Why This Play?:
It is a truth universally acknowledged that most people are capable of revelatory thoughts while bathing. A few weeks ago, I was musing on the nature of Shakespeare’s romances while washing my hair. I mean, who doesn’t do that on the regular? I started to make connections between the three I’ve covered for this project already and the concept of forgiveness that pervades the romances. But of course, my fledgling idea could be stronger if I actually read the other two romances to see if there are further connections. So here we are, jumping right in!
Pericles is certainly a strange little fairy tale. I loved the steadfast Marina, how she works at retaining her innocence despite all the evil circumstances that are thrown her way. She still seeks to be good and to find and promote goodness in others. This play got me wondering: is forgiveness a part of the process when we keep someone from doing us harm…and something that we know they’ll later regret? We all need a conscience, after all.
So What Happens?:
Before the Bard’s time, a poet named John Gower wrote of Pericles, and Shakespeare (and George Wilkins) uses him here as a character/chorus of the play. Gower dives right in, introducing the viewer/reader to the kingdom of Antioch. King Antiochus is there engaging in incest with his princess daughter. [And BOOM – with that shocking intro, we know right off the bat that we’re in for a play unlike any Shakespeare had written up until that point. This was the first of the romances, after all.] The king strangely delight in inviting suitors to court his daughter – if a man can answer a riddle from the king he may have her hand in marriage, otherwise the suitor forfeits his life. To emphasize the point, Gower reveals a row of severed heads of failed suitors.
The Prince of Tyre, Pericles, has arrived in Antioch to try his hand at this contest for marriage. He is smitten with the beautiful princess…until he actually reads the king’s riddle. The poem has a clear answer: the king and his daughter are incestuous and take a sadistic pleasure in using it as fodder for a contest that no one will ever win. Their only shame is if this news were made public. When Antiochus demands an answer to the puzzle, Pericles demurs, stating “few love to hear the sins they love to act” and asking for some time to think before responding to the riddle. Antiochus grants him time but realizes that Pericles knows his secret. Disgusted and fearful for his life, Pericles escapes the kingdom as quickly and covertly as possible. Antiochus sends his best assassin, Thaliart, after him to stop Pericles from blabbing his sins to the rest of the world.
Back in his homeland of Tyre, Pericles is greatly disturbed by everything that’s just happened. He decides not to say anything to anyone for fear of starting a war with Antioch, but he ultimately confides the whole business to an older lord, Helicanus. Helicanus understands the danger and advises that the prince travel on to other lands to avoid trouble. Pericles hits the seas again, to save his own life and spare his people war with Antioch. He leaves Helicanus in charge while he’s gone, and just barely misses the arrival of Thaliart. The assassin is dismayed that Pericles has R-U-N-N-O-F-T; he knows he better not show his face back in Antioch without a corpse in tow. So he gladly accepts Helicanus’s offer to hang out in Tyre as a guest for a bit. Meanwhile, the land of Tarsus has been hit with a desperate famine. King Cleon and Queen Dionyza are at their wit’s end trying to feed their people. And wouldn’t you know it? Pericles sails on up and is happy to exchange a large gift of food for harbor from his troubles.
Gower continues his tale, telling us that Pericles is still on the run, never staying in one land too long out of fear for his enemies. This time, he becomes shipwrecked. He happens upon some fishermen who tell him that he’s in a place called Pentapolis, which is ruled by a kind king called Simonides. They’re all abuzz with news of the knights’ tournament he has set up presided over by the Princess Thaisa. Coincidentally, Pericles’s armor has just washed up on shore! He decides to enter, and he wins (as a mere gentleman, not revealing himself to be prince of Tyre). Thaisa is beautiful and very into him.
Speaking of Tyre, the people there are starting to get tired of their prince never actually being there. Helicanus receives happy news that Antiochus and his daughter died in a fire – no more threats from the creepy king means Pericles can return home! Good thing too, since the citizens of Tyre are now clamoring for Helicanus to be dubbed their official leader. The good man says they should give Pericles a full year to return home and reclaim his throne. In Pentapolis, King Simonides tells all the knights that his daughter will stay in Diana’s livery (meaning she’ll remain chaste) for a full year. He reveals Thaisa’s love to Pericles, even though he still isn’t aware the hero is a prince. The king is happy to have him as an in-law regardless.
Gower pops in to tell us that Pericles and Thaisa were married with much revelry. They’re now expecting their firstborn! Pericles hears about what’s been going on in Tyre, and he realizes he’s got to hurry back to his homeland if he wants to remain prince. Whoa! The citizens of Pentapolis now realize that their new prince is also a prince elsewhere! They send him and his bride off to sea to return and claim his title. Gower then describes the horrible storm thrashing their ship on the journey…just as Thaisa has gone into labor. Pericles is on deck praying to the gods to save them, when the nurse Lychorida brings his newborn daughter forth, as well as the tragic news that his wife perished in childbirth. The sailors tell Pericles that a dead body is bad luck on a ship, and they insist on tossing Thaisa overboard. Horrified, Pericles says goodbye to his wife and quickly determines sea is no place for a small baby. They strike a course for Tarsus, where grieving Pericles leaves baby Marina (along with Lychorisa) in the safe care of his old pals Cleon and Dionyza so he can make his way to Tyre and reclaim his throne.
Over in the land of Ephesus, a large chest has washed ashore. Some servants bring it to the local doctor, Cerimon. He opens it and finds Thaisa, who is too rosy and fresh to look like a corpse. Inside are also jewels and a note from Pericles requesting that if found, she be given the burial due to royalty. Cerimon does not believe her dead, and he tries to revive her with various potions. It works! Once awake, Thaisa grieves – she doesn’t think she will ever see her husband or baby ever again. She decides to commit herself to service of the goddess of chastity, Diana.
Gower reveals that 14 years have passed…Thaisa remains a nun, and Marina has grown to become a charming and lovely girl, still under the care of the leaders of Tarsus. Over these years, Dionyza has increasingly become aware that the people favor Marina over her own daughter, their princess. That does not fly with the queen, and she’s convinced herself the best way to be rid of Marina is to off her. When she encounters Marina mourning her recently deceased nurse, Dionyza suggests she takes a walk with Leonine (her friendly murder-for-hire guy). Once alone he goes to kill her, gentle Marina tries to talk him out of it, when suddenly PIRATES SWOOP IN AND BEAR HER AWAY.
In the land of Mytilene, Pander and his wife Bawd run a brothel with the help of their servant, Boult. Business hasn’t been booming lately, and they think a new girl may be just the ticket to draw customers back in. The pirates happen to be selling in the local market, so the brothel-owners pick up Marina as their new chattel. They even have a horrendous marketing ploy at the ready: they can sell her virginity to the highest bidder. Back in Tarsus, Dionyza and Cleon erect a large tomb as a show for their “mourning” for Marina (who they believe is dead). Gower presides over a dumb show: Pericles has finally returned to claim his daughter, he’s told she is dead, and in a fit of grief he returns to sea, swearing not to wash his face or cut his hair.
Bawd and Pander are upset that their new girl isn’t performing. Literally. Marina is still a virgin; she has managed to shame any potential clients away. When the governor of Mytiliene, Lysimachus, comes to call, Bawd instructs her to give in to her job. But Marina masterfully persuades Lysimachus that his lust and treatment of her are sinful and dishonorable, and he repents, even paying her gold for her preaching. Boult swears that he will have sex with her to subdue her into her role, but she talks him down as well. Honorable and clever Marina convinces Boult to move her to a new home where she can teach her skills of singing and sewing. So long, House of Ill Repute!
Pericles’s ship has blown off course onto Mytilene’s shores. Governor Lysimachus comes to inspect and learns from Helicanus (who’s since been in attendance on the King of Tyre while at sea) that Pericles has been a in a near-comatose state of grief. Lysimachus knows just who can help – he calls for Marina to be brought forth to keep the lonely king company. Once they are alone, Marina tries to forge a bond despite his efforts to spurn her. She tells her own sob story, revealing her royal parentage and how she came to Mytilene. Astounded, Pericles recognizes her resemblance to his long-gone wife…and then the girl reveals the names of her parents. Pericles breaks into rejoicing and informs her that he is her father. It’s a gorgeous reunion scene, as they both cry in happiness. In a dream later that night, Diana visits Pericles and tells him to strike for Ephesus and tell his tale there. Upon waking, he gives orders to the crew for their new travel plans – and Lysimachus asks for Marina’s hand. Pericles agrees, but they’ll be married all in good time – the king’s got some praying to do first.
Pericles and Marina (and their entire assorted crew of royal attendants and fiancé) arrive at the Temple of Diana in Ephesus. Pericles proclaims his name and story there in the presence of the nuns. One of them faints. Once awoken, she reveals herself to be his long-lost wife, Thaisa. It’s an embarrassment of riches, and everyone nearly bursts from happiness and the desire to know how they are all brought together again. The good doctor who revived Thaisa promises to tell the tale, and Pericles proclaims that he and his wife will rule over Pentapolis while their daughter and new husband will rule over Tyre. Goddess be praised! Oh, and Gower wraps up the whole ordeal, letting us know Cleon and Dionyza have received their just desserts (being mobbed by their people when they learned of the murder plot on Marina). Huzzah!
Check This Out:
My dudes, I’m slowly making a series of Spotify playlists of songs that just remind me of various Shakespeare plays. Here’s the one I cobbled together for Pericles.
Pericles has long been considered a weird play, and it’s had a bit of a resurgence in performance the past few years. Check out this excellent article from last year that consults famed director Trevor Nunn on the play.
In my last post, I wrote about renting recorded versions of stage productions through The Globe in London. Plenty of other reputable companies do the same thing – this time, I was able to watch a performance of Pericles by the Stratford Festival in Canada. Their rental process is a breeze; it’s done through Amazon’s streaming service ($4.99 with access to it for a week). (I also highly recommend their production of King John.) Check it out here. As for the show itself, it was well acted with interesting visuals (strong use of thrust stage). They replaced John Gower with a group of nuns serving Diana, who mostly served as a singing Chorus with the help of some of the characters themselves. If you have trouble visualizing this play when reading it, you’ll definitely want to check this out.
My Oxford Complete Works gives me a nice, fat hint from the very beginning that this is an unusual play. It’s the only work in the volume that is accompanied by its very own set of historical illustrations…although why they’re included is a mystery. There are some sketches of the goddess Diana, Robert Greene’s description of John Gower, an illustration of Gower by George Wilkins, and a lovely drawing of severed heads displayed on the London Bridge to make some vague connection to the failed suitors’ heads posted at Antioch. There’s no explanation in the book why this play and no other has pictures.
Thoughts and Themes:
The romances are, in total, a meditation on the various aspects of forgiveness and reconciliation. This isn’t a new idea, by any means. I don’t like to derive biography of the playwright from his works (any writer will tell you that their work is a shifting, slippery thing that blends aspects of their own real life with their imagination – not always seamlessly). But I’ll admit this: I am taken with the notion that a man who has some decades of life and career behind him goes through a period of writing that deals consistently with absolution and reconciliation, about the dangers of holding grudges. While these late plays aren’t the only ones in the canon that focus on mercy, they do go to very dramatic, magical, even miraculous lengths to show it.
Circle back to my intro, where I talked about thoughts in the shower. I like to think of the romances as a group examination on the concept of forgiveness, covering different aspects of the theme. It occurred to me, as I washed my hair, that each romance I’d covered for the blog thus far suggests a different approach to forgiveness; each demonstrates a different way forgiveness can be achieved or stage in the process. I was eager to read Pericles and see if my theory would continue to fit. My basic premise:
- The Winter’s Tale centers on the old adage “time heals all wounds”. In the longest stated time break in one of Shakespeare’s play (16 years; Pericles coming in second place at 14 years), Leontes is able to truly repent for his accusations against his wife and friend. Hermione (and Paulina, truth be told) is able to forgive him so they may happily reunite. This play demonstrates that time can lead to clemency.
- Cymbeline comes to a head in its final scene, when everyone is pulled on stage at the same time. This is an extreme method of ensuring that all the characters are capable of sharing their respective stories and hearing each other out. In this case, forgiveness stems from honest and open communication. Everyone gets the chance to speak his/her piece, to lay the full story out in the open and be heard by everyone else. Think of it this way: communication + listening = empathy à forgiveness
- The Tempest seems at first to take a harsh look at mercy: this play can easily be viewed as a megalomaniac’s need to control how everyone must atone so that he can make a show of magnanimity to them. But I think this play is ultimately about learning humility and how to forgive oneself. Prospero was a duke who allowed himself to be so consumed in his magical studies that it endangered his family and standing. He was cast out as a result of his hubris, and he then went on to become a tyrant on his little island. But in the end, he fully gives up his magic and all power in order to return to his old life and to provide a better one for his daughter. It’s certainly a humbling experience for a man who had thought so highly of his own intellect. The Tempest ends with a man repenting by giving up the knowledge he had worked to cultivate (thanks to Ariel reminding him of his humanity).
So how does Pericles fit into all this? I mean, this is a play where bad things happen to the hero, his wife, and his daughter through no fault of their own. There are scenes of reconciliation, but no confrontation of the people who have hurt them (nor scenes of direct forgiveness). What we do have are three strong scenes where Marina seeks to dissuade men from harming her. To go along with my theory, Pericles is an example of forgiveness for intent to harm. For want of a better term…pre-forgiveness.
Forgiving someone doesn’t mean you condone that person’s behavior or that somehow he or she is let off the hook without consequences for their crimes. It’s rather a willingness to move on from the crime, the option to let go of the anger and hurt that resulted from it. In Pericles there are plenty of bad guys. We have an incestuous and murderous king as well as a jealous queen who has also got murder on the brain. These characters receive their just desserts through circumstance – Pericles never seeks revenge on anyone. But then we have the almost bad guys, the men who have been hired to do someone else’s dirty work or who have sin in their hearts: Leonine, Boult, Lysimachus. These men all want to harm or take advantage of Marina. For them, she is simply the means to an end (fulfilling a royal command, a property to be broken in for an employer, a woman hired to satisfy lust). Marina endeavors to talk all of them out of committing the crimes they would against her…and is successful with Lysimachus and Boult by appealing to their inner hearts and better nature. When Lysimachus acknowledges his own monstrosity in wanting to take her virginity by force, he repents before Marina, even literally paying her for showing him his faults. Marina responds with pardon: “The good gods preserve you!” In my theory of romances showing us aspects of forgiveness, Pericles proves that we can pardon people for their intent to do ill by helping them to not see the act through. Keeping each other in check with our conscience is an act of mercy, of saying you know the other person can do better.
Parents screw up constantly; it’s both our biggest fear and reality. As a mother, I try every day to keep my own insecurities and annoyances and stresses separate from my dealings with my kids. But I’m human, and my kids are around me every single day. It’s stressful enough most of the time just having to care for yourself, but throwing dependent human beings into the mix? Sometimes my workload or messy home or hectic schedule or own tiredness backs up me. And I become a yeller – like, fully bellowing. It happens when we’re running late and the kids are being slow or uncooperative. It happens when we have a perfect storm of me feeling sick and them being whiny or stubborn. It happens when the house feels too small/dirty/loud and I long for alone time. And after each time I explode, I feel horrendous.
For me, it got to the point where I sought out parenting books from the library. The one that helped me most had me actually get my kids involved in solving my problem. Please understand, I have not made my kids into my own personal little Marinas, cowering in a corner fearfully pleading with me while I rage. Rather, we’ve talked about things that make us each frustrated and how to find the signs that any of us are on our way to being upset. We even borrowed a phrase from the book, “orange rhino”, which the kids now shout at me when I start blustering. It’s their simple way of reminding me to check myself before I wreck myself. They basically halt me from turning into a monster. In helping me to be better, in continuing to love me despite the times I’ve hurt their feelings or even scared them, they show me compassion. What an act of love and mercy, helping to serve as someone's conscience.