And Give Them Repetition to the Life: Parodic Waste and Wonder in Pericles
In a way Pericles begins where Hamlet stops: with a speaker who wishes to recreate the past. At Hamlet's charge "to tell my story" (5.2.341), Horatio pledges to report all to "the unsatisfied" (332). His tale might transfigure the bewildering havoc which has convulsed the court. But his prologue is scarcely reassuring. "So shall you hear/Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts," he vows, "Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters," and the like (372). This could herald a racy revenge melodrama with a glibly edifying resolution. Art threatens to usurp life. Potentially Horatio's tale implies countless other tales, the recollections which we call history, each one further dissociated from the core reality. Yet already we have experienced, and been moved by, one such story: the play Hamlet itself.
These problems and paradoxes dominate Pericles from the outset, but with a consumingly parodic cast.1 In Gower's art dissociation is comically rampant. Not only is his tale the remote work of "mine authors" (1.pro.20), but he himself is oddly dislocated from the fictional reality. Time interposes between his age and ours, and between his age and the play's no less. Onstage he stands before walls posted with the expressively severed heads of suitors who failed to fathom Antioch's riddling, evil "art." Yet Gower evinces no emotion relevant to "yon grim looks" whatever (40). From death he addresses us, in the third person, an unaccommodated voice chattering doggerel out of a gap in time and space:
To sing a song that old was sung,
From ashes ancient Gower is come,
Assuming man's infirmities,
To glad your ear and please your eyes.