Pericles, the young prince of Tyre (in today’s Lebanon) seeks the hand of king Antiochus’s daughter in marriage, only to find out that Antiochus and his daughter have had, for a long time, a secret incestuous affair. Pericles escapes from Antioch, and, fearing that Antiochus might wage war against Tyre in order to kill him and prevent him from revealing his shameful incestuous secret, Pericles protects his own people by leaving. He sets on a long journey whose romantic arc leads him to make alliances across the Mediterranean, form a family, lose it, and find it again, thereby fulfilling dynastic aspirations tinged with imperialism.
Featuring tempests, pirates, tournaments, dreams, miracles, fairy tale elements, and divine interventions, Shakespeare and George Wilkins’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre (1607-1608) is adventure-packed, and provides in its final moments of family reunion the intense affective gratification that premodern romances are notorious for. Modern readers and spectators, however, might read such moments through the lens of movies like Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010), and doubt whether catatonic Pericles’s happy reunion with his long-lost wife and daughter is really taking place anywhere but in his mind. Indeed, reading Pericles’s story through the lens of our own cultural moment is not only admissible, but encouraged, for the play wears the antiquated nature of its own matter and manner on its sleeves, and that metatheatrical dimension paradoxically lessens any sense of historical distance—whether it be the distance between the source text, Gower’s 1393 Confessio Amantis, and Shakespeare’s play, or the distance between Shakespeare’s play and ourselves.
Over the last two decades, Pericles has been produced around the world more often than in the entire 20th century. The play was wildly popular in its own time, and it is now poised to become one of the 21st century favorite rediscovered Shakespearean plays. It may have caught the attention of contemporary theatre-makers invested in diversifying Shakespeare in part because its geographical location, which moves between ancient Lebanon, Turkey, Lybia, and Greece, makes it suitable for cross-cultural multi-racial casting. And, certainly Pericles is a fertile terrain for racial investigation. Not only does the protagonist’s fate conjure up several narratives of race-making that hinge on paternal curses and condemnation to exile or repentant itinerance, Pericles himself is blackened by the numerous allusions to his “melancholy,” the black humor, which takes over his internal complexion and is so emblematic of the Lebanese prince that his ship ultimately comes to be known by its “sable banners.” Yet at the same time, the play’s consistent characterization of “fairness” (a word used 23 times) as the feminized object of Pericles’s desire and the curative means of his salvation frames his journey as a romantic quest for whiteness and white world-making at the dawn of modernity. It is that fraught and complex racial terrain with which contemporary theatre-makers must reckon when they stage Pericles today, finding new creative ways of doing Shakespeare better, Shakespeare with us and for us.
–NOÉMIE NDIAYE is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Chicago. She works on theatre and performance culture in Renaissance England, France, and Spain. Her first monograph, Scripts of Blackness: Early Modern Performance Culture and the Making of Race, is forthcoming with University of Pennsylvania Press.
This event is part of PERICLES 2021 2021, is a multi-faceted endeavor to provide an opportunity for our entire community to explore William Shakespeare’s Pericles – the founding production of Red Bull Theater (2003) – with BIPOC voices in our present moment. GET DETAILS