Thoughts on “Pericles”

This play also seems to be more of a drama than a historical, although it is clearly not a tragedy.  The basic idea is that King Pericles has come to a city to appeal for the hand of that king’s beautiful daughter, and would have to solve a riddle before he could do so, and it is implied that if he doesn’t solve the riddle something bad happens to him, which is likely death.  He does, but the key is that the riddle reveals that the king and his daughter are in an incestuous relationship, which Pericles doesn’t approve of.  The king then decides that he cannot be left alive knowing and disapproving of that, and so sends out an assassin to kill him.  Pericles flees to Tarsus and then tries to move on but a shipwreck causes him to land in another land, where that king has another lovely daughter and another competition for her hand.  They are incestuous, though, and Pericles wins the competition and ends up marrying her.  At that time, the person he left behind to run his own country has been convinced to take over the city if Pericles cannot be found, so he is found and he and his wife and their soon-to-be-born daughter return to his city by sea.  Another storm during childbirth causes his wife to die and be tossed overboard, and Pericles in his grief leaves his daughter with the king and queen of Tarsus to be raised.  As it turns out, his wife wasn’t really dead and is revived by some kind of healer.  After this, the queen becomes jealous of the daughter — and especially with her constantly outshining her own daughter — and arranges for someone to kill the daughter, but pirates intervene and sell her to a brothel, but she won’t allow anyone to take her virginity — yes, that’s a very major part of the play — and so eventually convinces the brother owner to sell her for a noble servant.  Meanwhile, the queen lies to Pericles about his daughter’s death which sends him into despondency, which causes the nearby city to send for his daughter to help him, even though neither of them know about their relationship at the time.  When it comes out, they are overjoyed to be reunited, and the daughter is set to get married to a noble, and when they head to the temple of Diana for the wedding his wife is also there and the whole family is reunited.

I’m towards the end of Shakespeare’s career, and it’s clear that he’s polished his playwright skills.  This play, like the previous ones, is written quite well and the dialogue works, and he returns to having a narrator and to acting out some of the actions, which works a lot better than his previous attempts.  However, it is starting to look like he’s kinda running out of plot and characterizations to work with.  The plot is full of contrivances to both separate and reunite the family, which makes the drama weak, and we don’t really find out much about any of the characters to hang our hat on how they approach things.  The incestuous king and his daughter are killed horribly just to get them out of the way, the play at the end says that the king and queen of Tarsus will be punished despite the fact that the king didn’t seem to want to kill Pericles’ daughter and only kept it a secret to save his wife, given that they all believed she was dead, and finally the entire scene with the brothel is pointless and unnecessary.  The assassin himself could have shipped her off as a servant and we would have skipped an entire contrived situation where we have to believe that a brothel owner who was talking about raping the daughter pretty much when he bought her would let her go for months talking customers out of having sex with her without doing so when he seemed convinced that doing so would end that behaviour.

Ultimately, the plot is full of contrivances that make the reunification of the family at the end a bit hollow, but there’s no other plot than those contrivances and nothing else to provide drama.  Shakespeare can still right plays, but compared to his greater works the plot and characterization is quite weak here.

Up next is “Cymbeline”.


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