Saturday, June 22, 2013

William Shakespeare: Pericles, the Prince of Tyre

Pericles was the last of Shakespeare's play for me to read, leaving me with just his sonnets and other poems to go.

One of his more obscure plays, possibly co-written with another, it was still an enjoyable play to end on. It starts off dark enough, though. Pericles tries to win the hand of Anthioch's daughter by answering the king's riddle, even though getting it wrong would mean death. When Pericles hints that he has solved it— that Antioch is having an incestuous relationship with his own daughter— Pericles is unsure of how to answer. He'd also surely be killed for revealing the truth. Being left with no other option, he flees the country.

It is on this journey that he meets Dionyza who offers what is now one of my favourite Shakespeare lines:
For who digs hills because they do aspire
Throws down one mountain to cast up a higher.
I love this cynical image.

It's about this time that Pericles is set up with a new bride and daughter, only it's all short-lived. His wife appears to die during labour aboard a ship during a storm. Her body is placed in a coffin and cast into the ocean, and later Pericles decides to hand his motherless daughter Marina over to his friends Dionyza and her husband Cleon to raise. However, Dionyza has a daughter of her own and because she is jealous, assuming that Marina'll steal all her daughters' potential suitors away, she sells her into a brothel.

But then the story takes a strange turn in terms of tone. What was first a depressing epic, takes a turn for the... better? It's wanders into soap opera territory, with Pericles finding his daughter again (and even with her "virtue" still in tact) and then even his presumed dead wife, who had been revived by a physician shortly after she had washed up on shore. It's one of Shakespeare's more "they lived happily ever after" moments.

It's a departure from a man who often wrote the opposite; have a couple fall in love, then have a violent bloodbath. With Pericles, it was like Shakespeare got halfway and decided, "yes, yes, life can suck, but you know what? A play doesn't need to be about the reality of all that crap, it can be over the top happy if I want to make it over the top happy." Sometimes we need that or we'd all be out of hope forever.

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