Shakespeare’s sources – Pericles

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Title page of The Painfull Aduentures of Pericles Prince of Tyre by George Wilkins

Continuing my series on Shakespeare’s sources I turn my attention to Pericles. This is a late play and almost certainly a collaboration, with either Thomas Heywood, George Wilkins, or John Day, though no one is certain. The main source for the play is John Gower’s, De Confessione Amantis (1554). Book 8 of this work seems to have given Shakespeare  the idea for the use of a narrator (whom he names Gower), who acts as a chorus in Pericles. In De Confessione Amantis  we also find the main outline of Shakespeare’s plot, the names of places and characters, and a number of passages in the play. The origins of Gower’s story are ancient, dating back at least to Greek literature.

It is interesting that Shakespeare changes the name of Gower’s main character from Apollonius to Pericles probably with a nod to Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia  and his character Pyrocles. But the most interesting name change is that of the narrator which changes from Gower’s Genius to Shakespeare’s Gower. Shakespeare not only borrows Gower’s name for the narrator but also his verse rhythms as Shakespeare’s Gower is given the rhyming couplets of the original source. This very overt homage to the author of his source text is unusual for Shakespeare and was perhaps the idea of his collaborator who ever that may have been. There are other patterns of adaptation however which are far more typical of Shakespeare’s use of his sources. For instance, the addition of a comic scene which shows a jousting tournament at the court which allows him to show the follies of the bombastic competitors. Shakespeare also makes his own story less simplistic in its moral conclusions leaving us with more to judge for ourselves.

Interestingly as an aside to the main story of adaptation there is another text closely related to Pericles and that is the Painfull Aduentures of Pericles Prince of Tyre by George Wilkins (who may have collaborated with Shakespeare on his version), published in 1608. Although the novel by Wilkins is not a direct source for the play, they clearly have a close relationship. Several passages in The Painfull Aduentures of Pericles seem to report a play, which may be Pericles, or another play which is now lost. But the relationship is so close that Wilkins’s novel has been used by modern editors of Pericles to help restore corrupt readings and to supplement stage directions in the quartos.

Next week will be the final blog in this series when we look at Shakespeare’s inspiration for Loves Labours Lost.

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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT

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