November 30

January 18, 2015

in CST's Courtyard Theater

by William Shakespeare
directed by David H. Bell

A Scholar's Perspective

Enter Pericles, Wet
by Wendy Doniger

T. S. Eliot, whose poem, “Marina,” was inspired by Pericles, once called the play’s climactic scene, in which Pericles recognizes his longlost daughter Marina, “the finest of all the ‘recognition scenes’.”

And while Shakespeare’s contemporary, playwright Ben Jonson, called Pericles a “stale” and “mouldy tale,” the play draws much of its power precisely from the story’s “mouldiness,” that is, its resonance with many oldfashioned, well-barnacled folktales. As Shakespeare puts it in the prologue, “Et bonum quo antiquius, eo melius” (“The older a good thing is, the better”), proving his point by saying it in an old language.

Shakespeare explicitly warns the audience that this is a much-told tale. The prologue begins: “To sing a song that old was sung...“and continues, “It hath been sung at festivals,/On ember-eves and holy-ales;/And lords and ladies in their lives/Have read it for restoratives.” And soon a king whose land is oppressed by famine explains the “restorative” power of old stories: “[S]hall we rest us here,/ And by relating tales of others’ griefs,/See if ‘twill teach us to forget our own?”

But the specific “mouldy” tale that lies at the heart of Pericles is the Cinderella fairytale, which is, like its heroine, somewhat disguised here. Often, among the many variants of the tale, Cinderella has a stepmother who tries to destroy her because she is so beautiful that she outshines the stepmother’s ugly daughters; Pericles’s child Marina is almost killed by such a stepmother. Often in these tales, Cinderella’s father announces that he intends to marry only a woman who looks just like his dead wife; their daughter Cinderella is the only one who fits the bill, and so she runs away and disguises herself as a lowly servant. Marina does look just like her mother, as Pericles notes, at the end, before he realizes who she is (although it is another daughter, Antiochus’s nameless child, who submits to her father’s incestuous desires).

In many tales, incest is conjoined with a lack of recognition, since one excuse for incest is that the two parties do not recognize that they are child and parent. (This unfortunate oversight is what got Oedipus into his complex.) But in Pericles, the incest at the start is undone by the recognition at the end. Indeed, the riddle that is the key to many incest stories (including Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex) appears in Pericles as yet another fairy tale motif—the riddle that the prince must solve to win the (incestuous) princess.

The familiarity of the plot of what literary critics call the “recognition narrative”—the ultimate revelation of the identity of one who has been in disguise or presumed dead for much of the story—is a never-ending source of pleasure, and completely different from the pleasure of surprise offered by plays that depend instead on a mystery finally resolved in an unexpected way. The sense of wonder here, of miracle rather than mystery, comes from the shock of recognition of what one already knew but didn’t know that one knew. What the characters inside this story experience is also experienced by the audience; when the bereaved husband and father finally recognizes the lost beloved (Oh, it’s my wife/daughter!), we in the audience recognize the plot (Oh, it’s a recognition story!).

In these and many other ways, Shakespeare harnesses the power of the old story but works his own magic on it to point to a very different cluster of morals. The feeling, from the start—that one is in the middle of a fairy tale—comes in part from the presence of these familiar mythic motifs but also from the recurrent, though erroneous, belief of the characters in the play that they are encountering miracles, wonders. The apparent resurrections are merely the usual Shakespearean staple of people lost at sea, presumed dead, and then rescued from the sea, the great lost and found of world literature. The wonderful stage direction, “Enter PERICLES, wet,” when Pericles has been shipwrecked, could apply equally well to the reported adventures of his wife and his daughter.

But these reports of deaths by drowning often turn out to be, as of Mark Twain’s death, exaggerated. Marina’s mother, taken for dead when her coffin washes ashore in Ephesus, may have been magically revived, or just given timely CPR. Years later, Marina, too, is presumed dead in the water, when the hit-man Leonine, sent to murder her, permits pirates to carry her off—perhaps to her death? Even Pericles’s armor appears to undergo a marine resurrection. But we are certain only that the villains really really die: one (the man sent to murder Pericles) by yet another shipwreck, and the others (the incestuous father and daughter) by fire, not by water.

Yet there are, at the end, two supernatural interventions, the culmination of the undercurrent of miracles that flows throughout this play.First, there is the extraordinary coincidence that the place where Pericles’s ship is finally wrecked on shore just happens to be the place where his long-lost daughter lives. But then the literally supernatural intervenes in the dream in which the goddess Diana appears to Pericles and sends him to the place where he finds his presumed dead wife; Diana is literally a “divinity out of a machine,” straight out of Roman theater. As if to undercut (or defend?) the flouting of reason in this divine encounter, Pericles subjects both women to grueling, quasi-scientific cross-examinations, and is only persuaded in the mother’s case by the final bit of hard evidence, particularly a ring, which, in fairy tales and myths as in Shakespearean plays, so often identifies a disguised wife. Here science and religion join hands to close the circle of the happy ending.

Wendy Doniger is the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago, where she also serves in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, the Committee on Social Thought, and the College. The author of more than forty published books, her research and teaching interests revolve around Hinduism and mythology.

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