakespeare play I’d never read before: I’ve no idea why. Someone urged me to read it, a few years back, and I’ve finally got around to it.

Firstly, it’s not all Shakespeare’s own work: it shows, both in the language and the construction, and also in the fact that there’s no really reliable text, only a single quarto apparently scribbled down during performance and immediately after by two different people. So there are plenty of parts that are unclear, or don’t make much or any sense at all.

Then, it feels like a throwback to a more primitive dramatic form: the action is shunted along by a chorus between the acts, aided by a dumb show sometimes, which prefigures the action. There are other times when Shakespeare uses devices like these – the sonnet at the start of Romeo and Juliet gives away the entire plot, for instance, and sixteen years time is magicked away between two acts of The Winter’s Tale – but not in this consistent fashion. Through the entire play, I had the impression of Shakespeare on an off day, capable of better than this.

The plot itself is very loose, and repetitive, full of sea journeys, shipwrecks and visits to various ancient Greek statelets. Aspects of it remind one of The Tempest and also The Winter’s Tale, and the play is part of that period of Shakespeare’s work labelled the late romances.

I suspect I’ve given the impression of a play that’s not really worth bothering with. It seems not to be performed very often, and there’s only one film version available, made as part of the BBC Shakespeare series because it had to be there… and yet, it is much more than this. As the play moved into its second half, it gripped me much more, and I got a sense of the scenes that Shakespeare must have authored: the astonishing brothel scenes, where the virginal Marina is supposed to be inducted into her new role, and the really powerful and moving scene where the aged and long-suffering Pericles is finally reunited with his long-lost daughter Marina. Here there are definite echoes of the Lear and Cordelia reunion scenes, though obviously Marina survives her ordeals. And Pericles is finally reunited with his wife, who he thought had died in childbirth…

I’m very glad I finally got  around to reading it, and clearly need to revisit it soon, to pick up on what I missed first time through.

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