Pericles and Shakespeare’s Gower

OK, so last week when talking about the choric character Gower in Pericles, I mentioned that the historical poet Gower–when he was composing what would become one of the sources for this play–employed iambic tetrameter in rhyming couplets.

Let’s take a look at how Shakespeare re-creates Gower…

There are eight choric speeches:

  • In the prologue to the play as a whole, there are 42 lines of iambic tetrameter; the first six of which have no rhyme; the meter changes from four-feet to five-feet (the usual Shakespearean expectation) for the couplets at lines 9-10, 17-8, 27-8, and 41-42. I find it interesting but most likely coincidental that it’s a pentameter couplet that ends the speech and pushes the audience into the action of the play (and its expected blank verse).
  • The chorus bridging Acts One and Two, contains 40 lines, all in rhyming couplets. All but one single line is in iambic tetrameter; line 4 is in pentameter. Following line 16, Shakespeare–or Wilkins, if the co-authorship speculation is true–has inserted a dumb-show that acts out the next ten or so lines of the speech (with the addition of Pericles knighting the messenger from Tyre).
  • The chorus between the second and third acts is a longer one, 60 lines in length, all in rhymed iambic tetrameter couplets. This one, too, contains a dumb-show that acts out the next 20 or so lines; here it’s after line 14.
  • After Act Three, there’s another chorus, this one of 52 lines, all of which are rhymed couplets (I know, it seems that the final couplet doesn’t: appear/murderer. But using The Oxford Dictionary of Original Shakespearean Pronunciation (Oxford University Press, 2016) by David Crystal (and more importantly, the super-duper cool web accompaniment sound files), it turns out the both words have a secondary or tertiary pronunciation ending in “er” sound that sounded more like “air” than either “ear” or “er.” The first four lines of the speech–which focus on Pericles and Thaisa–are in iambic pentameter; the following forty-eight, beginning with his invitation for us “to Marina bend [our] mind” (IV.Chorus.5), are all tetrameter. No dumb-show.
  • In the midst of Act Four, as Scene Four itself, is the next chorus. Fifty-one lines. Let that sink in. Odd number. No way to have all of the lines rhyme (at least not in couplets). Save for line 33, there are 25 rhymed couplets of iambic pentameter. There are no lines of tetrameter. And that line 33? Not only un-rhymed, but also un-pentameter. It’s an incredibly short line. Well before this, after line 22, we get another dumb-show, acting out the next ten lines of speech.
  • Before Act Five, we get a 24-line chorus, with no dumb-show. It’s all iambic pentameter. But the rhyme scheme is completely different. The speech is comprised of six quatrains, all with an a-b-a-b rhyme scheme. There is no apparent reason for this.
  • As in the fourth act, a separate scene in the final act is carved out for a Gower chorus. This one is 20 lines, all iambic tetrameter in rhyming couplets, with no dumb-show.
  • The play ends an 18-line epilogue spoken by Gower, all rhymed couplets, all iambic pentameter save for the single tetrameter line 16. No dumb-show needed.

So eight choric speeches. All of them overwhelmingly rhymed. Of them, four of them primarily tetrameter (1.Ch, 2.Ch, 4.Ch, and Epi.), and two completely tetrameter (3.Ch and 5.2). Two of the speeches (4.4 and 5.Ch) are primarily or all iambic pentameter. So why the bizarre deviations in 4.4 and 5.Chorus (with the latter using that more complex a-b-a-b rhyme scheme)?

I do not know.

I’ve got a suspicion. But I need a second read-through to confirm or reject the theory…


4 Replies to “Pericles and Shakespeare’s Gower”

  1. Currently conducting research on the character of Gower in Pericles. Would love to hear what your suspicion is as it may drastically help my paper. My only guess relates to John Gower the poet and his creation of the iambic tetrameter, but I’m at a loss as to the reason behind such a mix of rhyming.

    1. Hi, Vince.

      Great question. And one for which, honestly, I don’t have an answer.

      The character’s appearances are so inconsistent that those inconsistencies call attention to themselves. I’d love to blame it all on the fact that a third or maybe even a half of the play was written by someone else (Wilkins)…this is the last Shakespearean collaboration on a play of “his” until his retirement…the next plays in the Canon through The Tempest are all solo pieces. Afterwards, I like to think he came out of retirement to help out Fletcher on Henry VIII (which also has a chorus at beginning and end) and the like.

      IF (and that’s a pretty big if) the Gower pieces were all Shakespeare (and none of Wilkins), then maybe Shakespeare is getting a little “meta” here and parodying the concept of a chorus. He used it to great effect in Henry V, less so in the seemingly abandoned Choruses in Romeo and Juliet and Troilus and Cressida; but here, it’s just kind of weird, his use of Gower (and of course those other Choruses are unnamed). The fact that he does name Gower, and that it’s a recognizable figure, I think has to have SOME bearing on all this. Is Shakespeare (and once again, I’m using that “IF”) making fun of himself (an aging writer, now more conventional than groundbreaking) by making fun of a poet who clung on to “old ways”? I don’t know… maybe.

      what’s your take?

  2. Hi Bill,

    Certainly would be nice to blame everything on Wilkins and just say Shakespeare had nothing to do with the naming of the character, but where is the fun in that?!

    Most of what has been guiding my work is the historical context of Gower the poet. I do know that during the Renaissance period Gower was seen as one of the “Fathers of English Poetry” right alongside Chaucer (although his image has since lost much credibility, starting just before the Romantic Period). Imagine if Shakespeare were to be a narrator in a play written today; I would think that to be the closest equivalent to what the audience in England would be experiencing back then. Not only do the viewers understand who is delivering the message of the play, but they are getting it from 1. a trusted source and 2. an extremely relevant figure in the poetic world. Maybe almost God-like? I have a hard time imagining Shakespeare is making fun of the poet, especially considering he is using part of Gower’s work to parallel his own, but definitely some interesting connections.

    Another historical tidbit that may be relevant is his nickname of “moral Gower”, which relates to his allegories about society, and was in fact given to him by Chaucer. His criticisms of those in power seems excessive at times, so one of my theories would be this: Shakespeare/Wilkins uses this old, critical-of-higher-power poet to represent his own characters differently than ever before, and one of the ways he is able to do that is by changing the rhyme scheme or structure of verse when neccessary. Maybe they use the tetrameter and pentameter to change the tone of Gower’s speech, just to add emphasis where deemed appropriate? Maybe that is the only significant meaning behind the drastic changing of rhyming, but there certainly seems to be a tone and/or character shift whenever he transitions from tetra to penta and visa-versa. I’m sure that tone shift is expected whenver any poet transitions from one to the other, but contextually it seems he may be trying to point out either a flaw or a key characteristic when shifting, possibly pointing out more important features that we should focus on?

    It is extremely odd to see the inconsistences of his speech, and finding a pattern in the rhyming is not easy. Doubt a “true” answer will ever be found, but do you have anything to add?

    1. Nothing to add but: “DAMN” that’s some good research you’ve done there. I was totally unaware of the “moral Gower” moniker. It makes me want to revisit the chorus’ description of both the sins and punishments of the villainous characters.


      Thanks for the info!

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