Pericles is the first of Shakespeare’s “late” or “last” plays—the romances—and it anticipates the others of its kind that would follow: Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. Shakespeare scholar Howard Felperin has posited that these plays feature striking, and significant, similarities. Shakespeare’s late romances all present a benevolent divinity that regularly intrudes into, while presiding over, the natural world of action. The presence of the divine in the romances may be seen in dramatic representations that take the form of theophanies, resurrections, oracular predictions, spirits or magicians. These sorts of deviations from the world of the everyday occur frequently in Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies, as well, but in the romances their miraculous nature is emphasized: these figures stand out as deviations from a more or less naturalistic norm of action.
It should be remembered that the operation of magic or the divine in the romances, while perhaps outside the realm of the everyday, was still informed by an early modern world-view that took seriously the possibility of the supernatural and that was influenced by an historical, cultural tradition that included the functioning of wonder and miracle in worship. In the last plays, though, it is the miraculous that comes close to becoming the norm of action.1 The strange and the wondrous positively fill up the romances. But rather than be baffled by these features or exasperated that these plays become unbelievable or even just “don’t seem like Shakespeare,” we must assume that Shakespeare at this point in his career knew precisely what he was doing: that the marked change in style is accounted for by a change in dramatic purpose, and that change in purpose in turn, by a change in his poetic vision of life, according to Felperin.
If the late plays account for a different vision of life, a different understanding of being human, then it must also be said that they take seriously the possibility of the miraculous and the transcendent. T. S. Eliot remarked that the characters and plots of the final romances are "the work of a writer who has finally seen through the dramatic action of men into a spiritual action which transcends it."2 In this way Pericles connects to the other Shakespearean plays of its genre not only thematically and structurally in a broad sense, as we have seen already, but specifically in its development of these spiritual concerns.
One of the most telling methods by which spiritual concerns are treated in the Shakespearean romances is through the element of wonder. On a thematic level, the gods, previously often indifferent, hostile or non-existent in Shakespeare’s earlier works, become benevolent, working inevitably to bring the play’s final, wondrous fulfillment about. And while the gods of a reimagined classical world are near and active, the Christian values of faith, patience, charity and chastity simultaneously take on a new teleological significance in Shakespeare's mind3 as the reward of these virtues undergird the sense of wonder permeating the happy conclusion.
But while the operation of wonder for the characters and the experience of wonder for the audience may certainly be linked to the plot, action or themes of the play, for T.G. Bishop, wonder in Pericles “registers not the audience’s analysis of the action, but something more like their sense of its significance.” In this sense, romance is not only a narrative form, but is an accrued set of cultural meanings, received and interpreted by the audience.
In Pericles Shakespeare first establishes for the audience the kind of story they will receive—especially its guiding form and tone—through the character of Gower and his first speech. When ancient Gower walked onto the stage as Chorus, a Jacobean audience would have been immediately aware of the archaic device5 since the presence of a choral figure as narrator and moral guide goes back not only to ancient Greek theater, but also to the miracle and morality plays of medieval England. From Pericles’s opening lines, then, Shakespeare tells his audience that the story they are about to witness will be a timeless parable for spiritual enlightenment, like the miracle play. Gower's speeches are thus calculated to persuade an audience to accept certain impossibilities, to establish the appropriate mental attitude crucial for understanding the amazing events to follow, and to set the stage for a collective experience of emotional affect—an experience of wonder.
If the use of a Chorus works as a formal feature of the play to signal the operation of certain possibilities within the story from the play’s first lines, once launched into the final acts Pericles develops its depth of language and style in ways that look outward beyond itself, and seem to anticipate the recognition scenes of Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. Shakespeare experiments with stylistic techniques to create the deeply moving mutual discovery of Pericles and Marina in Act 5. Building a “language of recognition” on the repetition of key words, a gradual progression is established in the text that moves the audience through a linguistic construction—from emblematic metaphors to literal statement, and finally to the resolution of apparent paradox into fact.6 Shakespearean scholar Russ MacDonald discussed how the aural texture of the play in performance, especially the “recognitive effect of alliterative patterns,” leads the audience through “an aural version of the recognitions” experienced by the characters.7 Both the literary and the aural, scholar Suzanne Gossett asserts, are part of a deliberate attempt to dramatize wonder through words. Shakespeare stylistically moves both the characters and the audience from loss to reunion, and from confusion to recognition, culminating in their mutually shared experience of wonder.
It is thus the interplay of plot, theme, language and stylistic form that is used to construct what is really the emotional state of wonder in Pericles. The experience of this emotion is neither restricted to the characters onstage nor is it emotion to be experienced individually in isolation. Much as it does for the characters inside the story, this experience of wonder also works, seemingly miraculously, to solidify the audience as a community, too. In the late romances, the audience collectively experiences—and finally enables through their consent to suspend disbelief—the active, dynamic process of wonder. Wonder is ultimately a unifying affect, building bridges across time and cultures, and in the shared experience connecting individuals into a community.
Stephanie Kucsera, who contributes this essay, is a doctoral candidate at Loyola University Chicago, where she studies early modern drama. Stephanie served as an intern in the Education Department in the summer of 2014, working on both the King Lear teacher handbook and this Pericles essay.
1 Quoted in Howard Felperin, “Shakespeare’s Miracle Play,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 18.4 (Autumn, 1967): 364.
2 Felperin, “Miracle Play,” 364.
3] Ibid., 373.
4 T.G. Bishop, Shakespeare and the Theatre of Wonder (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996): 4.
5 Felperin, “Miracle Play,” 365.
6 Inga-Stina Ewbank, “’My name is Marina’: The Language of Recognition,” Shakespeare’s Styles: Essays in Honor of Kenneth Muir, ed. Philip Edwards, Inga-Stina Ewbank, and G.K. Hunter (Cambridge: 1980) quoted in William Shakespeare and George Wilkins, Pericles, ed. Suzanne Gossett (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2004): 9.
7 Russ MacDonald, Shakespeare’s Late Style (forthcoming) quoted in William Shakespeare and George Wilkins, Pericles, ed. Suzanne Gossett (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2004): 9.