We probably would not have heard of the interesting and colourful George Wilkins if it had not been for two Jacobean plays – The Miseries of Enforced Marriage and Pericles, Prince of Tyre.
George Wilkins was one of Shakespeare’s friends and a companion of his leisure hours in the later part of Shakespeare’s life in London. We know very little of Shakespeare’s daily life and leisure pursuits but his association with George Wilkins leads us to wonder about that.
The fact is that Wilkins was, by modern standards, shady. He was by profession an inn keeper but that may have been a cover for the criminal activities he was involved in. He operated in Cow-Cross, in London, an area notorious for whores and thieves. He stands in the records of history as something of a thug appearing regularly in criminal court records charged with theft and acts of violence. He was particularly violent towards women – prostitutes – which leads historians to conclude that he was a brothel-keeper and pimp.
Interestingly, he has that strong connection with Shakespeare, and perhaps they lived nearby to each other, as they were both witnesses in the case of Bellott vs Mountjoy. But whatever it was between them the two men made a connection and somehow, Wilkins was drawn into the theatre world in which his friend was a leading figure by that time.
Like so many men of that time, in spite of a pressured day job, Wilkins also wrote. He produced some pamphlets and also an effective play, The Miseries of Enforced Marriage, a valuable insight into Jacobean marriage.
But what Wilkins will be remembered for is his collaboration with Shakespeare on Pericles. Scholars have had difficulty with this. It is possible that Wilkins wrote the play and Shakespeare revised it, or it may have been the other way round. In the final result, though, it seems that Wilkins wrote most of the first two acts and Shakespeare the last three. Wilkins had also written a ‘novel’, The painful Adventures of Pericles, Prince of Tyre, and the play was based on that story.
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The statement “the play was based on that story” is at best incomplete and at worst misleading. There is sufficient intertextuality between the Shakespeare play and Wilkins’ account to assure some connection between the two, but it is unlikely that that connection consisted of a simple scenario like “Shakespeare used Wilkins” or even “Shakespeare collaborated with Wilkins to copy Wilkins.” Pericles stories go back to Apollonius of Tyre, a famous classic of the middle ages, and eventually found their way into the Gesta Romanorum. The two obvious sources for the Shakespearean play are Gower’s Book 8 in his *Confessio Amantis* and Lawrence Twine’s *The Pattern of Painefull Adventures.*
All in all, it seems most probable that the inter-textual connection between the Wilkins and Shakespeare texts is best explained on the hypothesis that Wilkins, perhaps sometime in 1608, saw a performance of the play and retained in his memory and notes some language from it. As the play seemed a theatrical success (it always has been, despite the immaturity of its construction and relatively simplistic characterizations), and had not yet been published, Wilkins saw a good chance to cash in by writing up a novelistic account of the story, under the influence of the play. As for extensive collaboration with anyone to produce this play, such theories will in the long run almost certainly be adjudged erroneous extrapolations based on the undeniable fact of the play’s relatively “primitive” or early nature. It is certainly not Jacobean in its origins, any more than Cymbeline is.
Dr. Roger Stritmatter