Each year certain landmark movies, TV shows or theatrical works set a trend that everyone in the entertainment industry often tries to duplicate in order to capitalize on or stay up with the audience's demands. The same was true throughout Shakespeare's writing career, often what he wrote next depended on what was in vogue at the time. In 1607-1608, introspective pessimism from earlier in the decade in which Shakespeare wrote his most powerful tragedies were giving way to large epic spectacles . Ben Jonson, Shakespeare's friend and professional rival, had for several years been writing and producing elaborate shows or masques for the royal court that would be on par with today's Disney musical. Each new production was more elaborate and expensive then the previous and Shakespeare's company, The King's Men, had to find a way to compete with Jonson's royal bank role. To complicate matters, the company was finally able to move into their year round theater, The Blackfriars. Geared more toward an upscale clientele, this would be exactly the same audience that Jonson was entertaining.
Below, when it was finally added to the canon, the Play's title page as it appeared in the Third Folio of 1664.
Having recently churned out Timon of Athens, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus, Shakespeare kept with this Greco-Roman theme and wrote Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Shakespeare based the story of Apollonius of Tyre, that he found in Confessio Amantis written by the medieval poet John Gower. Gower was a friend of Geoffrey Chaucer and in Shakespeare's day was considered to be his equal, though he is read little today. So much was Shakespeare taken by Gower's writing that he included the poet as the narrator of the play. The story begins with Pericles, a young king searching for a suitable bride. Through several misadventures he finds Princess Thaisa, they marry, but she is believed to have died shortly after giving birth to their daughter Marina, during a storm at sea. Father and daughter as also parted and then reunited and through a divine intervention both eventually reunite with Thaisa. Two action packed storms at sea, grand tournaments, exotic locales, a sweeping love story, several long years and a godly happy ending are all thrown into a mix that wowed them at the box office and marked the beginning of the final stage of Shakespeare's writing career, where he mixed Tragedy and Comedy, known today as the Romances.
Below left, a title page from one of many reprints of the Pericles quarto. Though the image is of the 1630 quarto, title pages were often reused and thus provides a glimpse of how the play first appeared in print in 1609.
Above right, a woodcut engraving of an actor portraying the Poet/Narrator John Gower. This was from a novel that sought to capitalize on the success from the show. The image may show Shakespeare in one of his roles, as he is believed to have taken the Chorus role in many of his other plays.
The play was a major success and continued to be for several decades after it was written, much to the chagrin of Ben Jonson who remarked once how little he thought of it, calling it 'a mouldy tale'. Pericles, immediately was the subject of a pirate publication by a literary hack named George Wilkins, who issued a novel version of the story in 1608. The first of many quartos followed in 1609 and went through several republications that same year, more so than any other Shakespeare play. The quarto while giving a good representation of the play in performance had many shortcomings such as lines that should have been in verse were laid out in prose and vice versa, lines belonging to one character being given to another and so on. Due to the textual deficiencies, the quarto and passages from the Wilkins' novel are used as the basis for all modern editions.
Pericles is the only undisputed Shakespeare play from his lifetime not added to the 1623 First Folio. Many theories have been put forward as to it's non-inclusion, such as Wilkins may have written part of it as the text is very uneven in places. However, a more probable scenario is that the company may not have had printing rights at the time of the Folio publication. The unevenness of the quarto may be due to the fact that the quarto was based on an early acting edition or manuscript and not a revised copy meant for publication. A similar case is seen both in Hamlet and King Lear where earlier quarto versions of the play are later replaced by revisions made by Shakespeare. In any case Pericles was eventually added to the cannon, but lost most of its initial popularity over the succeeding centuries. Its only in very recent years that the play has found new life with 21st Century audiences.
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