Sunday, March 27, 2011

Discussion: Pericles

The play: Pericles

The plot tweet: Once upon a time, characters faced incest, murderous plots, shipwrecks, pirates, prostitutes and resurrections. They lived happily ever after.

My favorite line:
... You gods, your present kindness
Makes my past miseries sports. You shall do well,
That on the touching of her lips I may
Melt and no more be seen. O come, be buried
A second time within these arms.


Let's start with the obvious: The first two acts of Pericles are ghastly -- and almost certainly not by Shakespeare. Even when Shakespeare does show up, in Act III, the plot remains ridiculously improbable.

Consider just Marina's story for a moment: She is born during a tempest at sea, and her mother dies in childbirth; she is placed with a king and queen who later plot her death; her attempted murder is thwarted by pirates, who sell her into a brothel; she preserves her chastity by converting all of her would-be clients -- including her future husband -- to a more virtuous life; she encounters her father on a diplomatic mission; she later reunites with her "resurrected" mother at a temple of Diana. This has to be one of the most outlandish plots in Shakespeare.

Beyond that, so many of the plot twists in Pericles could be solved by sending a letter or a messenger. Pericles could say, "Hey, I've been shipwrecked. Send me some money." Thaisa could say, "Hey, I'm not dead. Come get me." Marina could say, "Hey, Dad, I've been sold into sexual slavery by pirates. Come rescue me." These are some very practical solutions, so why don't the characters use them?

Here's why: We're not in Kansas anymore. With Shakespeare's late romances, we're now squarely in the realm of fairy tale, where good overcomes evil and everyone lives happily ever after. I love the idea that, as Shakespeare aged, he granted his characters opportunities for redemption, reconciliation and reunion.

In the past few weeks, we've seen Shakespeare retreat from his creation of in-depth characters; he will never create another Falstaff or Hamlet. Here, in the late romances, he instead focuses on relationships -- parent and child (especially father and daughter), husband and wife, servant and master.

Many professional scholars scorn the idea that we can make inferences about Shakespeare's biography based on the themes in his plays. But, I can't resist thinking about the personal life of the artist. At this point, Shakespeare has been living in London for many years, with his wife and two daughters -- now grown, one with a child of her own -- back in Stratford. (His son has died already.) Shakespeare has almost certainly missed many milestones of his daughters' lives and may have seriously strained his marriage. Now, as he considers his imminent retirement and return to Stratford, is it any surprise that he begins to focus less on individuals and more on relationships, reunion and (as we'll see more clearly in The Winter's Tale) forgiveness?

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