How did a forgotten play by Shakespeare resurface in Malayalam in Kerala?

‘Pericles, Prince Of Tyre’ is set by the seaside, features sea voyages and a comic scene with fishermen.

A Shakespearean drama with pirates and princes, a princess who is sold to a brothel and incestuous affairs, was left out of the first collected edition of William Shakespeare’s plays. First Folio was collated and published in 1623 but contained no mention of the bard’s play Pericles, Prince Of Tyre.

The play is still rarely performed anywhere in the world, but recently it breathed new life when a Malayalam translation by writer P Velu from 1891, Pariklesharajavinte Katha, made its way to the British Library’s South Asia collection.

This re-telling of the original tale would have been forgotten but for Thea Buckley, a scholar who came across the Pariklesharajavinte Katha while working on a thesis on productions of Macbeth, for indigenous South Indian theatre forms. Buckley, an American scholar at the University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute, grew up in Kerala. At present, she is researching the intersection between Shakespeare’s original works and their 21st-century adaptations into South Indian languages, which she took up after she chanced upon Velu’s translation of Pericles and realised that no scholar had written about it.

Buckley said she still has no idea why Pericles was omitted from the First Folio. The play is a collaboration between Shakespeare and dramatist and pamphleteer George Wilkins.

What is very interesting is that somehow it made its way to India and you can trace a faint line of a performance history in the history of the translation…It caught my imagination.

She is now tracing the route by which the play made its way to Kerala.

Following the spice route?

One reason for Pericles to appear on India’s southern shores, Buckley felt, could be that the play is about a sailor, and Kerala is a coastal state.

“My first thought was, did this catch the people’s imagination because it is about someone who goes sailing?” she said. “There is a very ancient history of sea trade in Kerala, where ships would stop on their way to get spice. As far as I can tell, Shakespearean drama arrives in the port cities, which is where the British came in their search for spices. It then travels inland.”

Buckley said she found the seed of this idea from playwright and critic G Sankara Pillai, who traced the spread of pan-Indian imitations of British theatre from the port cities inwards to the rest of the country.

During Shakespeare’s lifetime (1564-1616), there is record of a ship sailing to India where Hamlet was performed on board. The actors, thus, brought Shakespeare with them. Shakespeare also entered the education system. Then the British imposed Shakespeare on Indians by introducing a literary section on him in the Civil Service examinations.

Buckley said she could think of several reasons why Pericles might “appeal to a South Indian audience”, though she added that this was mere conjecture: “Shakespeare’s play is set by the seaside, features sea voyages and a comic scene with fishermen, which would be familiar to coastal dwellers as the region. It is an adventure tale about a royal warrior, just like Indian epics. He goes through a long period of exile or separation from his kingdom and family, as do many noble heroes. It is one of the few plays in which a deity appears, here to help and bless the ruler. It has a great story. It has a princess who gets kidnapped and sold to a brothel from which she escapes. It has incest, which may be something they wanted to expurgate.”

Shakespeare in Malayalam

According to Buckley, this version of Pericles, Prince of Tyre could be part of a larger scene of translations and performances of the poet-playwright’s works that somehow made its way to the southern tip of India. She spoke on the subject in September 2017, at the British Library’s South Asia series.

Malayalam translations of Shakespeare are under-researched. There is a wide range of translations of Shakespeare into Indian languages, but only a handful were translated to Malayalam. The only Malayalam translation of Pericles is now available in a digital catalogue at the British Library.

Buckley’s efforts to trace how Pericles reached Kerala have taken her across India. She found another translation in Hindi by B Govinda Dasa called Honhaar or Honahar. This is the only other single translation of Pericles, apart from Velu’s in the British Library’s collection.

Pariklesharajavinte Katha

The Malayalam translation is not only taken directly from Shakespeare’s Pericles but from the prose version of Charles Lamb and Mary Lamb. The Lambs included Pericles in Tales from Shakespeare in their 1807 collection for children, but removed all the adult elements in the tale. In the 1800s and 1900s, their version of Pericles was finally translated for adults.

The Malayalam version takes a few turns from the original, Buckley said. Scenes of incest and brothels are omitted and names have been nativised: Tyre is Tharapuram or “city of the stars”, Pericles’ wife Thaisa becomes Dayesha or the “kind lady” and his daughter Marina is Samudrika or “maiden of the sea.”

Dr Will Sharpe, Teaching Fellow in Shakespeare at the University of Birmingham said:

Pericles was largely neglected in the theatre over a long period of time. There has however in the last century, been a tradition of practitioners and audiences deriving rewards from the play in performance, taking the effort to see past what at first glance seem shortcomings and to revel both in the comic opportunities the play’s structure affords and in its truly tender emotional core.

In 2013-2014, Sharpe directed Pericles for Ketterer’s Men, Birmingham University’s theatre company.

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This article first appeared in Scroll.in.

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