Scholars suggest that the first two acts of this play were written by George Wilkins while the last three were written by Shakespeare. I have to say this sound imminently plausible. The first two acts are boring, running through several locations and a cast of characters with little flavor, drama or humor. You could cut them out of the play entirely with almost no loss.
The last three acts work much better and have more of the plot twists and court shenanigans that we know and love. It’s still not one of the Bard’s best efforts. But there’s some humor in how Marina fends off her potential clients and the reunion scene between Pericles and Marina is genuinely moving. But I’ve really not much to say about this play because there’s very little to it. It lacks the fire, humor or insight of the other comedies. It’s not really a problem play or one that flirts with tragedy. It’s just … kind of … there.
So I’m not going to waste much time digging into Pericles. Nor, for now, will I read Two Noble Kinsmen, which is supposedly even worse and is in neither my Kindle nor my bound edition. Instead, I’ll give a quick overview of what I thought of the comedies.
Reading through all the comedies was an illustration of just how important performance is for comedy. The best comedies do work on the page. But I found that the bulk of the comedies occasionally dragged on the page. Comedy — even just light drama or fantasy — is highly dependent on subtlety and on an actor bringing you in. There are a number of passages where the lines read almost like an instruction manual — setting up the actors to carry the show. The combination of language and lack of stage direction often made the action difficult to follow.
If I were to rate them, I would say the best were A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, and The Tempest, although the latter is poorly described as a comedy. Three of those I was familiar with but Twelfth Night was a genuine surprise and a pure delight. It’s no accident that these are the most familiar comedies as they stand head and shoulders above the others. Not a phrase is wasted, not a humorous opportunity lost. The dialogue, especially, is so crisp, one is easily drawn into the plays. You don’t need a dictionary and stage directions to follow along and grin with every clever line or plot twist.
The remainder are eminently readable and have some fine moments. And having seen one or two in performance, I can say that are enjoyable on stage, when the actors can add their own flourishes. But they all have some slow passages, some pointless characters or some flaw that denies them the pinnacle of the top four: Merchant‘s absurd idea of justice, Two Gentlemen‘s tedium, Labours slow pace and sudden ending. I am very glad that I have now read them. And if I get an opportunity to see them in performance, I will. But I can’t see myself reading through them again.
Well, it’s on to the histories. And we’ll dive right in with King John.