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Pericles: A Modern Perspective

Marina Singing Before Pericles, 1825.
Marina Singing Before Pericles, 1825.

Pericles is a play haunted by loss. Sometimes loss is figured as a sudden and calamitous separation from one’s friends and belongings, as when Pericles at the top of the second act is washed ashore after a shipwreck at sea, hungry and cold, or when Thaisa, Pericles’ wife, wakes from death to find herself alone in a strange country. At other moments, loss is evoked through the death, or seeming death, of a close family member or friend. Pericles mourns his wife, and later his daughter, Marina; Marina, in turn, early brought on stage as a newborn, makes her first entrance as an adult in Act 4, grieving the loss of her nurse, Lychorida. For Marina, as for the rest of her family, the world seems “a lasting storm, / Whirring me from my friends” (4.1.21–22).

In Shakespeare’s tragedies, death tends to function as a terminus. Death may be shocking, but it imposes on the plot a sense of finality and closure. Yet the romances, among which Pericles is typically numbered, work to a different effect. Works in this genre, a troubling blend of comedy and tragedy to which Shakespeare turned late in his career, look beyond death to its painful aftermath. Death comes early and produces not “silence,” as Hamlet would have it, but desire.

In Pericles, this desire takes the form of a deep longing for the recovery of what has been lost. Such intense longing can bring with it danger, as we see in the play’s opening episodes set in the nightmarish fairy-tale kingdom of Antioch. Family lineage, naming, identity, and the desires prompted by loss—themes linked in such a startling manner at Antioch—shape the scenes that follow. But not everything that is lost remains beyond recovery. In seeking a wife, for example, Pericles is also seeking a father (more precisely, a father-in-law) to stand in place of his own father. Later, symbolically clad in his father’s armor—a token of his heritage lost to him through shipwreck, but fortuitously pulled from the sea—he finds in King Simonides at the court of Pentapolis “my father’s picture” (2.3.41). His marriage to Simonides’ daughter, Thaisa, is thus framed by a memory of personal loss.

Folger PericlesWhen Thaisa, much later, seems to die in childbirth, the grieving Pericles reproaches the gods, asking “Why do you make us love your goodly gifts / And snatch them straight away?” (3.1.25–26). But Fortune’s wheel continues to turn, eventually transforming even this adversity into good. Thaisa, buried by her husband at sea in Act 3, is found alive at the end of Act 5. Brought back to life either by magic or art, Thaisa remains dead to the story until she is recovered from the convent by her husband and daughter, thereby regaining both her identity within that family and her former place in the narrative as wife and mother. Such a sequence of events is not plausible outside of the theater; but neither are returns from death.

Pericles dramatizes not what we know will happen but what we wish could happen. Even in fantasy, however, the ending is tinged with sadness. The characters never get backthe lost years, and some deaths are irreversible. Pericles offers a bittersweet tale of suffering and loss eventually brought to a close with the achievement of a qualified happiness.

But the wished-for happy ending cannot entirely dispel problems encountered over the course of the play; and while deep desires prompted by loss are eventually fulfilled, the possibility of future loss remains ever-present. This tragicomic romance embraces within its closing tableau the potential for still more secrets, and further riddles.

Excerpted from the Folger Shakespeare Library Edition (New York: Washington Square Press, 2005). Available in print, e-book, and as a free, mobile-friendly version.

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