Shakespeare wrote so much that it is a remarkable person indeed who can claim to have read all his works; and as for seeing them all performed, some of the plays are so rarely staged that the feat may be only barely possible. All the more reason, then, to go out of one’s way to see some of the obscurer plays, when they do come around — and so when Pericles came to the Woodstock Shakespeare Festival this summer, I made sure not to miss it.
The Woodstock Shakespeare Festival in New York is one of the truly delightful events of the summer: a stage is set up in a beautiful field; spectators, groundlings all, sit on the grass or blankets or bring their own chairs; admission is free, though a ten-dollar donation is requested; the actors, many of whom return year after year and form a kind of troupe, seem to do it all for love (they certainly are not getting rich or famous for it); and then there is the poetry. You can sit in the grass and hear people proclaim, “I shall rob Tellus of her weed” (for “pick flowers”) and “All unscissored shall this hair of mine remain” (=no haircut for me). The ingenuity goes on for two and a half hours, and tells a story beside.
The festival, organized by the Bird-On-A-Cliff Theatre Company, has preferred to stage the comedies, and technically, Pericles is a comedy — though more on that anon. Despite a classical background, I had not the slightest idea what the play was about before the actors took to the boards. Is it actually about Pericles, the elected Athenian leader so influential during Athens’ golden age? Could Shakespeare have adapted Thucydides for the stage? Well, the answer is no, he didn’t; in fact, the full name of the play is Pericles, Prince of Tyre, and though (almost) all the characters have Greek names and there is a wicked tyrant named Cleon, Athenian democratic politics do not enter into the story. In fact, the story is a version of the life of Apollonius of Tyre, who — just to complicate things further — should not be confused with the philosopher-magician Apollonius of Tyana, whose life was written by Philostratus in the third century A.D.
Apollonius of Tyre is the name of a fictional prince, apparently the subject of a (now lost) Greek novel, whose story survives in multiple later versions and was popular in Europe in the Late Middle Ages. Shakespeare took the story but changed the name Apollonius to Pericles (the bard always did like absurd names). The play is hence like a Shakespearean version of a Greek novel, and its radical departure from the conventions of either comedy or tragedy have led literary critics to dub it the first of Shakespeare’s “romances” — meaning by that term a story of various adversity endured with an ultimately happy ending — a kind of tragicomedy.
The kernel of the story is this: Pericles is a young prince of Tyre who comes to the court of Antiochus of Syria to court Antiochus’s daughter. However, he decides not to continue the courtship, which means losing his position; he leaves, is shipwrecked, and gains the hand of a princess by his valor in a tournament of arms; he then learns that his father has died and he should return to his kingdom; en route his loses his wife in childbirth, and years later the loss of his daughter plunges him into the deepest grief. But their death was only apparent, and he is reunited with both by the end of the play.
In its basic outline, then, this is nearly the definition of a Medieval “comedy” — a story in which loss is shown to be accidental and not essential, to use the contemporary terms, and its general appeal to Christian authors seems explicable enough, for whom the death of good people is only an apparent and temporary evil. But the detailing of the story, particularly in this Shakespearean version, is grotesque: Antiochus, like a proper fairy tyrant, has declared that anyone wishing to marry his daughter must correctly answer a riddle or have his head chopped off. However, unlike a proper fairy tyrant, he is also sexually abusing his daughter, and this is, in fact, the riddle: that his daughter is both daughter and wife to him. To answer incorrectly means to lose one’s head; but to answer correctly is to commit lese-majeste, and the king will kill anyone who accuses him of such a crime. (I’m sure there is some kind of psychological-Jungian meaning to such a conundrum, though I will leave it to people with more time on their hands to figure out its psychic meaning.)
The play opens with this incest, but the luridness does not end there. Pericles’s daughter Marina, whom he believed dead, had been left to be fostered by two friends of Pericles, and the foster mother — a Lady Macbeth type — gets jealous of Marina, and orders her lover to kill her. He is about to do so when pirates break into the house (how convenient) and abduct Marina. They then sell her off to a brothel in Mytilene. The brothel’s factotum walks through the streets of Mytilene, describing the beauty of the new whore in town and promising the girl’s virginity to the highest bidder. The factotum comes back with the governor of the province, who is eager to rape her, but he is dissuaded by a Portia-like speech she delivers about the nature of good governance (I kid you not). In true problem-play fashion, the two end up getting married.
Though there is a happy ending, not all of this makes for comfortable watching, and it is easy to see why Pericles is not often staged. But the play is really not bad: according to notes from director Christopher Martin, it was supposedly Shakespeare’s second-most popular play in his lifetime. If you banish from your mind all thought of pure comedy or pure tragedy, and think instead that you are seeing an Arthurian tale — really the whole play could fit into the Morte D’Arthur — you have quite a good chance of enjoying yourself, particularly with this production. Martin’s ingenious direction makes judicious cuts to some of the scenes, give multiple actors double roles to emphasize some of the thematic strands in the play, and then lets his cast do the work. Yasemin Eti (Marina, Thaisa) does a brilliant job incarnating the intelligence and redemptive eloquence of a Shakespearean heroine; Bill Solley (Antiochus, Simonides, Bot) injects a much-needed dose of manic humor into the bordello scenes; David Aston-Reese (Gower) radiates an infectious love of the poetry whenever he opens his mouth; and Justin Waldo’s powerful Pericles is just understated enough to give him Everyman stature, while emotive enough to give him tragic depth. Pericles is Shakespeare’s Aeneas; much-buffeted, he takes refuge in silent endurance; but his reticence strips him of peculiarity, and turns him into a figure of the universal suffering soul. Waldo’s performance brought out precisely the thing that makes Shakespeare’s romances so interesting to contemplate.
And there is much in Pericles, which T.S. Eliot admired and called “that very great play,” to contemplate. Ten minutes of it cured me of whatever temporary disposition I might have had to think the modern world uniquely wicked and doomed. The thought of a man walking through the streets of a populous city, auctioning off a young girl to be raped, and finding the city’s ruler eager to be the highest bidder is an image of systemic corruption not easily forgotten. And given the recent Jeffrey Epstein case — a sex-trafficking ring implicating some of the most powerful men in the world — it hardly seems outlandish or out of date. And yet in Shakespeare there is also that other world of virtue and goodness, which by following, Marina, Thaisa, Pericles, and others find redemption. Shakespeare looked at the evil of the world full-on; and yet he has a place for redemption. The wise Cerimon (humbly and warmly played by Hank Neimark), proclaims: “I hold it ever,
Virtue and cunning were endowments greater
Than nobleness and riches: careless heirs
May the two latter darken and expend;
But immortality attends the former,
Making a man a god. (iii.2)
If you have the chance to get to the Catskills this Labor Day weekend, treat yourself to a rare spectacle — the story of Pericles, Prince of Tyre, on the Woodstock stage.
Pericles concludes this weekend, with shows Friday August 30th, Saturday August 31st, and Sunday September 1st at 5:30 p.m. at the Comeau Property, 45 Comeau Drive, Woodstock, N.Y. Admission is free ($10 suggested donation). Attendees are welcome to bring a lawn chair, blanket, and/or picnic. www.birdonacliff.org.
John Byron Kuhner is former president of SALVI (the North American Institute of Living Latin Studies) and editor of In Medias Res.