Pericles is a Bill Cosby Coogi sweater. A dizzying riot of multicolored threads that, in their novelty, initially seem interesting, but ultimately are no more than a messy olio. Impossible to follow any one thread in particular, the effort is a bit nauseating. Many of the threads, which Shakespeare often weaves into his tales, could make a strong yarn of their own. But here, cut too short, they don’t:
- Father/Daughter Relationships: Shakespeare often explores their facets and nuances in the Romances and beyond. Lear’s relationship with his three girls, and Polonius’s with Ophelia are fascinating and thought-provoking. But in Pericles there’s not much to unravel. When we do (speaking of sexual misconduct) we find incest and abandonment. When Pericles reunites with the daughter he abandoned at birth, who he believes has subsequently been murdered, he seems more concerned with grooming (he must look like Tom Hanks well into Castaway at this point) than with reconnecting with Marina: “And now/This ornament/Makes me look dismal will I clip to form,/And what this fourteen years no razor touch’d” (V,iii,72-5) He is overjoyed and emotional, but it’s all about him.
- Stormy Seas as Character/Plot Device: Shakespeare explores the ‘life aquatic’ in many plays. The seas figure heavily into Twelfth Night, The Tempest, Othello, and King Lear. But here, the tidal wave of nautical scenes and references overwhelms. Much of the action takes place aboard one vessel or another, and nearly everyone gets washed ashore at some point in varying states of disrepair. Pericles’ daughter Marina is born below deck and named for the sea. Gower, the ‘chorus’ (Dramatis Personae), overtly likens the physical tempest with Pericles’ mental torment: “He bears/A tempest, which his mortal vessel tears,/Yet he rides it out.” (IV,iv,29-31) But honestly, all the sea really does in Pericles is toss us mercilessly from location to location (six in all) around the Mediterranean, making us seasick.
- Redemption via Good Behavior: In many of the Tragedies, only the good die young. But in the Comedies and Romances the good often triumph while the evil perish. There’s some of that in Pericles, but this fiber frays as much as the others that make up this fabric. The incestuous Antiochus and his unnamed daughter die, but Dionyza, who puts the hit out on Marina suffers no immediate consequences for her transgression. In fact, Pericles repeatedly blames her husband, Cleon, for the deed which she masterminded and Cleon decried, condemned, and revealed. Pericles only vaguely alludes to their punishment – “To punish, although not yet done, but meant.” (V,iii,100) And as a reward for her good deeds, Thaisa, queen to Pericles, gets stuffed in a coffin, thrown overboard, and once resuscitated, ships of to a nunnery. Pirates kidnap the virtuous and wise Marina and sell her to a brothel after she barely escapes. Things ultimately work out for them both in the end, but they suffer disproportionately to their goodness.
- Resurrection: ‘I’m not dead yet!’ Many a Shakespearean character echoes this Monty Python and the Holy Grail lament. Some of those presumed dead meet a dismal end (think Romeo and Juliet) before delivering their post-mortem morals. Others, like Hero in Much Ado About Nothing live to tell their tales. Yet most of these rebirths result in epiphanies for the survivors. Here, not so much. Both Pericles’ Queen Thaisa and Princess Marina are presumed dead, mourned, and then found to be quite alive. But neither their deaths, nor their resurrections, evoke enlightenment.
- Omniscient Narrator: Pericles has an interesting and unique feature: Gower, the ‘chorus’ comes on stage six times preceding the action to set the scene and catch us up on what’s gone on. Three times, the ‘chorus’ includes a “dumb show,” or pantomime, in which the characters silently act out some ribbon of plot line. It feels like Shakespeare uses him more to move along a clogged and convoluted plot than to elucidate an important element. Gower provides invaluable information but not much insight. He is neither the classic fool, revealing flaws and foibles via bard barbs, nor the erudite emissary of aside or soliloquy.
Even, and perhaps especially, woven together, these weak strands make for a threadbare textile. It may have been amusing, globetrotting, and entertaining to watch for the Elizabethan audience, but it is not one of Shakespeare’s best stitched-together creations. Just like the now infamous Bill Cosby’s signature Coogi sweater, it might have worked for some people at some point, but today it looks dated and out of style, and does not hold together very well.