Some historical (and modern) perspective from Pericles production dramaturg Philippa Kelly.
Although Pericles has been generally seen as one of Shakespeare’s last plays, we know for certain only that it was written between 1603 and 1608, when the playwright was somewhere between the ages of 39 and 44. Surprisingly, perhaps, this was also the period in which he wrote King Lear. Imagine Shakespeare’s mind as he began working these plays up with his actors: a mind simultaneously steeped in tragedy and romance, the stuff of despair and the stuff of fairytales, the life of archaic times and the world of the current king (who, like Pericles, had lived as a prince regent, his father being dead and his mother banished from the Scottish throne). Where King Lear overwhelms us with loss, Pericles offers magical restoration at its close, as a father bereft of everything—place, title, name, even speech—is reunited with his long-lost daughter and then with his wife. Pericles, in other words, offers what we all wish for and what, in the process of living, we also learn not to expect: dead people who can magically be brought back to life; stormy seas that can wash up pieces of our family history like messages in bottles; horrendous experiences that can deliver us back to our beds safe and sound.
Pericles offers much else besides. It is a play with more than its fair share of horrors—shameful incest, skulls, injustice, and ill winds of fortune that cast the noble Pericles and his family adrift in different parts of the world. This is also a play saturated with history, reviving a dead storyteller, Gower, whose monologues lead us through the many chapters of a story filled with traces of the past—old tales and ballads and aristocratic conventions of chivalry, good and evil kings and their progeny, temples and elaborate tombs. It is as if, in beginning Pericles, Shakespeare wanted to throw into it all the richness, the ugliness, and the contradictions that filled his life in this remarkable period at the beginning of the seventeenth century, a period in which the streets of London, where he lived, were ravaged by the bubonic plague, fouled by the stench of dead bodies; in which Queen Elizabeth died (1603) after forty-five years on the throne and King James took her place, immediately conferring on Shakespeare’s theater company the honor of royal patronage; and in which Shakespeare consorted with a bawdy brothel owner in London while also establishing a very fine home in Stratford so that his wife and daughters could prosperously bear his name.
And into the mix, of course, we all throw our own complexities as we watch this play and connect with the experiences it evokes. Act Five’s reunion scene between Pericles and Marina offers one of the play’s most stellar scenes, a scene that might well be recognizable to us through the pressure exerted on fragile minds by grief, or even by the freight of time. We see Pericles in Act Five, his hair and beard wild and unkempt, speechless and stowed away on board a ship like an animal, and we might think of our uncles or parents or grandparents whose lives have decayed to the barest rudiments so that we can barely see how they hang onto life itself. Yet, from time to time in this compromised state—perhaps triggered by a visitor or simply by the gift of a moment’s clarity—there might shine the light of recognition that tells them who they are, and that tells them who you are and what you mean to them. We can, in such a moment, see a person able to rise from his death bed to sit in a chair watching TV and eating broccoli. In Pericles Shakespeare gives us just such a rebirth of clarity and function, but, true to the promise of a fairytale, he gives it forever. A father, lost somewhere in the depths of despair, meets his daughter; and this grief-stricken man strikes out at the very child he should be able to love because he cannot tell who she is, and her sweet song of comfort means nothing to him. But when the light of recognition shines, he emerges from a desolate place to one of infinite love in which, once again, he knows himself. A moment that started with an almost-blow thus ends with an embrace: Pericles has been restored to his senses, regeneration is complete, decay is defeated, and the fairytale is really true. Pericles comes out of his 14-year deprivation chamber and is suddenly, miraculously, restored. And, more marvelously, this miracle isn’t something thrown out to him by divine gods sitting on high—it is affected by humanity, by the sheer healing force of love and the trust that can accept it. This is Shakespeare’s Pericles.