Shakespeare’s Marina, St Marina?

My gentle babe, Marina (whom, For she was born at sea, I have named so) here…”

Act III Scene III, lines 12-13

In my recent posts chronicling my attempt to find physical connections between the island of Thasos and Shakespeare’s Tharse, from Pericles, I withheld my misadventure of the mind. You see, I postulated my hypothesis and then had the wonderful opportunity to visit the island before completing the necessary background reading.( In no way does my lapse impact on my argument that Thasos was intended for Tharsus.) When I returned I was so excited about my time on the island that I couldn’t wait to start writing. So I did. That was wrong. You see, I had read about the source for the play, John Gower’s Confessio Amantis, but hadn’t read it until after I had started posting. I had assumed that because Shakespeare gave Marina her name that he had actually added the character to the story. This is incorrect. Marina is part of Gower’s plot but her name is given variously as Taisa, Thaisa and Thaise, after her mother.

On Thasos, having passed the ancient submerged marina that would have sheltered Pericles; walked through the ancient Agora and around Roman floor mosaics, fit for a governor’s residence;  and spotted violets in the archaeological site, I was exhuberant. These are all inherent in the text. I went looking for a reason he renamed Gower’s character, a church, chapel or site that may have been the inspiration behind the name, Marina. I ignored the text. There had to be more to it, right?

Icon of St Marina, from St Andrew’s, Constanta, Romania
the bubu / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

When I read Pericles, it struck me how saintly Marina was. The girl could be placed in a brothel and turn the patrons away from their libidinous purpose. The portrayal brought to mind the early christian saint from Antioch(1), St Marina. St Marina was born at the end of the 3rd Century C.E., about the time of the earliest surviving renditions of the Pericles story. (2) Similarities between Shakespeare’s Marina and St Marina include that they were both “only” children; both came from nobility; both were raised by a nurse after the death of their mothers; both were said to be beautiful women; and both rebuked the advances of prevailing Governors. Whereas St Marina’s father disowned her completely, Pericles abandoned his daughter for many years. These are their similarities. In the icon above, the Silenus-like creature is a devil who St Marina pounded to death when she was in prison. You can read more about the life of St Marina on the wonderful Mystagogy website. By sheer coincidence, I found myself on Thasos on St Marina’s Day, July 17. This was fortuitous as there are no churches dedicated to St Marina marked or written about in Thasos’ tourist literature – ie maps or books – but St Marina was within shallow access of people’s minds.  After a quick enquiry at the Archaeological Museum, my companions and  I were given rough instructions on how to find St Marina’s Chapel. It is about two kilometers inland from the Ancient Agora.

St Marina's Chapel, just a few kms north of the Ancient Agora of Thasos.

St Marina’s Chapel, just a few kms north of the Ancient Agora of Thasos.

The small chapel, easily forgotten on such a small island with so many important archaeological and religious drawcards is built in a clearing amongst olive groves. The simple chapel is neat and small. Its stone and brickwork tell nothing of its age. That it was St Marina’s day meant that the Chapel would be host to a liturgy and festivities. The yard was decorated with flags.We arrived late for the festivites but were able to ask the odd faithful straggling in how old the church was. “Old” was the repeated answer. But how old? Could it have stood in the 16th Century? Above the door the lintel stone shows the carved figure of sheep/goats. It looks like spoila from the archaeological site. It is not the only christian edifice on Thasos to have benefited from the once abundant ancient masonry. Could the chapel be so old as the early Christian era? The icons within aren’t that old. Their pigments haven’t decayed in that murky brown vacuum that nulls out all detail. Traced silverwork encasing brown, voided faces in frames, are nowhere in the chapel. Its icons are all painted on panels and have retained their colours. In style they appear much younger than 400 years old. The fittings are fairly recent too, but the building?

Very old olive grove by St Marina's Chapel

Very old olive grove by St Marina’s Chapel

Just over the fence of the chapel’s enclosure are olive groves. Their trees are very old. Their broad and gnarled trunks belie their age. If only they could talk. Olive trees can survive thousands of years. One of my companions, an olive grower from Chalkidiki, assured me that the orchards were easily 400 years old. An orchard, not 100 m along was even older.

Me in a tree - almost. The older olive grove down the road from St Marina's Chapel

Me in a tree – almost. The older olive grove down the road from St Marina’s Chapel

My feeling from having read the text and visited the island is that Shakespeare, his collaborator, or source, may have visited the island but not spent too much time there. The chapel isn’t too far from the ancient marina to walk too, if you intend on looking for it. It is not something that you would stumble upon casually. Why did he rename Taisa/Thaise/Taisa, Marina? It seemed to me that he would have seen the parallel between Gower’s character and the Catholic/Orthodox saint: but how? There were two saints named St Marina and there exists some confusion between the two of them as regards to the afterlife of their relics. There are a couple of stories which you can read here and here. Essential to both stories is that her relics were transferred by the Crusaders from Constantinople to Italy early in the 13th Century. Having the power to cure illnesses, these relics have been venerated in Venice, among other Christian cities, for centuries. Many Englishmen travelled to Venice in Shakespeare’s day who would have seen the relics and heard of their miraculous healing power and the life of St Marina. It is not a great leap that Shakespeare may have made the connection. Am I reading too much into this? Early literature is full of two dimensional portrayals of women. They are either sinners or saints. Shakespeare’s women aren’t fully free of this blight. And then history is full of coincidences. Remembering his text:

My gentle babe, Marina (whom, For she was born at sea, I have named so) here…”

Act III Scene III, lines 12-13

it seems so.

Footnotes

  (1) Antioch is where the play of Pericles opens (2)That is the earliest renditions of the Apollonius story

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