“To sing a song that old was sung,
From ashes ancient [we are] come,
Assuming man’s infirmities,
To glad your ear and please your eyes.”
-The Chorus, PERICLES

Sources of the Legend of Pericles:  The tale of Pericles of Tyre is an ancient and popular one.  With origins that date back as early as third century Greece, it can still be heard by story-tellers in some parts of Greece even today.  The earlier known printed version of this story is a ninth century Latin manuscript called Historia Apolonii Regis Tyri.  The medieval poet John Gower included the story in his epic work Confessio Amantis (1393), which was later reworked by Laurence Twine in The Pattern of Painful Adventures (1576).  It is from these latter two sources that Shakespeare draws much of his story. 

What’s in a Name?  In earlier incarnations of the story, the titular character was known as Appolonius (or some derivation thereof).  Theories abound as to why Shakespeare decided to rename the hero in his rendition.  Some suggest that he was influenced by the work of Sir Philip Sidney, from which he also borrowed the tournament of knights sequence.  Others hypothesize that he was inspired by the real life Pericles of Greece despite the fact that there are no other commonalities between the fictitious character and the upstanding statesman of Greece’s Golden Age.  More practical scholars theorize that Appolonius was simply far too difficult of a name to utilize within the structure of blank verse in which Shakespeare wrote, that the name suggests “one in peril” and literally translates to “one in excess of glory.”

Early Romance: Pericles was written late in Shakespeare’s career (around 1607), and like many of his later plays, Pericles does not easily fit into the previously established genres of comedy and tragedy.  Rather, it is the work of a seasoned artist attempting to explore (or to wholly create) a new form and style.  Dubbed “The Romances” in 1877 by Edward Dowden, Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest share many characteristics: lost children; fantastical and mythical characters seemingly separate from the plot but integral to the tone;  beautiful and romantic backdrops of sea or mountains; great loss and most importantly, a resurrection or rebirth (both of life and of spirit).  Pericles was the earliest of Shakespeare’s forays into this new style which was becoming very popular at the time in London.  The play was a tremendous success, and following its earliest performances for dignitaries and ambassadors, was presented frequently in London, and even on tour.  The success was quickly stifled however by a particularly virulent outbreak of the plague, which closed the theatres and much of London for nearly two years.  When the theatres opened once more, Pericles was one of the first plays to be presented.

It is not surprising that the story of a young prince’s adventures through exotic lands, filled with delightful and terrifying characters, dances, tournaments, magic and pageantry should be so popular.  What has made the play endure, however, I believe, is the heart and wonder that Shakespeare brings to the story.  What could in less skilled hands come across as melodrama or mere spectacle, Shakespeare spins into a glittering tapestry of hope, heartbreak, and ultimate triumph.

The Question of Authorship:  Scholars, theatre artists and audiences alike have frequently noted the uneven nature of the writing in Pericles.  Some pass this off as merely a mature playwright testing his craft in a radically new form.  Regardless, the playwright’s voice seems to alter markedly between the first two acts and the last three acts of the narrative. 

Whereas the early scenes seem to lack some of the depth and finesse of Shakespeare in the mature phase of his career, the language and character development in the final acts take on the dexterity audiences expect from this master wordsmith.  For this reason, many scholars suggest that Pericles was either a collaborative work, or at least a dramatic piece which Shakespeare may have taken over to “fix” for a less skilled writer.

A young playwright by the name of George Wilkins is the most popular suggested collaborator in these arguments.  He was acquainted with Shakespeare and The King’s Men (Shakespeare’s acting company), which had already performed one of Wilkins’s plays, The Miseries of Enforced Marriage, to some acclaim shortly before Pericles appeared in The King’s Men’s repertoire.  Some scholars believe that following the success of his earlier work, Wilkins submitted an outline for a new play based on Gower’s epic poem, Confessio Amantis.  Whether Shakespeare took the younger writer under his wing in collaboration or took over the script when it seemed to be going awry, is unclear.  Wilkins went on to publish a prose narrative called The Painful Adventures of Pericles, Prince of Tyre shortly after Shakespeare’s play was presented, claiming it to be the “true history of the play of Pericles.”  

Pericles is one of a handful of plays that does not appear in the First Folio.  All subsequent editions are based on an incomplete quarto printing of the play, which is littered with obvious holes and errors.  Most modern editions of the play have utilized, at least in part, Wilkins’s prose narrative (which in some ways is identical to Shakespeare’s play) to fill in the missing pieces.  Personally, I have not come across a play (save possibly Hamlet) with so many radically divergent versions from which one must cull a working performance script.  It has proven to be a very exciting academic exploration.

Regardless of authorship, Pericles spins a tale of intrigue and adventure, love and loss, mirth and menace, in which evil-doers receive divine punishment for their deeds, and the good, despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles and often heart-breaking tragedies, find redemption, renewed hope, and happiness in the end. 

“New joy wait on you.  Here our play has ending.”
-The Chorus, PERICLES