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Pericles Dramaturg’s Notes

Folger Resident Dramaturg, Michele Osherow
Folger Resident Dramaturg, Michele Osherow

Pericles, Prince of Tyre is unusual among Shakespeare’s plays. The hero travels Odysseus-like from place to place on a fantastical quest to showcase honor, announce virtue, and dodge the fury of a perverse king.

Pericles is poised for success; his name is Greek for “far-famed.” But for this hero, the readiness is not all. Despite the Prince’s good intentions, his choices are imperfect, his judgment sometimes flawed. We do not blame so much as feel for the young man who comes face to face with natural and other disasters, fiends, fisherman, hustlers, and higher powers.

Throughout, Pericles is as dumbstruck by occurrences as we are. But that’s what happens when narrative is left to a poet. In appointing “ancient Gower” as guide, Shakespeare sets a course for medieval romance. John Gower, friend and rival to Chaucer, provided the source text for Pericles in his Confessio Amantis(1390). Gower’s running chronicle on stage alerts us to storytelling and of the ways stories connect individuals separated by place and time. “To sing a song that old was sung,” is Gower’s gentle aim; we’ll see how similar performances deliver the distant and the dead. The poet’s initial “song”— one of several set to music in director Joe Haj’s enchanting production—inclines our ears to hear, and broadens our engagement with the play’s stylized language.

Gower admits deficiencies in his account and directs us to assist by bending our minds, pardoning crimes, turning our thoughts and fancies. We’ve seen this move in Henry V, when the chorus requires that we work our “imaginary forces.”Gower’s attentions to his own activities alongside those of actors and audience underscore the play’s collaborative origins. This is one of several works Shakespeare co-authored; the less-seasoned George Wilkins is largely credited with Acts 1 and 2.

Perhaps because of this, varied sensibilities play out in Pericles himself: from the naïve Prince who arguably seeks a father more than he does a wife, to the aging King whose burdens are so great that his tongue buckles beneath them. He chooses silence for a time, unable to influence even his own story.

The broken hero does not grieve lost titles or kingdoms. What undoes Pericles is what undoes us all: the loss of family. His decision to settle in as Tyre’s king leaves him wretched. The duty of a sovereign is up for review, but under greater scrutiny is the obligation of a father. Too often in this play fathers are shockingly inadequate. There’s no justification for Antiochus’ horrifying lechery or Cleon’s consent to his wife’s twisted nurturing. Pericles, too, is not blameless; one might say that he did not lose his daughter so much as give her away. But romance is a genre that permits recovery.  And Pericles, Shakespeare’s first, toys with recovery early on.

In Act 2, a tempest-tossed Pericles recovers his father’s shield and thanks fortune for the ability to “repair” himself. Pericles is re-pered, or re-fathered, by this; he recalls his father’s wishes and uses the armor for protection. Pericles leaves no buckler for his baby girl when he deposits her at Tarsus. Instead, she’ll arm herself with inherited nobility, boasting of “ancestors / Who stood equivalent with mighty kings.”

Marina’s sense of her father is based on others’ knowledge—on their singing of old songs—rather than on her own experience. And that won’t do. We’re told that the girl is Pericles’ “life’s delight,” but his loving from a distance does nothing to preserve her. Reuniting is essential for father and daughter both. Within seconds of encountering Marina, the diminished King shows signs of revival. That’s just the start of recoveries to come.

Critics refer to the play as fantastical and fairytale-like. Certainly the incredible events, coincidences, and intrusions by gods and pirates contribute to an otherworldly effect. But within that other world, it’s the familiar that’s most compelling. For Pericles, a wife’s presence trumps a goddess’s. He professes to be made new by conversation with his child. And we believe him. It is not so improbable, is it, to locate the music of the spheres in a familiar voice or to recover through our daughters’ tales?

– Michele Osherow

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