What an odd play Pericles is! What can one make of it? The first two acts are abysmal. It’s not even what one would expect of an untalented novice, let alone from a writer of genius at the peak of his powers. Even Shakespeare the apprentice dramatist could have written better stuff in his sleep. But from Act 3 onwards, things improve. It may not be pure gold, but the dramatic verse is not unworthy of Shakespeare. The humour in the brothel scenes (much disapproved of by the Victorians, naturally) is fine, and the reconciliation scene between Pericles and his daughter Marina is excellent: it is surprising how touching this scene is, despite the silliness of its dramatic context. (This scene inspired a particularly fine poem by TS Eliot.) The plot remains as outrageously silly as ever, of course, but Shakespeare never minded a silly plot.
It is generally accepted that Shakespeare didn’t write the whole thing. It would be surprising indeed if he had any part in the first two acts. The last three acts, however, are thought to be at least partly by Shakespeare: he may even have written all of them.
This naturally raises many questions: apart from some very early plays – and some very late ones, such as this – there is no evidence, either internal or external, that Shakespeare collaborated. He was certainly at the top of his profession, and was big enough not to have to collaborate with anyone. So why does he suddenly start collaborating now? And if he does collaborate, why, given his very high standing within his profession, does he collaborate with writers who are, frankly, incompetent? Maybe Shakespeare wasn’t collaborating: maybe he was patching up a bad play, making what he could of it. But if so, why did he focus only on the last three acts? Why did he not re-write the whole thing?
Any answer to these questions must necessarily be conjecture. My own conjecture is that Shakespeare was already thinking ahead to Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest - his late wondrous trilogy of plays – and that he set himself the task of re-writing the last three acts of Pericles as a sort of exercise in preparation for the great tasks yet to come. But of course, this is mere conjecture: we shall never know the truth of the matter.
I think the significance of Pericles will become more apparent once we move on to Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. In this final phase of his artistic career, Shakespeare seemed to be looking beyond tragedy into an imaginative world of a hard-won serenity, a world in which that which has been lost is restored. This is, perhaps, not new: we have had foreshadowings of this at the end of Much Ado About Nothing, where Hero is restored to Claudio, and, even more touchingly, at the end of Twelfth Night, where Viola and Sebastian recognise each other in a scene of awe and wonder. And bridging the world of those romantic comedies with the world of the late plays is All’s Well That Ends Well, with its fairy tale plot.
But as for Pericles, whatever the incidental felicities of the last three acts, I cannot really see it as anything other than an exercise on Shakespeare’s part – a pointer to what was still to come.