Pericles was wildly popular during Shakespeare’s lifetime and in the decades following; indeed, it was among his most popular works. It was the play that reopened the London Globe Theatre in 1631 after it was shuttered because of the Plague. And it was the first Shakespeare play performed when the theatres reopened at the beginning of the Restoration after years of Puritan closure.
With its themes of survival, loss, maturation and reconciliation, it is little accident that Pericles offered an opportunity for audiences to come together and understand themselves and their place in an arbitrary and unjust universe just a little better.
The play then fell into disregard, as the piece baffled (and continues to baffle) scholars and critics by its refusal to fit into traditional orthodoxies of what constitutes a well-made play. The play is only troublesome if one insists on its behaving like other plays. Seen on its own terms, Pericles is a playful, funny, moving, and powerful meditation on what it is to be human.
T.S. Eliot called it “that very great play, Pericles,” and I am in agreement. The play is both under known and undervalued. It is a powerful story that belongs to a folk tradition, a tale that is both spoken text and song and passed from generation to generation. And its message, finally, is one of healing. Our narrator, Gower, tells us that “Lords and Ladies in their lives / Have read it for restoratives.” I certainly have read it in exactly that way, and it has been a pleasure crafting this piece with such extraordinarily collaborators.
“To sing a song that old was sung” is the first line of the play; and so begins our journey.
– Joseph Haj