I belong to a Shakespeare reading group; we get together about once a month and read one of Shakespeare's plays aloud. We're now almost done with our tour through the canon. All that remains is Hamlet, which we're going to do up right -- we'll be going out of town for our reading, and taking a whole weekend for our outing.
We've had some surprises on the way. Many plays with not very good reputations turned out to be extremely enjoyable to read (Titus Andronicus and the Henry VI trilogy come to mind), for instance. Of course, a lot of plays with bad reputations just turned out to be, well...bad. Obviously, we deliberately saved Hamlet for last, but there were some plays lurking towards the end of our Shakespeare tour that were mostly there because we were never all that enthused about reading them in the first place. Which is my way of introducing the play we read this afternoon, our penultimate pit stop -- Pericles.
Before today, I would have said that the lamest Shakespeare play was A Winter's Tale (in a close race with Love's Labors Lost). But now I am convinced the nadir is Pericles. Let me provide a condensed version of the play so you can judge for yourself.
PERICLES, PRINCE OF TYRE
ACT 1, PROLOGUE
NARRATOR: The king is having sex with his daughter, and to keep suitors from marrying her, he asks them to solve a riddle. If they don't solve it, he kills them. If they do solve it, he also kills them, since the answer is "the king is having sex with his daughter".
ACT 1, SCENE 1
PERICLES: Hello, king. I'd like to marry your daughter.
ANTIOCHUS: Well, first you have to answer this riddle. Answer incorrectly, and you die:
My first is in Paris, my second in France,
The rest is...whatever, I'm having sex with my daughter.
PERICLES: Uh...how about if I answer that tomorrow?
ANTIOCHUS: Oh, sure, think about it as long as you like.
PERICLES: (aside) I suspect he's having sex with his daughter. I probably shouldn't say anything about it. Maybe I'll just go back home to Tyre. (he exits)
ANTIOCHUS: Hmm, I think he might have figured it out. Thaliard!
THALIARD: (entering) Yes?
ANTIOCHUS: I need you to kill Pericles for me.
ACT 1, SCENE 2
HELICANUS: What's the matter, my lord?
PERICLES: Oh...the king of Antioch is sleeping with his daughter and now he wants to kill me because he's afraid I'll tell everyone about it or something. (He leans out the window.) OH, IF ONLY I HAD NEVER LEARNED HE WAS SLEEPING WITH HIS DAUGHTER.
HELICANUS: I can see how that would be a problem. Maybe you should leave town until he cools off, or dies, or whatever, since it's pretty easy to find you here.
PERICLES: Since I'm prince and all.
PERICLES: Probably a good idea. Okay, I'll go to Tarsus. Keep an eye on things while I'm gone.
ACT 1, SCENE 3
THALIARD: (hidden) Well, here I am, ready to kill Pericles.
HELICANUS: People of Tyre, Pericles has left town for a while. If you need anything ruling-related, please see me. I hope you'll all join me in wishing Pericles well on his perilous boat journey.
THALIARD: (aside) Boat journey? This is perfect. I'll just tell Antiochus that Pericles is dead, since I'm sure he'll die at sea. No one in history has ever survived a boat trip, after all. Well, at least I can get some food out of this trip. (He emerges from his hiding place.) Hello there! I bring greetings from Antioch!
HELICANUS: (aside) Oh, God, I guess we have to feed him now.
ACT 1, SCENE 4
CLEON: Oh, it's very hard being governor of Tarsus, what with this horrible famine we're having.
DIONYZA: I can imagine, my dear husband. I mean, people are eating their babies. Married couples are drawing straws to see which one will get to eat the other.
CLEON: I blame the Democrats.
PERICLES: Hello. I heard you were all dying of hunger, so I brought you a boatload of corn. Can I stay here for a while?
ACT 2, PROLOGUE
NARRATOR: Well, that all went reasonably well, except for the incest part. But now Helicane sends a messenger to Pericles to warn him that Thaliard is looking for him, and maybe he should go further away than Tarsus if he was hoping to avoid being killed. So Pericles sets sail again, and this time there's a big storm. A terrible storm! The ship is destroyed and everyone on it dies! Except for Pericles, for some reason! Then he washes ashore.
ACT 2, SCENE 1
(Enter Pericles, wet.)
(That previous stage direction is verbatim.)
(Three fishermen enter.)
FISHERMAN 1: (unintelligible)
FISHERMAN 2: (unintelligible)
FISHERMAN 3: (laughs)
PERICLES: (after five minutes of listening to the fishermen's cryptic babbling) Rustic people certainly are amusing. Hey! Where am I?
FISHERMAN 1: Pentapolis, ruled by King Simonides. He has a daughter --
PERICLES: Who he's having sex with?
FISHERMAN 1: Um, no.
PERICLES: Well...good! Good for him.
FISHERMAN 1: Anyway, he has a daughter, and her birthday is tomorrow, and princes and knights from all over are going to vie for her love.
PERICLES: That sounds fun. I might do that, too, if I weren't recently shipwrecked and stuff.
FISHERMAN 1: (unintelligible)
FISHERMAN 2: Hey, look! We caught a coat of armor in our net!
PERICLES: Oh my God! That's my father's armor! I thought I'd lost it in the shipwreck!
FISHERMAN 3: How do we know it's yours?
PERICLES: I recognize it by that mark on it!
FISHERMAN: Oh, well, all right then.
ACT 2, SCENE 2
SIMONIDES: Are the knights ready to let my daughter check them out?
SOMEBODY: They are!
SIMONIDES: Send them in. How do you like them, daughter?
THAISA: They certainly are...in a line. And there are six of them. Ew! Who's the wet guy in the rusty armor?
SIMONIDES: I have no idea.
(A bunch of idiots make some ostensibly cutting remarks.)
SIMONIDES: Hey! Just because his armor is rusty doesn't mean he can't kick all your asses. Okay -- let's go watch all these guys fight, what do you say?
ACT 2, SCENE 3
SIMONIDES: Thank you all for hitting each other for my daughter's benefit.
THAISA: But special thanks and congratulations to you, brave mystery knight. Here is your wreath of victory.
PERICLES: Oh, I was just lucky.
SIMONIDES: Well, good job being so lucky then. Anyway, let's all eat. (Aside.) Who the hell is that guy?
THAISA: (aside) I have such a huge crush on him.
SIMONIDES: (aside) Oh, whatever...those knights are not exactly on the A-list, skill-wise. How hard can it be to beat them?
THAISA: (aside) To reiterate: a huge, huge crush.
SIMONIDES: Thaisa, why don't you give that mystery knight a drink?
THAISA: But I barely know him!
SIMONIDES: So ask him to introduce himself! Geez.
(She does so. Pericles explains his BACKSTORY, leaving out the incest part, and also failing to mention that he is a prince. Thaisa relays the info to Simonides.)
SIMONIDES: Okay, everyone -- I know I said we were going to talk about which one of you gets to marry my daughter, but it's getting late, so let's deal with that tomorrow. Pleasant dreams.
ACT 2, SCENE 4
HELICANUS: Yeah, Pericles totally had to leave because of Antiochus having sex with his daughter. And now Antiochus and his daughter are both dead! Their chariot was struck by lightning and they burned to death instantly! That's what incest gets you.
SOMEONE HELICANUS KNOWS: Wow.
(Some people enter.)
ONE OF THEM: You know, Pericles has been gone for a while. What the hell is going on? If he's alive, where is he? If he's not, why the fuck are we waiting for him?
ANOTHER ONE: We kind of think you should just take his place officially if he's dead. You seem to have a handle on it.
HELICANUS: Well, look. Let's give it a year. If you can't find him after twelve months, then I guess I'll take over.
THE FIRST ONE AGAIN: Okay.
ACT 2, SCENE 5
SIMONIDES: Bad news, all you knights who were hoping to marry my daughter. She's decided to remain chaste for a year to serve the goddess Diana.
KNIGHT: But why?
SIMONIDES: I have no idea. (Exeunt knights.) Now, why don't I read this letter my daughter gave me? Maybe it will explain why she wants to remain chaste. Oh! Apparently she'll either wed Pericles or nobody. Excellent! He's the one who I had most hoped she would marry anyway. Here he comes. I must now pretend to be a big jerk for no good reason.
SIMONIDES: Hello. So what do you think of my daughter?
PERICLES: She's nice.
SIMONIDES: She wants to marry you, you know.
PERICLES: You're pulling my leg.
SIMONIDES: No, really, look. (He hands Pericles the letter.)
PERICLES: (aside) This must be a trick -- some sort of excuse for the king to have me killed. Why is it every king I meet wants to kill me? (To Simonides.) Look, I was never interested in your daughter. I was just fighting those knights for the hell of it.
SIMONIDES: I say you've cast a spell on my daughter to capture her love, and by god I'll see you burned at the stake for it.
PERICLES: I can honestly say I have no idea what the fuck you are talking about.
PERICLES: I'll just be going now.
SIMONIDES: No, no, let's see what you have to say with my daughter here, you would-be rapist, you. Thaisa!
PERICLES: Thaisa, tell this crazy man that I never wooed you.
THAISA: Well, I wish you had.
SIMONIDES: You see? You have bewitched her! (Aside.) And I'm very glad of it. But for some reason I don't want either of them to know it. (To Thaisa.) And you have the freaking nerve to fall in love with someone -- a stranger, yet -- without asking me about it first? (Aside.) Although, just because he's a stranger, who's to say that he isn't of noble birth? Perhaps I should have actually bothered to ask him more about his backstory. (To Pericles.) That's right, either you do as I say -- and the same goes for you, daughter, you obstreperous slattern -- or by God I swear that I will make you...(he pauses dramatically)...man and wife! Ha ha! I really had you going, didn't I? So, what do you say? Married? Yes?
THAISA and PERICLES: (exchanging a bewildered glance) Okay.
ACT 3, PROLOGUE
NARRATOR: So Pericles and Thaisa got married, and soon Thaisa was expecting a child. Then a messenger arrives from Tyre, and tells Pericles that if he doesn't get back to Tyre soon, they're going to assume he's dead and elect someone else prince. So Pericles prepares to set off for Tyre to reclaim his kingdom, and everyone in Pentapolis is thrilled to learn that Thaisa's unborn child is the heir to a throne, which implies that Pericles never actually told anyone in Pentapolis exactly who he was. Oh, well, I'm sure he had a good reason. Even though she's pregnant, Thaisa insists on coming along for the trip. Then there's another huge storm, and Thaisa starts having complications. I think that covers it.
ACT 3, SCENE 1
On a boat
PERICLES: Why is there always a storm every time I try to go anywhere? Lychorida, you're my wife's nurse -- how is she?
LYCHORIDA: (carrying a baby) Well...your new daughter's fine. Your wife is kind of dead, though.
LYCHORIDA: (giving him the baby) Be strong, for your daughter's sake.
(A sailor enters.)
SAILOR: Sir, we must throw your wife overboard. The storm won't stop until the ship is cleared of the dead.
PERICLES: That's ridiculous. Stop being so superstitious. I intend to give my wife a proper burial.
SAILOR: Begging your pardon, sir, but throwing dead people overboard has always worked before. I really must insist.
PERICLES: Well, if it's so important to you, fine. At least find a nice casket for her, though. And then set sail for Tarsus; I don't think this baby can make it all the way to Tyre. (The sailor exits.) Maybe I should go help out with the casket.
ACT 3, SCENE 2
(No, it's not that you haven't been paying attention, this scene is just set somewhere we haven't been before.)
LORD CERIMON: Philemon!
PHILEMON: Yes, my lord?
LORD CERIMON: These men were shipwrecked by the storm. Please get them some food while I help them out with my quasi-magical knowledge of medicine.
(Enter some people.)
GUY: This is such a bad storm, we were afraid our houses were going to collapse.
THE OTHER GUY: Can we stay here for a while?
LORD CERIMON: Sure.
(Enter two servants with a chest. A human-sized chest.)
SERVANT: Sir, look what the sea washed up!
LORD CERIMON: Oooh, maybe it's treasure. Hmm, it's sealed shut so securely. Pry it open for me. (They do so.) A corpse! And there's a note! "To whom it may concern: I, King Pericles, had to throw my dead wife overboard. Please bury her in return for the various treasures I have also included in the casket. Thanking you in advance etc., Pericles." And it's dated today! The poor guy. Actually...(he looks more closely at Thaisa's body)...you know, I wonder if they were a little hasty throwing this one overboard. Servants! Make me a fire! Fetch me my things and stuff! (Servants rush in and out.) I once heard a story about a guy who was dead for nine hours and brought back to life. I'm sure I can do the same. Give me a cloth! And play some music! Good, yes. No, no, a little more violin. Perfect. Oh, it's working! My vague ministrations have revived her!
ONE OF THOSE TWO GUYS FROM BEFORE: Surely you are a god.
THAISA: Where am I?
LORD CERIMON: I'll explain later. First, you need a dose of linen.
ACT 3, SCENE 3
PERICLES: Cleon, I need you to look after my daughter while I return to Tyre. I have named her Marina. Get it? Sea...Marina...? (No response.) Well, anyway, if you could take care of her...
CLEON: Considering that you saved my country from famine, I will naturally do anything you ask.
DIONYZA: And we're very sorry to hear about your wife.
PERICLES: Thank you. And until Marina is married, I shall refuse to cut my hair. Even if that turns out to not be so flattering. I must go, but Lychorida will remain. Please raise Marina as you would one of your own.
DIONYZA: I actually do have a daughter, so I can use her for comparison purposes.
PERICLES: Excellent. Farewell.
ACT 3, SCENE 4
LORD CERIMON: We found this note in your coffin.
THAISA: No doubt I shall never see my love again. I will devote myself to the goddess Diana.
LORD CERIMON: Diana's temple is actually very close to here. I'm sure they'll let you stay there until you die.
ACT 4, PROLOGUE
NARRATOR: Okay! Now it's many years later, Lychorida has just died, and Marina has grown into a beautiful young woman, who is the toast of Tarsus. Apparently Pericles never bothered to go back for her. Well, I'm sure he had his reasons. Anyway, because everyone loves Marina so much, Dionyza's daughter Philoten doesn't get as much attention as Dionyza thinks she deserves. So, natually, Dionyza hires someone to kill Marina.
ACT 4, SCENE 1
DIONYZA: Okay, so you know the plan. The plan is: kill Marina. Don't wuss out on me here. You promised to do it. And no one will ever know.
LEONINE: But she's so nice.
DIONYZA: Well, then heaven will be happy to have her. Look, here she comes, crying about her dead mistress, waah waah waah. Are you going to kill her or not?
DIONYZA: Marina! Why so sad? Oh, right. Well, look, why don't you take a nice refreshing walk by the sea with my servant Leonine?
MARINA: Oh...that's all right...I'll be fine.
DIONYZA: Look at yourself. You're a mess. Your father would be pretty ticked off if he came back -- which I really thought he would have done by now, but whatever -- and found you looking like this. He'd think we weren't taking care of you. Come on, it'll do you good.
MARINA: I'd really rather be alone.
DIONYZA: Oh for God's sake. I'M TELLING YOU IT WILL DO YOU GOOD. WILL YOU GO ALREADY? GO TAKE A WALK BY THE SEA WITH LEONINE.
MARINA: Okay... (Dionyza exits. Marina smiles awkwardly at Leonine.) I was born at sea, you know.
LEONINE: (apropos of nothing) Make your peace with God.
MARINA: You mean to kill me? Why?
LEONINE: It wasn't my idea. Talk to Dionyza.
MARINA: What have I ever done to her?
LEONINE: Oh! You women, it's always yap yap yap. (He grabs her. Enter three pirates, who grab Marina and run off with her.) Well, that was unexpected. And now I can just say she's dead and washed out to sea. Oh...but what if the pirates just rape her and bring her back? I better wait around to kill her, in case they do. (He sits down and takes out a book.)
ACT 4, SCENE 2
A brothel in Mytilene
PIRATE: We've got a virgin to sell you.
MADAM: Servant, go tell the crowd outside we've got a new virgin and have them start bidding for her.
MARINA: I honestly kind of would have preferred being killed to this.
SERVANT: There are lots of horrible diseased men who are very excited about having sex with this girl.
MADAM: Come along, young miss, and I'll tell you all the secrets of whoring.
MARINA: Diana preserve me!
MADAM: Not bloody likely.
ACT 4, SCENE 3
CLEON: You did what?
DIONYZA: Well, there's no need to whine about it. It's too late to do anything now.
CLEON: What are we supposed to say to Pericles?
DIONYZA: Just tell him she died. People die all the time.
CLEON: I cannot believe this.
DIONYZA: Honey, she was more popular than our daughter. What else was I supposed to do? Stop being such a baby.
ACT 4, SCENE 4
(Even though it's the middle of the act, the prologue guy comes out again.)
NARRATOR: Ah yes. So, next thing you know, Pericles finally gets through the rest of the items on his to-do list and goes to visit his daughter in Tarsus, accompanied by Helicanus. When Pericles arrives, Cleon shows him Marina's tomb, and Pericles gets pretty upset and leaves. He swears to continue not cutting his hair, and also to stop washing his face. And he starts dressing in burlap. As he once again sets out to sea, there is yet another storm. But he gets through it fine this time. Anyway, let's see how things are going at the brothel in Mytilene.
ACT 4, SCENE 5
Outside the brothel
A SKEEVY MAN: Can you believe it? A prostitute preaching divinity?
ANOTHER SKEEVY MAN: I know! It's made the sex act completely unappealing to me.
FIRST MAN: Let's go listen to some vestal virgins sing.
SECOND MAN: I am done with rutting forever.
(You would be surprised how practically verbatim this scene was.)
ACT 4, SCENE 6
A room in the brothel
PIMP: She's ruining our business. I wish we had never bought her.
MADAM: We must either get her ravished or be rid of her.
SERVANT: I could have sex with her for you...?
MADAM: Oh, look, it's Governor Lysimachus in disguise. Why does he bother disguising himself? Doesn't he know that we all know it's him?
LYSIMACHUS: I hear you have a new virgin? Lead me to her.
PIMP: Right away. (He finds Marina and pulls her aside.) Listen. This is the governor. He is a very important man. And rich! Very rich. Please, please, please have sex with him. Is that so much to ask? After we have been so kind as to take you into our lovely brothel?
MARINA: I will not do anything to shame you.
PIMP: I'm going to assume you're agreeing with me. (He exits, leaving her alone with Lysimachus.)
LYSIMACHUS: So! Been a prostitute long?
MARINA: I have been a maiden all my life. If you think maidens are prostitutes, that's your business. And how long have you been a governor who comes to whorehouses?
LYSIMACHUS: Hey, don't try to blackmail me. Where's the bed?
MARINA: Have I mentioned that I can form a compound sentence in which the subjects and the verbs all agree, and periodically employ similes to make my point, as birds use twigs to make their nests?
LYSIMACHUS: I had no idea you were so eloquent. Now I feel like a heel. If I had been planning to have sex with you...which I wasn't...really...you totally would have changed my mind just then. Have some gold. And cursed be the man who robs you of your virginity! Well, enjoy your stay in the brothel. I gotta go.
SERVANT: (appearing at the door) Save a bit for me!
LYSIMACHUS: Away, you devil! You don't deserve to tread the same ground as this woman! Okay, seriously...I really have to go. Don't go raping her, now. (He exits.)
SERVANT: You are really starting to bug me. Come here so I can deflower you already.
MADAM: (entering) What the hell is going on here?
SERVANT: She made Lord Lysimachus feel all guilty and stuff.
MADAM: That's the last straw. Take her and have your way with her. (She exits.)
SERVANT: Well, all righty, then.
MARINA: Wait, I have one question for you first.
MARINA: Do you like your job?
SERVANT: Not especially.
MARINA: Well, what if I gave you all this gold so you could go and do something else? Would you help me find a job as a teacher or something?
SERVANT: Gold, huh?
SERVANT: A lot of it?
MARINA: Oh yes.
SERVANT: I'll see what I can do.
ACT 5, PROLOGUE
NARRATOR: Is this play still going on? Well, anyway, so Marina escapes the brothel and gets a job teaching girls to sing and sew and whatnot. By an incredible coincidence, the storm I mentioned earlier has blown Pericles' ship here. I wonder if this might all just work out.
ACT 5, SCENE 1
On Pericles' ship, off Mytilene
TYRIAN SAILOR: Lysimachus, the Governor of Mytilene, wants to come aboard. Should I let him?
HELICANUS: Well, yeah.
LYSIMACHUS: Welcome. So, nice ship.
HELICANUS: Thanks, it belongs to Pericles, King of Tyre.
LYSIMACHUS: Can I meet him?
HELICANUS: Well, he's pretty depressed. It's a long story. But, you know -- dead wife, dead daughter. That mostly covers it.
LYSIMACHUS: I see.
HELICANUS: He refuses to speak to anyone.
LYSIMACHUS: I bet I know a girl who could cheer him up. Hang on a sec. (He exits and returns with Marina.) Sing for him. (She does.) Nothing?
MARINA: He didn't even look up.
LYSIMACHUS: Try talking to him.
MARINA: Hey, I've had a shitload of bad luck myself, but you don't see me moping. My dad was a king, and --
PERICLES: Wait a minute. A king?
MARINA: Yes, but I had more to say...
PERICLES: Oh, let me just save ten minutes here. Are you my daughter Marina?
MARINA: Yes! They tried to kill me back in Tarsus, but here I am!
PERICLES: Hooray! (General cheering.) Well, I've had a long day of weeping. I'm going to take a nap.
(The goddess Diana appears to Pericles in a vision.)
DIANA: (broadly, winking and nodding) You should go to my temple in Ephesus and tell this story to the priestesses there.
PERICLES: Okay! I was going to go back to Tarsus and kick some ass, but I need to go to Ephesus first.
LYSIMACHUS: Before you go, I should mention that I'm in love with your daughter.
PERICLES: Oh my god, am I finally going to get to cut my hair?
ACT 5, SCENE 2
(Even though it is pretty darn obvious where all this is heading, the goddamn guy from the goddamn prologues shows up again.)
NARRATOR: Now the play is almost over, I swear. There's a big party in Mytilene, Marina is very excited to get engaged to Lysimachus despite his history of going to brothels, and they agree not to marry until Pericles gets back from Ephesus. That's all I had to say.
ACT 5, SCENE 3
The Temple of Diana at Ephesus
PERICLES: Hail, Diana!
(Perseus provides the goddess Diana with a lengthy recap of the foregoing.)
THAISA: Holy crap -- is that you, Pericles? (She faints.)
PERICLES: That nun fainted. Is she okay?
LORD CERIMON: That's no ordinary nun. That's your wife.
PERICLES: Hey. My wife is dead.
LORD CERIMON: No, really. You want to see the jewels from the coffin?
PERICLES: Hell yes.
THAISA: (waking) Pericles?
PERICLES: That is totally Thaisa's voice. Let's save five minutes and skip the jewels. I'm convinced. Honey, let's go and watch our daughter get married.
NARRATOR: Let's recap. Antiochus and daughter: bad people, dead. I know his daughter was kind of the victim in that situation, but still, she should really have known better. Pericles, a nice guy, had a lot of bad luck, but everything worked out for him. Cleon and Dionyza, also bad people. More Dionyza than Cleon, but he probably knew what she was like when he married her. And he did go along with that cover-up. Anyway, Pericles is going to fuck their shit up when this wedding is over, and a good thing too. Basically what I'm saying is that good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people. So don't be bad. Thank you. This has been "Pericles, Prince of Tyre". Tunics are available in the lobby.Posted by Francis at 04:36 AM