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 his 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