What I love about this play: OK, guilty pleasure time. Pericles has a) dubious literary merits; b) a completely daft and incoherent plot even by Renaissance drama standards; and c) some decidedly uncomfortable messages about gender and sexuality, especially at the beginning, when Pericles falls in love with a princess who’s having an incestuous relationship with her father and rejects her vehemently when he learns the truth (father and daughter are later struck by lightning). Oh, and also at the end, when Pericles’ daughter gets kidnapped by Plot Device Pirates and sold to a brothel, where her resolute chastity converts her would-be client, Lord Lysimachus, who subsequently marries her. (I told you this plot was daft.)
In spite of all this, I have a soft spot for this play, perhaps because I’m an ocean person. Pericles is about as episodic as it gets, and the action ranges over most of the eastern Mediterranean: Antioch, Tyre, Tarsus, Pentapolis, Ephesus, Mytilene, a succession of exotic names and nearly indistinguishable cities. The one constant is the sea, which drives the plot. It’s as unpredictable as fortune itself, prone to storms and “surges / Which wash both heaven and hell.” It destroys life and wealth and sanity, and then restores them again. It gives Marina her name; it induces Pericles to describe himself as “a man whom both the waters and the wind, / In that vast tennis-court, have made the ball / For them to play upon.” Thaisa, apparently dead at sea, is committed to “the belching whale / And humming water”; her coffin is fortuitously tossed ashore in time for the physician Cerimon to revive her.
I also rather like Marina, even though she’s a bit smarmy in her goodness (“I trod once on a worm against my will, / But I wept for it”). She’s the only one of Shakespeare’s heroines who’s a teacher, and I like her determination to make a living while keeping her virtue. And her reunion scene with the ragged, half-mad Pericles is lovely:
Pericles: I embrace you.
Give me my robes. I am wild in my beholding.
O heavens bless my girl! But hark, what music? ...
Helicanus: My lord, I hear none.
The music of the spheres! List, my Marina.
Lysimachus: It is not good to cross him; give him way.
Pericles: Rarest sounds! Do ye not hear?
Lysimachus: My lord, I hear.
There’s a fine line, in this play, between delusion and miracle – but against all logic, except the peculiar logic of Shakespearean romance, the miracles are real.
Favorite poem inspired by this play: Marina, by T. S. Eliot