The first mention of Pericles was in the Stationers’ Register on May 20, 1608. This version, however, was never published, and it was not until the following year that a play by that name was published in quarto form—what scholars reference as a “bad quarto” because, like a number of other quartos, may well have been based on “memorial reconstruction” — a version retold by an actor in the cast or someone in the audience who has recalled as much of the script as possible and passed it along to a publisher, who would then print it.
Other scholars, however, suggest that this First Quarto was more likely an authorial rough draft. Mysteriously, neither this first Quarto nor either of the two more that succeeded it prior to the publication of the First Folio in 1623, were included—possibly because Heminges and Condell questioned its authenticity or perhaps were not able to acquire the rights to it. Pericles was, however, included in the second printing of the Third Folio, along with the six other plays that were attributed by then to Shakespeare though not included in the First Folio. Removed once more in Alexander Pope’s edition of Shakespeare from 1723-25, it was the only one of the seven to be included in Edmond Malone’s 1780 edition, which to a large extent remains the edition that has determined what we today think of as constituting the Shakespeare canon.
Much debate surrounds the authorship of Pericles, particularly given the stylistic differences between its first two acts and the last three. In their introduction to the play, Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen describe various theories about this discrepancy: that the first two acts represent remnants of an earlier draft, while the subsequent three acts reflect Shakespeare’s own revisions; that Shakespeare tried to model those first two acts to match the choric narrator; that they are poor paraphrasing from a memorial reconstruction; or that someone else wrote the first two acts. Among the potential collaborators, which include William Rowley, Thomas Heywood and John Day, George Wilkins is generally considered the most likely. Wilkins published a novel form of the story, entitled The Painfull Adventures of Pericles Prince of Tyre in 1608, and the syntactical similarities between the two texts have led many to believe that Wilkins may well have been involved as a collaborator in the writing of the play.
Interestingly, much of the debate stems from the perspective that the extant version of this play is inferior to our notions of Shakespeare’s writing. In the nineteenth century, arguments about authorship of the play were also spurred by its perceived moral content: scholars argued that Shakespeare could not possibly have been responsible for the scenes about incest or those that take place in a brothel. While the text does certainly point strongly to collaboration, it is also important be aware of our own contemporary conceptions—which still lean toward an idealization of Shakespeare as an author and genius who worked solely, without collaboration, on a canon of masterpieces.
Nick Hittner-Cunningham contributed this essay as an intern working with Chicago Shakespeare’s Education Department.