Pericles, co-authored by Shakespeare and another playwright (probably George Wilkins), adapts the often-told tale of Apollonius, Prince of Tyre. First recounted in a now-lost Greek romance and first translated into a vernacular (Old English) in the eleventh century, the story was also familiar to Shakespeare’s audience from the medieval poet Gower’s long narrative poem Confessio Amantis, from an anonymous, well-known sixteenth-century translation of classical stories called the Gesta Romanorum, and from a popular novelization, The Pattern of Painful Adventures, by Lawrence Twine, published in several editions between 1576-1607. Wilkins seems to have capitalized on the popularity of Pericles by issuing his own novelized version, supplemented with additions from Twine’s earlier novella.
The story continues to be retold by twenty-first century novelists, among them Mark Haddon, in The Porpoise (2019), and Ali Smith, in Spring (2019), the penultimate book in her “Seasonal Quartet.” These authors retell, modify, translocate, and transmigrate Pericles, most notably by centering at the heart of the story the abused daughter—unnamed in Gower, Twine, Shakespeare, or Wilkins. These novels additionally address and redress the trauma of Pericles and the characters based on him, trauma resulting from both their own griefs and from their unwilling, tacit complicity with the abusive parent – and with the institutions of the state – that initiate these peregrinations and losses in the first place.
Pericles begins with the eponymous hero traveling to Antioch to woo, as he hopes, the daughter of its king by solving a riddle, on pain of death. Pericles guesses the solution, but cannot utter it: an incestuous relationship between the king and his daughter. Fearing for his life, Pericles takes ship for Tyre and then to Tarsus, where he relieves the starving people of famine.
On his return, however, Pericles is shipwrecked, destitute, on the coast of Pentapolis. He weds Thaisa, princess of Pentapolis, and voyages to Tyre with his pregnant bride. Thaisa, after giving birth during a storm, is taken for dead and cast into the sea in a tightly-caulked coffin. A distraught Pericles leaves his newborn daughter, Marina, in Tarsus for fostering. In the meantime, a physician at Ephesus revives Thaisa and settles her as Diana’s priestess there.
Envious of the teenaged Marina’s beauty, the rulers of Tarsus attempt to murder her. Although she escapes, the false news of her death puts Pericles into catatonic, frozen distress. Meanwhile, Marina has been sold into a brothel in Mytilene. Fortunately, Marina’s eloquence is such that she converts the brothel’s customers from vice to virtue. When Pericles’ ship lands in Mytilene, he is restored by and reunited with Marina in one of the most moving recognition scenes in Shakespeare’s works, after which he discovers in a vision from the goddess Diana that his wife, too, is still alive.
Uniting time and space across this sprawling story is the poet Gower, whom Shakespeare and his collaborator bring on as a character, a chorus, to fill in gaps in the narrative. Twentieth- and twenty-first century productions often use music or dance to present Gower as a troubadour or a wandering story-teller, perhaps a West African griot (Patrice Naiambana, 2005) or a Welsh bard (Emrys James, 1969), a disembodied voice on a radio sounding in the hospital room of a catatonic patient (Cheek by Jowl, 2018), a living bridge between present and past, between sea and land, and even between languages (Henry Goodman, 1994).
Some productions have historically cut the play’s triggering incest-plot, while others, such as the 2006 promenade-performance adaptation Children of the Sea, starring child-victims of the tsunami that devastated Sri Lanka in December 2004, foregrounded the play and its suffering parents and children as ways of restaging and recovering from trauma.
It is this latter approach that both Haddon and Smith choose in their novels. Haddon’s work hews more closely to the play, beginning with a present-day setting in which a billionaire businessman, Phillipe, loses his beloved wife in a plane crash and, raising his daughter Angelica alone, abuses her in the solipsistic secrecy of the super-rich until a young, handsome playboy, Darius, awakens Angelica’s interest and Phillippe resolves to hunt him down. Haddon’s Angelica fights back with the only weapons she has: silence and starvation.
The novel interweaves with its modern cosmopolitan plot a novelized and altered version of the events of Shakespeare’s play and the writing of it, with added characters and a vividly imagined ancient Mediterranean world, and George Wilkins as a broken-down playwright haunted by Shakespeare in London. Where the novel’s modern characters perish and its Shakespearean ones suffer, its ancient ones, both those invented by Haddon altogether and those that are reincarnated or time-traveling versions of Shakespeare and Wilkins’ characters survive or even thrive. When Darius finds himself wrecked at sea in the twenty-first century, he comes back to life in the ancient world as Shakespeare’s Pericles. When Angelica dies by fire, weakened by her long hunger-strike, the goddess Diana stands ghostly by her side to make her, we infer, immortal among the gods.
Smith’s lyrical novel recasts Pericles more radically, elliptically, and humorously. Her reimagined Marina takes the form of a preternaturally brilliant girl, Florence, a child migrant who has escaped death at sea, a notorious “sex house” in London, a detention center, and the obscure, menacing, imagined quasi-governmental security firm (“SA4A”) that features in Smith’s other novels.
Smith’s Pericles is screenwriter Richard Lease, who is grieving the death of his best friend, occasional lover, and lifelong writing partner Patricia (Paddy) Heal (an emblematic name, as working with her when she lived and reading her last letter to him is what has healed and will heal Richard). Like Marina, Florence saves this older man’s life, preventing him from leaping in front of a moving train.
But Smith’s Pericles is also security guard Brittany (“Brit” — “Britain,” or “Britannia,” perhaps), shaken out of the complacent, mechanical way she dehumanizes the detainees in her charge by Florence’s clear-eyed brilliance and candor. Mothering and befriending Florence despite herself, Brit is also the revived Thaisa, even though Brit’s reincarnation as loving human proves temporary. Brit returns to her previous state of sadistic apathy and betrays the Auld Alliance, a secret society that rescues migrant workers, to SA4A. Florence is reunited with her mother only to be torn from her moments later.
Florence, however, outwits “the machine” of the state, including its vaunted facial recognition technology, and Richard Lease’s new “lease” on life includes advocacy for migrants like Florence as he makes a film featuring interviews with the Auld Alliance. It’s through storytelling, the novel suggests, that we can retrieve our humanity.
Spring replaces Gower with a series of in-story, direct, and indirect storytellers and artists from present (real life and imagined) and past: Lease, Paddy, Katherine Mansfield, Tacita Dean, Charles Dickens. The Porpoise replaces the time-traveling Gower with multiple protagonists unmoored in time and an all-seeing, immortal narrator (so omniscient that it knows the invisible details of George Wilkins’ heart disease).
But the most important unifying feature in both novels is the tenacious hope of human beings. Haddon’s novel ends with Angelica’s last, determined act to escape. Trapped by her weakened body, she escapes into time. Smith’s novel ends with the words and motif of “hopeless hope” that we have encountered throughout. Pericles’ motto, “in hac spe vivo” (“I live in this hope”), appears as the novel’s epigraph but also in mysterious, modified form throughout the book as “spe vivunt” or “vivunt spe,” translated in the novel as “they live in hope” or “they are living hope.” Pericles’ emblem, the “leafless tree,” boldly greens year after year with the relentless force of Spring, pushing shoots through ice and rock, bursting prose-poems through sections of internet abuse and conversation and excerpts from imaginary tele-plays. Hopeless hope is inhumanly human, these novels suggest, and the unrealistic, improbable fictions of Pericles thereby tell us something all too true.