If Shakespeare's career had ended with "Pericles," his reputation would have been a study in decline.
But without the laboratory provided by this late, almost-never produced play, Shakespeare may never have gone on to write "Cymbeline," and then, in a final burst of glory, "The Winter's Tale" and "The Tempest" -- an artistic achievement comparable to Ted Williams' hitting a home run in his last time at bat.
But the bad reputation of "Pericles" -- the first two acts are not by Shakespeare -- is not deserved. Most scholars now believe that an inferior playwright collaborated with Shakespeare, writing the first two acts and leaving the rest for him to finish. But there's also no question that something in the first two acts caught Shakespeare's imagination. As playgoers can discover for themselves this Wednesday when Center Stage mounts a production of the play that continues until April 5, "Pericles" is much more than an experiment in which Shakespeare found his way to his late style.
When the playwright began "Pericles," probably sometime in 1607 or 1608, the comedies and histories of the late '90s were behind him, and the tragedies had climaxed with "King Lear" in 1605. Shakespeare was scarcely in a rut -- he followed "Lear" with "Macbeth" and "Antony and Cleopatra." But "Coriolanus" was thorny, somewhat opaque (perhaps because Shakespeare could not deal openly with its impenetrably personal homosexual themes) and "Timon of Athens" is just plain boring. In "Pericles," Shakespeare set about reinventing himself.
"Pericles" belongs to the genre of romance -- the very stuff written today by the likes of Barbara Cartland and that goes back at least as far as Homer's "Odyssey." "Pericles" is filled with incest, innocent girls being sold into prostitution, divine occurrences, tempests at sea, deaths, resurrections, long separations and miraculous reunions. It's pretty crazy, spectacular stuff.
What Shakespeare does in "Pericles" (and does even more miraculously in the plays that follow it) is suggest the existence of a higher order of reality. The world of these plays is more like our dreams than the one we wake in. It is not a world in which human beings direct their own destinies as they do in the tragedies or the comedies. Pericles and his long-lost daughter, Marina, suffer terribly. But the fault is not theirs, and their redemption is achieved by a beneficent power in the universe that is sometimes called providence.
In "Pericles" (and in the three romances that follow it) that power is associated with the power of storytelling. This is most obvious in "The Tempest," where Prospero is clearly a surrogate for both the playwright and for God. But it's also apparent in the naive storytelling and dramatic devices the playwright uses in "Pericles." The play repeatedly calls attention to the simplicity of its material, thereby inviting us to enjoy what its author does with it.
This is something that creative artists seem to do late in their careers -- suggest a naivete that is beyond sophistication. Consider Dimitri Shostakovich, whose final symphony depicts toy soldiers marching to the strains of the "William Tell" overture; Thomas Mann, whose late novels create a folk tale ambience; or Pablo Picasso, whose final drawings often strive for a simplicity that recalls a child's scrawl.
Oddly enough, this second childhood seems to lead to a second (and deeper) artistic maturity. In Shakespeare's earlier comedies, the central protagonists are young men and women who resolve their difficulties -- usually the opposition of older people to their marriage -- over a period of time that is never longer than a few weeks.
In "Pericles" and the other romances, the emotional resolutions are more wide-reaching and more profound: The time scheme is something like 16 years -- just long enough for a new generation to reach maturity -- and the center of attention is not lovers as much as it is families, husband and wife, parents and children. And more than anything else, Shakespeare seems interested in the relationship between fathers and daughters.
His interest in young women is evident in his earlier comic heroines -- ingenious girls who bring about their plays' resolutions -- but he created a new character in "King Lear's" Cordelia. Emotions in "Lear" revolve around the relation between jTC Lear and Cordelia, who is the type of the redemptive daughter that will be repeated by Marina in "Pericles," Imogen in "Cymbeline," Perdita in "The Winter's Tale" and Miranda in "The Tempest." These daughters are beacons of moral goodness in the midst of evil, and their relationships (often in a reconciliation after long absence) with their fathers is what restores the fathers to life.
For all its spectacle and fantasy, Shakespeare's "Pericles" deals with evil in a way that is unimaginable in the comedies. The comedies delight -- evil characters are always partly comic. "Pericles" and the other romances can terrify: The depiction of incest in the play's opening scene has a power to sicken; Pericles' sufferings because of the loss of his wife and daughter are keenly felt; and the kidnapped Marina's presence in the brothel brings to life the horrors befalling children that make headlines today.
But if bad things happen to good people in "Pericles," the basic pattern behind its sometimes bewildering plot is love, loss and restoration. Shakespeare rarely wrote a better scene than the one in which Pericles is reunited with Marina after a 14-year absence. The dramatic placement is wonderful -- after a surfeit of suffering, an abundance of joy. The pacing of the scene is masterly. We share Pericles' disbelief because, after all, such a reunion is almost an impossibility. We rejoice as his incredulity slowly diminishes. And -- if we are not made of stone -- we wipe away tears when the Job-like Pericles finally realizes Marina's identity as his daughter.
"Pericles," like the three plays that follow it, is about the wonder and joy it visits upon its characters (and its audience). One could say that the play's sufferings and thanksgivings are created by the playwright as a stand-in for providence or for God. That might be true, but it is also much too simple. As we watch Marina lead her father back to life, this fantastical play leaves us with a thought that speaks to ordinary human needs: None of us makes it on our own.