11 April 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/15

Pericles is reunited with his lost daughter Marina

O Helicanus, strike me, honored sir!
Give me a gash, put me to present pain;
Lest this great sea of joys rushing upon me
O'erbear the shores of my mortality,
And drown me with their sweetness. O, come hither,
Thou that beget'st him that did thee beget;
Thou that wast born at sea, buried at Tharsus,
And found at sea again! O Helicanus,
Down on thy knees; thank the holy gods as loud
As thunder threatens us: this is Marina!
What was thy mother's name? Tell me but that,
For truth can never be confirmed enough,
Though doubts did ever sleep.

William Shakespeare, Pericles, Prince of Tyre; Act V, scene 1, ll 193 - 205

While The Tempest's reputation has always been high, those of Shakespeare's other late-period romances – this week's play, Pericles, Prince of Tyre; Cymbeline; and particularly The Winter's Tale –have lately been rising to meet it. These often convoluted and deliberately fanastical plays have an obvious appeal to an age of Magic Realism and of continuing interest in stories playing off of folk and fairy tales. But Pericles has some particular difficulties; until the recent interest in collaboration among early modern dramatists, it has been held against it that the first two acts are clearly written by someone else. This may have led to a doubtful status even in its own time, as the play was omitted from the famous First Folio of 1623 that is the only source for about half of Shakespeare's plays, though other collaborative plays, like Henry VIII, were included. The play survived in quarto editions, which, according to editors, are riddled with errors. The play must have been fairly popular, though, as there were six quartos (all reprinting the same text) and finally inclusion in the Third Folio of 1664. (A quarto is a book size that results from folding a sheet of paper into four leaves, equaling eight pages, as opposed to a folio, which is a larger size resulting from folding the sheet of paper once, forming two leaves, equaling four pages. The exact size of the resulting book will depend on the original size of the sheet of paper, which might vary a bit. Generally a quarto is a smaller, less expensive and impressive book than a folio.)

In the excerpt above, we see part of the scene in which Pericles is reunited with his lost daughter, Marina. Before we reach this point we've gone through many adventures, some of which – her birth at sea (hence her name), her apparent death at Tharsus while in the care of the country's rulers – are helpfully recapped in this speech. The medieval poet John Gower shows up as Chorus to guide us through the play, which opens with Pericles attempting to win the hand of the daughter of the King of Antioch by answering a riddle. In good folk-tale form, failure to answer correctly will result in his death. The riddle hints pretty directly at the true state of affairs in Antioch: the King and his daughter are involved in an incestuous love. Death lies in a correct answer as well as an incorrect one. Pericles, realizing both the truth and the danger knowing the truth exposes him to, flees. I won't recap the rest of the elaborate plot (which would probably take longer than just reading the play), except to note that along the way he marries Thaisa, who seems to die while giving birth to their daughter. A storm is raging during the birth and the superstitious sailors insist the dead body must go overboard. The widower Pericles must continue his wandering and leaves his infant daughter with Cleon and Dionyza, the rulers of Tharsus, whose subjects he relieved from a severe famine. As years pass so does their sense of gratitude and Dionyza, as a sort of evil stepmother, decides that lovely and intelligent Marina overshadows her own daughter and therefore must be got out of the way. She arranges a murder, and as far as she knows her orders are obeyed. So Pericles, thinking that both his wife and daughter are dead, goes into a deep and unyielding state of mourning, refusing to cut his hair or beard, withdrawing almost entirely from life: a living corpse, mourning the loved and lost.

When the ship holding the nearly catatonic king floats into Mytilene, someone suggests that he might perhaps be roused by the remarkable and mysterious young woman who has recently appeared in that city. Though forced to work in a brothel, she remains untouched through her persuasive powers and sheer force of personality, much to the frustration of the couple that runs the place. In one of my favorite funny moments in this play, or maybe any other, two of the regular customers are so moved by her words that they are "out of the road of rutting forever", one suggesting to the other that they go hear the vestal virgins sing instead (Act IV, scene 5). The reference to singing is important, as an indication of the key role music plays throughout the work – Shakespeare connects even a passing little joke with the play's larger themes, which is one way of bringing some unity to a rambling story-line.

As Marina recites her history, hoping her endurance of her own sufferings will show him a healing example, Pericles slowly rouses himself to listen, his attention caught first by her resemblance to his dead wife: "I will believe thee, / And make my senses credit thy relation / To points that seem impossible; for thou lookest / Like one I loved indeed" – I find the last part of that line deeply moving. Notice that it is his senses, not his rational intellect, that will credit [her] relation, that is, believe the story she is relating, and relation here may also remind us that, though these two haven't realized it yet, they are related.

The excerpt comes from the moment when Pericles becomes certain, or almost certain, that this young woman is his lost daughter, whom he has not seen since she was an infant. The Helicanus referred to is a nobleman from Tyre who is accompanying him, though for many years he has been in Tyre, faithfully ruling on behalf of the wandering king. Pericles reaches out, in his first attempt in many years at a human connection, to an old and loyal friend (considering the brevity of his time with wife and daughter before they were separated, his relationship with Helicanus is probably his oldest and in some ways deepest). So used to suffering has he become that he calls on Helicanus to inflict some physical pain on him, lest the inrush of astounding joy be too much for his mortal body to bear. We see, concentrated in this brief speech, some of the major motifs of the play: the sea, thunder and storm, inundation, dangerous abundance, drowning. There is a sense that the very intensity of these joys makes them hazardous; as we have seen throughout the course of Pericles's adventures, despite the occasional presence of miraculous joys, life is perilous, fragile, filled with sorrows.

The mourning father is recalled to life, reborn, through reunion with his daughter: she beget'st him that did thee beget. Note the use of thee, which to us sounds formal and archaic but in Shakespeare's time was an intimate, singular second person similar to the French tu: although they have never really met, there is immediate intimacy and love between them. The great sea of joys rushing upon Pericles do not kill him, but do lead him to the brink: first he hears the music of the spheres (the music made by celestial bodies as they orbit, a sign of due and appropriate proportion, harmony in every sense, normally unheard by mortal ears). Enraptured, he receives a vision of Diana, who orders him to her temple at Ephesus, where, finally, he and his daughter will be reunited with Thaisa, his wife and her mother. Throughout the play we see many examples of troubled or broken families: Antiochus and his incestuous liaison with his own daughter; Cleon and Dionyza, the faithless rulers of Tharsus who tried to kill Marina; the sleazy couple that runs the Mytilene whorehouse: in the reunion of this suffering family we see love and amity restored to this world in intimate family form.

Though Pericles is a comparative rarity, I've seen it twice. The first time was many years ago in Boston when Peter Sellars was (briefly) running the Boston Shakespeare Company. The production was uneven and maybe overly stately (run time was at least four hours), with some ideas that sounded intriguing but didn't really work that well in performance, like the casting of a local street storyteller named Brother Blue as Gower – there was an interesting connection there between the functions of the ancient storyteller and the modern one, but Brother Blue was used to improvising his own lines and had some trouble with Shakespeare's, and he was used to smallish crowds gathering around him in Harvard Square where he could speak in conversational tones, rather than projecting into a theater. He was often barely audible. But the reunion of Pericles and Marina was striking: Pericles was in dirty clothes and matted hair, living in a large, partially broken down cardboard box like a street person. Marina was an attractive, neatly dressed young woman. And when Pericles starts to hear the music of the spheres, Craig Smith, Sellars' frequent collaborator in musical adventures, walked out in standard concert dress of black tie, at a normal pace, sat at a grand piano that was at the back of the stage, and began playing one of Beethoven's piano sonatas. As if to illustrate the play's continuing insistence on the vital power of music, the Beethoven, so simply and directly performed, raised the whole scene into one of my indelible moments in the theater.

The reunion of father and daughter provided inspiration to another poet: here is a link to my previous discussion of T S Eliot's Marina.

I've used the Signet Classic edition of Pericles, Prince of Tyre, edited by Ernest Schanzer (which now seems to be available new only in a volume with Cymbeline and The Two Noble Kinsmen – a bargain, but I do like having the plays in individual volumes).

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