January 27th, 2008


Pericles is the most dreamlike play in the canon. Thanks to the limitations of Shakespeare's co-author, George Wilkins- pimp, fence and ruffian of this parish- nothing in the plot makes very much sense and all the characters are flat.  Wilkins has the first nine scenes and does nothing much with them except have them rattle along in a lively fashion. It's not fair to compare him with Shakespeare; it was never a contest; but his scenes are fun and let that be his epitaph.

So when Shakespeare takes over what he's got is a set of cardboard characters and a narrative that's going like an express train. He accepts the gift and runs with it. Cardboard characters? Right, it's too late to individualise them so we'll deepen them into archetypes. Wilkins' Pericles is a young man in a hurry, batting around the Mediterranaean with a hitman on his heels. Shakespeare plunges him straight into a storm, has him defy the gods (in a roaring speech that makes your scalp prickle) then hammers him into a sort of ancient mariner or Flying Dutchman- a man accursed, growing his hair into a bird's nest, retiring from human contact like a Howard Hughes of the sea. 

We look back to Lear and forward to Leontes but- hold on a minute- the scene in which the mad old man is reunited with his lost daughter can hold its own with anything in either of those two, better plays. It's the most mythic, most abstracted of the scenes in which Shakespeare engages with the themes that seem to have been dearest to him at this time-   loss and recovery, fathers and daughters, death and resurrection.  It displays him at his greatest stretch. The verse glitters and glamours and loses itself in silence. 

Pericles has had a rough ride- like all the co-authored plays. That's a pity because it's good. The whole Shakespearean half- which contains not only great poetry but some rather excellent bawdry- is marvellous. And Wilkins, setting them up for Shakespeare to knock 'em down, does a perfectly workmanlike job. It isn't often produced, but when it is it apparently works a treat. Put it this way, if I were given the choice between watching Pericles and yet another production of the Tempest (yawn) I'd go for Pericles like a shot.