Pericles is the first of Shakespeare’s romances, an extraordinary new genre for him, different from anything the great playwright had created before. And living inside the romance, adding to its magic, stiffening its creative sinews, and giving it a much wider range of motifs and miracles, was the fairy tale. Indeed, the history of Pericles itself has a fairy tale quality, if one keeps in mind that the heroes of fairy tales live difficult and dangerous lives, languishing in obscurity and sometimes losing parts of themselves before their triumphant returns.
Pericles (like The Two Noble Kinsmen) was left out of the First Folio, that big compendium of Shakespeare’s plays compiled by his fellow actors seven years after his death. During Shakespeare’s lifetime only about half of his plays were published—in single volume, small or “quarto” editions, and some of those were pirated editions, corrupt texts put together from the faulty memories of minor actors in the plays and definitely not authorized by Shakespeare’s company. Fortunately, the First Folio changed that, rescuing eighteen of the thirty-six plays it contained from oblivion and helping to save others from corruption (of the textual variety). But Pericles, in the true tradition of the fairy tale, was left out, unpublished except for a “bad quarto” that sometimes garbled its lines or omitted them altogether. Perhaps this is one reason why it was left out; perhaps the editors of the First Folio had nothing better to work with than the “Bad Quarto” and refused to include that.
Just as likely, though, as a reason for the play’s exclusion is its dual authorship. Most editors are convinced that the last three acts are by Shakespeare and the first two acts (plus Gower’s speeches) are by George Wilkins (or someone else who is not Shakespeare). This has been the general opinion for a long time. In 1925, Alfred R. Bellinger, the editor of the Yale University Shakespeare’s Pericles, wrote, “The general opinion is that the largely or wholly Shakespearean part begins with Act 3, Scene 1, that is, that he is the author of the portion dealing with the fortunes of Marina. This is the conclusion to which Tennyson came, anticipating the editors by some years” ([New Haven: Yale University Press, 1925], 121).
Pericles was a wildly popular play during and immediately following Shakespeare’s lifetime. In F. D. Hoeniger’s words, “There are few plays by Shakespeare for which as much evidence is available to testify to their popularity on the stage during the early decades of the seventeenth century” (The Arden Edition of the Works of William Shakespeare: Pericles [London: Routledge, 1994], lxvi-lxvii). “The play was so popular with the reading public that six quarto versions were called for by 1635” (The Folger Library General Reader’s Shakespeare: Pericles eds. Louis B. Wright, Virginia A. LaMar [New York: Washington Square Press, 1968], viii). (Unfortunately, all of those quartos were based on the bad one.) Nor were the stage successes and the many quartos the only indicators. As Stanley Wells says in his introduction to Pericles in the Oxford Complete Works, “Its success was exploited, also in 1608, by the publication of a novel, by George Wilkins, ‘The Painful Adventures of Pericles Prince of Tyre, Being the True History of the Play of Pericles as it was lately presented by the worthy and ancient poet John Gower’” ([Oxford: Claredon Press, 1991], 1037). It was the Jacobean equivalent of the novelization of a popular movie.
Wilkins had previously written (among many other things) a play called The Miseries of Enforced Marriage, which Shakespeare’s company produced. For that play, also, Wilkins wrote a novelization, a practice unlikely to endear him to the King’s Men because they would have seen it as cutting into their profits.
However, as often happens in fairy tales (or the history of fairy-tale plays) a bad action was turned to a good purpose. Wilkins’ novel was often clearer and arguably closer to the original script than the bad quarto of the play. After all, he was the co-author. The Oxford Complete Works first published in 1988 used both versions to restore Pericles. The Norton Shakespeare in 1997 did the same thing, essentially adding its own notes to the Oxford version. Like the hero himself at the end of his story, the play is somewhat the worse for wear, and has, at least figuratively, had its hair and beard cut, but the ending of this story of the play’s text, just as the ending of the story in the play, is happy.
So what accounts for the survival and success of Pericles now and in the past? To make another modern comparison, romances and fairy tales have some similarities with “high concept” movies. As Walter Cohen puts it, “In Pericles, a king adorns his palace walls with the skulls of his victims. A princess commits incest with her father. Another princess is kidnapped by pirates and sold to a brothel. Famine brings a city to its knees. An entire crew is lost in a tumultuous storm. Two royal families are sent to fiery destruction. And Pericles is almost deposed by his restless nobility” (The Norton Shakespeare [New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997], 2709). And Cohen (who admittedly isn’t trying to make a positive point) leaves out most of the best stuff. A knight in rusty armor fights for his true love. A mother dies in childbirth but is revived by a magic healer. The governor of a city comes to a brothel but finds salvation. A princess survives and even prevails because of her intelligence and virtue. A fairy tale hero comes to the end of his ferocious suffering and finds again all those he loved and lost. Indeed, Shakespeare conjures here some of his greatest scenes of recognition and reconciliation. The poetry soars and the many different kinds of poetic discourse in this play come together to make up a true transformation into a new kind of drama and a different sort of happy ending.