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Why I Hate Shakespeare’s PERICLES, PRINCE OF TYRE [VIDEO]
Below is a partial transcript of a video that I published on YouTube. It concerns Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre.
I hate this play, in the same way that I hate all of Shakespeare’s order-restoring plays and treasure most of his order-deconstituting plays. Shakespeare is, at once, both the most overestimated writer of all time and the most underestimated of writer of all time.
My name is Joseph Suglia, and I will give a lecture on Pericles, Prince of Tyre by William Shakespeare.
Let me say this before carving up the play as if it were a cooked turkey. If one is a child, Pericles, Prince of Tyre by Shakespeare is an unanswerably beautiful, unfadably exquisite, magical fairy tale, fletched with lovely verse, and that is fine for children, but for adults, it is drivel that is insulting to the intelligence of any person of maturity.
Pericles, Prince of Tyre is a late-period play, probably composed circa 1607; in some places, the manuscript is mutilated, and Harold Bloom surmises that the opening two acts of the play were not even fashioned by Shakespeare.
We learn (from the chorus) that Pericles comes to Syria in order to win the hand of King Antiochus’ daughter, who is named merely “Daughter.”
Our chorus is John Gower, the medieval poet, who serves as one of Shakespeare’s primary sources. He addresses the audience directly.
Like The Tempest, the play contains direct appeals to the audience and seeks to appease the spectator in an ingratiatory manner. Pericles, Prince of Tyre contains a superabundance of direct appeals to the audience, far more than The Tempest does.
We learn from the chorus that “the father” took a “liking” to the Daughter and “her to incest did provoke” [Chorus: Act One].
“Incest” and “crave” are the two most significant and signifying words in the play. “Incest” appears five times in the text, and some form of the verb “to crave” appears seven times.
The Daughter is described as a “[b]ad child” and as a “sinful dame” [I:i] by Gower.
This is strange, for surely the Daughter is not responsible for her own violation by the Father. We will return to this matter presently.
Much as Hercules was charged to pluck the golden apples in the dragon-guarded orchard of the Hesperides, Pericles is challenged with an impossible task. Why this task is impossible I will explain in a moment.
The challenge with which he is presented is the same challenge with which all of the Daughter’s prospective suitors are presented: Solve a riddle, much in the way that Oedipus was challenged to solve the riddle of the Sphinx.
Antiochus the Father says: “Before thee stands this fair Hesperides, / With golden fruit, but dangerous to be touched, / For death-like dragons here affright thee hard” [I:i].
What are the death-like dragons in the golden-apple orchard?
Antiochus explains: “[W]hoso asked [the Daughter] for his wife, / His riddle told not, lost his life. / So for her many a wight did die, / As yon grim looks do testify” [I:i].
The stage direction indicates that Antiochus points to a series of decapitated heads displayed above him, heads that bedeck the walls—presumably, the severed heads that are nailed to the wall are those of the failed suitors.
The corpse-heads are glowering at Pericles from above.
The heads that are fastened to the wall are described as those of “martyrs slain in Cupid’s wars” [I:i], which would be an excellent title for a hard-rock album.
Decapitation signifies, of course, emasculation—the destruction of the Son’s masculinity by the Father who assumes the role of the lover of his own daughter. The Son is pitifully inadequate in relation to the Father.
In these lines, Pericles expresses how “little” he feels in relation to the “greatness” of the artificial Father, Antiochus: “The great Antiochus / ’Gainst whom I am too little to contend, / Since he’s so great can make his will his act, / Will think me speaking, though I swear to silence…” [I:ii]. He is here listening to himself speak. Pericles experiences himself as “little”; the Father is experienced as “great.”
Though Pericles does not expound the solution, it is evident through his silence and his elusive remarks that he has decrypted the riddle. He refuses to disclose the meaning of the riddle, but he does show that he understands its meaning. He does not name the sin of incest, but he points at it. His language, though indirect, condemns him.
This is what Pericles says to the King when the former is commanded to expound the riddle (from Act One: Scene One):
Few love to hear the sins they love to act;
’Twould braid yourself too near for me to tell it.
Who has a book of all that monarchs do,
He’s more secure to keep it shut than shown:
For vice repeated is like the wandering wind.
Blows dust in other’s eyes, to spread itself;
And yet the end of all is bought thus dear,
The breath is gone, and the sore eyes see clear:
To stop the air would hurt them. The blind mole casts
Copp’d hills towards heaven, to tell the earth is throng’d
By man’s oppression; and the poor worm doth die for’t.
Kings are earth’s gods; in vice their law’s
And if Jove stray, who dares say Jove doth ill?
It is enough you know; and it is fit,
What being more known grows worse, to smother it.
All love the womb that their first being bred,
Then give my tongue like leave to love my head.
Antiochus says, in an aside: “Heaven that I had his head!” [I:i].
So: If Pericles correctly explicates the riddle, he will be killed; if he does not correctly explicates the riddle, he will also be killed.
The Father is a mendacious, unfair, unjust, dangerous, “sinful” father, since any man who solves the riddle incorrectly is decapitated AND any man who solves the riddle correctly is decapitated.
If a suitor guesses the meaning of the riddle, the effect will be decapitation.
If a suitor does not guess the meaning of the riddle, the effect will be decapitation.
There will be decapitation—that is to say, emasculation—either way.
Pericles imperils himself by showing without showing that he comprehends the perverse character of King Antiochus’ relationship with his daughter.
Incest is unmentionable, unspeakable, unutterable and must remain unspoken before the King. Some things are too dreadful to be brought into utterance, some things are too dreadful to be vocalized in the presence of majesty. And yet the word does appear elsewhere in the text.
Pericles solves the riddle, much as Oedipus does, further fortifying the incestuous love triangle.
In Act One: Scene One, Pericles describes the Daughter in the following way (talking to himself silently, while apostrophizing her in his head): “You are a fair viol…” Now, a viol is a stringed musical instrument, and one can hear the resonances of the word “vial” within—for the Daughter is like a receptacle, a vial that allegedly contains vileness. But V-I-O-L are contained in the word “violation,” as well.
The Daughter is violated. She is forced into an incestuous relationship with her father, a relationship for which Pericles and the Chorus nonetheless blame her.
The relationship between Antiochus and the Daughter is obviously an aberrant, perverse relationship. This is the incestuous triangle: Antiochus has turned his daughter into his wife, in effect, since they are in an incestuous yet monogamous relationship. This makes the daughter the mother of Pericles, since Pericles looks upon Antiochus as if Antiochus were the Prohibiting Father, the Father who says, “No.”
This might seem far-fetched, but hear me out. Traditionally, the young man will ask the father of the daughter for the daughter’s hand in marriage. If the daughter becomes the young man’s wife, the father of the daughter will become the son’s father. So, the father of the wife is the surrogate, substitute, artificial, proxy father of the husband. It is true that Pericles does not become married to Antiochus’ daughter, but that changes nothing.
Pericles’ passion for the Daughter appears to be stimulated, of course, by the fact that he is essentially prohibited from having her. This is almost epigrammatic: What is forbidden, interdicted, prohibited is appealing.
Now, Pericles is not Antiochus’ literal son, but neither is the “Daughter” reducible to the role of Antiochus’ daughter. Incest warps and invalidates anything like a defensible father-daughter relation.
The Son, Pericles, desires the Mother, who is both the daughter to the Father, Antiochus, and the wife to the Father.
Antiochus is the Bad Father—the son-destroying, emasculating, perverse, mendacious, totalitarian father who sees the son as a competitor. In totalitarian dictatorships, the totalitarian dictator prosecutes the feelings, the thoughts, the dreams, the desires, the fantasies of his/her subjects, if those feelings, etc., are not sanctioned by the dictator. The dictator claims the soul, in the inner life, of his/her subjects. Antiochus is not prosecuting Pericles for the latter’s actions, but for Pericles’ intentions, thoughts, dreams, desires, etc.
The Father wants the Daughter-Dash-Wife all for himself, and the son is interdicted from having access to the Mother-Daughter.
And Pericles wants the Mother-Daughter precisely because of the totalitarian prohibition of the Sinful Father. Pericles uses the phrase “sinful father” in Act One: Scene Two in conversation with his understudy Helicanus. Antiochus is the Father who stimulates his son’s desires by prohibiting those desires and who punishes the Son for having such desires. For desiring the Mother, who is sacred. “Sacred” means “that which may not be touched or desired.”
Pericles, the Artificial Son, desires Antiochus’ Daughter because she belongs to the Father, not despite the fact that she belongs to the Father. To the extent that the Daughter is the Wife to the Father, this disrupts Pericles’ desired identification with the Father. Pericles will not become the Father until he reconciles with his own daughter, Marina, in the fifth act of the play.
At the close of the play, the artificial Son, Pericles, will become The Naturalized Father, and the circle will be complete.
* * * * *
Thaliard is the assassin who is suborned to kill Pericles. Thaliard intends to kill Pericles until he assumes that Pericles will perish by sea.
The crane descends. So, the assassin suddenly gives up his mission to assassinate Pericles as soon as the assassin learns that Pericles is at sea. This is the first deus ex machina of the play.
What is a deus ex machina? A deus ex machina, a “god out of the machine,” is a plot convenience in which a character in a literary work is suddenly rescued from some brutal fate. This happens, for instance, at the end of Euripides’ Medea when the Georgian infanticidal murderess is rescued by Helios, the Sun God. A deus ex machina is more than a contrivance of plot; it is contrived-appearing. In Ancient Greek tragedy, a literal crane descends on to the stage and seizes the misfortunate and pulls him or her up to safety. And the audience smiles and feels warm inside.
My central criticism of the play is that it is a chockablock with instances of deus ex machina.
The crane descends, and the god saves the misfortunate.
There is one deus ex machina after the other in the text.
God is not in the machine, but out of it, rescuing Medea, putting her in the passenger seat of Helios’ chariot.
The crane comes down and snatches up Pericles, rescuing him from possible assassination.
We learn from Helicanus, in Act Two: Scene Four, that Antiochus and his daughter will be struck by divine lightning and incinerated for the transgression of incest: “A fire from heaven came and shrivelled up / Their bodies even to loathing…” The gods come out of the machine and destroy Pericles’ enemies or otherwise impede their projects.
Pericles flees Syria and sails to Turkey—particularly, to the city of Tarsus—where he is heralded as a messiah for saving the starving, impoverished Tarsians from immiseration, starvation, emaciation, maceration.
Here is another deus ex machina. Down comes the crane! There is a rapid shift from immiseration to grateful celebration. The Tarsians cease their lamentations; they will be fed.
In the chorus of Act Two, Gower gives us sing-songy perfect rhymes which sound less than perfect.
But they do serve as a transition from the first act to the second act, in which we learn that Pericles, upon discovering that Thaliard came full-bent with sin to murder him, decides that Tarsus is not the best for him to make his rest and puts forth to seas where men have seldom ease, ’til Fortune, tired of doing bad, throws him ashore to make him glad. I’m just lightly paraphrasing, lightly paraphrasing.
Upon what shore is Pericles thrown? Upon the shore of Pentapolis, which means “a group of five cities.” He is greeted on the shore by fishermen, who mock him mercilessly. He begs for help, but the fishermen laugh at him, until he talks about how he is a “man throng’d up with cold,” by which he means that he is assaulted by the cold as if the cold were a mob [II:i], which activates the altruistic social instinct of the First Fisherman, who proclaims:
I have a gown here;
come, put it on; keep thee warm. Now, afore me, a
handsome fellow! Come, thou shalt go home, and
we’ll have flesh for holidays, fish for
fasting-days, and moreo’er puddings and flap-jacks,
and thou shalt be welcome [II:i].
So, notice that the First Fisherman has a suddenly inhuman and inhumanly sudden change of mind and change of heart, a burst of metanoia. The First Fisherman moves from callousness toward outsiders and malicious mockery to the warm embracement of the Tyrian Pericles. Now, Pericles will, apparently, become an artificial appendage of the First Fisherman’s family and can look forward to repasts of puddings and flap-jacks. This is one of the many squirmy, wince-inducing, improbable metanoias that pock the entire text of the play.
It strikes me now that Pericles, who moves from one synthetic family to another, is desperately trying to find the Father. He tried to find the Father in Antiochus and fails. He tries to find the Father in the First Fisherman. He will finally find the Father in Simonides.
The crane descends again and snatches up Pericles. Pericles will soon, beyond comprehension, plausibility, and probability, be welcome by the King Simonides and will marry his only daughter, Thaisa.
Simonides is the benevolent authoritarian father; Antiochus is the “sinful” totalitarian father.
However, Simonides pretends to be the Absolute No-Father that Antiochus is. Let us remember that Antiochus is the father who always says, “No,” much like the No-God of Karl Barth, the God Who Forever Says, “No.”
Just as Simonides is the replacement of Antiochus, Thaisa is the replacement of Antiochus’ daughter.
The drama that will unfold among Pericles, Simonides, and Thaisa is an ironic repetition of the drama among Pericles, Antiochus, and Antiochus’ daughter at the beginning of the play. Things turn out much better the second time around for all parties involved.
Notice that, in his asides, Simonides confesses to the audience that he wants Pericles to marry his daughter “with all [his] heart” [II:v]. However, he gives a show of resistance and demands “subjection” [Ibid.]. It is a display of refusal, it is pure theatre. In Shakespearean philosophy, all of human existence is the dramatization of roles, even in the intimate sphere of the family. The totalitarian-seeming father Simonides should be distinguished from the actual totalitarian father Antiochus.
The totalitarian-seeming father Simonides demands that both his daughter and his prospective son-in-law “frame [their] will” to his. In other words, the totalitarian-appearing father outwardly demands submission in order to enhance Pericles’ desire for his daughter, knowing, as wise Simonides doubtless does, the essence of human desire. We chase after that which is not easily available.
Simonides pretends to be as imperious and as preemptory as Antiochus, but he is not so. The effect is, whether “conscious” or “unconscious,” the stimulation of Pericles’ desire for Thaisa. Desire desires only what is not easily accessible, what is remote, what is receding. It is likely that Simonides knows this, and so he stages a barrier between Pericles’ desiring and the object of his desiring, Thaisa.
If desire does not seem to be transgressing a law—in this case, the Father’s edict—desire cannot exist.
Why does Antiochus orchestrate such a cruel form of gamesmanship? I suspect that he does so in order to feel his own power. He is so insecure, as all tyrants are, that he rigs the game in advance so that each suitor will lose. He is like the casino owner who will always win at his slot machines and roulette wheels.
Think of the gamesmanship of Simonides, who actually wants Pericles to win. Simonides also rigs the game in advance such that the player, Pericles, will win; Antiochus rigs the game in advance such that every player will lose.
In Act Three, Pericles is on a ship with his new bride, underway to Tyre, where he must land soon or else forsake his kingship. His wife Thaisa appears to die while giving birth to Marina, so-called because she is born at sea. As Marina later describes herself: “Ay me, poor maid / Born in a tempest when my mother died, / This world to me is as a lasting storm, / Whirring me from my friends” [Act Four: Scene One]. The physical world is the world of Neptune; Marina, like her mother, is dedicated to the world beyond the physical world, which is the world of Diana. The play stages a conflict between Neptune and Diana.
What is strange about this scene—the first scene of Act Three—is that Pericles immediately assents to the superstitious mumbo-jumbo of the mariners. The mariners tell Pericles that the (phenomenal) cadaver of his wife must be pitched over the side of the ship, for it is bad luck (they think) to have a dead body aboard. Incredibly, Pericles submits to the will of the mariners, invertebrate that he is: “As you think meet. Most wretched queen!” Pericles is still weak—he is excessively deferential, even to his own subjects.
The sailors throw Thaisa overboard in a coffin, seasoned with eleven herbs and spices, as if she were a piece of Kentucky Fried Chicken. This is not a joke; it actually appears in the text (the corpse is seasoned with spices). There is even a passport within the coffin. This is also not a joke; it actually appears in the text.
The coffin sails to Ephesus, where it is discovered by its inhabitants. Either the Ephesians revive Thaisa’s corpse, or they reinvigorate and awaken the still-living-yet-comatose Thaisa.
There is a certain ambiguity here (though far less interesting than the concluding ambiguity of The Winter’s Tale). Does Thaisa actually die and is then revivified? Or did she merely fall into a coma while undergoing the agony of parturition?
Another question that floats in my mind as I read the play: Why does Pericles not check Thaisa’s vital signs?
Now, one might object to me that medical science in the Age of the Elizabeth did not reach any degree of sophistication, but Elizabethan England did, in fact, have a knowledge of vital signs. Indeed, Shakespeare and Pericles both have a knowledge of vital signs. We know this from the very play that we are discussing.
In Act Five: Scene One, in their scene of reconciliation, Pericles asks Marina if she is imaginary or real. He asks her if she has vital signs: “Have you a working pulse and are no fairy?”
So, why does Pericles not check Thaisa’s vital signs before pitching her over the side of the ship and into the briny sea? Presumably because he is an idiot.
At this stage, Pericles is still weak; at the conclusion of the play, he will become The Father.
In any event, Thaisa retires to the Temple of Diana—“A vestal livery will I take me to,” she says in Act Three: Scene Four—and Marina ends up in a bordello.
So, to summarize, Pericles brings his sea-born daughter Marina to the Tarsians, for the sake of her safety, and solicits them to raise her. When she turns fourteen, Marina is admired by all of the Tarsians, and Lady Dionyza’s less prepossessing daughter Philoten is ignored. (Dionyza is the wife to the Lord of the Tarsians, Cleon.) So, Dionyza does what any mother would do and suborns the murder of Marina. Dionyza is another version of Lady Macbeth. The Tragedy of Macbeth was composed circa 1606, and this play was composed, again, circa 1607. It is very likely that Shakespeare was thinking of Lady Macbeth as he was fashioning the character of Lady Dionyza. In Act Four: Scene Three, Dionyza asks her husband, rhetorically, “Can it be undone?” She is alluding to the phenomenal murder of Marina, and her words are consonant with Lady Macbeth’s famous line “What’s done cannot be undone.” Interestingly, Dionyza’s name might be traceable to Dionysus, I’m not sure. I might be mistaken about this, but the thought did occur to me. In any event, Dionyza commissions Leonine, whose name means “The Lionlike One,” to assassinate Marina.
As you might expect, there is yet another deus ex machina.
Out of nowhere, pirates appear and prevent Leonine from slaughtering sweet Marina! Leonine says of Marina (in a soliloquy): “I’ll swear she’s dead / And thrown into the sea” [Act Four: Scene One].
The pirates will now sell poor Marina into prostitution at a brothel in Mytilene, which is a city in Greece that was founded in the eleventh century before the Christian era.
But wait, there is another deus ex machina! Even though Marina is prostituted against her will, she shames all of her clients with her purity, with her eloquence, with her elegance, with her grace, with her high-mindedness.
Those licentious men who steal into the bordello at night come out physically unfulfilled but with pure thoughts (and presumably as votaries of the Goddess Diana). Marina emerges from the entire ordeal vestally unviolated. As the Bawd phrases it, in Act Four: Scene Five, “[Marina] is able to freeze the god Priapus and undo a whole generation.” Shades of Measure for Measure.
So, Marina gets through her ordeal unviolated. Her name means, again, “She Who Was Born at Sea” and who navigates through the world unshipwrecked, without a fatal naval disaster. She is a votaress of the Goddess Diana, much like her mother. They are devoted in soul and in mind and in heart to the world beyond the senses. The physical world is likened to the dominion of Neptune. This world—this tempestuous, turbulent, mutable world—belongs to Neptune, for it is as unstable as the sea; the suprasensible world belongs to the Goddess Diana.
One of Marina’s clients is Lysimachus—yes, the same, the very Lysimachus who was the successor to Alexander the Great and is currently the Lord of Mytilene. Yet again, Marina shames her client.
Marina calls herself “the meanest bird” that flies in the “purer air” [IV:vi], but the exact opposite is more accurate. Is she not the purest bird in the meanest air?
Students of rhetoric will be familiar the Pathetic Appeal, which is when the speaker or the writer attempts to stimulate pity—it is an argument-enhancer, an argument-intensifier, an argument-decorator, not the core of the argument itself, which should be logos. If logos is ever superseded by pathos, then the argument becomes an argumentum ad misericordiam, which is a non-argument, but I can’t discuss that here.
There is also an unnamed rhetorical device, which I would call the “Shame Appeal.”
So ashamed is Lysimachus by Marina’s rhetoric that he bates himself, he bates his libidinal cravings. He demands nothing of Marina and gives her more than what was required of him. This client—originally, a hardened libertine who frequents houses of prostitution—will eventually become Marina’s husband.
So, the woman who is forced into prostitution and who yet refuses to prostitute herself marries one of her own clients. That is exactly what happens in this text.
The panderer has enough of this and intends to have his way with Marina. He threatens to abscond with her virginity (“Come, mistress…” [IV:v]).
But the crane descends again! The panderer is so impressed by Marina’s resume that he offers to find her a job elsewhere. The very traits that make Marina an object of envy—her singing skills, her weaving skills, her sewing skills, her dancing skills (“I can sing, weave, sew, and dance,” she says in Act Four: Scene Five)—are the same traits that make her marketable elsewhere and allow her to escape prostitution.
So: Marina’s skillfulness at sewing—a quality that nearly got her killed by the hand of Leonine, under the direction of Dionyza—will prove to be her redemption. She will become a sewing instructress at an all-girls’ school.
Are we supposed to believe that a dissolute panderer, a hard-hearted procurer, a snakelike pimp, is proficient at job placement and is able to find Marina a teaching position at a school for the daughters of wealthy families? Apparently, Shakespeare thinks that we are credulous enough to believe this, if he indeed is the author of this play.
Marina again escapes unviolated. As is stated in Chorus Six, “Marina thus the brothel scapes…”
Let us pause over this moment. This is astonishing: Lysimachus is a hardened libertine who uses prostitutes and might actually be syphilitic. And we are supposed to allow that it is perfectly wholesome for him to marry the pure-hearted and virginal Marina, who staves off lecherous men by shaming them and who is a votaress to the Goddess Diana, much like her mother.
This is but one of the many improbabilities, one of the many implausibilities with which the play is fraught. And yes, it is yet another deus ex machina.
In Act Five: Scene One, there is a beautiful reconciliation and recognition between father Pericles and daughter Marina. The recognition gives way, as it always does traditionally, to a turnaround in the plot. Pericles says to his rediscovered daughter: “O, come hither, / Thou that beget’st him that did thee beget” [V:i].
Translation: “You created the one who created you.” If one were to take this passage literally, the Father creates the Daughter, who then becomes the Mother to the Father—but the Daughter never becomes the King’s wife, the Queen (as happens between Antiochus and his Daughter).
This temporal paradox is reminiscent of one of the chief paradoxes of Christianity: God creates the Virgin Mary and then becomes the Son of His own Mother, His own creation. So, the Father creates His own Mother.
By contrast, one of the heresiarchs of Christianity, Arius, held that the Son has a separate existence and a separate divinity from God the Father. Allegedly, Arius was slapped across the face and exiled because of this heretical belief that the Son does not encarnalize the Father.
To return more immediately to the text of the play: Marina is the involuntary prostitute who is too pure for the role that has been imposed upon her. She, the daughter to Pericles, rejects a life of perversity, unlike Antiochus’ Daughter, who exists in an unholy, incestuous alliance with her father. Unlike Antiochus’ Daughter, Marina has a name—an identity apart from the Father.
Thus, the play turns full circle. It is a cosmically ironic circularity. Marina at first presents herself to her initially unrecognizing father Pericles not as his daughter, but as a comely young woman. She says, in Act Five: Scene One, that she is often “gazed on like a comet,” an astral body streaming through the heavens.
Marina does not present herself to Pericles initially as her daughter but as a woman who would inflame his senses and who, to quote Lysimachus, “would allure” him [V:i]. Now, “allure” is not a word that I would choose to describe the effect that a daughter normally has upon her father, at least not in healthy relationships between daughters and fathers.
The plot swiftly moves in a more wholesome direction. So, the recognition scene between Pericles and Marina begins as if it were incestuous, much as the relationship between Antiochus and his daughter was certainly incestuous. And yet the relationship between Pericles and Marina moves beyond the perverse into a realm of legitimacy.
Pericles expresses his intention to shear his hair and beard, which he grew long while mourning his daughter and wife: “And now this ornament [which] / Makes me look dismal will I clip to form” [V:iii]. The word form, like the word frame, suggests restraint, rather than the boundless depravity of Antiochus.
There are, within the text, altogether too many ingratiatory appeals, too many appeasements of the audience. Art should never attempt to ingratiate itself with the spectatorship.
In this play, the Evil perish—Cleon, Dionyza, Antiochus, Leonine all are enemies who are rapidly vanquished—and the Good win.
* * * * *
What is life? Life is the unanalyzable swathe of all possible experiences, and many of these possible experiences are conflictual experiences. All of us living must participate in the struggle for existence, and existence is largely conflict. There is the conflict between Self and Self (we see the gradual self-overcoming of Pericles), the conflict between Self and Other Human Beings, and the conflict between Self and World or Self and Nature (represented by the naval disasters set in motion by Neptune, the Sea). But this play, which dramatizes the second conflict (between Self and Other Human Beings) in a tepid manner, makes such conflicts seem easily won. Again and again, the crane descends, saving one protagonist or another.
I admit that this might be a personal disinclination, but I cannot tolerate art (or entertainment) that gives easy answers to life’s insoluble and indecipherable riddles. That is the task of entertainment; art should never do so. Art should highlight and dramatize the conflicts of life, not soft-soap them. Pericles, Prince of Tyre mollifies interhuman conflicts; it narcotizes the reader (or spectator).
As I was re-reading this play, I thought of another dramatist: Berthold Brecht.
You might be familiar with the East German dramatist Brecht. At the end of his play The Three-Penny Opera, Die Dreigroschenoper, the life of the gangster Macheath is saved when the King inexplicably pardons him.
A character named Herr Peachum reminds us that “in reality,” the lives of “the poorest of the poor” end in a terrible manner, denn in Wirklichkeit ist gerade ihr Ende schimm.
In reality, the poorest of the poor are not saved from a dismal end by the King!
At the very end of the play, the Morality Singer, Moritatensänger, intones the following lines. First, I will cite the German, then my rendering of the stanza into English:
Denn die einen sind im Dunkeln,
Und die andern sind im Licht.
Und man sieht die im Lichte,
Die im Dunkeln sieht man nicht.
For some are in darkness,
And others are in light.
You see those in the light,
Those in the darkness no one sees.
Why do I cite these lines? To suggest the following: Art is a lie, but it doesn’t have to be an insultingly patronizing lie. This play is a pretty fairy tale, if you are a child, but one doesn’t have all of life to grow up. Complex art deals with the glories of life, to be sure, but also its misfortunes. Pericles, Prince of Tyre gives nothing other than false consolations.
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