Shakespeare’s Worst Play? Pericles, Prince of Tyre

I have been a great admirer of Shakespeare since high school. I even took an optional class to study his plays in both high school and college. In total, I have read and studied twenty (now twenty-one) of his thirty-seven plays. And I have not read one I didn’t enjoy, even the tragedies. So imagine my horror when I read a play by him that I honestly did not like.

Pericles, Prince of Tyre, was first included in Shakespeare’s Quarto, though oddly enough it was not included in the First Folio in 1623 (the first time Shakespeare’s plays were combined into one collection). Because of this, there is some debate on whether Shakespeare even wrote this play (or alternatively that Act IV was penned by someone else). While it does contain much of his flowery phrasing found in his other plays, I agree that it is extremely different when it comes to themes and characters. But I won’t get into the authorship debate, and instead focus on examining the play itself and the mess which is the plot.

Summary (Spoilers!)

I usually don’t do this, but I think it’s important to lay before you the basic plot (spoilers included). Since I’m sure most of you don’t want to waste your time reading or watching this play, I don’t feel too guilty. However, if you absolutely do not want to be spoiled, just skip this review because spoilers are about to abound.

The play starts off with Pericles, our protagonist, falling in love at first sight with the daughter of Antiochus, only to find out quickly that she is in an incestuous relationship with her father. Her father decides to kill Pericles (because reasons) and Pericles escapes on a ship to stay away for some time. He gets shipwrecked, meets the king of Pentapolis, falls in love with his daughter Thaisa (there’s a lot of falling in love at first sight in this play), and marries her. In the meantime, Antiochus and his daughter are killed by lightning (at least, that’s my interpretation, the actual words are, “A fire from heaven came and shrivell’d up Their bodies, even to loathing”), which is fine, because they were pretty pointless characters anyway.

Back to Pericles, he decides to return to his country of Tyre with his pregnant wife Thaisa. She gives birth on the ship, but “dies” giving birth and is thrown over board (just because the sailors are superstitious of keeping a dead body onboard). Pericles names the baby girl Marina, and leaves her with the governor of Tarsus, Cleon, and his wife Dionyza (again, because reasons). But, as it turns out, Thaisa isn’t dead and her casket washes to the shore of Ephesus, where Lord Cerimon takes care of her. She doesn’t, for some unexplainable reason, decide to find her husband (again, reasons).

Flash forward a few years, Marina is a beautiful young woman and Dionyza is jealous of her taking attention away from her own daughter. Her solution: kill her (cause that’s normal). Luckily, Marina is “saved” by pirates and sent to a brothel, though she refuses to work as a prostitute because she values virtue. There she befriends the governor Lysimachus. Meanwhile, Pericles has been told Marina “died in her sleep” by Cleon and his wife, and has been moping around ever since. He arrives at Mytilene, where Marina is, and is reunited with his daughter. And low and behold, he stops a scene to have a short nap (because reasons) and dreams of the goddess Diana, which tells him to go to Ephesus (where his wife Thaisa is still living) to offer a sacrifice to the goddess. He goes and, you guessed it, he’s reunited with Thaisa.

Happy ending! Father, mother, and daughter are together again!

If that sounded like a mess of a plot to you, just know I left out half of the completely pointless characters and side plots. This play is a mess, so let’s get into my review.

Review

Where do I start with my criticisms? There are way too many characters for how short this play is. There are twenty-two named characters. For reference, Shakespeare’s longest play, Hamlet, has only nineteen characters, and is nearly twice the length of this one. And most of the characters are entirely disposable. Antiochus sends Thalliard (his servant) to kill Pericles, but it doesn’t matter because Pericles has already left a ship because he is disgusted to find his crush is sleeping with her own father.

And what was even the whole point of the incestuous relationship of the father and daughter, since they both die quickly and give Pericles no more trouble. I understand Shakespeare is saying that incest is deplorable, but it’s not woven into the play, making it feel like a pointless side-plot. I was certain it would be brought back near the end as Pericles meets his daughter Marina without recognizing her at first. They could have easily fallen in love and gotten into an incestuous relationship (of course, then this play would be a tragedy, not a comedy). However much I hate that idea, at least it would bring the plot full circle.

As it is, the plot feels meandering and pointless (a bit like The Odyssey, but worse). The only theme I could find is that those who do evil will be punished and those who do good will be rewarded. But that in itself is a rather bland theme.

The language was pretty, but it was not near as complex as many of Shakespeare’s plays. Where were the soliloquies we find in Hamlet and Romeo & Juliet? Where was the dramatic irony we find in Othello and The Tempest? Where are any of his hilarious puns?

Speaking of puns, this is supposed to be a comedy, and yet it lacks all comedic moments found in plays like Much Ado About Nothing or Twelfth Night. There is not fool. Pretty much all his comedies contain a jester, to notice the humor of the situation. Grumio in The Taming of the Shrew. Nick Bottom in A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. Touchstone in As You Like It. Even some of Shakespeare’s tragedies contain someone for comic relief, like Yorick in Hamlet. But there was no such player in this play, making all the characters feel bland. They fit neatly into two camps: good and bad, and no one in between.

Conclusion

Whether this is Shakespeare’s play or not, I didn’t enjoy it. And I hate that, because I love William Shakespeare’s writing.

Have you read/watched any of Shakespeare’s plays? Which is your favorite or least favorite? Have you read this one (let’s hope not)? Let me know your thoughts down in the comments, follow my blog for more musings and, as always,

Best wishes in your life full of adventure,

Madame Writer

8 thoughts on “Shakespeare’s Worst Play? Pericles, Prince of Tyre

  1. Thanks for the interesting review. After reading The Song of Roland I’ve been opening myself up again to poetry and especially plays. While I could never get into Shakespeare before (or really any play), it has been years since I’ve tried and I’ve been considering a second effort. What is your favorite Shakespeare play so I can get some idea of where to begin?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Yes, plays are totally different to regular prose. I’ve been meaning to read the Song of Roland, but haven’t had time yet. My favorite Shakespeare play is Hamlet, but that is not the one you should start with, as it’s one of his most challenging and long plays. I recommend beginning with the comedies (Twelfth Night or Midsummer Night’s Dream). I love both and they are relatively simpler reads.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I consider myself a Shakespeare fan, but I don’t know how this flew under my radar…and based on your review I’m glad it did. It sounds like something Will would have written as a kid while he was still figuring out his writing style.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I completely agree! The crazy part is, he wrote it around 1607 or 1608, just a few years before his death (in 1616), so it was after he wrote Hamlet and most of his other plays (so much for the excuse that he was young and figuring out his writing style). I just cannot understand what possessed him to write this! Though I’m still going with the theory that he only wrote parts of it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Never even heard of this one before, and I guess I now know why. 😀 Perversely, I kinda want to read it now… Also, I think every big-name writer needs at least one pancake. Otherwise they will seem too perfect!

    Liked by 1 person

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