The sea has always been a symbol of change, sometimes sudden and violent change, for obvious reasons, and it is fitting that Marina, who experiences quite a few vicissitudes in her young life, should be born on the open sea during a raging storm; it is also fitting that the body of Thaisa, who appears to have died giving birth to Marina, should be pulled from the sea and miraculously revived by Cerimon's medical/magical arts; for the sea also symbolizes rebirth, and along with the many changes of fortune in Pericles, there are quite a few rebirths — not the least of being Pericles's own.
Pericles is told that his daughter has died and he falls into mourning, resolving, in his woe, never again to cut his hair or speak or engage with the world — indeed, barely eating enough to stay alive. It is a form of death-in-life. When he meets with a young woman who2 he gradually realizes, from attending to her life story, is his daughter, he says:
O Helicanus [Pericles's friend and plenipotentiary], strike me, honour'd sir;The daughter here symbolically gives birth to the father, brings him back to life. The sea imagery in the passage above is typical of the play as a whole, particularly the last three acts. A large part of the reason I consider Pericles to be a successful play despite its flaws is that it is replete with passionate and movingly poetic language such as that above; the reunion scenes are emotionally satisfying and genuinely affecting; and I would be surprised if they are not even more so when performed.
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. O, come hither,
Thou that beget'st him that did thee beget;
Thou that wast born at sea, buried at Tarsus,
And found at sea again! [emphasis added]
Pericles in many ways recalls Lear — particularly in its echo of a father's loss of and ultimate reuniting with his daughter, with the significant difference that Pericles, being a romance, ends happily, whereas Lear, famously, ends quite tragically indeed: Daughter dies while father, happily deluded into thinking daughter is still alive, dies fooled3. Pericles is kinda an anti-Lear in its attitude toward Providence — "the gods" — as well. Characters in Lear are forever attempting to interpret what the actions in the play mean with regard to the gods' attitude toward us lowly humans: Do the god love us, hate us, are they indifferent to us? Gloucester, after having both of his eyes put out, famously says:
As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods.Lear itself neither endorses nor disputes this view; it is certainly not an unreasonable stance for Gloucester to take, he having recently been ruthlessly deprived of sight by having his eyes gouged out — "out, vile jelly!"
They kill us for their sport4.
But interestingly enough, when Gloucester is being blinded by Cornwall, one of Cornwall's servants attacks his master for this cruelty and mortally wounds him (a major theme in Lear is the question of what constitutes being a "good servant"; i.e., when, if ever, it might be preferable for a "lowly" servant to be defiant of his "better" whom he is supposed to serve); Cornwall lives long enough to put Gloucester's other eye out though. This cruelty, complete with the servant's revolt, is later reported to Albany:
Albany uses the self-same incident of the blinding of Gloucester to claim that it proves that the gods are just. Then asks, So um ... did his other eye get gouged out? To which the answer is, Yep, you bet. Which kinda undercuts Albany's pollyanna-ish view that the gods are just and that they "speedily ... venge" earthly wrong-doings. Because first? They let the evil dude gouge the innocent guy's other eye out.MessengerA servant that he bred, thrill'd with remorse,Opposed against the act, bending his swordTo his great master; who, thereat enraged,Flew on him, and amongst them fell'd him dead;But not without that harmful stroke, which sinceHath pluck'd him after. [i.e., the servant wounded Cornwall, but Cornwall killed the servant; Cornwall later died of the wound received from the servant]
AlbanyThis shows you are above,You justicers, that these our nether crimesSo speedily can venge! But, O poor Gloucester!Lost he his other eye?
MessengerBoth, both, my lord.
But in Pericles, there are frequent references to the beneficence of Providence, of the gods; Diana is invoked more than once, and she actually appears to Pericles in a dream, instructing him to go to her temple and make a sacrifice ... and it is there that Pericles and Marina are finally reunited with wife and mother Thaisa, long thought to be dead:
ThaisaNote how Pericles's your present kindness/ Makes my past miseries sports echoes Gloucester's more accusatory As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods./ They kill us for their sport. Using language remarkably similar to Gloucester's, Pericles inverts its meaning. Thus in Pericles you get the type of ending that people like Samuel Johnson thought Lear owed them. Pericles, in this sense, is Happy Lear.
O, let me look!
If he be none of mine, my sanctity
Will to my sense bend no licentious ear,
But curb it, spite of seeing. O, my lord,
Are you not Pericles? Like him you spake,
Like him you are: did you not name a tempest,
A birth, and death?
The voice of dead Thaisa!
That Thaisa am I, supposed dead
Now I know you better.
When we with tears parted Pentapolis,
The king my father gave you such a ring.
Shows a ring
This, this: no more, you gods! your present kindness
Makes my past miseries sports: you shall do well,
That on the touching of her lips I may
Melt and no more be seen. O, come, be buried
A second time within these arms. [emphasis added]
Needless to say, Pericles is simply not in the same league as Lear, which latter is arguably the greatest play in Shakespeare's oeuvre, if not the greatest play in all of Western Literature. It is not a great criticism of Pericles to say that it is not quite up to that standard, because what is? But look again at the speeches Pericles and Thaisa make and try not to be moved almost to tears by them.
There is an attempt to tie the disparate elements of Pericles together with the character of Gower-as-Chorus. This is kinda quaint but, to my mind, doesn't add much to the play. This feeling is not helped much by the fact that the use to which Gower is put changes slightly in the course of the play: In the beginning of Pericles, Gower introduces each act, speaking in rhyming tetrameter couplets; but by Act IV, Gower is speaking in pentameter couplets, sounding more Shakespearean than self-consciously Olde-Tyme-y, and showing up not just at the beginning of the acts, but also as Chorus in the midst of the acts. Generally, Gower serves to mark the passage of time and changes in situation that, in a better-constructed play, Shakespeare probably would have found a way to incorporate into the action or dialogue of the play itself. Gower/Chorus isn't the first time Shakespeare used this shortcut, but it's probably his most extensive use of it in any play that I can recall5.
It's possible that Gower can be viewed as artist stand-in in Pericles, but he is far less successfully integrated into the play than, say, Prospero is in The Tempest; and if we view the magic of Prospero in the latter play as a gloss or comment on the "magic" of well-constructed literary art, or any art — as critics have done for quite some time, viewing Prospero's vow to give up his magic as Shakespeare's own farewell to writing plays — we learn a whole lot more about art than we do from Gower's clumsy rhyming and rudimentary stage-managing.
The character of Gower is not Pericles's only structural problem, however. I have mentioned a couple of times that there are numerous apparently corrupt passages in Pericles that are next to impossible to parse and whose meaning will probably never be known. But there are also just outright clumsy attempts at exposition that seem more characteristic of a rough draft than a finished play. My favorite example is from Act IV, Scene iv; Marina has been bought by a couple of bawds (whoo-werhouse owners, one of whose names is ... "Bawd"); they're trying to make her into a whoo-wer, but she is so pure and chaste that she gets all who approach her to renounce their whoo-wering ways, instead, and she remains a virgin throughout. At this point, a new character, unmet before this time, enters, and is introduced thus:
[...] Here comes the Lord Lysimachus disguised.
This line took me quite aback, because I was at first certain that this was a stage-direction that, through corruption, somehow got incorporated into the dialogue. But then I realized that couldn't be possible; you can have a stage direction "Enter X, disguised" only if the audience is already familiar with the character entering or if the point of the scene is to fool both the other characters and the audience and have a Big Reveal at a later point. But this is a new character and neither of those situation obtains. So how do you cue the audience in to the fact that this stranger to them is in disguise? You have one of your other characters say that, which leads to utterly clumsy lines like the one above6.
There are many clumsy lines and poorly constructed scenes in Pericles.
But the play, as a whole, somehow transcends them and works for me. The basic plot of Pericles, while all over the place, is nevertheless easy enough to follow. And in the last three acts, you encounter some of Shakespeare's best lines and most affecting scenes. How could that not be worth it?
1 One explanatory hypothesis for this textual corruption being that Pericles must be a reported text, i.e., based on somebody's memory of the play's lines rather than on any authoritative playscript, and that there may have been two different reporters, the second of whom was much more reliable, which would account for the fact that acts III-V seem so much more Shakespearean in style. That's certainly not impossible, but that there is a whole lotta theory based on less-than-overwhelming supporting evidence. We do pretty much know that reported texts were not that unusual in Shakespeare's day. A publisher, noting a particular play's popularity, would set about trying to find someone with some measure of authority to recite the lines for him to set down and ultimately publish and sell, thereby bypassing the author altogether. (Copyright laws in Renaissance England weren't quite what they are today. The fact that the author was being totally fucked over didn't necessarily prevent these pirated texts from featuring the author's name prominently on the title page, thereby implying these pirated copies were approved by the author and that the author himself was getting his cut of any profits.)
The sources of these reported texts were not infrequently the actors in the play itself. And it was usually pretty easy to know which parts these actors played because there tended to be very little corruption in the lines of their characters; then possibly a little bit of corruption in the lines spoken by the characters that their characters were interacting with in any given scene; but there would be far more textual corruption in scenes in which this actor's characters were not involved, the actor having not bothered to fully memorize lines he would neither have to speak nor recognize as his character's cues. And so in some "bad" quartos, scholars can pretty much say with authority which character(s) the reporting actor played in the drama based on which characters' lines display the least corruption.
The There-Were-Multiple-Authors theory and the This-Is-a-Reported-Text theory, by the way, are not mutually exclusive, which obviously further complicates the matter of establishing authorial responsibility; then we have the further complicating issue of the play's being based largely on a work by Medievial author John Gower — a close personal friend of Geoffrey Chaucer, but not nearly as talented —and therefore possibly written in an intentionally simplified form because Gower was pretty much viewed by Renaissance authors (including Shakespeare) as an Olde-Tyme-y writer of simple verses. So it's possible some of the clunky lines — at least the ones put in Gower's mouth — are intentionally clunky and shouldn't necessarily be counted as evidence of authorship by a lesser talent than Shakespeare.
2 No, slg, not "whom", if you were thinking of challenging that; the nominative case is called for here because "who" is the subject of "is" even though subject and verb, in this instance, are separated by nine words of parenthetical observations.
Admit it: You were gonna challenge that.
3 Lear's final words:
And my poor fool [i.e., Cordelia] is hang'd! No, no, no life!Lear evidently dies thinking he has just seen signs of life in Cordelia's face, just as he was certain, a couple dozen lines earlier, that she was still breathing.
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!
Pray you, undo this button: thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,
Look there, look there!
The ending of Lear is so relentlessly bleak, it's little wonder that a version of the play with a happy ending was developed in 1681 that was far more popular than Shakespeare's tragic version. Samuel Johnson endorsed the happy ending version, and when he himself edited a version of King Lear, he kinda kept it at arm's length, fearful he'd be infected by its "atheistical" mojo. (See above for more on Lear and its theme of man's relationship to "the gods", to some "divine providence".)
4 This line never stood out to me in the play when I read it, but I remember once discussing the play with Teh 'Dad and hearing him quote it — this had to've been over 30 years ago — and it has been one of my favorite lines from Shakespeare ever since.
5 A Chorus is used extensively in Henry V, opening each act, but I haven't read that play yet. This is still a more sparing use of the device than what we see in Pericles.
6 It should be noted, as well, that the scenes in the whoo-werhouse are comic ones, and there is a pretty funny moment later in this particular scene when Lysimachus (who turns out to be a whoo-wer-mongering government official, or, as we would call him today, "a government official") is talking to Marina and learns that his disguise was for naught because the bawd had already told her who Lysimachus was and that he was in disguise. But from a strictly structural standpoint, his introduction into the play is poorly handled.