Shakespeare is one of those traditions I struggle with. As a Literature major, I see the inherit value in the plays, in their study, and I can always return to the themes he worked in. At the same time, those themes are problematic when you consider the mores of the characters against modern sensibility.
The romances are my favorites as they walk the line between tragedy and comedy. By design, they’re more complicated. I never tire of a Midsummer’s Night Dream or the Tempest, but this weekend I got the chance to see Pericles at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland and it bore the same level of consideration as the others.
First, let me say that I’ve never read Pericles. My professors were just obsessed with Hamlet and King Lear. I think I wrote ten papers on each of those before I graduated. They’re also clear masterworks, there’s no denying that. My relationship to the comedies is also clear: they lend themselves to modern interpretation. The romances though deal with heavy themes.
The OSF playbill gave me some context: that Pericles was immensely popular in Shakespeare’s time, so much so that it was chosen to be the play they reopened with when the Puritans lost their sway. Pericles becomes difficult when you look at it through the modern lens: a daughter is bargained, a woman turns to villainy for petty jealousy, and a near rapist is forgiven without punishment and even rewarded for this “honorable” turn. In this, and in the deus ex machine turn at the end, Pericles is an immensely Greek play and Shakespeare shows his classical leanings.
Yet the story remains compelling, and it does prove less male centric when the focus turns from Pericles himself to his daughter, Marina. In both heroes, there’s an emphasis on their virtue, that by the nature of their natural goodness, they can overcome the terrors the gods have allowed to occur.
The relationship of the gods to the play is one I could ponder for hours: though oft invoked, their intervention is scant and delayed, almost as though they mean to say “Sorry about those twenty years. We were busy.” In this there is also some of what you find in Much Ado about Nothing’s emphasis on the purity of women in that it’s Diana, virgin goddess, who intervenes (and perhaps Her intervention might have differed had Marina now remained chaste).
Regarding the production itself, Ashland always excels. The stage work in Pericles was simple and yet incredible, especially a scene where a pull stage of silk is whisked away to leave the hero shipwrecked. A swaying platform, used to mimic a ship’s pitch and yaw was utilized to great effect, particularly when used to demonstrate Diana’s temple statue, requiring the actress to balance, unmoving for the entire scene.
Pericles itself is a balancing act. It could be played for tragedy or comedy and it would be very easy for the production to sway every way. Ashland did right by it, though as with any of the romances, I’ll need several more viewings to feel like I’ve truly understand it which for me, is what makes it timeless.