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.


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


2.To Thasos with Shakespeare to guide us!

Could Shakespeare have understood John Gower’s, “Tharse” to mean Thasos when he wrote, “Tharsus” into Pericles? In my previous posts, beginning with, Shakespeare’s Tharsus: Thasos or Tarsusthrough to my last post, I have reasoned why I think that Shakespeare had a particular time period (the Graeco-Roman world), Empire (the Seleucid) and settings in mind when he retold this much loved Medieval-Byzantine tale. Gower, in his translation of an earlier re-telling, perhaps French, uses different suffixes in his place settings than Shakespeare does e.g., ‘Pentapolis,’ in Shakespeare, is “Pentapolim,” in Gower. Shakespeare chose the Greek suffix over the Latin. Was he deliberately hellenising “Tharse?” With Shakespeare’s renowned biblical knowledge, he would have recognised the difference between biblical, “Tarsus” and Gower’s, “Tharse”.

If he meant, “Thasos,” how well did he know the island? Well enough to have gone there? Following Richard Roe’s lead, I looked for the details specific to the island that would answer this question. Richard Roe also provided a logical explanation for the presence of any Englishman in the North Aegean from the late 16th Century – there was an English Embassy and merchant – trading company in Constatinople from this time.(1)

Having previously compared Cleon’s description of the island, its wealth, the ancient marina and his imagined residence, with the present archaeological site on Thasos, I will now focus on Marina. After Dionyza has Marina’s maid killed, Marina goes to her grave with flowers.

“No. I will rob Tellus(2) of her weed.

To strew thy green with flowers: the yellows, blues,

The purple violets, and marigolds,

Shall as a carpet hang upon thy grave,

While Summer-days do last.”

Act IV Scene I, lines 13-17

Thasos - violets growing wildly in the archaeological site.

Thasos – violets growing wildly in the archaeological site.

Photographing violets in the archaeological site was easy, they were growing wildly in abundance. Being so small, I thought I’d include larger, wildly-growing violets from the neighbouring mainland, Macedonia, in Northern Greece. The island shares its geographical features.(3) Marigolds are a common feature in Aegean gardens.

Wild Violets of Macedonia

Violets growing wildly in Macedonia, Northern Greece

Although I didn't see any marigolds growing wildy on Thasos, they are a very popular flower in Greek gardens. These are Maro's marigolds, grown not too far away from Mytilene.

Marigolds growing in the garden of another North Aegean Island, Lesvos. Today, marigolds are a common feature in many Greek gardens.

 After Dionyza has ordered the death of Marina, she taunts her husband, Cleon, for his disapproval of her actions thus:

“…Be one of those, that think

The pretty wrens of Tharsus will fly hence,

And open this to Pericles. I do shame

To think of what a noble strain you are,

And of how coward a spirit.”

Act IV Scene IV, lines 21-25

From Wikipedia, we may guess that the type of wren that is being referred to is the eurasian wren. This rings true as the eurasian wren nests in coniferous forests and Thasos was named for just forests (4).Wrens are also mentioned by ancient writers such as Plutarch and Aesop. Shakespeare may be referring to Suetonius here in using the wren to forewarn Pericles of his daughter’s supposed death. Suetonius used a wren to forewarn Julius Caesar of his own. Shakespeare thus knits his work closer to the Graeco-Roman world.

Troglodyte mignon Troglodytes troglodytes - Eurasian Wren

Eurasian Wren

Although the specific details relating to Tharsus are few, they have a resonance with the island of Thasos. Noteably, they don’t exclude Thasos from being, “Tharsus.” There are probably wrens in Tarsus, and yes, there is an archaeolgical site there, and it is hard to imagine Thasos, or any ancient Graeco-Roman site, to have had towers, but the geography of Pericles’ voyage better fits Thasos. Shakespeare was accurate in his foreign details, just as Richard Roe said he was. Did he go there? The historical record has many gaps. Pericles is regarded by many as a collaborative text. Did his collaborator visit the island or the North Aegean? By looking closely at Shakespeare’s texts and regarding them from the point of view that the author(s) had travelled abroad, we may get a clearer picture as to whose hand(s) held his quill.

Photo Credits

Eurasian Wren


1. According to Wikipedia, the first English Ambassador to Turkey was William Harborne (c1542-1617). He served as Ambassador from 1583-1588. He was serving the interests of the Levant Company.

2. Tellus was an Ancient Roman earth-mother goddess.

3.”Something of the greenness and spaciousness of Macedonia is distilled in Thasos. Its effect is more intense for being concentrated within the circumference of an island.”

Mc Gilchrist, Nigel, McGilchrist’s Greek Islands: 11. Thasos,Genius Loci Publications, London, 2010, p.9.

4.Grandjean, Yves and Salviat, Francois, Odigos tis Thasou, Ecole Francaise D’Athenes, 3:Sites et Monuments, Sanidas, Yiorgos and Argyri Artemis (trans.), 2012, p.19.

1.To Thasos with Shakespeare to guide us!

Holidaying in Greece this northern Summer, we were blessed. Our vacation was a time of reconnecting with relatives, many of whom I hadn’t had the pleasure of knowing as adults. Getting to know them now, was like making new friends minus the awkwardness. They were so hospitable, so generous with their time, so indulgent.

Catching up, of course, meant answering the inevitable question of what am I doing with my time. Kids. House. Family. Writing …blogging. About what? Which fixation should I go with? Karagiozis? Menander? Shakespeare?

The modern day township of Limenas, built up over centuries of history. The ancient marina is submerged beneath this modern day one.

The modern-day township of Limenas, built up over centuries of history. The ancient marina is submerged beneath this modern-day one.

Did I know Thasos wasn’t too far away – when you consider the distance already bridged that is – Sydney, Abu Dhabi, Istanbul, Thessaloniki? We could go tomorrow. Why not? On the morrow with Pericles in hand and a child being cared for by the extended family, my cousins Michail and Aristea, drove me, my husband and eldest son, through Chalkidiki, north to Kavala and onto the ferry for Thasos.

We were there to answer the question, “How well acquainted with Thasos was Shakespeare?” With so many holes in the historical record, could he have slipped through a trip to Thasos without leaving a trace on the fabric of history? Are the details of Tharsus so precise that they describe Thasos? Unless I looked, all I would be left with was my own conjecture.

The place I wanted to find the most was the Governor’s, Cleon’s, residence. I imagined that he would have lived in a castle or fortress. Being unsuccessful in my attempts at googling archaeological sites on Thasos, in English, we headed for the archaeological museum to make our first enquiries. Just across the road from the museum’s entrance was the entrance into the Roman Agora. I was thrilled. I had placed the action of the play during the time of the Seleucid Empire, which coincided with the Roman occupation of Thasos. The Agora, just metres inland from ancient boat sheds and marina, was a place of interest in forming the possible cityscape of Shakespeare’s Tharsus. It was the heart of the ancient city.

Ancient Agora of Thasos

The Ancient Agora of Thasos

Could this archaeological site be all that is left of:

This Tharsus…
A city, on whom plenty held full hand,
For riches strew’d herself even in the street;
Whose towers bore heads so high, they kissed the clouds,
And strangers ne’er beheld, but wondered at…

Riches? Ancient Thasos was a mineral rich island. There had been a succession of mining activity on the island that began with ochre in pre-history and moved through gold and silver and continues today off-shore, with oil. If statues can be numbered as riches, Thasos honoured gods, civil leaders and a home-grown athlete, Theagenes, with public installations.

The ancient drain, to the right of which was the two story building.

The ancient drain, to the right of which was the two story building.

Walking through the Agora and along a drain that cut across the width of the site, it was hard to imagine a double storey structure by it.* Harder to imagine towers. Walking deeper into the site and under a small bridge that accommodates the present day road, we came to an area only partially excavated by the French archaeological school in the 1930s. Beyond this and only recently excavated is a Roman official’s villa and bath. The mosaic floor has been relocated to the forecourt of the archaeological museum. It is one, complete floor, shown in the next couple of photos.

Roman Official's Villa -  Mosaic Floor

Roman Official’s Villa – Mosaic Floor

Detail of Roman Villa's Mosaic Floor - joins the previous image

Detail of Roman Villa’s Mosaic Floor – joins the previous image

Having found the city and possibly the Governor’s residence, I was euphoric. I wanted to find more. Is this how Richard Roe felt during his searches for the real settings of Shakespeare’s Italian plays? Did he get carried away wanting to find more?

More? What about Marina? That’s a nice Christian name belonging to a saintly maid. Marina, the virtuous, despoiling the clientele of Mytilene’s brothel with her philosophising! Shakespeare’s Marina whitewashed their blackened souls. St Marina, a wealthy young woman of the Eastern Mediterranean world shunned marriage for her loftier religious ideals. Could there be a connection between Shakespeare’s Marina and St Marina? Was Shakespeare thinking of the saint when he named Pericles daughter? Has there ever been a connection between Thasos / Tharsus and St Marina? And what of more specific connections between the text of Pericles and Thasos? I’ll leave these for next time.


I’d like to especially thank Michail Papalexiou and Aristea Londou for their enthusiasm, generosity and patience in making this search possible and the extended Papalexiou family for their caring and capable child minding.

*Mc Gilchrist, Nigel, Mc Gilchrist’s Greek Islands:11. Thasos,Genius Loci Publications, London, p.27.

Richard Roe’s “The Shakespeare Guide to Italy” – Book Review

Italy seems like an amazing place to visit. There’s Ancient Rome, Pompeii, Renaissance Florence, Pisa, Venice and, for the lover of Shakespeare, Verona. (Oops, I’ve just skimmed over so many places!) When I read travel blogs, guides and websites, it all seems lovely but nothing has made me want to visit there more than Richard Roe’s The Shakespeare Guide to Italy. It’s not that Italy needs Shakespeare to be appealing, there is so much history and art there, rather it’s that seeing it through Shakespeare’s eyes is to put yourself in one of his romances.

Richard Roe’s book works as a tourist’s guide to Shakespeare’s Italy as well as a student’s reference book. Over the course of 20 years and several trips to Italy, Roe set out to prove that Shakespeare had an intimate acquaintance with the localities he chose to set his plays in. The conviction that Shakespeare knew Italy is not new. Mainstream scholars in the 19th century were convinced of it. Advocates of the Shakespeare Authorship Question are also convinced. Why is it important? It aids in our reading of the plays, it signals to the dramaturg how deeply s/he should research, and for SAQ advocates it’s a mighty strong argument against the man from Stratford.

Roe’s interpretation of which plays are Italian can be found in the beginning of the work. He then devotes a chapter each to them. His list is not arbitrary. He includes A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play set around Ancient Athens but excludes Julius Caesar, a play set around Ancient Rome. This is because his book deals with the Renaissance plays set on the Italian penninsula. He justifies his inclusion of AMSND by arguing that an Italian estate was the setting used to describe Ancient Athens. He puts up a strong argument to favour his researched opinion. The issue I take with this instance is that the mythology of Theseus, Hippolyta, Hippolytus and Phaedra had been dealt with by ancient writers and, no doubt, discussed by students of the classics for centuries, Shakespeare did not need to visit Italy to have written it.

It’s a trap that Roe fell into and, I must admit, I followed on his heels when I went to Thasos earlier this year. You see, looking for physical evidence from the plots becomes addictive once you have found something. The possibility that every reference is literal and not illustrative takes over and it’s hard to resist looking for it and photographing it. It becomes like historic orienteering or placing yourself in the Amazing Race where your mightiest opponent is the time dictated by your passport or travel tickets.

Where Roe really shines is when he reads the localities from a Renaissance perspective. Any student of history will tell you that towns sprouted along river systems and how important rivers were to trade. Roe clearly explains transport by river and canal systems in Italy. He delves into the history and mechanics of how they operated. Da Vinci’s mechanical gate apparatus is explained and he shows us with maps the canal systems that allowed travellers to sail overland. No, Shakespeare wasn’t wrong about sailing from Verona To Milan in The Two Gentlemen of Verona or part of the way from Pisa to Padua in the Taming of the Shrew.

He corrects editors of their clumsy translations e.g., in Othello the word Sagittary had been understood to mean an inn with the sign of the centaur. Roe has shown it to be interchangeable with the Venetian word, frezzeria, meaning the street of the arrow maker ( see p. 167).

Then there is his correction of misunderstandings of local practices e.g., the use of the word tucket in All’s Well that Ends Well. Editors have described it as a flourish. Roe emends this to the distinctive musical sentence belonging to a ranked individual that heralded their approach at a city gate. Splitting hairs? Not quite. The difference between the two alter the setting of Act 3 Scene 5. Just any old ditty would mean that the women are outside the city or in its walls to recognise Bertram by sight. A personal signature tune would place them within the walls of Florence, and in their cloistered, feminine domain. They recognised Bertram’s approach by sound from home and did not flout society’s closeting of women by being without the walls of the polis.

His regaling of local history gives a rich background that has otherwise been lost over time e.g., in Much Ado About Nothing his research into the life of Don John of Austria and his connection to Messina. Roe explains the bitterness of John the Bastard who he claims the Bard modelled on Don John.

And there is his knowledge of the law in Venice e.g., the prohibition of wearing swords in public and the law governing shipping.

Roe supports his arguments with historic maps, prints, drawings and his personal photos and specially charted maps. Where buildings still exist, the photos are the reward for walking through Italy with Roe. It’s a great book.

Reading it from the perspective of the SAQ, it feels as though it began as a fact finding mission to bolster the argument that Shakespeare was not the untraveled provincial from Stratford but a man with a sabbatical firmly under his belt. As the book progresses, challenges to the traditional attribution are thinly veiled. Roe was an Oxfordian and I can’t shake the feeling that his search was guided by the known travels of the Earl of Oxford in 1575. I am left to wonder whether an adherent of another pretender would have interpreted A Midsummer Night’s Dream differently?

Regardless of his searching rationale, Richard Roe got results. What he adds in the way of our knowledge helps to clarify many, many points of confusion. For someone who would like to understand the practicalities of living in Renaissance Italy, this is the book to read. To immerse yourself in this world, all you need do after reading this book is read one of the Bard’s Italian plays.

A fantastic Christmas gift for the lover of history, Shakespeare and mysteries.

Shakespeare’s Tharsus: Pericles’ Voyage -Pt 3

To retrace Pericles voyage today would be like doing an archaeological tour of the Mediterranean. From the previous post in this series, we can assume that Shakespeare kept the historical pretext for the play accurate, despite changing the name of the main protagonist. There was a historic Tyre, Tharsus, Pentapolis, Ephesus and Mytilene. Although he makes contemporary references e.g., the Spanish naval commander, Pedro de Valdes, who was imprisoned in London from 1588-1593; the Antiochan, Thaliard, having a pistol; and the existance of a Transylvanian in the market town of Mytilene, the world of the play is firmly set in the Graeco-Roman world in the time of the Seleucid Empire. Looking at how probable the journey he embarked on was, we can judge whether Shakespeare indeed meant the Aegean island, Thasos, when Tharsus was printed

I must apologize in advance for the crudeness of my map. Making it was an excursion into my school days, before computer graphics and scanners. Something, necessity forced me into, and a little curiosity as to whether it was do-able. Probably unwise, but I couldn’t find the necessary map in cyber-space. I hope it gives the idea of the journey in its jalopy way.

hippodrome from distance 1

The Hippodrome, Tyre (Sour), Lebanon

When Pericles flees from Antioch he is persued by Thaliard, an Antiochean lord entrusted with poison to kill him. Immediately, he returns home to Tyre. He loads his vessels with ample provisions and leaves quickly. Thaliard, not finding his wake, returns to Antioch.

Map of the journey of Pericles after fleeing Antioch

Pericles’ Journey, with apologies for the naivete of the map

Reason 1 – Why Tharsus was Thasos and not Tarsus – Distance

Looking at my crudely drawn map above, Tyre and Antioch are situated on the banks of the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Tarsus is situated, north-west of Antioch, in modern-day Turkey. Tarsus is built about 20km inland from the Mediterranean Sea along the Berdan River. In trying to escape Thaliard, Pericles’ fleet would more likely have sailed in a direction away from Antioch and the local coast. He was particularly concerned not to embroil his people in a military conflagration with imperial Antioch. Sailing deep into the Mediterranean and up into the Aegean he had many islands to hide on. From Thasos, in the North Aegean, he could head up the Dardenelles (ancient Hellespont), through the Marmara Sea and into the Black Sea.

Reason 2 – Proximity to Troy

When Pericles arrives on Tharsus, he offers the provisions of his ships to the Governor of Tharsus. News of their famine had reached faraway Tyre, so Pericles had come prepared. He allays their suspicion over his intent by saying,

“And these our ships, you happily may think

Are like the Trojan Horse, was stuff’d within

With bloody veins, expecting overthrow,

Are stor’d with corn to make your needy bread,

And give them life whom hunger starv’d half dead.”

(Act I Scene IV lines 92-96)

Troy was situated in the Dardenelles, just off the Aegean Sea on what is today,Turkey’s west, mainland coast. On my map, it is north of Mytilene on the southern shore of the strait of water heading into the bodies of water to the top right (Marmara Sea.) Troy was a neighbouring power. The inhabitants of Thasos would have heard the stories from Troy before Homer would have finished writing them down. In Pericles time, Trojan history was local lore. Pericles words then, are not merely allegorical but straight-forward.

After news from Tyre, Pericles sets off for home. His ships are caught in a storm from which only he survives. He is washed ashore in Pentapolis.

Pentapolis, in modern day Libya

Pentapolis in modern day Libya

Pentapolis in ancient times could mean a group of five cities. I have taken it to mean those of the north African coast, Cyrenaica, now in Libya. These cities  were Cyrene, Berenice, Apollonia, Ptolemais and Taucheira. In keeping with the idea that Antiochus referred to a monarch descended from Alexander the Great’s generals, I believe that the story is probably referring to a kingdom once ruled by descendants of another of them, Ptolemy in Egypt.

Reason Three – Thasos is closer to ancient Pentapolis than Tarsus is. From Thasos, Pentapolis is a detour on the way to Tyre. It is more likely that the fleet was misdirected descending out of the Aegean from Thasos than being blown there from Tarsus.

In Pentapolis, Pericles wins the hand of the daughter of the King in a tournament. They then set sail for Tyre. Another storm causes calamity.Thaisa, Pericles pregnant wife, delivers their daughter on board. She is believed to have died in child-birth. She is placed in a sealed container and thrown overboard. Her make-shift coffin lands off the coast of Ephesus where she is miraculously brought back to life by Cerimon. She enters the Temple of Diana (Artemis) there as a proselyte.

a temple in the Ruins of Ephesus, Turkey

A Temple in the Ruins of Ephesus – The ancient Temple of Artemis/Diana, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world has not survived.

Reason Four – The Proximity of Ephesus to Thasos.

The make-shift coffin would have had to float up into the Aegean, passing by Crete, the Cyclades Islands, as well as several others to reach Ephesus from Pentapolis. At the same time Pericles ship had to be close enough to Tharsus to harbour there. The ship was more likely to have been near or in the Aegean when this storm commandeered it. Being in the vicinity of Thasos, floating to Ephesus, is a more direct route for the coffin, and quicker for Pericles to obtain aid for his newly born daughter.

Thassos - Limenas

Aerial shot of Thasos. The ancient theatre is visible up on the hillside on the left. The ancient marina is submerged off the coast on the right of the shore. The ancient and modern city co-exist in the same locality

Coming into shore at Tharsus, Pericles leaves his daughter, Marina, in the care of the Governor. He returns home, abandoning her for years. In the interim she grows to be a pious beauty. She excels at all she does, be it needlework or philosophy. Her stepmother, envious that her own daughter is not similarly graced, arranges for an assassin in kill her. Before Leonine has the chance to perform his duty, Marina is kidnapped by pirates bound for Mytilene.

Moria - Late Roman Architecture - Aqueduct

The Late Roman aqueduct that took fresh water from Mt Olymbos to Mytilene in late antiquity. Moria, Lesvos

Reason Five – the Renaissance association of Mytilene and Thasos and their geographic proximity.

Why Mytilene? Mytilene is the port and capital of the ancient island of Lesbos. During the Renaissance it was the seat of a Genosese dynasty who governed the islands of the north Aegean, including Thasos. The founder, Francesco Gatteliusi (1355-1384), was a pirate. He earned the governorship of the island by aiding a future Byzantine Emperor attack Constantinople.

Eventually Pericles is reunited with his daughter in Mytilene. He then sees a vision of the goddess Diana. She sends him to Ephesus where he is reunited with his wife, Thaisa.

The strongest reason why Thasos was meant for Tharsus is geography. It is more plausible than Tarsus.


The Hippodrome, Tyre

Photo credit: stevendamron / Foter / CC BY


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


Photo credit: neilalderney123 / Foter / CC BY-NC

Thasos – Limenas

Photo credit: Visit Greece / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Late Roman Aqueduct supplying Mytilene with fresh water



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


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