The Plays We Overlook: Pericles, Prince of Tyre

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Pericles has a claim to be Shakespeare’s most overlooked play. Nonprofessional Shakespeareans are likely never to have seen, read, or even heard of it. It is among the last plays to have entered the canon. The text is notoriously corrupt. And the consensus that it is a collaboration is among the firmest for any of Shakespeare’s plays.

Overlooked—and underrated. Pericles is full of brilliant scenes that echo the masterpieces Shakespeare produced at more or less the same time. The brothel scenes in Act 4 stand comparison with those in Measure for Measure. A shipwreck (the second of two) costs Pericles his wife and daughter, setting up a recognition scene much like that in The Winter’s Tale. Cleon and Dionyza’s argument in Act 4 Scene 3 parallels Macbeth’s with Lady Macbeth over the plan to murder Duncan. And so on. Perhaps Pericles was a laboratory in which Shakespeare experimented with and refined his motifs.

It’s true that Pericles reads as episodic and a bit disjointed. Why two shipwrecks?  The use of the medieval poet John Gower as Chorus papers over the narrative problem with the way the characters bounce around between Antioch, Tyre, Ephesus, Tarsus, Mytilene, and Pentapolis, and allows all the villains to be punished offstage. There is not much real peril, either; we are in little doubt at any point that Pericles, his wife Thaisa, and their daughter Marina will be reunited. But in my view these apparent problems are indications of what is most exciting about Pericles; it marks Shakespeare’s decisive shift, so apparent in Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest, toward the fairy or folk-tale.

Finally, a word about Shakespeare’s probable collaborator. George Wilkins was a nasty piece of work: thief, abuser of women (he was once charged with kicking a pregnant woman in the stomach), brothel-keeper. His rap sheet takes up almost three pages in Charles Nicholl’s The Lodger Shakespeare. My favourite thing about the otherwise mediocre BBC biopic, A Waste of Shame, was its making Wilkins the keeper of the brothel to which Shakespeare brings young William Herbert and where they both enjoy the favours of Lucy Negro, a fictional Dark Lady.

Shakespeare and Wilkins certainly knew each other; they both gave testimony in the Mountjoy-Belott lawsuit, and I for one much prefer the image of the King’s Playwright consorting with—collaborating with! —a pander to that of the social-climbing Jacobean courtier presented, for example, recently by Simon Schama.

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Author:James Cappio

James Cappio has taught philosophy in the Ivy League, practiced law on Wall Street, and now works as an independent writer and editor. Inspired by P.G. Wodehouse’s example to read all of Shakespeare's works within one year (2009–2010), he has been blogging about his passion ever since at shakesyear.wordpress.com.

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