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The Folger Spotlight

Collection Connections: 'The Porpoise' by Mark Haddon

Held on the first Thursday of the month, the Folger’s virtual book club is free and open to all. To spark discussion, Folger staff provide historical context, throw in trivia, and speak to relevant items from the library collection in a brief presentation to participants before small-group discussion begins. Here, Rachel B. Dankert, Learning and Engagement Librarian, shares items she presented on November 4, 2021 as an introduction to The Porpoise by Mark Haddon. Discussion questions from the evening can be found here.

In one of the most sea-faring plays in the Shakespeare canon, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, has a floating quality. The tale rides on the narration of its chorus, embodied in the medieval poet John Gower, tossed about by its co-creation between William Shakespeare and George Wilkins. Pericles is based on an ancient story, told many times over by different poets and playwrights from as early as the third century CE. Mark Haddon’s The Porpoise takes up the Shakespearean version, giving life and space to details left unexamined in the play. Haddon’s tale flows between dreaming and waking, life and death, all with an undercurrent that examines the ways water separates and connects us all.

Haddon’s novel makes many notable interventions in the story of Pericles, including letting the characters’ stories unfold on their own rather than with an explicit narrator. The Porpoise instead frames its tale through the perspective of the voiceless daughter of the king Antiochus, who has an incestuous relationship with his daughter. Barely recognized in the play, Haddon’s Angelica haunts the rest of the story, reminding us of the character Shakespeare left behind.

Pericles Prince of Tyre, act 2 [i.e. I], scene 1 [graphic] / Porter, del. ; J.J. Van den Berghe, sculp. 1800. Folger Shakespeare Library: ART File S528p1 no.1 (size XS)

In this image depicting the conflict between Antiochus and Pericles, the revealing riddle that discloses the incestuous relationship lays on the ground. When in the novel Darius infers the relationship between Angelica and her father, he slides into his role as Pericles, losing himself in the hero’s world.

Once the novel draws us into the world of Pericles, we are swept up in the story and then shaken loose like untethered cargo on a boat into the early modern world of George Wilkins and William Shakespeare. In a dream-like sequence, Shakespeare guides his co-author Wilkins to the afterlife on a boat on the Thames, taking on the role of the classical figure Charon who ferried the dead to Hades on the river Styx.

The view of London Bridge from east to weste by John Norden, 1597. Folger Shakespeare Library: STC 18643.5 copy 1.

In this image, we can see boats navigating the swirling water under London bridge, which brings into sharp focus Shakespeare and Wilkin’s crossing over scene.

Water and death resurface in Chloe’s (Thaisa’s) story, which resonates with Wilkin’s journey. Chloe gives birth to Marina and supposedly dies and is buried at sea. She resurfaces, however, very much alive and her trauma and sadness is wrenching. The painful adventures of Pericles hinge on the loss and return of his wife and daughter, which is why the discovery of Thaisa’s casket is one of the most frequently depicted in artists’ renderings of the story.

Pericles, act III, scene 2] [graphic], Jacob Tonson, 1709. Folger call number: ART File S528p1 no.5 (size XS)

Mark Haddon’s The Porpoise brings new life and immediacy to one of Shakespeare’s least-known plays. To immerse yourself in the real-world materials that influenced this month’s pick, visit our curated collection of Pericles images.

Graphic illustration of stacks of books in purple. aqua, and whiteRegistration for our December session, when we will discuss Mona Awad’s All’s Well, opens Tuesday, November 9. We hope you make a plan to join us!

We would like to thank the following organizations for their generous support of this program: