Double, double toil and trouble…

Originally posted on JustUs Society:

Act 4, SCENE I. A cavern. In the middle, a boiling cauldron.
Thunder. Enter the three Witches

First Witch
Thrice the brinded cat hath mew’d.

Second Witch
Thrice and once the hedge-pig whined.

Third Witch
Harpier cries ‘Tis time, ’tis time.
First Witch
Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison’d entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Swelter’d venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot.


Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

Second Witch
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

eye of newt

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Third Witch
Scale of…

View original 94 more words

Shakespeare’s Tharsus: Fact or Fiction – P2

I am no viper, yet I feed
On mother’s flesh, which did me breed;
I sought a husband, in which labour
I found that kindness in a father.
He’s father, son, and husband mild,
I mother, wife, and yet his child.
How they may be, and yet in two,
As you will live, resolve it you.

(Pericles, Act One, Scene 2, lines 64-71)

Does anything have the power to shock us anymore? Are there any taboos left? Incest? In Ancient Egypt incest was practiced in the families of the Pharaohs right down to Cleopatra. Before she had Caesar and Mark Anthony, she married her brother. In Ancient Greece, the playwright Sophocles disparaged it. Oedipus entire line was cursed when he unwittingly killed his father and sired grandchildren on his mother/wife. But what about the ancient city of Antioch?

Oil Jar (lekythos) with the Garden of the Hesperides Greek made in Paestum South Italy 350-340 BCE Terracotta (1)

Hesperides, a goddess-nymph of the setting sun. Detail from an oil Jar (lekythos) Greek, made in Paestum South Italy 350-340 BCE Terracotta

Pericles, the Prince of Tyre, sailed to Antioch after hearing report of the mythic beauty of Hesperides, daughter of King Antiochus. Now Anitochus wasn’t just any, overly, over-protective parent. Jealous of his daughter’s many suitors, he was also her lover. He challenged them with a riddle, a coil of diplomacy. If they answered it correctly they could take his daughter/lover as their wife. If they failed to answer, they were executed for the presumption of having tried. Yet they would face death if they offended the king’s honour by revealing the family secret.

Was incest to be kept secret in Antioch? Could it be hushed if the royal family practiced it? Shakespeare’s version is told from a Renaissance, Christian perspective.

In the riddle above the first two lines are from Antiochus’ consciousness, the remaining his daughter’s. Pericles understood it immediately and fled Antioch. Perhaps he should have been more wary in setting off? Did he consider the beauty’s name, Hesperides. She was named after a goddess of the dying day.

Shakespeare’s play is taken from a story told and retold for over a thousand years. It began in the 3rd century C.E. with a Greek text that was soon followed by Latin, then French, and eventually English in the Renaissance. (1) Does the play have a basis in history?


The extent of the Seleucid Empire at its height (in the peach). The red lines denote present day national borders.

The names of the characters have a Graeco-Roman ring to them. The settings invoke the Eastern Roman Empire, or perhaps the Seleucid Empire. As Antioch was a Seleucid capital, and as the earliest version of the story is Greek, an origin in the historic Seleucid Empire is plausible.(2) Wikipedia lists 13 Seleucid Emperors named Antiochus. (3) Of their, oftentimes, scant biographies it is difficult to find any similarities with Shakespeare’s play.

antiochus detail


Alternatively, the play could be a product of a historically minded imagination. Antiochus may have been chosen as the name of the king because incest was acceptably practiced in the royal families of the Seleucid Emperors. Consider Antiochus I Soter (323/4-261 BCE) who was so infatuated with his stepmother, Stratonice, that his father gave her to him, to cure his lovesickness. Or Laodice IV (3rd-2nd C BCE) who married all three of her brothers in succession. Giving the outrage of incest to a Seleucid monarch gave the story plausibility.

Whether the original source of the tale was legend or fiction, it has the air of authenticity. We can safely assume that the settings existed. That Tharsus existed. Was it the island in the north Aegean, Thasos, or the city in the Eastern Mediterranean, Tarsus?


(1)Stokes, Frances Griffin, Who’s Who in Shakespeare: Characters, Names and Plot Sources in the Plays and Poems, George Harrop and Co., London, 1924, pp. 252-253.

(2) The Seleucid Empire was a Hellenistic society begun with Alexander the Great’s conquests in Syria and the Middle East. On his death, his Generals held territories for themselves and war between them ensued. In 312 BCE Seleucus Nicator I established himself as the monarch of Babylonia and the founder of an Empire that bore his name. It finally fell to the Romans in 63 BCE.

(3) An easy to read bio as the first twelve can be scrolled through on the Encyclopedia Iranica webpage.

Photo Credits:


Photo credit: mharrsch / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

The Seleucid Empire

Photo credit: prince_volin / Foter / CC BY-ND


Photo credit: damiandude / Foter / CC BY-NC


Shakespeare’s Tharsus: Thasos or Tarsus? – Pt 1

Thasos today

Thasos today

Take-sheikh-curl-at. Tay-shake-cool-at. Tay-shay-cull-at. Which one is it? Is it any of them at all? Will it really matter if I mispronounce it a little? He can’t misconstrue it as anything else other than gratitude, can he? He just helped me. Is she looking at me bemusedly because I’ve totally got it wrong? Have I insulted her?

In Istanbul I found myself constantly approaching strangers and asking assistance. Is this the right tram platform for the Grand Bazaar? Where do I purchase tokens for the funicular? In which direction is the Hippodrome? Where can I get a gozleme around here? Once they had finished speaking, signing, miming their responses, a look of relief crossed their faces as they continued on their way. A hiccup rose and passed. Irksome but not a major distraction in the trajectory of their daily purpose. With no time to decipher the English, “thank you,” I called out after them, they were back on their course. I couldn’t show my sincere gratitude. But it was important to me, I didn’t like being a hiccup.

Where is the Hippodrome?

Where is the Hippodrome?

Then in the historic Basilica Cistern I asked the English-speaking staff how to say, “thank you” in Turkish. The inertia of small groups slowing down and starting up again in the darkness; the elasticity of larger groups, struggling to stay an amorphous whole as their calls to each other rippled and reverberated over the cavernous basin; the commerce of the photo booth transforming excitable tourists into colourful sultans and sultanas, created a texture of background noise that took away any subtlety from the slowly enunciated syllables of the Turkish word for thanks, tesekkürler. I repeated it several times and had to be corrected each time. In the end, my word tutors at the busy photo booth smiled an, “as good as it gets,” smile and left me eager to use my first Turkish word in earnest. And I did. When my meaning was understood, the erupting smile in return created a moment that defied existential logic. It was mutual appreciation. So I expressed my thanks often.

The Basilica Cistern, constructed 6th Century CE during the reign of Emperor Justinianus

The Basilica Cistern, constructed 6th Century CE during the reign of Emperor Justinianus

Googling, “thank you” when I returned, I found that my mispronunciation was not the only mistake that I had made. In Turkish, there is a different understanding of how gratitude should be expressed. Apparently I had been attempting a form of thank you used when someone provides a service they are required to do, not a favour they chose to bestow. It could be received as condescension, not my intent at all. I should have wished those uncompelled by their occupations to stay healthy, sag olun.

When listening to a foreign language and trying to emulate its unfamiliar, unpracticed sounds, errors are bound to happen. Even a polyglot can make mistakes. Take Shakespeare. His command of several languages allowed him to read the source material for his works. Besides English he is thought to have understood Latin, Ancient Greek, French, Italian and Spanish*. How did he misconstrue the name of the hero in John Gower’s, Confessio Amantis, from being Apollonius of Tyre for Pericles of Tyre? How did I end up saying take-sheikh-curl-at when I should have said sag olun?

Image taken from page 53 of 'Pericles, Prince of Tyre. A novel ... printed in 1608, and founded upon Shakespeare's Play. Edited by Professor T. Mommsen, with a preface ...; and an introduction by J. P. Collier'

Image taken from page 53 of ‘Pericles, Prince of Tyre. A novel … printed in 1608, and founded upon Shakespeare’s Play. Edited by Professor T. Mommsen, with a preface …; and an introduction by J. P. Collier’

Francis Griffin Stokes in Who’s Who in Shakespeare**, tells us that the storyline found in the Confessio Amantis and Pericles, Prince of Tyre, is generally the same. Shakespeare changed the name of the protagonist and added in a daughter, the saintly Marina. Shakespeare could have chosen a host of retellings of the story to base his play on but by placing John Gower as a kind of narrator in the play we can be assured it is Gower’s work that he wanted to acknowledge. So how did he get Pericles from Apollonius? How noisy was his Basilica Cistern? Stokes quotes the great early 20th Century Shakespearean scholar, Sidney Lee, stating that Richard Flecknoe who wrote about the play in 1656 called the protagonist Pyrochles. Was there an extant play – be it printed quarto or manuscript – in 1656 where the protagonist was Pyrochles and not Pericles?

Image from page 437 of "The standard edition of the pictorial Shakspere" (1846)

Pericles – Image from page 437 of “The standard edition of the pictorial Shakspere” (1846)

Did Shakespeare take the name from a character in Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia? Arcadia is where Stokes claims he borrowed the by-plot of King Lear. He suggests that Shakespeare also took the name Pyrochles from Sidney. Why, he doesn’t explain. Spenser also had a character called Pyrochles in his Faerie Queene. Perhaps Shakespeare just liked the name. Or did he want to imbue his character with the honour associated with arguably the greatest statesman of Ancient Athens? Pericles is often acknowledged as a play written in collaboration. Did Shakespeare mishear Pericles for Pyrochles and not check his cowriter’s source?

If Shakespeare could confuse Pyrochles with Pericles, could he not write Tharsus when he meant Thasos? When Pericles appeared in the third folio of Shakespeare’s collected works, in 1663, the location in question was printed as Tharsus. It was not seen as a printer’s error and “corrected” until 1726 when the editor, Lewis Theobald, had published his Shakespeare Restored; or A Specimen of the Many Errors As Well Committed As Unamended by Mr Pope, in His Late Edition of this Poet. Tharsus became Tarsus, the biblical birthplace of St Paul, an ancient commercial port on the mouth of the river, Berdan. Tarsus is not too far off Antioch from where Pericles was fleeing when his misadventures unravelled.

Justinian Bridge Tarsus, Turkey

Justinian Bridge, Tarsus, Turkey

But what if Tharsus wasn’t an error? Not one committed by the printers that is. What if the error lay in hearing and transcribing foreign sounds into English. What if Shakespeare heard Thasos being pronounced with an English accent and wrote it phonetically as he heard it. What if Shakespeare’s Tharsus is actually Thasos. . .

Part 2 – To Thasos with Shakespeare to guide us


*Price, Diana,”Shakespeare’s Education”,Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography:New Evidence of an Authorship Problem,, 2012, p.253.

**Stokes, Frances Griffin,Who’s Who in Shakespeare:Characters, names and plot sources in the plays and poems,George Harrop and Co., London 1924, pp.252-3.


Image of John Gower from
Justinian Bridge, Tarsus, Turkey
Photo credit: apharris75 / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA


Menander, the Mytilenean Mosaic

Mosaic portrait of Menander from the Mytilenean mosaic floor

Mosaic portrait of Menander from the Mytilenean mosaic floor

It’s inevitable when you travel in Greece that you will find yourself at an archaelogical site. They are everywhere. Now, how fulfilling the experience will be depends on your expectations. It’s probable that you will find yourself in a bizarre grid of knee high “walls” that you could easily walk over – no scaling, no hurdling, necessary. They were once barriers for privacy, indicators of ownership, providers of shelter – structural components to house a family, a company of players, a committee of civic officials, a communion of ancients. Now they define a bare necropolis. Who for, or why each square was occupied is lost not only to the recalcitrant gait of time but also to the process of their rediscovery and conservation. You see these squares are bereft of ornamentation. If you are lucky the little vases, the palm-sized votive statuettes, the misshapen, worn coins, the fragile, foil jewels – these little glimpses into the ancient reality of the living spaces you are standing before are behind glass in the local museum. Often they are in Britain, France, Germany, the United States or wherever the country of origin is of the archaeological school that is responsible for the dig. A healthy imagination and some background reading will help fill in your enthusiasm.

When I arrived in Mytilene I was determined to see the House of Menander even if it meant foregoing many of the touristy sites on the island to find it. I didn’t just want to imagine it. Travelling with children always means a trade off. Having shared the misadventure of looking for the HIppodrome in Istanbul with my husband and children, I was a little anxious about our prospects of finding the House of Menander. Would my children have patience for the search? or would their droning pleas for the beach sap the enjoyment out of the experience?

We began our search at the New Archaeological Museum of Lesvos. As I approached the reception desk, doubts troubled me. What if they had no idea what I was talking about? It was a possiblity, Menander is not that well known and I had come across the mosaic’s existence through social media platforms. The mosaic’s images seemed credible at the time. But I had also come across an image of the restored Hippodrome on social media. The restored Hippodrome. What Hippodrome! How should I pose the question of the mosaic’s existence and whereabouts without being insulting, condescending or presumptuous?

The plays of Menander as depicted in the mosaic floor found new the Ancient Theatre of Mytilene.

The plays of Menander as depicted in the mosaic floor found near the Ancient Theatre of Mytilene.

The lovely tour guide, Toula, listened to me finish my waffling, prattle patiently. “It’s just here,” she said as she led us across the foyer and into the first room of the museum. She then took us through all of the rooms regaling us with anecdotes. Apparently the archaeological team responsible for the dig were Greek which explained why the mosaic floor has remained in a local museum just blocks away from where it was found.

One story left me asking whether it was a modern-day fable of sour grapes. Apparently, when the mosaics were found there were voices of doubts from the international community. It seems the brightness of the tiles had brought into question the authenticity of the mosaics. Tesserae tiles were often made of glass or ceramic and as such had to be coloured. Why hadn’t the tesserae tile’s pigments not deteriorated if the floor was actually dated to the 2nd century C.E..?

Right side detail of the Mosaic floor depicting in individual square cells, Menander, His plays and Thalia the Muse of Comedy

The right side of the floor – Thalia, the muse of comedy. The square directly above her doesn’t depict a play but three ancients including the philosopher Socrates. The rest are plays written by Menander, mainly lost.

Was this a fair question?

In the ancient theatre district of the island of Delos there are a number of ancient mosaics. A colourful, outdoor example shot in situ is the image of a winged messenger astride a tiger. From the state of conservation of the mosaic, it can be safely assumed that the tesserae tiles have not been restored to their original colours. Of all of the photos on this post, this is the only one that I have increased the intensity of the colour, purely to bring out the detail of this ailing artwork. The intensity of the colours of both mosaics are comparable.

Mosaic from the Island of Delos depicting a messenger on a leopard

A messenger or Nike (Victory) astride a tiger, Delos in 1999.

Tellingly, the Mytilenean mosaic of Menander was also found in a theatre district. Both mosaics deal with theatrical themes. The Delian mosaic is symbollic. It seems to be concerned with a theatrical contest, hence Nike astride a tiger, the symbol of Dionysus, god of theatre. The fallen vase to the side, a trophy perhaps, may indicate a defended title lost or a disregard for the results of the contest.

Other considerations arise at the archaelogical site of the ancent town of Olynthos in Chalkidiki. Its mosaic floors bask under the heat of the sun. They depict images in black and white that are said to be of the oldest in Greece. They were excavated in the early 20th century. To look at them closely you cannot fail to see that each building “block” is not perfectly tesserae – a four sided tile –  but a water washed pebble. Did the designer have a black and white image in mind and collected only black and white pebbles or have the pigments in the pebbles deteriorated over time regardless of having been underground?


Bellerophon (background); 2 griffons devouring their prey (foreground) Olynthos

I would suggest that the simplicity and boldness of the design requires the contrast of black and white to achieve the designer’s goal. That they are black and white by intent. That no pigment deterioration has occurred here. The mosaics are of naturally occurring mineral materials.

Bold black and white floor mosaic from the archaeological site at Olynthos.

Black and white mosaic –  Olynthos.

Toula’s answer to the sceptics was simple. The tesserae tiles making up the mosaic floor on Mytilene are not glass or ceramic tiles but naturally occurring rocks that have been cut and shaped. Their colours hold faster than man made pigments for this reason. Evidence for the existence of these rocks on Mytilene is abundant. I photographed some when the kids got their wish and we took them to the beach.

Pebbles in the seashore at Vatera, Lesvos

Beaches near Mytilene – more pebbly than sandy. Vatera, Lesvos

To Toula, I send thanks for a great tour. For the international detractors – a case of sour grapes it would seem.

Book launch – you’re invited!

Originally posted on Stella Tarakson:

Book launch_Mike the Spike

Mike the Spike is being launched this Friday at Kogarah Library. Come along! It’s a great way to keep the kids occupied during the school holidays. There’ll be book readings, a drawing demo, craft and prizes! It’s FREE, and you can book here.

My talented friend of the Crafty Theatre blog will be helping out. She’s designed some cute little louse puppets (yes, the book’s about nits!) for the kids to make and keep.


There’ll be free bookmarks for all attendees, as well as the chance to win a signed copy of Mike the Spike. Hope to see you there :)

View original

An obnoxious interview with Mike the Spike’s author, Stella Tarakson

Mike the Spike, the new for juniors (7-9 year olds) novel by the prolific Stella Tarakson is being launched on Friday, 26th September at Kogarah Municipal Library. Being one of Stella Tarakson’s camp followers, you can imagine my excitement. True to her style, the plot sails along with incidents breaking over incidents and incidences regaled with laughter. Having had the privilege of reading the ms early during the creative process has given me the confidence to ask some pretty, obnoxious questions of the author.

Stella Taraksn

Stella Tarakson

1. Have you ever had a spike ( even if it was in the 80s ) ?

I don’t know what you’re talking about :)

2. What about the nits?

Oh yes. Several times. Not when I was a kid – but I had them when my children were in primary school. It was awful and has left me permanently scarred, hence the book.

3. Are you Mike?


4. The range of books you have written covers educational books, self-help, legal, science fiction, YA, Tweens non-fiction , junior novels etc. How does writing comedy differ in the creative process from the more serious forms of writing you’ve had published? ( Or, have you ever laughed yourself so senseless as you’ve frantically tapped down the inspiration that you’ve left out the punch line ?)

Writing is all about voice. The hardest part of any project I’ve attempted is getting the voice right – once I’ve got it, the rest flows. I’ve written books about the law, about dealing with death, about euthanasia, terrorism, obesity and on and on! They’re all totally different voices, but other than that, the writing process is similar. My workshop students often ask me how they can find their own writing voice. It’s a hard question to answer. The only way really is to experiment and see what works. I remind them that we all have different voices for different occasions. We speak one way to our parents, another to our friends, another to our workmates/clients and so on. When I write, I think about who I’m writing for – and why. I love writing comedy for kids. It’s one of the most satisfying ways of connecting with the audience!

Mike the Spke

Mike the Spike

5. Is Mike obnoxious? Why? Please explain.

Little Mikey? No! How could you even think that?

6. How important is it that you like your main character?

For me, it’s crucial. I’ve read a few kids’ books where the main character is obnoxious and unlikeable. Maybe kids are expected to like them, but I don’t see how they could either! If I’m going to spend time inside a character’s head, I’ve got to like what I find there.

7. Plot or Character?

Plot. And character. Character and plot. One bounces off the other and it’s all mixed together. I start with an incident or problem, then think about the sort of character that would be most affected by it. For instance – nits. Par for the course for most girls, who tend to get them regularly. But a vain little boy, whose pride and joy is his spiky hair? Disaster! Then I think of ways the character can try to solve that problem, and the obstacles s/he will face. That’s how the plot takes shape in my mind. I like to have a fairly good idea of both before I start writing the story. Then I show it to someone like your good self – who is great at offering reader feedback! Thanks for your role in Mike’s success :)

It was my pleasure.

Mike the Spike is being launched at Kogarah Municipal Library on Friday, 26th September. Both Stella Tarakson and the illustrator of the book’s very funny drawings, Ben Johnston, will be there reading from the book and drawing, on-the-spot, for their young audience. There will be drawing and nit-making craft for the kids as well.

Book now at Eventbrite!


Bookshelf Tag

It’s time for tag or tips or to be most accurate, build-up, bookshelf tips or tag. So I’m in, thanks to Stella Tarakson who has also tip-tagged 4 more. Now pay attention cause you might just get caught. The rules are:

“Answer the following questions about books on your bookshelf and then tag five other bloggers. You can answer the questions any way you want, whether it’s on your blog, in a video, or a combination of the two. Then remember to let whoever tagged you know when your post is up so they can read it.”

1. Is there a book that you really want to read but haven’t because you know that it’ll make you cry?

Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. A friend told me that Tolstoy wrote it after he realised that he had fallen in love with his wife. The idea of it fascinated me. How would the romance differ? How would the love differ? I assumed that his personal realisation would inform the relationships in the novel. I purchased it soon after and it has sat unread on my bookshelf ever since.

2. Pick one book that helped introduce you to a new genre.

I never owned this book. Nor the dozens of books of its ilk that I began illicitly removing from my mother’s off-limits bookshelf when I was twelve. It was my initiation into the soft-porn/romance, historical novel genre. That libidinous book was Shanna by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss.

3. Find a book that you want to reread.

I don’t tend to re-read many books, just the good bits!

Except Shakespeare, the Bible, poetry and rhyming picture books. If I had to pick just one it would be, The Taming of the Shrew.

4. Is there a book series you’ve read but wish that you hadn’t?

George R.R. Martin’s, A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones). Don’t misunderstand my meaning. I’m engrossed by it. The problem is that each book is 900 plus pages of small print and he is still producing books in the series! I’ve finished the second book only recently – spoiler alert – and am in a mire that I won’t be able to escape until Mr Martin finishes his tale. If I continue reading the series, I won’t read anything else but if I don’t read the third book Tyrion Lannister will suffer the wounds of battle eternally. Only by reading on will his life find its new equilibrium. His life depends on me reading on .Crazy? Good fiction does this to me.

5. If your house was burning down and all of your family and pets were safe, which book would you go back inside to save?

Orthodox Spirituality by a Monk of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The Devotions, Prayers and Spiritual Wisdom of Hildegard of Bingen would also fit in the same grasp.

6. Is there one book on your bookshelf that brings back fond memories?

Rod Clement’s, Olga the Brolga. This is my favourite picture book. Not recommended for nighttime reading. For the first several weeks after I bought it, I read it every night to the kids. The characters steadily grew. They each had a unique voice and the rhythm of the story added to their characterisation. The kids loved it and soon knew most of it by heart.. That’s when they started jumping out of bed and joining in the telling and not falling asleep. It’s given me some wonderful memories. There have been other books not recommended for children’s sleep hygiene in my household like Pamela Allen’s, Mary Elizabeth’s Monster and her Mr Gee series and Julia Donaldson’s, Gruffalo.

7. Find a book that has inspired you the most!

Charlton Ogburn Jr’s, The Mysterious William Shakespeare

8. Do you have any autographed books?

Stella Tarakson’s, Mike the Spike. A very funny story.

9. Find the book that you have owned the longest.

Gideon’s New Testament, Psalms and Proverbs

10. Is there a book by an author that you never imagined you would read or enjoy?

Charlton Ogburn Jr’s, The Mysterious William Shakespeare. I so wanted to hate this book. This guy needed to get a life! As if Shakespeare didn’t write the works attributed to him! I was determined to ridicule his claims, reduce his arguments and demolish the premises on which they were built. With a soft 4B pencil in hand – the type that leaves an imprint after it’s been rubbed out – I was determined to record my objections all through it’s 900 plus margins. Nine hundred and something pages to tear down a reputation and replace it with that of an obscure Elizabethan poet. If he could incense me more, I’d take a texta to the dust cover and make a Spaniard of him.

Then I opened the cover and started reading. Ogburn was logical, methodical, deeply researched, comprehensive and well written. His 900 plus pages are a faster read than George R.R. Martin’s. I soon pulled out a notepad and used the trusty 4B to raise my questions there. Thus began a course of inquiry that I stilI traverse today. I couldn’t agree with all of Ogburn’s claims but in the main he is very convincing.

All done. Now for the hard part. Who do I tag? Obviously, people I follow – tag is about following afterall. But who? It’s like I have been left with that old hypothetical question that goes something like, “You are hosting a dinner party for 5 people from the annals of history, who will you invite?”

The ones whose blog headers make me smile before I’ve opened their post. I hope you can play, no offence taken if you can’t. Let me know if you do.

Artlark – blogging on arts and fine arts, informative and inspiring

If it happened yesterday, it’s history – this is just one of Robert Horvat’s history blogs It’s broad and accessible. HIs other is The History of the Byzantine Empire

Mikeaztec – generous, academic research and writing on medieval and late roman history

Richard’s Food for Thought – “I am about being a Husband, Father, Minister, Theologian, High-Church, Low-Church, Bald, Bespectacled, Blessed, Methodist, Grateful Human Being….” and He writes poetry too!

 and last but definitely not least, if I can take the liberty of bending the rules and ask for the bookshelf to be a movie shelf, I’d like to tag movie blogger

Christina Wehner – blogging on movies, musicals, books and the american songbook

Instances in Istanbul

“Mum, look!”
“I am,” I replied, gratified to hear the enthusiasm in the kids’ voices. We were in a taxi speeding away from Ataturk International Airport and in towards Taksim Square.
“Look, Mum!”
“I am. I am.”
Could these old walls really be those built for Emperor Justinian back in the 4th Century?
Surely too much of them have survived.
“I’m looking, I’m looking!”
Shouldn’t they be all marble? Interpolated arrays of overlapping terracotta bricks and larger off-white ones made up the wall we were coasting by. Pretty. Picturesque. Quaint, almost. For how many kms could they maintain the pattern?
“Mum, you’re NOT looking!”
“Of course I am! It’s incredible.”
On which section did the Virgin Mary appear? Did she really help the Constantinopolitans defend their city here? The image of her throwing stones. . .

Walls of Constantinople

Walls of Constantinople

“Here! Look HERE!”
“See! I bet you’ve never seen that before!” They weren’t looking at the Walls. They weren’t even looking out of the taxi window, but at it. Then at the door. “Look!” There was a handle with a knob on the end of it. It was protruding from behind the panel. Behind the panel there must have been some sort of winch because when they turned the handle one way, the window wound up. In the opposite direction, it came down again. Wasn’t it amazing? No buttons. No batteries. No electronic impulse! Manually operated car door windows!

Verfremdungseffekt! (Kind of.This is a blog about theatre afterall!) Istanbul was going to be full of such, “defamiliarising” or more precisely, refamiliarizing, curious instances!

The next one came when the kids spotted their first ever telephone box. They were so excited to see a real, live tardis! When my husband pointed out an operational police, phone-help box the subtlety was lost on them. Then a warp in the space-time continuum occurred on the Bosphorus. We boarded the Manly ferry! If you are of a certain age and had made a Sydney Harbour crossing way back when those old green ferries unzipped their way through Port Jackson then you may remember them. I don’t remember them being replaced but when my husband pointed it out, I felt the loss of them from our harbour to the Maramara Sea. But adventure was ahead as we cruised to the largest of the Prince’s Islands. We were off to Buyukada. Once the home to three exiled Byzantine Empresses, Irene, Zoe and Anna Dalassena, it is now a car-free, tourist destination offering beaches, history, bicycles and phaeton rides. The kids enjoyed the phaeton ride and the swim but if there were any traces of its Byzantine history they were well hidden and off the island’s horse-clapped circuit..


Empress Theodora

Irene, Zoe and Anna weren’t the principal Byzantine princesses I wanted to find in Istanbul. No, I wanted Theodora. Not Theodora the Empress, but Theodora the actress, the dancer, the mime, who captivated the heart of the Emperor. I wanted to see the Hippodrome. I wanted to imagine her in its midst. I wanted to place myself on the platform where she moved. Did she have her own stage? Was she raised on a podium for all to see and envy? Or did she run in and out of the hippodrome floor like a circus performer? What was it about the way she moved that set her apart from the other performers?

I had to find the Hippodrome. It wasn’t as easy as it would seem. It is featured in a number of tourist brochures but with no accompanying photographs. It is marked in three different tourist maps that I picked up – but in three slightly different places. It was an ancient circus, serving the equivalent purpose of the Colusseum in Rome. It was big, It’s archaeological remnants could be scattered all around Sultanahmet, I reasoned. With all three tourist maps on hand we set off from Hagia Sophia and walked south-west towards the Blue Mosque asking questions of the cruise hawkers who kept approaching us – Would we like to cruise on the Bosphorus? No. We would like to find the Hippodrome. Could they show us? Over there, they would point in a offhand, non-descript manner. So we walked in that general direction. The children’s playgroud? The street markets? We asked a security guard on duty at the street markets. Here, he indicated. No, we don’t want to go shopping. We want to see the Hippodrome we tried to relate. Here, he indicated again, but this time gesturing the area around us and through and behind the street market. We were standing in the Hippodrome, or more correctly where the Hippodrome once stood. All that remains are three of the columns that the chariots raced around.They wouldn’t reveal the secrets of Theodora’s dance. Nor could the vendors in the markets, nor the children in the playground nor was it revealed in the prayers over the loudspeaker reverberating through Sultanahmet. If only those figures around the base of the Theoosius Column could talk!

The base of Theodosius Column or Obelisk of Thutmose III, dating to c 1490 BCE, According to one tourist brochure it was taken from its original site in Egypt and left outside the Walls of Conctantinople until Emperor Theodosius had it erected in the Hippodrome in the 4th Century CE.


The Base of Theodosius Column

Walls of Constatinople

Photo credit: brewbooks / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)


Larissa’s Skene in the midst of fashion & frappe

Skene is a funny word. My Greek leaves a lot to be desired but in my convoluted Aussie-gringlish understanding of the word it has a few meanings. It’s a tent, a shadow screen, perhaps a rope and definitely the building before which Ancient Greek dramas were performed.

It seems as though every Ancient Greek polis had its own amphitheatre. Distinctive by the semi-circular shape of their open air auditoriums, they are preserved all over the Greek world. What is uncommonly rare about the amphitheatre in Larissa is the state of preservation of its Skene.
We can see very clearly the three entrances that the actors would have used. To each, a retiring room opens onto its entranceway. Props and costumes may also have been stored here. The saving grace of the Deus ex machina would be hidden behind the Skene, ready to fly in an Olympian god to save the day.

When we imagine the plays of the 3 great tragedians and the great comic dramatist, Aristophanes we imagine them taking place in a stone amphitheatre. However, their amphitheatres were wooden. It was in Menander’s day that amphitheatres were made of stone. When we read his O Dyskolos or the works of Plautus and Terence, the Greek origins of their staging has to be imagined before this stone building with three doors.

Like many of the Ancient Greek archaeological sites, the theatre of Larissa is found in the centre of the CBD. Situated just below street level it competes for attention with fashion stores and eateries.

For someone who has grown up in Australia, it’s hard to get my head around the wanton wayside tolerance of history in modern Greek metropolis’. In Greece, history doesn’t move forward but bogs down progress.

The city has grown organically for thousands of years. Ten thousand, thousand yesterday’s have left their mark in Larissa. It may look like casual abandon but the remains of the Byzantine Agora over the underground carpark a few blocks away from the theatre, have actually been carefully preserved, removed and restored for the carpark to be built. Gratifying for a lover of history, frustrating for the entrepreneur wanting to make a profit. Progress is marred by such inertia.

Larissa is only one of many such cities in Greece. A casual stroll through these cities will offer you fashion, frappe, yeeros and yesterday. If only you have time.

Tea with Cavafy and a Brontosaurus called Bard

I never had you, nor do I suppose will I ever have you.
A few words, an approach,
As in the bar yesterday, and nothing more.
It is undeniably a pity
But we who serve Art sometimes with the mind’s intensity can create pleasure which is almost physical.
But, of course, only for a short time . . .

extract from the poem, Half an Hour* by C.P.Cavafy

Cavafy’s poem, Half an Hour, spoke to me in my twenties more than any other poem. It summed up my yearning for and unrequited love. It was powerful. It was self aware. The poet knew that he was entertaining a fantasy. His muse knew how he felt and allowed him his fantasy, but no more. Instantaneously I felt that this was my poem. Incredibly I knew that somehow, Cavafy wrote it for me and about me. Immediately I felt that we shared a common experience. Reading the poem in its entirety, I all but understood that all of his sentiments I had experienced. Almost all. But I knew that Cavafy was a gay man. He was a gay man, a Greek man, an Orthodox Christian living in Egyptian Alexandria in the early 20th Century. This added other levels of meaning to his words, hidden meanings that once unearthed subsumed the meaning the poem had for me. I stopped empathising and sympathised instead.

I couldn’t ignore his biography. It wasn’t just the state of my mind but there was a physical barrier when I tried to access his poetry as well. At the time, to read Cavafy in English I had to look for him in anthologies of gay poetry. A special section in some bookstores. His writing although not explicitly gay was relegated to a marginalised audience because of his biography. Was that necessary?

When considering somone’s art, is their life story really necessary? When emotions are communicated from an anonymous pen don’t we have a freer license to feel? To feel without prejudging? Doesn’t the power of art assert itself in its ability to break us out of our existential prisons and deliver us into the arms of abstract, communal experience?

A Tunisian Sepulchre with a marked resemblence to  the architecture of the earliest Renaissance stage in Italy (15th C.)

A Tunisian Sepulchre with a marked resemblence to a 1490’s staging of Terence in Italy

When I consider Shakespeare as a man and as an actor, poet, playwright, poacher, pennypincher, theatre entrepreneur, grain merchant, gentrified farmer, father, I’m pleased. His is a skeletal biography, a structure without flesh, a structure indicative not particular. Not quite anonymous, but almost. Regardless, the bones of his story indicate that he had his faults and his virtues. The good outweighs the bad. Reading his works and enjoying them on stage and screen has given me a lot of pleasure, as it does for many people, past and present. I can ignore some big inconsistencies in his biography. History is full of inconsistencies. They drive further enquiry. But then there’s this:

Or I shall live your epitaph to make,
Or you survive when I in earth am rotten:
From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die:
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombed in men’s eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’erread;
And tongues to be your being shall rehearse,
When all of the breather’s of this world are dead;
You still shall live (such virtue hath my pen),
Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.

Sonnet 81, by Shakespeare

The sonnet is telling us something. It seems the great poet was great via the work of another. This other’s penmanship will be forgotten once his contemporaries have passed away. He is resigned to it. There is a lot of yearning in this poem. He yearns for it to be another way.

It’s eerie too. The, “eyes not yet created, ” that’s us. He is off-loading on us. It almost feels like a challenge. Will we see through the fascade? He is too defeated to even hope.

So what are we going to do? This poet who gave the English language and stage pride and credibilty is languishing, entombed in obscurity or infamy. Do we do anything? Do we owe him anything? The poet is dead. Does it matter? What about the truth? Should it be pursued when the status quo is easier? If we uncover the poet’s secrets, unmask his real identity, will we lose the potency of his words? Should the emotional truth that spirals up from his pages, concertina down again to serve a historical, biographical interpretation? What if he or she has done something we couldn’t equate with our expectations for our literary hero? What if we find behind the mask an adulterer or a paedophile or a matron or a Catholic, bricklayer, bisexual, spy or a tyrant?

Biographies complicate matters. How much should we expect the life to reflect the art?

In looking through Shakespeare’s skelton closet will we find another Brontosaurus ? Have the specialists known about its existence and for how long ? Is it taboo? Could there be a reason for history to carefully guard this burial? Are we not approaching history’s sepulchre attired in the correct robes? When this metaphoric tomb is opened what will lie there? Will the hand that held Shakespeare’s pen disappoint us?

A recurrent theme in Shakespeare’s plays is the importance of honour. It’s a virtue more read about these days than upheld. Reading Shakespeare has nostalgia value. His world is one of honour, chivalry and grace, antiquated notions today. Embarrassing even. How do we honour the poet if we ignore this plea? Are we beyond chivalry, honour and grace?

* The translation of Cavafy’s poem is from the murky depths of my memory. Cavafy draws inspiration from personal moments in the lives of Byzantine personalities. 

Photo Credit – Sepulchre in Tunisia