Pericles tells the story of a prince who, as a young man in search of a wife, finds a gorgeous princess; he risks his life to win her, but discovers that she is in an incestuous relationship with her father; the discovery not only disgusts him but also puts him in mortal danger from her father, and he flees. This is only the beginning of Pericles’ travails. After many adventures, including a near-fatal shipwreck, he meets another princess with whom he falls in love; this time the love leads to marriage. He and his pregnant wife set out for his kingdom, but in a tempest at sea his wife dies in giving birth to their daughter. The series of adventures continues, following the narrative pattern of “and then . . . and then . . . and then . . .” through one disaster after another until the daughter, now grown up, pulls her grief-stricken father out of the depths of his despair and the play moves toward its gloriously happy ending.
This play, patterned as a sequence of adventures and misadventures, is clearly not typical of Shakespearean drama, and the opening lines of the play prepare us for its strangeness. A speaker, using archaic language, introduces himself as the medieval poet John Gower come back from the grave to tell us a story from long ago, one recited over the centuries and read by many a lord and lady. And, indeed, this reincarnated Gower does proceed to tell us much of the tale, taking our imaginations from one spot to another in the eastern Mediterranean, introducing scenes of dialogue and action, pronouncing judgment on characters good and bad, and sometimes filling in extensive gaps in the story. Woven into and around Gower’s narration are dumb shows (scenes of action without speech) and spectacular dramatized scenes—scenes of starving kings and citizens, of shipwrecks and storms at sea, of courtly banquets and martial dancing, of brothel life and supernatural visions—but it is Gower who holds the story together and guides us through time and space. The play’s structure, then, is like a narrative that periodically breaks into dramatic life.
Such an unusual way of shaping a drama is not only fascinating but also fitting, since Pericles tells the kind of romance tale that one associates more with “once-upon-a-time” storytelling than with theater. The play’s story is a version of one of several ancient popular tales about a hero who, after great trials and long journeys, successfully establishes a family, only to lose both wife and children; time then passes, his fortunes finally change, and, in a near-miraculous fashion, he recovers both the children and the wife. That Shakespeare had been interested in this kind of tale from the very beginning of his career is shown in the frame story of family separation and reunion that surrounds the one-day action of the very early The Comedy of Errors, and we find versions of this same romance plot in Twelfth Night, The Winter’s Tale, and Cymbeline as well. What sets Pericles apart from these other romance-based plays is its openly narrative structure and the deliberately archaic verse in which Gower-as-Chorus speaks.
Because Pericles is so unusual in its structure, because it was not included in the Folio of 1623, and because much of the text in which it survives is so problematic, this play remains on the periphery of Shakespeare’s work, with some scholars in the past arguing that it is not by Shakespeare, and many scholars today insisting that another playwright wrote much of it. Yet Pericles shares multiple features with many of Shakespeare’s plays, it tells the kind of story that Shakespeare turned to often in his career, and it presents the story in a highly experimental manner—a characteristic of the plays that, like Pericles, Shakespeare wrote late in his career. Whatever the scholarly doubts about the authorship of the play, a good production shows that it has the power and the strong emotional effect that one associates most of all with Shakespeare.