Pericles achieves a sense of scene-hopping adventure unequaled in Shakespeare’s repertoire, and as a perhaps inevitable corollary, it is also the play...morePericles achieves a sense of scene-hopping adventure unequaled in Shakespeare’s repertoire, and as a perhaps inevitable corollary, it is also the play that most strains credulity, The Winter’s Tale notwithstanding. The dei ex machina arrive in the form of dream instructions, magical healings, and a pirate kidnapping. And yet, like Pericles with his Neptune-defying navigations, we can weather the plot. What is less easy to settle into is the variation in writing quality. While Shakespeare probably outlined the entire play, it seems as if one George Wilkins—“a lowlife hack, possibly a Shakespearean hanger-on…a whoremonger” in the unminceable words of Harold Bloom—wrote out the first two acts, which may explain the adventuresome shallowness that begins the story. In spite of Wilkins’ supposed qualities, I find the beginning not so off-putting, and even Bloom concedes that these two acts are “quite playable”, coming off much better in performance than on the page.
Although the writing inconsistency is undeniable, it feels more acute within the Shakespeare material than between that of Wilkins and the Bard. After writing some of the most internally-active and personality-driven characters of all time (Hamlet, Iago, Rosalind, et al.), Shakespeare somewhat bizarrely chooses to leave the major players in Pericles as impenetrable blanks, knowable only by their type. For our title character, that means being courageous, honorable, and in all things mannishly commendable, only just human and unfortunate enough to earn our sympathy. For Marina, it is the same story except with a certain feminine ideal, which first and foremost includes intact virginity, the quality that ultimately leads us into contact with the only palpably human elements in the play—the employees of the Mitylene whorehouse.
Given the plot-heavy adventure through the first three acts, it is easy to avoid recognizing the main characters’ lack of depth; once we meet Boult, Pandar, and the Bawd, however, the discrepancy between characterizations is too great to ignore. These three strive in vain to rid Marina of her maidenhead and enrich themselves in the process—well beyond what they have achieved lately in the market:
Bawd: We were never so much out of creatures. We have but poor three, and they can do no more than they can do; and they with continual action are even as good as rotten.
Pandar : Therefore let's have fresh ones, whate'er we pay for them. If there be not a conscience to be used in every trade, we shall never prosper.
Bawd: Thou sayest true: 'tis not our bringing up of poor bastards,--as, I think, I have brought up some eleven—
Boult: Ay, to eleven; and brought them down again. But shall I search the market?
Bawd: What else, man? The stuff we have, a strong wind will blow it to pieces, they are so pitifully sodden.
Pandar: Thou sayest true; they're too unwholesome, o' conscience. The poor Transylvanian is dead, that lay with the little baggage.
Boult: Ay, she quickly pooped him; she made him roast-meat for worms. But I'll go search the market. Exit.
Their scheming seems at first horrible, particularly given Marina’s youth, innocence, and recent near-death experience. But once we learn that she has the upper hand and can thwart their every attempt at selling her, even converting her clients to chivalry in the process, we realize the joke is on us as well as her pimps; unlike in Measure for Measure, we may sit back and enjoy these well-written scenes, safe in the knowledge that designed depravity cannot win the day. Perhaps Shakespeare was too bored by the traditional story to put in the difficult human-infusing effort for the leads, or maybe he just loved composing these common, comically tawdry characters above all others (see also Falstaff of the Henry IV plays and the seedy Viennese personalities of Measure for Measure). In any case, Act IV through the reunion scene of Act V is high-grade Shakespeare interposed in a middling affair.
In mulling over the reunion scene, it seems difficult at first to justify such a positive response to melodrama. And yet Shakespearean language can transform what ought to be overripe, rotting sentimentalism into something truly poignant. As in the finale of The Winter’s Tale, Pericles’ reunion with his daughter Marina achieves that Bard-specific alchemy of aesthetic brilliance combined with human ardor and wonderment, leaving me well beyond any critical detachment. Pericles’ realization is slow; when at the penultimate moment of belief in the presence of his living daughter he cries out to his loyal friend…
O Helicanus! strike me, honour'd sir; Give me a gash, put me to present pain; Lest this great sea of joys rushing upon me O'erbear the shores of my mortality, And drown me with their sweetness.
…it is evidence of the Bard’s preternatural abilities that I want to rush in and present him, Pericles, that flattest of Shakespearean leads, with the final confirmation that yes! his daughter lives and stands before him. (less)
Where can you go after writing Hamlet? Only into the bitterest depths of irony and nihilism, apparently. All’s Well That Ends Well is part of the prob...moreWhere can you go after writing Hamlet? Only into the bitterest depths of irony and nihilism, apparently. All’s Well That Ends Well is part of the problem play trilogy that followed soon after the Danish Prince’s demise and Malvolio’s humiliation, and it appears on the surface to be less twisted than both Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure. But don’t be fooled. Shakespeare plays one of his greatest tricks on the audience here, achieving something difficult and deeply unsatisfying, which probably explains this play’s lack of staging popularity.
See, we like Helena. Shakespeare wins our sympathy for her early and often, but he also has her fall in love with Bertram, one of the shallowest d-bags the Bard has to offer. Harold Bloom points out that nearly all Shakespeare’s women marry beneath themselves, but the Helena-Bertram coupling might be the most egregious in the canon. Even so, why is this such a problem for the audience? Well, the plot focuses almost entirely on Helena’s pursuit of Bertram via means elaborate and occasionally of questionable ethics (but we don’t care because we like Helena!), and we can’t help but root for her success. Yet—and here’s the trick—this success wins her the shittiest prize ever, someone that will make her life miserable. I’m not exaggerating. Bertram wants nothing to do with Helena and tells her as much at regular interval. He’s a hopelessly immature, warmongering slut, hanging around with the scoundrel Parolles, who manages to be more relatable (if not likable) than Bertram following his acceptance of public disgrace and dispossession. But we’ve probably all had a friend like Helena, someone whose “imagination / Carries no favour in’t but Bertram’s”, who falls for someone we can’t stand. Such is life, such is love.
And it’s worse. Helena knows that Bertram is bad news:
“But, O strange men! That can such sweet use make of what they hate, When saucy trusting of the cozen’d thoughts Defiles the pitchy night; so lust doth play With what it loathes for that which is away.”
And yet she keeps holding on to that belief: all’s well that ends well. Ah, but who else can believe it? So bitter, Shakespeare! (less)
Catching Fire, which began in meandering fashion following the District 12 double-victory of volume one, was dealt a fatal blow midway through the nov...moreCatching Fire, which began in meandering fashion following the District 12 double-victory of volume one, was dealt a fatal blow midway through the novel when the reaping twist was revealed. A blow caused neither by the contrived and rehashed plot, nor by the ill-developed and not-quite-believable world of Panem. No, it was due to the emergence of bullshit character motivations, that most deadly of authorial sins. Katniss was going to do everything in her power to keep Peeta alive in the arena this time, to get back at the Capitol for…wait, for what? For why? For who? The guy she’s always been ambivalent about? And how exactly does that stick it to the man? She fought nail, tooth, and claw to survive (with a little help from Seneca Crane) in part one, and now she’s ready to throw in the towel so that Peeta can live on and perhaps be her Horatio as she exhorts him with dying breath: Absent thee from felicity awhile / And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain / To tell my story. Ah, but she’s too selfless even for that. Really Katniss, it’s quite noble of you to remind us every few pages that thinking about blah blah blah in your future doesn’t matter anyway, because only Peeta’s getting out alive this time. And so horribly out of character…out of any character I’m tempted to say, but certainly inconsistent with this taciturn veteran of slaughter and loss.
Now that I’ve brought out the knives, I might as well admit I was baffled by the supposedly blasphemous display of rebellion exhibited by Katniss (and not Peeta because he’s in love?) at the end of The Hunger Games. Am I the only one who was bemused by the hoopla that continued, tediously, to surround this event, making it the catalyst for the Capitol vs. Katniss plot that purports to prop up the first half of the second book? Even Katniss didn’t intend the whole ‘berry thing’ (her words, I think, not mine) to be an act of rebellion or defiance. So why would anyone view it as such? Who cares if there’s no 74th Hunger Games victor? Surely not the Capitol, which sets up this annual gladiatorial event to humiliate the districts (and entertain itself) by forcing the tributes to butcher one another. What could be better than sending the message to the districts that their only way out is suicide? WE OWN YOU.
So yeah, some of the key motivations and plot points of these books are at best unconvincing and keep pulling me out of Collins’ world. Why can’t I join the legion of Hunger Games fans and just enjoy the thrill of survival and violence, all the while feeling ok about it because Katniss remains perfectly PC with her morals, even (and especially) when faced with the to-the-death stakes of Thunderdome? And why don’t I understand why Katniss has been mistaken for a major resistance leader? At least the two of us seem to be in agreement there. But perhaps most importantly, why do I keep wondering whom she’s going to choose: Gale or Peeta? I can’t even decide myself!
Of course I’m already reading the third one; need you ask? (less)