Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

SHAKESPEARE: Pericles, Prince of Tyre

Shakespeare wrote many great plays during his life. Pericles, Prince of Tyre is not one of them. I’m told that during his lifetime this was one of his favorite plays for theater goers of the day. That may be so. But it still doesn’t change my opinion that this is not one of Shakespeare’s best. Maybe it’s because this play follows two of his truly great tragedies: King Lear and Macbeth. Those two plays rank right up there with Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and Sophocles’ Oedipus the King as possibly the best tragedies ever written. There are also modern tragedies such as Love Story and Old Yeller. But they’re not really in the same league with Shakespeare and Sophocles.

Pericles, Prince of Tyre isn’t a tragedy and it doesn’t include a dog, but it is a love story. In fact, it covers several different types of love: the love between fathers and daughters, the love between husbands and wives, and the love between friends. The play starts with an account of illicit love between fathers and daughters. A poet named Gower is the narrator and tells us that Antiochus the Great Built up, this city, for his chiefest seat: The fairest in all Syria, I tell you what mine authors say: This king unto him took a fere (wife), Who died and left a female heir, So buxom, blithe, and full of face, As heaven had lent her all his grace; With whom the father liking took,And her to incest did provoke: Bad child; worse father! to entice his own To evil should be done by none… Let’s stop right there: bad child, worse father. We don’t know the details. We don’t know how old Antiochus’ daughter was or when the relationship started. Maybe it wasn’t her fault. Maybe incest is never the child’s fault, no matter how old the child is and even if the “child” is an adult. It’s the parent’s responsibility to navigate their children through the complexities of life. Sleeping with them doesn’t help and is an abuse of parental power. So even though we don’t know the details of the affair, we do know that they engaged in a relationship that isn’t acceptable in Syria, or anywhere else for that matter. Incest is a taboo which apparently is universal. Fathers don’t have sexual relations with their daughters. It’s an evil should be done by none… Nowhere, no way. This is Shakespeare’s way of showing us from the start that there are relationships that are healthy and those that aren’t. By the end of the play we’ve had quite a romp through scenes that include shipwrecks, jousting tournaments and brothels; even people coming back from the dead. Maybe this is part of the reason the play was so popular during Shakespeare’s day. But it’s unsatisfying in many ways. Gower appears several times throughout the play to narrate events. At the end of the play he shows up to tell us what we’ve just seen: In Antiochus and his daughter you have heard Of monstrous lust the due and just reward: In Pericles, his queen and daughter, seen, Although assail'd with fortune fierce and keen, Virtue preserved from fell destruction's blast, Led on by heaven, and crown'd with joy at last: In Helicanus may you well descry A figure of truth, of faith, of loyalty: In reverend Cerimon there well appears The worth that learned charity aye wears: For wicked Cleon and his wife, when fame Had spread their cursed deed, and honour'd name Of Pericles, to rage the city turn, That him and his they in his palace burn; The gods for murder seemed so content To punish them; although not done, but meant. So, on your patience evermore attending, New joy wait on you! Here our play has ending. All this is true. But it’s a moralistic summary of the entire play. It’s also simplistic. The good are rewarded and the wicked are punished. It’s not like Shakespeare to preach so openly. His great dramas such as King Lear and Macbeth don’t tell us what to think. They tell us a story and let us draw our own conclusions. This play not only tells us a story, it tells us what to think too. Maybe this was a popular thing to do in Shakespeare’s time. If that’s the case, then all we can say is: bad play, worse audience.


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