So. Pericles. A new play. A new genre.
tragedy from the leaders of the dithyramb, and comedy from the leaders of the phallic processions which even now continue as a custom
— Aristotle, Poetics
We’re now entering into the last major kind of play Shakespeare wrote, called–depending on who you ask–tragicomedies, or romances. These late plays often begin in turmoil, looking like they’re heading toward tragedy, before taking a turn around the midway or two-thirds point, and end in comedy. Now remember that’s not ha-ha comedy, but rather classical comedy, ending with a wedding or a birth.
And so it is with this bad boy.
The play is kind of a mess: a lot like our last play, one of the so-called problem plays–but really, who are we kidding here? Timon of Athens is a tragedy, and when I’m done with this project, I’ll be getting rid of the whole “problem play” category and putting those plays in their appropriate tragedy/comedy/history/romance pigeonholes.
Anyhoo. Pericles is a tragicomedy. I mean, Pericles’ life is — well, let’s just say I wouldn’t want to trade places with him. The first half is tragic. And we do end with a reunion plus the promise of marriage. So tragicomedy (or romance) it is.
Again, as with our last play, it looks like there’s some debate on authorship, with most experts viewing the last three acts as predominantly Shakespeare’s work, with the first two the work of another, most likely George Wilkins.
That’s the expert view. But what about my view?
Like I said, the play is kind of a mess. The weird Antioch stuff. Gower. All the storms and shipwrecks. Gower. The good king Simonides’ not-so-good double entendre for Pericles and his daughter. Helicanus. Gower. The pirates and the brothel. Diana descending from the heavens. And did I mention Gower?
And as much of a mess as it is, I’ve got to admit: The only two productions I’ve seen of this play (the first back in the last decade at California Lutheran University, the second just last year at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival) have both been artistically successful and emotional evocative and resonant. And with these romances, you can’t ask for much more than that.
It’s going to be interesting on a second read and deeper dive: Will I see what made those productions so moving? Or will I be stopped dead by the messiness?
Stay tuned, babies. Stay tuned.