Shakespeare's Pericles, the Prince of Tyre

2020-09-07 @Literature

It’s not the most esteemed of the comedies. It’s actually a sloppy, ducktaped together effort of multiple hands and grease marks. The presence of collaborators has been a common, if not altogether polemic issue with Shakespeare’s works. In this particular case, it seems unanimously indisputable. There is inconsistency and a lack of closure around the edges, with an occasional sense of a total vacuum.

And all that considered, I loved the piece.

Produced sometime after 1605, it belongs to that more tragic compositional period, making this a sort of a ‘tragi-comedy’. But it’s also a great deal beyond. It actually houses an epic narrative condensed into a fairly short play; a narrative of incredible girth spanning a 15-year period, quiet literally reminiscent of a journey such as the Odyssey in breadth. But only with a taste for imagination.

I see it as an exhibition of pictures, envisioning a showcase of paintings to accompany the production, each hinting at a story of a hundred interpretations and possible directions. Not unlike Mussorgsky’s tone poem.

Much remains between the verse. And I find this sort of implied sketch way of storytelling preferable to an impeccably detailed relatory that leaves little to conceive. Some developments, otherwise condensed into a single scene, could indeed spawn an independent epic.

One interesting feature of the play is the inclusion of lyrical interludes to accompany each act. These fill much of the void, although leave matters to a severe degree of imprecision still. In fact, the interludes often compact an event to a ‘dumb show’ - this a common device of Elizabethan theatre to enable actors to simply hint at what’s transpired without any dialogue or much acting.

For a sloppy job, I found Pericles quiet sensational; because the story is sensational, the dialogue engaging, and much of it downright hilarious. Now what is this confounding play actually about?

It’s a well divulged story that begins with the incestuous King Antiochus and his daughter that Pericles (aka Apollonius in the older renditions) has come to woo. Antiochus was renown to present a riddle to each such courtier, maintaining an otherwise protective grip over his daughter.

A failed attempt at the riddle implies a death sentence. Alas, a triumphal attempt effectively bears the same implication … unbeknownst to the visitors.

Pericles became just such a fortunate courtier to solve the riddle, unveiling, as it happens, the very nature of Antiochus’s incest towards his daughter. Talk about a pickle for all concerned parties …

Fleeing back to Tyre by a stroke of a hair, Pericles than sets sail for further heroic and anti-heroic adventure. Precisely how he manages to flee doesn’t lend itself to much, or any clarity. And who cares.

All of this takes place early in Act 1. It forms but one of the many ensuing developments, most of them ephemeral, presenting a snapshot after snapshot by ways of lyrical device and clever dialogue, leaving the rest to boundless imagination. The proceedings mostly hint of thrilling encounters and maneuvers. They then as quickly dissolve.

Meanwhile, we travel across myriads of exotic locales that include Tyre, Antioch, the impoverished Tarsus, the medieval if not slightly anachronistic Pentapolis, the mythical Ephesus, and the whoring (although not altogether distasteful) Mytilene. These are all regions/municipalities/islands of ancient Greece.

Much of the action takes place amidst the fury of the sea. We meet knights, kings, pirates, fisherman (of priceless entertainment), assassins, prophets, divine entities, and a slew of colorful personages I’ll omit.

In part, the elements of adventure, folk tale, and the divine bear semblance to The Tempest, another charming and engaging of Shakespeare’s tragi-comedies (although physically and temporally as contained as you can imagine). Parts of the tale reminded me of the Odyssey. Others of Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale. And certain segments even managed to inspire parallels with Pushkin’s fabular Russlan and Ludmila.

There is no strong conclusion here. Make up your own.

Questions, comments? Connect.