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.
Gower is included as a character in Shakespeare’s play, serving as the chorus. He introduces each act, summarizes previous action, and provides narration for the various dumb shows in which we witness action that we do not see recounted in the course of the play. His role as chorus is, to a certain extent, modeled on choruses in Greek tragedies. These choruses, comprised of a group of actors, contributed to the audience’s understanding of the play by summarizing action not included in the play, providing back-story and explaining characters’ emotions.
Gower’s role in Pericles also serves as commentary on the action, such as praising the value of the old (I.Chorus.10) or chastising Dionyza’s show of grief (Act 4, scene 4). Like the chorus in Henry V, Gower sometimes serves as a meta-theatrical reminder, inviting and requesting the audience to see the limitations of the theater as creative potential for their own imagination (“In your imagination hold/ This stage the ship, upon whose deck/ The sea-tossed Pericles appears to speak” (Act 3 Chorus).
Rather than have a single figure represent Gower, Director David H. Bell decided instead for his upcoming production at Chicago Shakespeare Theater to have members of the ensemble speak and sing the lines of the chorus. He describes his experiences of seeing performances of Pericles in which the chorus appeared as stultifying detraction from the story. He wanted instead for the chorus to serve as storytellers around a campfire, saying that he envisioned the ensemble members having “as much ownership of your experience as someone around a campfire would.” Rather than have the chorus simply present us with descriptions that distanced us from the plot each time, Bell wanted “the narrative to be possessed of a theatrical character that is indelible and unique to this production.” To contemporary audiences, unlike Shakespeare’s own audiences that would have been quite familiar with Gower and the genre of medieval morality plays, the practice of an ensemble of storytellers is a familiar and resonant convention. Bell hopes that, in sharing Gower’s role among the cast, both to clarify the complexity of Pericles’s journey and not distance the audience by the use of a now-archaic device. Instead, he creates instead a group of storytellers who invite us, the audience, to pull up our chairs around a campfire and be told a story of wonders and restoration.
Nick Hittner-Cunningham contributed this essay as an intern working with Chicago Shakespeare’s Education Department.