Bill Kerwin's Reviews > Pericles

Pericles by William Shakespeare
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Sep 14, 2015

it was ok
bookshelves: 16th-17th-c-brit, stuart-drama
Read in January, 2012


The first half (maybe three-fifths) of "Pericles" contains the worst writing found in any Shakespeare play. Fortunately for Shakespeare's reputation, he didn't write it: some hack--probably the ephemeral George Wilkins--is responsible instead. Much of the verse of the first three acts is difficult, but not in the way late Shakespeare is often difficult (an extraordinary concentration and richness of language). but because it is poorly constructed (or reported) and makes little or no sense, particularly when it is straining after a rhyme. Add to these shoddy verses an episodic plot barely held together by the wearying doggerel monologues by "the poet Gower" (even worse than the poetry of the real Gower, which takes some doing), and you are confronted with an extremely boring and occasionally infuriating play.

And then . . . Shakespeare takes over, somewhere slightly before the brothel scene I think, and he produces some passages of great charm, including two scenes of restoration and reconciliation that can stand with their counterparts in the tragi-comedies--which is high praise indeed. Any fan of "The Winter's Tale," "Cymbeline" and "The Tempest" will greatly enjoy these scenes. But as far as I'm concerned, it wouldn't hurt you to skip the rest.
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03/29 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-9 of 9) (9 new)

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message 1: by Chas (last edited Jul 16, 2013 09:07PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Chas Agreed on Shakespeare's reconciliation scenes. I remember reading this one, Shakespeare takes over somewhere about where Thaisa comes back to life. I remember before Thaisa dies that the verse was extremely childish, but after she comes to life suddenly there's a shift in the writing. The reunion of Marina and Pericles made me cry when I read it the first time, it was just that moving, which is why I could ignore the horrible nature of the first half of the play.


message 2: by Neale (last edited Feb 11, 2015 12:51AM) (new)

Neale I have always read Gower’s speeches, particularly the prologue, as poking gentle fun at the play itself. Gower admits that he’s a poet of the old school and that his verses are kind of rubbish (by ‘modern’ standards), but begs the audience to give him a chance – to ‘hear an old man sing’.

I think that whoever wrote Gower’s verses knew that the play to follow was no masterpiece, but had a fondness for that kind of thing, and was humorously deflecting criticism: a bit like introducing an old-fashioned western by bringing on the ghost of Roy Rogers and his horse. The play was, I believe, one of Shakespeare’s most successful pieces on the stage, in its day.


Bill  Kerwin An interesting observation about Gower, and one I am inclined to agree with. It is certainly true that the Gower speeches are superior to a lot of the rubbish it connects.


message 4: by Alan (new)

Alan I consider Titus much worse, though two days ago an Anglo-rsh Amercan theater costume expert told me she saw Olivier in Titus 9 times, which might change one's sense. 'Course hollywood loved it, Blood and Guts, the Hollywood formula that probably led to our stupid and stupider wars.


message 5: by Jon (new)

Jon Right now my sister is at the Ashland Shakespeare Festival, and she is raving about their current production of Pericles. She's so enthusiastic that she volunteered to come here (Minnesota) in January (!) to see the same production when it travels to the Guthrie Theater. I wonder what and how much they cut?


message 6: by Jim (new)

Jim Brennan Act III Sc 1 (I think) is a pretty good storm, whoever wrote it. Certainly good enough in context to suggest a new writer has been hired. If it wasn't Shakespeare, who?


message 7: by Bill (last edited Mar 29, 2016 05:40AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Bill  Kerwin Jim wrote: "Act III Sc 1 (I think) is a pretty good storm, whoever wrote it. Certainly good enough in context to suggest a new writer has been hired. If it wasn't Shakespeare, who?"

It is mostly pretty good, but some of the lines are kind of clunky too. There are other parts of Act III that make me feel the same way, which is why I said "the first half (maybe 3/5's)" above. My hunch: the Bard did almost nothing with Acts 1 and 2, extensively revised 3, and wrote almost all of 4 and 5 himself.


message 8: by Jim (new)

Jim Brennan 'You god of this great vast, rebuke these surges....' That's a superb actor's line. The word 'rebuke' itself in that context is amazing - Neptune is being ordered about by a king who's telling him he's not doing his job. If it's a revision, what was the original like?


message 9: by Bill (last edited Mar 30, 2016 01:56PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Bill  Kerwin You're right, they are very good lines, almost certainly by Shakespeare. Probably an addition or replacement, not a revision. On the other hand, a few lines down, we get:

Now, mild may be thy life!
For a more blustrous birth had never babe:
Quiet and gentle thy conditions! for
Thou art the rudeliest welcome to this world 35
That ever was prince's child. Happy what follows!
Thou hast as chiding a nativity
As fire, air, water, earth, and heaven can make,
To herald thee from the womb: even at the first
Thy loss is more than can thy portage quit, 40
With all thou canst find here. Now, the good gods
Throw their best eyes upon't!

The line "more blustrous birth had never babe" isn't bad, but it is the kind of alliteration Shakespeare would only have used at an earlier period in his development. And the use of the verb to be in "thou art the rudliest welcome to the world" is somewhat confusing, at least syntactically...and the line that brings in the four elements is rather awkwardly formed and inartfully grandiose. On the other hand, "thy loss is more than can thy portage quit" is grimly witty and sounds very Shakespearean.

I think in some of these scenes Shakespeare may have only rewritten the worst parts, and then added a few felicities here and there. Then again, this is to a great degree a reported text, and some of the confusion and lack of cohesiveness could come from this.

But we don't disagree that much. This is a fine storm scene. And you are right in seeing Shakespeare's hand is in it too. I'm just not sure how much.


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