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Friday, July 8, 2011

Pericles–A Good Man in Bollywood

 

I liked Pericles, a play written by Shakespeare late in his career and without the intense, interior, and powerful characterizations found in his major tragedies.  Bloom quotes Ben Jonson as saying that Pericles and Marina “are figures in a moldy tale, an old story always being retold”; but it is an interesting work, placed somewhere between tragedy and comedy, lowlife scenes that I liked even more than those with Falstaff, an idealized but still poignant depiction of good, and a great Bollywood story with villains, treachery, and a happy ending.  I think Mark Van Doren (Shakespeare) said it best:

The form of the romance, shuttling as it did between the ups and downs of fortune, and encouraging the invention of fantastic evil to match fantastic good, directed [Shakespeare] to go on painting the dark sky he was all too familiar with; yet another of its laws was that from time to time the clouds should part, permitting sunshine – even artificial sunshine – to burst through. His subject, in other words, must still be man’s affliction, but its taste could be “as sweet as any cordial comfort” (The Winter’s Tale).

There is only one villain in the play, the wife of Cleon who, for no other reason than to eliminate competition to her daughter, attempts to kill Marina, Pericles’ daughter and the vision of innocence, modesty, chastity, and good.  In that act, she is as evil as any other of Shakespeare’s villains, but not as interesting.  She doesn’t plot like Macbeth, Iago, or Aaron the Moor.  She doesn’t have the inner torments of Lady Macbeth or Macbeth himself.  She is not canny or compelling like Richard III.  She makes her claim on the life of Marina, contracts for murder, and then leaves the past aside with the cynical erection of a monument to the dead girl; and does it all – Like Lady Macbeth – with the cynical scorn of her cowardly husband.

Antiochus is incestuous and keeps his secret by killing suitors for his daughter (with whom he sleeping) who fail to solve a riddle which will allow them the daughter’s hand; but that is no different from other kings and pretenders in Shakespeare who trick, imprison, and behead opponents and enemies.  It is the banality of the evil of Dionyza, the wife of Cleon, that makes her more villainous.  The curse of Dionyza’s evil hangs over the entire play, is central to the plot, and infects everything.  Antiochus does his deeds, then is incinerated by a vengeful god.

The rest of the characters are good and honorable.  Pericles, although one can fault him for his fatalism (at least through the lens of many of Shakespeare’s heroes, like Henry V, Henry VIII, Bolingbroke or the women who surround them and demand the rights to power, wealth, and royalty), has no malicious intentions.  He is wronged and suffers like Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner, but does no wrong.  He is as philosophical as Richard II:

Whereby I see that Time’s the king of men.

He’s both their parent, and he is their grave,

And gives them what he will, not what they crave.

We, used to actor-heroes in Shakespeare are frustrated by his philosophical diffidence.  He worries more and more about what Antiochus will do to him, but will not act:

And so with me.  The great Antiochus,

‘Gainst whom I am too little to contend,

Since he’s so great can make his will his act,

Will think me speaking though I swear to silence…

He’ll stop the course by which it (his incest) might be known.

With hostile forces he’ll o’er-spread the land…

Antiochus, therefore, would act like most of Shakespeare’s kings; but not Pericles.  Yet, he is the paragon of goodness and virtue.  In an ironic twist, he saves the kingdom of Cleon and Dionyza from famine; and they turn around and try to murder his daughter who has been given to them to raise and protect.

Helicanus, confidant to Pericles and left in charge of Tyre while Pericles is away, makes no move to assume the kingship, and in fact convinces the lords of Tyre to be patient and wait another year for Pericles’ return.  Simonides, the king of Pentapolis is a reasonable and generous king:

Per. “The good Simonides” do you call him?

Fish 1: Ay, Sir, and he deserves so to be called for his peaceable reign and good government.

Lysimachus, the Governor of  Mitylene is equally noble and honorable, worthy enough to be granted the hand of Pericles’ daughter, Marina.

The central character of the play is Marina, who is depicted as a goddess on earth.  She is perfect – she is beautiful, talented, graceful; and her sense of honor, which is somehow so much a part of her strong and determined character that it is able to disarm the most dishonorable (her presumed murderer; Bawd, Bolt, and Pander of the whorehouse; and Lysimachus who comes to have sex with her but demurs, influences as he is by her nobility.

In short, this is a play about nobility and goodness as much as Richard III is one about amorality and power or as Lear is about hopelessness.

At the same time, this nobility is diminished because of the Bollywood plot of the play.  Like Hindi movies, loves are lost and found, identities hidden and discovered, villainy abounds, treachery lurks, songs are sung, and all ends up well in the end. As in Bollywood, Hollywood, or romantic comedy, we are asked to suspend our disbelief.  How likely is it that the coffin of the supposed wife of Pericles, tossed into the sea will wash up on shore, Thaisa revived, and reunited with her husband at the temple of Diana?  Or that his daughter, given to Cleon and Dionyza, escapes murder by being captured by pirates, is sold into prosititution, escapes it because of her innate goodness and nobility, is reunited with her father, Pericles?  Can we take Marina’s self-appraisal seriously when she wonders why anyone would kill her:

I never spake bad word, nor did ill turn

To any living creature.  Believe me, la

I never killed a mouse, nor hurt a fly,

I trod upon a worm against my will,

But wept for it….

And Bawd speaking about Marina:

Fie, fie upon her.  She’s able to freeze the god Priapus and freeze a whole generation….

Funny. Not very convincing.  It is melodrama, and fun. 

Bloom is critical of the play because Pericles is one-dimensional – he is flat, where other Shakespeare heroes are complex and challenging; and while this is true, the play has its own complexity.  Marina can be, as I have suggested above, be caricatured as a Bollywood heroine, chaste and noble; but she is a very strong woman.  Her arguments to free herself from her own Perils of Pauline are eloquent, persuasive, almost legal in logic and discipline.  The scenes in which she is imprisoned in the brothel are graphic and memorable.  She is principled, but can speak gutter language in her righteousness as well.  Marina says to Bolt:

Thou hold’st a place for which the pained’st fiend

Of hell would not in reputation change.

Thou art the damned doorkeeper to every

Coistrel that comes enquiring for his Tib.

The the choleric fisting of every rogue

They ear is liable.  Thy food is such

As hath been belched on by infected lungs.

The play is interesting because it is about parents and their children.  Henry IV was certainly about the relationship with his son, Hal and about Hal’s with his father; and these relationships thrown into relief by Hal’s dalliance with Falstaff.  Mothers like Constance are like she-bears protecting their children.  The scenes between Richard III and his mother are powerful; but this play treats some relationships more benignly, and we like the love between father and child – Pericles and Marina; and between Simonides and Thaisa.

The other relationships, like that between Dionyza and her daughter,  is obsessive and sick.  That between Antiochus and his daughter incestuous and twisted.  Again, I appreciate Bloom’s criticism that all of these characters and relationships are one-dimensional; but when the play is taken as a whole, they make sense.

Most of Shakespeare’s plays have lowlife scenes, the most famous of which are those with Falstaff; but Act IV, Scene ii, is graphic and more representative of this low life than the others.  It describes the business of prostitution, making a living like anyone else.  It is like a slave market where virginity is prized as a commodity in an era of disease:

Bawd: Bolt, take you the marks of her: the color of her hair; complexion, height, her age, with warrant of virginity, and cry “He that will give the most shall have her first”.  Such a maidenhead were no cheap thing, if men were as they have been….

Music plays an important role in the play.  It is more than just court accompaniment, but has a power.  When Marina sings to her father in Act 5, it is as much the music as her words which bring Pericles out of his self-imposed silence.  Later in Act V.I, Pericles hears the Music of the Spheres, by legend lost to the hearing of mortals.  In Act III.2, Cerimon brings Thaisa back to life as much through music as through his medical ministrations.  Gower says that Marina’s singing is so powerful, it can stop the song of a nightingale.  Simonides, after hearing Pericles sing, says he is a master of music.

In closing, I was not prepared to like this play, but did very much.  A minor play perhaps, but still an enjoyable and thoughtful one.

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