Shakespeare's Sources

Something Borrowed and Something (Very) New

Many of Shakespeare’s plays, whether the products of collaboration or singly authored, draw on older stories, and so is the case with Pericles. Pericles is, in fact, perhaps one of Shakespeare’s most direct adaptations of other sources. Shakespeare and George Wilkins’s (possibly Shakespeare’s most likely collaborator) basic source for Pericles is the ancient tale of Apollonius of Tyre, which may have originated in the third century A.D. in Latin, or possibly an even earlier Greek original. Vernacular versions, of which the earliest surviving is an Anglo-Saxon fragment, sprang up all over Europe during the Middle Ages.1 During this period, the story was included in sweeping works such as the fourteenth-century Latin text, Gesta Romanorum, for example.

In the 1390s, John Gower—a contemporary and friend to Geoffrey Chaucer--retold the story of Apollonius of Tyre in his Confessio Amantis. The first printed English translation of Gower’s adaptation appeared in 1502, and the tale remained popular during the Renaissance. The story cropped up again in England at the end of the 1500s when Laurence Twine published The Patterne of Painefull Adventures (c.1594). The shift in the protagonist’s name from Apollonius to Pericles may derive from Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1590) or from one of Shakespeare’s favored ancient sources, Plutarch’s Lives.2 Though the overall tale is much older than either Gower or Twine, the Confessio Amantis and The Patterne of Painefull Adventures are generally recognized as Shakespeare and Wilkins’s most likely direct sources.  

Gower’s Confessio Amantis is widely regarded as Shakespeare’s and Wilkins’ primary source. The Confessio Amantis is an episodic poem containing as many as 141 “stories,” and is framed as the confession of a lover, Amans, to Genius, a priest of Venus. The story of Apollonius of Tyre, which takes up much of Book VIII of the Confessio Amantis, tells of a man who traveled around the Mediterranean after discovering the incestuous relationship between a king and his daughter and, at the end of the story, is reunited with his wife and daughter, whom he thought dead. Gower presents the story as teaching the contrast between sinful and virtuous love.

In fact, Shakespeare’s choral-figure in his play of Pericles is called Gower after the John Gower of Confessio Amantis fame. Like Genius in the Confessio Amantis, the Gower character in Pericles acts as the play’s storyteller. In another paralleling of the Confessio Amantis, Gower speaks in the rhyming couplets characteristic of John Gower (the medieval poet) throughout most of the play. In addition to drawing the idea of the storyteller from the Confessio Amantis and the storyteller’s identity from its author, Shakespeare and Wilkins took the basic outline of their plot, most of the character’s names, and the names of places from this work.

Twine’s The Patterne of Painefull Adventures is largely seen as a secondary source of influence on Shakespeare and Wilkins, itself based upon the Gesta Romanorum. Twine’s influence is particularly evident in the portion of Pericles dealing with Marina. It is Twine’s Patterne of Painefull Adventures that introduces Marina’s abduction by pirates, that gives Lysimachus a more prominent role in the script, and that creates a vivid and colorful world surrounding the brothel and its inhabitants. While drawing heavily on these sources, Shakespeare makes changes to the story’s plot, including the introduction of the jousting tournament at Simonides’ court, the extension of the recognition scene between Pericles and Marina, and the cutting of a marriage ceremony between Marina and Lysimachus.

But Shakespeare and his collaborator/s also alter their source material in ways that influence our understanding of the story we receive.  Part of the reorientation at work in this adaptation of Shakespeare’s sources is the result of situating this play as a tragicomedy, or romance.  In the sixteenth century, "tragicomedy" was understood to mean a type of play that violated the unities of time, place and action, that mixed high- and low-born characters, and that presented fantastical actions. Unifying stylistic features of the tragicomedy included: sudden and unexpected revelations, subplots, distant locales, and a seemingly inevitable tragic climax averted by an unexpected turn of fortune. Their plots were built around unexpected reversals, averted catastrophes, mistaken identities and timely recognitions preventing killings. Many of these romantic impulses influenced Shakespeare's last plays well into the early 1600s, and drove the wildly popular drama of Shakespeare’s successors John Fletcher and Philip Massinger into the 1620s. Tragicomedy remained popular up to the closing of England’s theaters in 1642 during the Commonwealth. Following the restoration of the monarchy and the reopening of the theaters in the 1660s, Fletcher's tragicomedies remained popular throughout the Restoration.

Fletcher himself offered an interesting definition of the term in 1608 in his preface to The Faithful Shepherdess: "A tragi-comedie is not so called in respect of mirth and killing, but in respect it wants deaths, which is enough to make it no tragedy, yet brings some neere it, which is inough to make it no comedie." Fletcher's definition focuses primarily on events: a play's genre is determined by whether or not people die in it. Defining tragicomedy as a unique genre on its own ground was first posited by the Italian poet and dramatist Battista Guarini in his Compendium of Tragicomic Poetry (1601). The theoretical work was prompted by a debate that his pastoral tragicomedy Il pastor fido (1590) caused. His work was criticized for mixing two fundamentally distinct classical genres. In response, Guarini defended the autonomy of tragicomedy, arguing that it was neither tragedy nor comedy, but instead a genre combining tragic elements with tempered laughter to bring purgation. In Guarini’s own work, scenes provoking pity and sorrow are juxtaposed with comic situations or lightened by touches of humor. 

But in the tragicomedy penned by Shakespeare, Fletcher’s formula doesn’t quite hold up. Shakespearean romances witness death, and catastrophe is by no means always avoided. What becomes a defining feature of the Shakespearean romances, however, is their concern for the way in which the characters and the audience are prompted to think about those realities, especially in terms of the cycle of birth, life, death, and resurrection. In Shakespearean romance, Guarini’s concern for the “purgation” prompted by the juxtaposition of sorrow and mirth seems to pivot around what looks more like “restoration” prompted by the turn from sorrow to joy.  Shakespearean romances are keenly interested in the truth of loss, of sorrow, and of death, but their stories never end there. While loss, sorry and death exist for certain, they are ultimately stripped of their terror, tempered by conclusions that take seriously the power of forgiveness and reunion.  After a series of troubling events, families are reunited, adversaries are reconciled, kingdoms are restored, and social orders are reestablished.       


1 William Shakespeare and George Wilkins, Pericles, ed. Suzanne Gossett (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2004): 70.

2 Stephen Greenblatt, The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems, ed. Stephen Greenblatt et. al. (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1997): 79.   



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