A Made Up Garment: Rusty Armor and the Web of Identity in Shakespeare’s Pericles

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An illustration of an 1898 Pericles-themed Mardi Gras float

Pericles, Prince of Tyre is a play deeply concerned with the question of the construction of identity, a question played out in the journey of its titular character from naïve prince to wise, happy, and complete King of Tyre, a father both privately and publicly. The text takes Pericles through every possible role available to a game young (and later, old) man of the ancient world— would-be suitor gives way to fugitive, to mere man and tennis ball of the winds, to successful anonymous knight, gentleman, husband, father, and suffering ascetic—only to unite them all in its last act. Each of these stages is marked by changes to Pericles’ outward appearance, often achieved through differences in costume, pointing to a connection between apparel, appearance, and identity. This connection, though, is complicated by the fraught relation of other characters in the play to their apparel and appearances, prompting a deeper interrogation of the role Pericles’ own apparel plays in his identity. Of Pericles’ various guises in the play, by far the most memorable and the most significant is the rusty armor which he dons to win fame and approval at the court of Simonides in Act II. This armor, in its mediation of Pericles’ relation to time and to his family as well as in its fragmented origin and construction, is both a central element of Pericles’ construction of his own identity and a symbol for the play’s conception of identity as  composed of interwoven fragments.

Though clothing is central to the construction of identity in Pericles, that this is so is not immediately evident. Indeed, Pericles begins with an episode which seems designed to destabilize the notion of a connection as appearances are revealed to be disastrously deceiving in Antioch when Pericles solves the riddle of Antiochus’ incestuous relationship with his daughter. When Pericles first sees Antiochus’ daughter, he describes her as a “celestial tree” “appareled like the spring” (I.1.22,13) whose face is like “the book of praises, where is read / Nothing but curious pleasures” (I.1.16-17). Upon solving the riddle and learning Antiochus’ secret, though, Pericles understands that the daughter is nothing but a “glorious casket stored with ill” (I.1.78): all that he had thought good was so “in nothing but in sight” (I.1.124). Clothing, Pericles learns, does not make the man. This early episode of deceptive appearance anticipates many similar situations throughout the play: Pericles jousts in rusty armor which does not match his status and skill at the court of Simonides; Simonides masks his approval of Thaisa’s match with Pericles; Marina is forced to appear as a prostitute. Indeed, one—albeit simple—reading of the play might be  to take Simonides’ reprimand that “Opinion’s but a fool, that makes us scan / The outward habit by the inward man” (II.2.56-57) as a moral for the story. And yet to simplify the role that apparel plays to that of a moral lesson in not judging a book by its cover is to do a disservice to the subtleties of Pericles, for there is at least one item of clothing—Pericles’ inherited suit of rusty armor—which proves central to Pericles’ own construction of his identity,  making it impossible for apparel to be made synonymous with appearance.

Apparel, in Pericles, is not, then, a stable category, but rather something whose signification depends, as any symbol, upon the viewer. That this is the case is made evident in the dramatic introduction of the play’s most important item of clothing, the rusty suit of armor, which, at the opening of Act II, is dragged up in a net from the seabed by unnamed fishermen, just after Pericles himself has been washed ashore. Immediately the armor appears, its importance to Pericles is made clear by his reaction to it. “Thanks, fortune, yet, that, after all thy crosses, / Thou givest me somewhat to repair myself” (II.1.122-23) he cries upon recognizing it for the armor which his dead father had left to him and which he had lost—along with everything else—when his ship wrecked. Just before the fishermen’s entrance, Pericles, alone on stage, wet and storm-tossed, has reconciled himself to his his sorry state, crying to the angry stars of heaven to “cease [their] ire” and “remember earthly man / Is but a substance that must yield to [them]” (II.1.1, 2-3). Thus, the sudden recuperation of one of the things he has lost—and so significant a thing—naturally overwhelms him, for on top of the armor’s usual significance, its appearance symbolizes to him the beginning of his “repair[ing]” process of self-recovery. The fishermen, on the other hand, see no value in the suit of armor, for they have caught it when they want (and need) to be catching fish and the armor is too rusty to be of any use to them. The fisherman who pulls it out curses it the moment he realizes that it is not an enormous fish, but a “rusty armor” and both he and the first fisherman are perplexed by Pericles’ thanking them for it. However, once Pericles has made his meaning and intent clear, the first fisherman—who seems something of a romantic—is more than willing to let Pericles take the spoiled armor to “tourney for the lady” (II.1.145), however the second fisherman, having understood the value of the armor to Pericles, is a little more reticent. Take it, he says, but he reminds him of his promise to “rest [their] debtor” (II.1.144) saying, “but hark you. . . ‘twas we that made up this garment through the rough seams of the waters. There are certain condolements, certain vails. I hope, sir, if you thrive, you’ll remember from whence you had it” (II.1.149-53). The second fisherman sees, in this apparently useless suit of armor, the opportunity for a supposed nobleman to owe him a debt and he decides to invest himself in that possibility, offering to make Pericles an armed skirt from his own gown and lead him to Simonides court. Thus the rusted armor has, only moments after its discovery, taken on three different significations for three different people.

The most important of these significations is, of course, the connection the armor provides Pericles to his dead father, whom we have heard nothing of up to this point in the play, though whose absence was made conspicuous by Pericles’ expression of his wish to marry Antiochus’ daughter in terms of a desire to become Antiochus’ son. When Antiochus’ calls him “Prince Pericles,” Pericles quickly interrupts to amend the appellation, saying, “that would be son to great Antiochus” (I.1.29). This might be dismissable as mere flattery, were it not for the vexed quality of Pericles’ relation with the memory of his dead father which is revealed by degrees from the moment of the armor’s appearance. Faced with the suddenly-recovered symbol of his dead father’s love for him, Pericles invests the armor with the weight of the entirety of the past he has lost in becoming a mere “earthly man” at the hands of the storm. Pericles loses himself in the history represented in the armor, which comprises its abstract “worth” to him, giving the object a narrative, which he recounts to the fishermen. The narrative of the armor’s worth to Pericles, though, feels overdetermined; it seems more an expression of his longing for a golden past before his troubles began and when his father was alive, than a recapitulation of his history. Pericles feels the death of his father as an omnipresent absence, which manifests itself in the figure of the rusted and empty suit of armor. Though Pericles does all he can to fill this relic from his past with signification, it remains, at its center, a void. Even though Pericles had expressed a desire to joust in the tournament before the discovery of the armor, his decision to wear the armor is not a manifestation of that desire, but of his desire to fill the void at the center of this symbol of his absent father. In donning it, Pericles seeks to deal with his father’s absence by becoming him, inhabiting the empty symbol of his father’s prowess, while at the same time showing “the virtue [he] ha[s] borne in arms” (II.1.146). Wearing it, Pericles wins himself honor at the court of Simonides, and he begins the process of reconstructing and repairing his lost identity. “What I have been I have forgot to know” (II.1.72) he laments to the sailor immediately after having been washed up by the storm. But with his father’s armor, with his relation to his past and to his family recovered and recuperated, Pericles can begin to remember what he had been and who he is, allowing him to move into forward into the future to begin to forge his own identity.

This forging of new identity is symbolized in his ability to situate himself within a new family with Simonides and Thaisa. Having repaired his relation with the memory of his father through inhabiting his armor, Pericles is able to recognize Simonides’ likeness “to [his] father’s picture” and at the same time understand that the picture he possesses in his head is no more, a “glory [that] once he was” (II.3.37-38), a thing of the past. Through reclaiming the rusted armor and righting his relation to his history, Pericles is able to situate his father firmly in his past without denying his memory its place in his current construction of his own identity. Simonides’ similarity to his father prompts Pericles to evaluate himself against his image of his father as the sun to whom “like lesser lights” princes “did vail their crowns to his supremacy” (II.3.41, 42), finding himself “like a glowworm in the night, / The which have fire in darkness, none in light” (II.3.43-44) in comparison. Thus, though Pericles is not yet content with the self he is beginning to construct, he manages to recognize in himself the glimmer of the light that he saw radiating from his father and which he admires so. He is able to set that light as a goal in his future because he has separated his image of his father from his father’s reality, which he leaves in his past, acknowledging that “Time’s the king of men; / He’s both their parent, and he is their grave, / And gives them what he will, not what they crave” (II.3.45-47). Alone, identity-less, and unmoored in time at the opening of Act II, Pericles had “crave[d] … to have death in peace” (II.1.11). Now, through the recovery of the rusty armor and his recuperation of his relation to his father and time, he knows that death is not an option, but rather that his only way forward is into the future in the forging of his own identity.

The armor, though, indicates one further aspect of Pericles’ conception of identity-making in its indication that identity is not merely the project nor the product of the individual, but a construction “made up” (II.1.150) of many elements. The scene of Pericles’ leave-taking from the fishermen is striking partly because of the role the fishermen play in his successful armoring. Not only do they discover the armor as the Second Fisherman reminds Pericles, but they provide him with a guide to court and material for a “pair of bases” (II.1.162). From their own clothing. Thus the article of clothing by which Pericles begins the construction of his identity is made entirely of the clothing of other people, both people immensely significant to him (his father) and people he has only just met and will never meet again (the fishermen). The significance of family and history and inheritance is combined with the fabric of happenstance to create the web which clothes Pericles literally in his armor and figuratively in his budding identity. Pericles recognizes the role of the fishermen in preparing him, acknowledging that “by [their] furtherance [he is] clothed in steel” (II.1.155) and will be able set off on the journey that will reconcile him with his family and past. In return, the Second Fisherman asks that Pericles, should he meet with success, “remember from whence [he] had it” (II.1.152-53), keeping them alive in the fabric that wove his identity. Pericles promises that he will remember them—whether he does, the play gives no indication, but for the moment he and the play acknowledge the complicated web of players and elements which “make up” the garment that is identity, a process symbolized in that rusty old suit of armor.

This process of “making up” is not limited to the mode of identity-construction in the play, though, for much the same could be said of the relation of the suit of armor to Pericles itself. Ben Jonson famously called Pericles “a mouldy tale” (New Yorker), referencing its jumbling of old romance tropes tied together by the figure of Gower, who “To sing a song that old was sung / From ashes ancient. . . is come” (I.cho.1-2) and speaks in an old-fashioned, balladic tetrameter saturated with archaisms. Jonson might have done better to call Pericles a rusty tale, for Pericles, like Gower from the ashes, like the rusted armor from the sea, has something of partially-degenerated miracle about it. Pericles, in wearing his father’s armor “made up” for him by two fishermen, resurrects the armor, fragmented and rusty as it is, just as Shakespeare resurrects Gower and the romance—fragmented and rusty as they are. Pericles wears his father’s armor not to battle, but in a tournament, an activity steeped in nostalgia for a time before Thaliard could swear to Antiochus that he would get Pericles “within [his] pistol’s length” (I.2.169-70).¹ There is something of a similar nostalgia in Pericles’ fragmented reconstruction of romance, with its innocent Gower and naïve Pericles, and its willingness to allow the rust to show, exposing the play for what it is: a garment “made up” of disparate elements old, repurposed, and imbued with a significance beyond their apparent value, gathered from all over, and coming together to shape something new. The play, like Pericles’ identity, is just that haphazard suit of rusted armor which Pericles wore to win his lady love.

  1. I know that the play is set in the ancient world and that this is likely just a Shakespearian (or a whoever wrote the first two acts-ian) anachronism, but since it’s an anachronism to impose the romantic form on the ancient world anyway, I decided I would treat everything as if it were purposely of the same time—a fragmented, jumbled, borrowed time out of time—allowing for tournaments and pistols in the same period.

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Marina Sings Before Pericles, Thomas Stothard, 1825


Shakespeare, William. Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Ed. Stephen Orgel. New York: Penguin, 2001.

Zarin, Cynthia. “The Continual Riddle of Shakespeare’s ‘Pericles.’” New Yorker. March 8, 2016. Accessed April 5 2017. http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-continual-riddle-of-shakespeares-pericles


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