Happy May, everybody! Dramaturge and blogslave Keith Hock, back again as promised to satisfy that cliffhanger/teaser from my first blog post in almost the amount of time I said I would take to do it! No, not the cryptic “George Wilkins” aside (hold on just a little longer for that), the other one, right at the end. Yeah, that Greek thing. Despite my rejoinder last time to not place too much weight on the specific locations where the show takes place I believe that there is a lot to unpack in the Hellenistic setting and time period of this play, possibly more than in any of Shakespeare’s other plays (with the exception of the Histories, including Julius Caesar and Anthony & Cleopatra, for obvious reasons).
THIS IS GOING TO BE ONE OF THOSE BLOG POSTS WITH SPOILERS FOR A 400-YEAR-OLD PLAY BY THE MOST FAMOUS WRITER IN HISTORY, SO IF YOU DON’T WANT THE ENDING REVEALED NOW WOULD BE A GOOD TIME TO STOP READING. ALSO I WILL BE REFERRING TO DIANA AND THE ‘GREEK’ GODS IN THE SAME SENTENCE, I KNOW DIANA IS THE ROMAN NAME, I DIDN’T WRITE THIS PLAY, TAKE YOUR PEDANTRY UP WITH SHAKESPEARE
Most of Shakespeare’s plays could happen in a vacuum. As I’m certain I’ve discussed before, the majesty of the Bard lies neither in his plotting, nor his set dressing, but in the language and psychology. Hamlet could happen anywhere that men are depressed and isolated, Lear and the (other) Romances wherever you can find daughters and their aging fathers. Just about every Italian play is set there because the Italians made it to the Renaissance first and wrote all the stories and plays that Shakespeare stole and improved (seriously, the cultural weight, if not the political significance, of the Italian peninsula between the Renaissance and the First World War cannot be overstated). Titus Andronicus is really just a show about family. Macbeth gains something (possibly something vaguely racist and clannish) from its Scottish setting but Kurosawa pretty concretely proved that that story has legs elsewhere with Throne of Blood. So why do I give this show so much more credit for its setting?
If you’ve been a long-time reader of the blog, or you read the title or the introductory paragraph of this post, you may have guessed the answer already. It should come as no surprise that I attach a lot of value to ancient Greek literature, particularly the Tragedies. As one of the cornerstones of Western art and quite possibly THE basis for the tradition of theatre I do not think my passion and respect for them is overblown, though some of my colleagues disagree. I have regular
tantrums reasoned and mature discussions at pitch meetings over why I’m not allowed to stage a full mask-and-chorus Oresteia in one of our season slots or do a Seven Against Thebes/Prometheus Bound heraldry-and-pyrotechnics showcase as a fundraiser. My colleagues’ [correct -ed.] insistence on how unstageable, unmarketable, and unapproachable these shows are to a modern audience notwithstanding, their influence on the medium cannot be ignored. Since Shakespeare was probably about as smart as me I bet he thought the same thing. I believe that he took advantage of the Hellenistic setting of Pericles to consciously explore the tropes that typify Greek theatre, as a combination homage and experimental update.
There are two related Ancient Greek tropes that in my opinion really stand out in Pericles. The first is the intercession of the divine, a hallmark of Greek tragedies but few and far between in Shakespeare’s work (to my recollection the only other physical manifestations of gods in his plays are Jupiter in Cymbeline, which is basically a ‘Greatest Hits’ of Shakespeare’s other works, and Hecuba in Macbeth, whose appearance may have been a later addition to the play). Diana’s appearance in the penultimate scene mirrors the tendency of the Greek gods to appear out of nowhere at the end of the tragedies to resolve the plot, a trope so prevalent that it gave us the idiom deus ex machina, the god out of the machine, to describe an extraordinary and unearned conclusion to a story. The god in question would then explain why whatever cruelty they have inflicted on the hero and his family was justified, more or less because they said so and the whims of the gods are irresistible. The action Diana takes at the end of our play, to reunite the long-suffering Pericles with his wife and thereby turn his fortunes from miserable to joyous, does not strike me as very in-character for the notoriously virginal Diana, nor for the petty and vindictive Greek gods as a whole, but I suppose Shakespeare should get at least as much credit as I gave Racine for the need to update for new audience sensibilities. Besides, Pericles ISN’T a tragic hero; he isn’t being punished for his hubris, he is just an adventurer at the mercy of the gods.
Which conveniently segues us into the second trope, part of which I mentioned above; the inexorable will of the divine, and it being indistinguishable from fortune or luck. To the Greeks there was no such thing as random chance; all luck, either good or bad, was interpreted as the will of the gods. And they were completely helpless to the whims of fortune. Once the gods decide something (usually something bad), the decision is made. When Ajax figures out that Athena wants him dead, he kisses his wife goodbye, gives his son Eurysaces his famous shield, which is ALSO named Eurysaces, and trundles himself off to the beach to fall on his sword; his desires mean nothing, even to himself, in the face of Athena’s decree. Pericles seems to buy in completely to this philosophy [though many of the other characters, Marina especially, seem less on board with this fatalism, as we discussed in our dramaturgy rehearsal -KH]. Both Pericles himself and the omniscient narrator (thoroughly We Happy Few-ified for this production) tell us multiple times, in multiple scenes, that Pericles is utterly at the mercy of fortune. He accepts with equimanity both his marooning and the death of all his men by shipwreck and the miraculous recovery of his ancestral armor in the space of a single scene, and he attributes both his wife’s wooing and apparent demise to “the powers above us”, which “We cannot but obey”. It is not that Pericles has no agency; he just accepts that there are some things beyond his control and works to navigate AROUND those increasingly-common reversals of fortune in his life.
This is obviously not the only time that Shakespeare toyed with fate: I could write another entire blog post about the prophecy in Macbeth, and Romeo famously shrieks that he is “Fortune’s fool” after killing Tybalt. But Macbeth spends his entire play trying to game his prophecy, and Romeo is a 19-year-old in love, with more than his share of the accompanying self-involvement, while Pericles knows FOR CERTAIN that the gods are toying with him and is just trying to roll with the punches and see where he lands. By explicitly making Pericles the gods’ plaything Shakespeare had the opportunity to write a character who was made to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, just as Heracles and Oedipus and Odysseus and the other tragic heroes of antiquity would. Except Shakespeare, perhaps tired of killing his darlings, gets to engineer a happy ending.
To some of you this connection may feel like a stretch, to which I say
get bent, why don’t you write your own blog if you’re so smart, why? Shakespeare’s plays are riddled with classical allusions and can be sourced to everything between Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Brittaniae, Boccaccio’s Decameron, the Iliad, Plutarch, and (apocryphally) Don Quixote. It seems unlikely, almost impossible, that he WOULDN’T be familiar with the tragedians given the breadth of his knowledge. Indeed, the hubristic downfall of his tragic heroes offers some pretty solid evidence of their influence on him. Besides, Pericles comes near the end of his career, when he was getting experimental with a new style. The similarities are too close, and they add too much to the play, for me to ignore. If you’re still not convinced, come see the show for yourself in a few weeks and try to change my mind! Tickets are available now!