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A man whom both the waters and the wind
In that vast tennis court hath made the ball
For them to play upon entreats you pity him.

Act 2, scene 1, lines 61–63

Here's a fish hangs in the net like a poor man's right in the law: 'twill hardly come out.
Act 2, scene 1, lines 121–123

Pericles tells of a prince who risks his life to win a princess, but discovers that she is in an incestuous relationship with her father and flees to safety. He marries another princess, but she dies giving birth to their daughter. The adventures continue from one disaster to another until the grown-up daughter pulls her father out of despair and the play moves toward a gloriously happy ending.

This play is far from typical of Shakespearean drama. In the opening lines, a speaker, using archaic language, introduces himself as the medieval poet John Gower. Gower then tells the tale, interspersed with dramatized or silent scenes; the effect is a narrative that periodically breaks into dramatic life. The approach is fascinating and fitting, since Pericles tells a romance tale associated more with storytelling than theater.

Because Pericles is so unusual, and was not printed in the 1623 First Folio, some scholars in the past argued that it is not by Shakespeare; others today insist that another playwright wrote much of it. Yet Pericles shares multiple features with many of Shakespeare's plays; it also presents the story in a highly experimental manner, like his other late plays. A good production has the strong emotional effect that one associates with Shakespeare.

Scholars suggest that Shakespeare wrote Pericles in 1607–08. A version of the play was published as a quarto in 1609. Sources include Confessio Amantis by the poet John Gower (who is also the play's fictionalized narrator) and Laurence Twine's The Pattern of Painful Adventures.

Adapted from the Folger Library Shakespeare edition, edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. © 2005 Folger Shakespeare Library


Further reading
T.G. Bishop. Shakespeare and the Theatre of Wonder. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Jennifer Richards and James Knowles, ed. Shakespeare's Late Plays: New Readings. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.

David Skeele, ed. Pericles: Critical Essays. New York: Garland Publishing, 2000.

David Skeele. Thwarting the Wayward Seas: A Critical and Theatrical History of Shakespeare's Pericles in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1998.
Thomas Stothard. Marina singing before Pericles. Oil on canvas, ca. 1825.

Pericles, act 3, scene 2. Engraving, 1709


Past Exhibitions: Open City: London | Playhouses and Pericles

Inside the Collection

Quartos from the Collection: Pericles


Pericles and the Globe (from Open City: London audio tour)

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