I've always loved Shakespeare, particularly the tragedies. King Lear is one of my favorites. And I know Romeo and Juliet almost by heart. I watch Franco Zeffirelli's version with Olivia Hussy as Juliet once a year on Valentine's Day, my own capitulation to the sentimentality of the season.
But there are plays among Shakespeare's voluminous output that I have never read. Since I have recently discovered the joy of listening to audio books on my commute, and I also found that many of Shakespeare's plays are available through the Sonoma County Library on CD, I've decided to start getting acquainted with more works of the master.
My first plunge was into the play Pericles. The choice was a pure fluke - it happened to be on the shelves at the Cloverdale Library, so I didn't have to request it through interlibrary loan. Last week I listened to the play while commuting. On Monday I pulled my Complete Works off the shelf and read Pericles, and today I have been listening to it for the second time.
To sum up the relevant parts of the plot so I can make my point: Pericles the king and his queen Thaisa are on board ship, sailing back to his land of Tyre. In the middle of a terrible storm, Thaisa gives birth to a baby girl and then dies. Pericles brings the infant, Marina, to nearby Tarsus, to be raised until she is of a marriageable age by rulers Cleon and Dionyza. However, when Marina turns into a beautiful young maiden, Dionyza fears that the girl is overshadowing her own daughter, and she plots to have Marina killed. The servant assigned to do the deed is interrupted by a band of pirates, who kidnap Marina and then sell her to a brothel.
Whew! And that's just part of the plot line! What happens at the brothel, though, is what drew my attention. "Gentlemen callers," one by one, are shown into the room with Marina, having paid a special price to sleep with a virgin. Yet one by one, they leave, and Marina retains her chastity. She is a creature with a pure and honest heart. She speaks so sweetly to the men, calling upon their own highest selves, that she convinces each of them to abandon their habit of sleeping with prositutes. Each man is transformed simply by being in her presence.
When I first heard this, I scoffed. Right! If you're an innocent, that will save you from being ravished by johns at a brothel! But later, after reading it and hearing it again, I realized that, while fictitious, Marina is a character that I believe in. She is the embodiment of good, the best of our intentions, and because of this, she not only protects herself, but redeems others as well.
One could even call her a bodhisattva, keeping her vow to save all beings.