THE SLINGS AND ARROWS Reviewing Shakespeare

Two writers on the Bard and pop culture

Archive for November 2012

Pericles in five minutes

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You know what it’s like when you lose a piece of work you’re really happy with? That just happened to me with my piece on Pericles. Six months in the making (a couple of hours to be more precise, but still a good amount of work), my grand return to blogging here at Slings and Arrows was lost in mere seconds due to a lapse in technical aptitude on my part. So… rather than attempting to rewrite the piece in full, for the sake of forward progress I’ll simply sum up my main impressions regarding this play.

Pericles is a weird piece of work, for lack of a more graceful description. I’ve thrown the term soap opera around a lot on this blog to characterise certain Shakespeare plays, especially some of the histories, and I stand by that. As 21st century readers we inevitably read Shakespeare’s work through a contemporary filter and draw on modern texts to help us decipher the plays, regardless of how knowledgeable we may be about their historical context, Renaissance theatre and beliefs et al. Thus I think it’s perfectly reasonable to evoke the spectre of soap opera or Star Wars (another common shorthand I use a lot on this blog) to help interpret certain plays. But where, say, the Henriad is a soap opera in the best sense (e.g. a prestigious BBC drama or a gritty HBO series), Pericles is the sort of soap opera where people supposedly die and resurface years later and characters get kidnapped by pirates and sold into prostitution. These things have happened in soap operas I’ve watched, and they sure as heck happen in Pericles too.

The last two plays I reviewed on this blog, Coriolanus and Timon of Athens, I found striking because they were sustained meditations on single themes: pride and vanity respectively. Pericles is more interested in narrative variety than thematic coherence, and it certainly achieves that variety, as my point above attests. It also has a bizarre tonal shift midway through which I guess makes it the Shakespearean equivalent to From Dusk Til Dawn, the Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino film that switched from crime thriller to splat-tacular vampire action horror at halftime. Unfortunately, I don’t think the tonal shift here is quite as interesting or entertaining, and it gives the play a somewhat ‘off’ quality.

Of course, Pericles is also one of Shakespeare’s romances, the first of four we’ll be reviewing on this blog, and much as the problem plays are famous for their ‘off’ quality, so too are the romances acquired tastes for many readers (I’m probably a little more partial to the former, since I don’t especially like the happy resolutions of the romances, but that’s purely subjective). There are some Shakespeare plays that are like gigantic T-bone steaks with baked potatoes coated in sour cream, epic meals that are meaty, weighty and filling to the point of overstuffing: Hamlet, King Lear etc. Then there are plays that are like schnitzels with chips and salad: less challenging to get through, a little plainer and simpler, but very satisfying for their recognisable beats: Henry V, Julias Caesar etc. Then there are plays with weird ingredients mixed to create unusual new flavours, not necessarily bad but not necessarily great, like a veal marinated in a lime sauce. That’s Pericles, or at least that’s how I reacted on this reading (my very first I should point out) of the play. This reaction could be symptomatic of the fact it’s been six months since last reading & blogging on the Bard, the change in tone and tempo that comes with the romances, and/or this play’s own unique ingredients. I’ll be interested to see where things go with Cymbeline, another first for me…

Once again apologies for the brevity of this (second attempt to) post. Hopefully my next post on Cymbeline will survive the publishing process and have more time for niceties…




November 11, 2012 at 10:48 am

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