‘Pericles” has everything you could ask for in a great Shakespearean play — that is, everything except an uncorrupt text and proof that Shakespeare wrote it. First produced in 1608, and currently staged by Actors’ Shakespeare Project at the Modern Theatre, it’s a kind of Mediterranean magical mystery tour, its protagonist hurtling from one coastal town to another, one shipwreck to the next, exhibiting virtue, valor, and the patience of Job as Pericles loses first his wife and then his daughter. Perhaps that’s Shakespeare’s way of saying that, in life, we’re all perpetually at sea. In the end, though, the sea gives up its dead: Both the wife, who’d been cast into the ocean, and the daughter, seized by pirates, are restored. “Pericles” is a ritual, a masque in which music (including the “music of the spheres”) and dance are as important as the action. Call it Shakespeare’s act of faith.
True, Ben Jonson called it “a mouldy tale,” but the play has always been popular with audiences, and by 1609 it was already in print — with Shakespeare’s name on the title page. It did not make the First Folio, however, and the halting, pedestrian first two acts break sharply with the soaring last three. Moreover, the 1609 Quarto edition, the only surviving text, is a maelstrom of mistakes and omissions. The likeliest explanation of the play’s authorship is that the Bard collaborated in some way with the relatively undistinguished George Wilkins. What is certain is that in February 1608, Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna delivered a granddaughter, a bright moment in the playwright’s life. “Pericles” revolves around fathers and daughters.