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Adam Smyth writes:

Ben Jonson’s comedy The New Inn (1629) was, by all accounts, a theatrical disaster: ‘negligently played’ at the Blackfriars Theatre, according to its title page, ‘and more squeamishly beheld’. The actors were hissed off stage, but Jonson, possessed of what the Renaissance scholar Joseph Loewenstein has called a ‘bibliographic ego’, was not a man to walk away. The printed text of 1631 includes sustained criticism of the audience (Jonson prefers ‘fastidious impertinents’) and a verse with the title ‘The just indignation the author took at the vulgar censure of his play by some malicious spectators begat this following Ode to Himself.’ Here he takes aim at a variety of theatrical taste favouring plays that resemble, in Jonson’s judgment, undesirable organic matter (mould, leftover food, discarded fish).

No doubt some mouldy tale,\ Like Pericles, and stale\ As the shrieve’s crusts, and nasty as his fish –\ Scraps out of every dish\ Thrown forth, and raked into the common tub,\ May keep up the Play-club:\ There, sweepings do as well\ As the best-ordered meal.

By the time Jonson wrote these lines, Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre – or, as almost everyone now agrees, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, co-written by Shakespeare and the nastiest man in Jacobean theatre, George Wilkins (a pimp charged in 1611 with kicking a pregnant woman in the stomach) – had been a hit for more than twenty years. The play is a series of episodes as much as a unified drama, spread over 14 years, a tale of flight, family separation and reunion scattered across the waters and cities of what Richard Halpern called ‘the decaying Hellenistic world’. At its core is the romance arc of a prince, Pericles (whose motto, In hac spe vivo, means ‘In this hope I live’), losing and then finding his wife and daughter: a wife seemingly buried at sea, but washed ashore at Ephesus to a life as a priestess of Diana; a daughter (‘My gentle babe Marina, whom,/For she was born at sea, I have named so’) apparently murdered, but captured by pirates and sold into prostitution, who wins escape through her rhetoric and virtue. The play is dramatic-ally uneven – the early scenes, usually attributed to Wilkins, dispense couplets of stale political wisdom (‘Kings are earth’s gods; in vice their law’s their will;/And, if Jove stray, who dares say Jove doth ill?’) – but the Act 5 recognition scene between Pericles, broken by his losses, and Marina is a gripping performance of a kind of staggered anagnorisis, with Pericles terrified at the prospect of joy as he begins to perceive the possibility of reunion: ‘Give me a gash, put me to present pain,/Lest this great sea of joys rushing upon me/O’erbear the shores of my mortality/And drown me with their sweetness.’

(LRB 24 October 2019)

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