Reading Resolution: “Pericles” by William Shakespeare

21. A novel by a famous author, other than the one(s) they are best known for: Pericles by William Shakespeare

List Progress: 16/30

Not all Shakespeare is created equal. For every masterpiece, there is a weird one. For every Macbeth, a The Winter’s Tale. For every Romeo and Juliet, a Troilus and Cressida. And for every Hamlet, Shakespeare throws together a Pericles. This play is such an illogical mess that there are serious authorship debates about it in academia, as if it could not have been written by one of the legends of the Western literary world. But Pericles is considered part of the Shakespearean canon, so I read it, and it’s honestly enjoyable in how bonkers it can be.

Pericles, Prince of Tyre follows the eponymous ancient Greek hero through a series of episodic adventures, all narrated by the 14th century poet John Gower. He tries to marry a princess, only to have to flee after discovering that she and her father, the king, are engaged in incest. He travels to another kingdom, marries a princess there, and tries to return home, only for his wife to die in childbirth during the journey. But unbeknownst to him, a healer finds her corpse washed ashore and is able to bring her back to life. In the meantime, he leaves his infant daughter to be raised by another set of nobles in a different city for…some reason. Then fourteen years pass, some things happen, and his daughter is supposedly killed, actually sold into slavery, and he thinks he has lost everything in his life. Everything comes together in the end, but it takes some truly illogical jumps to get there. 

The annotated Folger Shakespeare Library edition that I read was refreshingly blunt in calling out places where the story or text just don’t hold together. The essay included in the back, “Pericles: A Modern Perspective” by Margaret Jane Kidnie, points out that the play is best read symbolically, allowing it to exist within a theatrical world rather than a realistic one. I imagine there are ways you could make this play work on stage, but it would take a gifted director and cast to pull it off, ones who would not put the text on a pedestal. If this play had not come from the same brain as King Lear and Hamlet, it would not still be around today.

If you are comfortable reading Shakespearean dialect, it can be a fun mess to spend some time with. But if you are looking for a genuinely good play, there are so many better examples of the skill of the Bard.

Would I Recommend It: Only for a laugh.

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