That Strain Agen, It Had a Dying fall

On the last day of 1607, Edmund Shakespeare was buried. It was a time of almost unbearable cold. By the middle of December the Thames had frozen solid so that “many persons did walk halfway over the Thames upon the ice, and by the thirtieth of December the multitude … passed over the Thames in divers places.”1 A small tent city sprang up on the ice, with wrestling bouts and football matches, barbers’ shops and eating-houses, trading upon the novelty of the silent and immobile river.

On 31 December Edmund Shakespeare was carried to the church on the southern bank of the Thames. The entry in the burial register of St. Saviour’s reads: “1607 December 31 Edmond Shakespeare, a player, in the Church.” And then a note by the sexton runs: “1607 December 31 Edmund Shakespeare, a player, buried in the church with a forenoon knell of the great bell, 20s.” The money for the bell no doubt came from the purse of his brother, who in the bitter cold accompanied the coffin to the burial place. It is possible, probable even, that Edmund died of the plague. He had followed his infant son within six months.

And then, in the spring of 1608, an entry in the Stationers’ Register records a play that, unlike Antony and Cleopatra, became hugely popular in Shakespeare’s lifetime. In the published version of 1609 Pericles is identified as “diuers and sundry times acted by his Maiesties Seruants at the Globe on the Banck-side.” So it must have been played at that theatre in the spring of the previous year, since the theatres were subsequently closed for eighteen months. The Venetian Ambassador took the French Ambassador to a performance, and a Venetian contemporary noted that “All the ambassadors who have come to England have gone to the play.”2 One versifier compared large London crowds “of gentles mixed with grooms”3 with those who swarmed to see Pericles. Its edition in quarto was reprinted five times. It was quoted incessantly, and had the distinction of being dismissed by Ben Jonson as a “mouldy tale.”4 It was, of course, more successful than anything Jonson himself had ever written.

There is some disagreement over the form and nature of Pericles as well as the other late plays which share an abiding interest in music and spectacle. A convenient term is that of romance, since in this period there was a revival of what might be described as the cult of romance. The king’s oldest son, Henry, was being compared with the legendary Arthur; this in turn inspired a new fashion for chivalry and legendary adventure on the pattern of Malory and Spenser. This was not of course a sufficient condition for the creation of Pericles, but it is a contributing factor. There was also a tradition of stage plays taken from medieval gestes, but the medieval context of Pericles is wider than that of knights and battles.

It is often suggested that Shakespeare had entered an “experimental” phase with Pericles and subsequent plays, but he himself would not have recognised or understood the term. It would also be a mistake to impose upon him principles or standards which a later generation would describe as “aesthetic.” He did not have an aesthetic view of the drama at all, but a practical and empirical one. Pericles is an example. It is a play of extremities, of foul and fair closely joined. The most lubricious and bawdy prose is placed beside some of Shakespeare’s most plangent verse, so that all seems to cohere as if by miracle. The great dirge to the sea deeps gives way to an image of prostitutes that “with continuall action, are euen as good as rotten”(1532-3).

The play attests in particular to Shakespeare’s long affection for the religious plays of his childhood. The last mystery cycle was played in Coventry as late as 1579, well within the purview of the young Shakespeare. It is not necessary that he should have seen the mystery plays—although in the course of a Stratford boyhood it is likely that he did—only that he should have come from a culture in which they played a central role. They were part of the spirit of place.

Such paradigmatic events as “the Agony” and “the Betrayal” are redeployed in a number of Shakespeare’s plays, and Pericles in particular inhabits a world of vision and of supernatural intervention, where the spiritualised hero must endure much suffering before being blessed. The visitation of the goddess Diana here replaces the more usual appearance of the Virgin Mary, but the meaning is the same. Indeed the play of St. Mary Magdalene to be found in the Digby Manuscript bears many parallels with Shakespeare’s drama, including the birth of a child at sea during a storm, and the miraculous restoration of the unhappy mother. It is a matter of record that the Catholic players who had performed in the recusant households of Yorkshire included Pericles in their repertoire, and that the play was also included in a booklist belonging to the English Jesuit College at St. Omer in France.5 It must have been deeply congenial to the adherents of the old religion.

Shakespeare seems deliberately to re-create the tone and atmosphere of the early medieval romances, too, on the very good and practical grounds that they could still have a startling effect upon their spectators. Longinus wrote of the Odyssey, “Homer shows that, as genius ebbs, it is the love of romance that characterises old age.”6 The Shakespearian romances may be an indication of advancing age but not of ebbing inspiration. His late plays are unique in the history of Elizabethan drama. With their combination of music, spectacle and vision, they fulfil all the conditions of older drama while at the same time providing a wholly contemporaneous interest in narrative and adventure. The medieval atmosphere of Pericles is in fact deliberately created with the appearance of the fourteenth-century poet John Gower as Chorus, at the beginning of every act. Gower’s Chorus lends the play the form of ritual, exactly the effect that was intended. Ritual is another element involved in the enchanted atmosphere of romance.

After Shakespeare’s death his fellow actors excluded Pericles from the Folio edition of his works in 1623. They seem to have taken the view that it was in part a collaboration and therefore did not fit an attribution to William Shakespeare. Most historians and textual scholars agree that much of the play was written by a second playwright, but there are also scenes and passages that are undoubtedly and authentically composed by Shakespeare. The identity of the second dramatist has been a matter of speculation, but one candidate emerges above all others. At some point in 1608 a playwright in his mid-thirties, George Wilkins, published a novelisation of the play entitled The Painfull Aduentures of Pericles Prince of Tyre. The novel is so close to the play, and is so intimate with its structure, that it has generally been agreed that Wilkins himself collaborated with Shakespeare in the composition of the drama. Wilkins was writing his novel from memory, his “foul papers” being now in the possession of the King’s Men, and it is likely that the play proved so popular in the spring months of 1608 that Wilkins rushed into publication during the period when the playhouses were closed once more.

In the years between 1604 and 1608 Wilkins wrote other works of a popular nature, among them plays and prose narratives. The King’s Men had performed his The Miseries of Inforst Mariage in the year before, so the connection between him and Shakespeare was already there. Wilkins wrote the first sections of Pericles, and parts of the other acts, while Shakespeare wrote the rest. It should also be noted here, given the fact that Pericles has often been considered to be a “Catholic” play, that Wilkins himself adhered to the old faith.

It might be wondered why the older and much more famous dramatist would condescend to work with a tyro. But Shakespeare was a man of the theatre. He was competent and practical, no doubt ready to work with anyone for the good of the company. It is not at all likely that the collaborators sat down together with their principal sources, Gower’s Confessio Amantis and Laurence Twine’s The Patterne of Painefulle Aduentures, before sharing out the plot of Pericles. It is much more likely that Wilkins suggested the idea of the play and himself devised the plot. His earlier venture with the King’s Men had been relatively successful, and he was already trying his hand at prose romances. The company might have considered him to be a promising dramatist. After essaying a first version of Pericles, however, he may have discovered himself to be unequal to the task. He may have been in trouble with the authorities, or even briefly imprisoned. He may simply have run out of invention. So the work was handed to Shakespeare for completion. Shakespeare could on occasions act as a superior “play doctor” bringing together all the themes and strands of a plot. His imagination seems, in fact, to have been quickened by the last sections of Pericles, in which the restoration of Marina and the resolution of family loss are the important motifs. He added significantly to these scenes, and tended to leave the earlier stage business as it was. Since the play was extraordinarily popular, he made the right decision.

The prospect of Wilkins being arrested or imprisoned is no biographical fantasy. George Wilkins was a tavern-keeper and brothel-owner whose establishment was on the corner of Turnmill Street and Cow Cross Street. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the site is still that of a flourishing public house. Wilkins had a reputation for violence and was regularly cited in the proceedings of Middlesex sessions court, particularly for assaults against the young female prostitutes whom he employed. He was accused, for example, of “kikkinge a woman on the Belly which was then greate with childe.”7 One of the guarantors of Wilkins on this occasion was Henry Gosson, of St. Lawrence Pountney; it was Gosson who issued the play of Pericles in quarto form. It seems probable that Wilkins obtained the play for him from the King’s Men. Since he had written much of it, he may have had some claim to proprietorship. It might be added that, at a later date, Wilkins was convicted of being a thief and of harbouring criminals in his inn.

Shakespeare may also have been acquainted with Wilkins’s father, a poet and well-known Londoner, who had died of the plague five years before. But it is also likely that Shakespeare encountered Wilkins through the agency of the Mountjoys; when the daughter of the house married one of the apprentices, Stephen Belott, the young couple became tenants of Wilkins at his inn on the corner of Turnmill Street. Belott himself had been well acquainted with Wilkins, and had eaten meals at his establishment. It was the most notorious of all London quarters, filled with brothels and cheap taverns, but it was also one of the most interesting. This was the world in which Shakespeare encountered his collaborator. It is not unusual to find Shakespeare in what might be called “low” company—he has been discovered before with the landladies of Southwark in an affray—and it is not even occasion for surprise. Even when wealthy and successful, he fitted himself to any kind of society.

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