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Pericles | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Pericles | Symbols


Sea Travel

Sea travel was not a venture to be lightly undertaken in Shakespeare's time, and it is in Pericles that the journey of life through perils beyond a person's control is symbolized in this way. The unpredictability of a storm or other accidents at sea claim the lives of many sailors. It is therefore understandable that superstitious sailors would require the corpse of Thaisa to be removed from the ship in order to calm the seas. The storm not only separates them from each other in an unforeseen fashion but also tests their resolve to remain true to one another in the new circumstances into which they have been thrown.

The "storm" in which Pericles finds himself when he solves Antiochus's riddle ultimately sends him away from an evil match with Antiochus's daughter and toward a more honorable one with Simonides's daughter in Pentapolis. And the sea storm that separates Pericles from his wife also gives her a chance to demonstrate her resourcefulness and resolution to remain faithful by dedicating herself to the Temple of Diana. The uncontrollable event of Marina being captured by pirates is another example of a "storm" that forces her into a brothel. But she too perseveres until Pericles arrives and recognizes her as his daughter.

Several of Shakespeare's plays also feature family members separated by shipwreck, such as The Tempest (c. 1611) and Twelfth Night; Or, What You Will (c. 1600–02). As with Pericles, these plays hinge upon lost or mistaken identities and miraculous coincidences by which family members are joyfully reunited after having survived and matured. Often, the point to be made is that it is suffering and privation that brings about an appreciation of what one has. Pericles appreciates and enjoys his family all the more for having lost them for a time.


The several meanings of the word vessel provide the means by which term can symbolize both a physical condition and an internal state of mind. The human body is sometimes referred to as a "vessel," especially when it comes to receiving divine instruction. For example, this is the case with Pericles when he is given Diana's instructions to go to her temple at Ephesus. The act of falling asleep moves his conscious mind to one side so he can be "available" to what Diana has to say to him. He is also described as a "vessel" in Act 4, Scene 4 at the site of Marina's tomb, where his grief threatens to crack his being as if it were a ship in a storm: "He bears / A tempest which his mortal vessel tears, / And yet he rides it out." The vessel of the chest into which Thaisa's body has been put has been "caulked and bitumed" the same way a ship is treated to make it seaworthy, providing her with a little boat that carries her safely to the care of Cerimon.

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