'Certain Condolements, Certain Vails': Staging Rusty Armour in Shakespeare's Pericles

By Harlan, Susan | Early Theatre, July 2008 | Go to article overview

'Certain Condolements, Certain Vails': Staging Rusty Armour in Shakespeare's Pericles


Harlan, Susan, Early Theatre


In Act 2 of Shakespeare's Pericles, a fisherman draws a suit of armour from the sea just in time for Pericles to participate in a tournament at King Simonides's court. The armour recalls that of Achilles, Aeneas, and St. Paul, but it is also described as 'rusty' (Per 2.1.118), making this a less illustrious object than the armour of Pericles's glorious literary forbearers. (1) We learn that Pericles lost the armour in a shipwreck--he says that 'the rough seas, that spares not any man, / Took it in rage' (Per 2.1.130-1)--and its return is a type of reparation:

   An armour, friends! I pray you, let me see it.
   Thanks, Fortune, yet, that after all thy crosses
   Thou giv'st me somewhat to repair myself. (Per 2.1.119-21)

My focus here is twofold. First, I will examine what this prop might have looked like on stage, how it might have been acquired by the theatre, and why it is 'rusty' or ruined. (2) I am interested in how the reception of this armour by its on-stage audiences affects its reception by its off-stage theatrical audiences. Second, I will examine how found, claimed, or inherited material objects such as stage properties allow one to engage with questions of inherited literary or dramatic form and notions of military 'spoiling'. Armour was a common spoil of war in early modern Europe, and I am interested in how Pericles's suit of armour functions as a spoil, or claimed military object, in the play. How can the notion of spoiling be used to examine Shakespeare's treatment of romance as a genre that is itself spoiled in the double sense of claimed, on the one hand, and decayed or degenerated, on the other?

Igor Kopytoff argues that as specific objects 'move through different hands, contexts, and uses, [they accumulate] a specific biography, or set of biographies'--what Kopytoff refers to as the 'cultural biography' of the object. (3) Pericles's suit of armour possesses certain physical characteristics and a particular history, all of which inform how, and what, it signifies on stage. It possesses two related biographies, both as an actual early modern material object and as a prop that is imbued with dramatic significance. We know that costumes and properties were often recycled from performance to performance in the early modern English public theatres. Marvin Carlson argues that this practice of re-using props causes them to be 'ghosted' by their previous stage incarnations, (4) and Jonathan Miller notes that the recycling of properties imbues them with an 'afterlife'. (5) For Carlson, the stage prop looks backwards; for Miller, it looks forward--to the future and to its later incarnations. Pericles informs the audience that the suit of armour 'was mine own, part of mine heritage, / Which my dead father did bequeath to me' (Per 2.1.122-3). As the character inherited this garment from his father, so the actor almost certainly would have inherited it from previous performances or from its extra-theatrical life. Pericles recalls his father's own story of the armour's significance. His father said:

   'Keep it, my Pericles; it hath been a shield
   'Twixt me and death';--and pointed to his brace--
   'For that it sav'd me, keep it; in like necessity,
   The which the gods protect thee from, may defend thee!' (2.1.125-8)

Pericles's father insists that the armour's past purpose as a protective 'shield' should also be its purpose in the future. As it was used by the father, so shall it be used by the son. Pericles remembers his father 'point[ing] to his brace' for emphasis. Even in memory, the armour is a material reality as well as an idealized object imbued with significance by the subjects who handle it.

Unfortunately, there are few extant theatre records of transactions for armour and even fewer that indicate what this military clothing may have looked like on stage. Henslowe's diary mentions a transaction for armour:

   Lent vnto John thare the 30th of septmber 1602
   To paye vnto the armerer for targattes
   In full payment the some of . … 

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