Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Pericles - Shakespeare

Near the end of his career, Shakespeare wrote five plays that are comedies, but somewhat different than the ones that he had written earlier.  These plays are often called 'Romances' or 'Late Romances'.  (The Wikipedia entry that I've linked is a pretty good explainer as to why they are treated differently than the earlier plays.)  The first of the romances is 'Pericles, Prince of Tyre'.

'Pericles' is told as something of a whirlwind of action.  The play opens with Pericles trying to marry the daughter of the king of Antioch.  The king forces all suitors to answer a riddle about the princess that reveals that she was forced into incest with the king.  Pericles guesses the answer but is horrified to say it to the king's face.  He demurs and asks for time to answer.  The king grants this and then tries to have Pericles killed.
Pericles flees to his home in Tyre and then flees again to go overseas.  He and his men go to Tharsus where they help relieve a famine.  He then leaves again and his ship is wrecked.  He is the only survivor and is cast up on the shore of Pentapolis.
He is penniless and enters a tournament for the hand of the daughter of the king of Pentapolis, Thaisa.  Thaisa likes the look of him and the king calls off the tournament and Pericles and Thaisa are married.
Some time later Pericles learns that the king of Antioch has died and he must hurry home or be thought dead and no longer be the prince of Tyre.  He leaves with Thaisa but another storm disturbs them.  During the storm, Thaisa gives birth and is thought dead.  The sailors convince Pericles to throw her overboard, which he does after sealing her in a coffin with jewels and a note.
The body washes up in Mytilene and it is quickly discovered that Thaisa is not dead.  She fears that the rest of the ship must have broken up and Pericles must be dead.  She is taken to a temple of Diana to serve there.
Meanwhile, Pericles has sailed back to Tharsus and left the baby there.  (He doesn't have any milk to give her.)  The baby is named Marina, as a nod to her birth on the ocean.  Marina is raised there but the queen thinks that her beauty is crowding out that of the princess and the queen plots to kill her.  This murder is interrupted by pirates (really) and Marina is sold to a brothel in Ephesus.
In the brothel, Marina refuses to be corrupted.  She talks client after client out of taking her virginity.  She even gets the chance to impress Cerimon, one of the nobles of the city.
After all of this time has passed, Pericles has gone back to Tharsus to pick up his daughter.  There, he is told that she has died.  In grief he sails away.  He happens to sail past Ephesus where Cerimon meets him.  Cerimon tries to lighten his mood by presenting the excellent girl Marina.  Father and daughter meet and are thrilled.  They then sail to Mytilene and find Thaisa.  The family is all reunited.

As I said, it's a whirlwind.  It feels crazy busy.  At least, it reads that way.  Maybe it settles down when actually played on a stage.  The action is built on coincidences, like in most of the comedies.  The ending is happy, like in the comedies.  However, it doesn't seem happy.  The family has been split by tragedy after tragedy.  Even as they are reunited, we feel the years that they have senselessly lost. 
In some ways, this felt to me like a rewrite of 'Comedy of Errors'.  That play opens with six family members split up into four groups and scattered away from each other.  They have a series of chance encounters that all bring them back together and it all ends happily.  In both plays, the mother is the last one to be involved and she has been biding her time in a religious order.
But 'Comedy of Errors' seems to fit better in its setting.  Instead of half a dozen different Mediterranean ports, there is only one.  The action all takes place within one day.  And the stakes seem lower.  It is much, much easier to see happiness on the horizon.

No comments:

Post a Comment