Shakespeare and Islam

This article appeared on December 27, 2015
Without Islam there would be no Shakespeare. This may seem surprising or even controversial to those who imagine a ‘national bard’ insulated from the wider world. Such an approach is typified in the words of the celebrated historian A.L. Rowse, who wrote that when it came to creatively connecting with that world, Shakespeare, the ‘quiet countryman’, was ‘the least engaged writer there ever was’.

Yet without Tudor and Jacobean England’s rich and complex engagement with Islamic cultures the plays written by William Shakespeare would be very different, if they existed at all. This is evidently true in terms of content. Take away around 150 references to Islamic motifs in 21 plays – to Turks and Saracens, to ‘Mahomet’, Morocco and Barbary – and the corpus looks very different. Take away The Merchant of Venice and Othello, both of which foreground encounters with Islam, and two of the best known and most frequently performed of the plays are lost.

To argue that most of these references are insubstantial or irrelevant is to misunderstand the ways in which they are used. Throughout the history plays, for instance, Shakespeare embeds a rhetoric of crusade, of fighting for ‘Jesu Christ in glorious Christian field’ against ‘black pagans, Turks, and Saracens’, in order to define martial Christian valour and to demonise enemies. Alternatively, the apparently casual references to silks, taffetas, ‘bags of spices’, ‘Turkish tapestry’, and ‘Turkey cushions bossed with pearl’ that litter his drama are intended to signal a particular kind of opulence, but they simultaneously reveal England’s expanding commercial horizons as the material products of Islamic cultures were increasingly brought into English homes.

Such developments were the result of Elizabeth I’s alliances with Morocco and the Ottoman Empire, and Shakespeare need only have looked around the places he lived and worked to encounter Islamic worlds. English moralists were routinely aghast at how the English luxuriated in Muslim fashions (in ‘the Turkish manner’, in ‘Morisco gowns’ and ‘Barbarian sleeves’), and lambasted the apparently insatiable appetite of English women for ‘Turkish trifles’ – jewellery, fabrics, trinkets and spices – and the predilection of English men for the infernal Turkish ‘moustachio’. It is hardly surprising that Shakespeare became fascinated by the challenge of conjuring such worlds onto the stage.

Although England’s Islamic alliances had brought Muslims and their goods into England, it was the interconnected popularity of what is known as the ‘Turk play’ on the Elizabethan stage that pushed Islam and Islamic cultures to the fore of the English imagination. The caricatures, pomp, and bombast of such plays dominated London’s stages as Shakespeare began to forge a career, and had begun with Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine (1587). Within a few years every playing company in the capital had its ‘Turk play’. Not everyone was a fan: Ben Jonson lamented that ‘Turk plays’ were nothing more than ‘scenical strutting and furious vociferation’ appealing only to ‘ignorant gapers’. For a young playwright looking to make a name in the early 1590s this presented an opportunity. After some early experimentation – probably in collaboration – in which elements of the bloody and grandiloquent ‘Turk play’ were translated into English historical (with the Henry VI plays) or Roman (with Titus Andronicus) contexts, an increasingly experienced and newly emboldened Shakespeare chose instead to ridicule and reject such plays.

Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun, Moorish Ambassador to Elizabeth I (circa 1600).
University of Birmingham. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Shakespeare’s satirising of the ‘Turk play’ appears first with the pompous braggart Pistol in 2 Henry IV. Pistol is a transparent parody of the raging ‘Grand Turk’ protagonist, entirely excessive, martially obsessed, lacking any capacity for self-awareness or self-doubt. Shakespeare even has him misquote famous lines from three of the most prominent examples of the genre to punctuate a tavern-brawl with a prostitute. Around the same time Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice, which features the Prince of Morocco taking Portia’s casket test. With his proud brandishing of a scimitar ‘That slew the Sophy, and a Persian prince, / That won three fields of Sultan Solyman’, he too is a comic parody. By the end of the 1590s the first wave of ‘Turk plays’ was abandoned as audiences tired of its absurd clichés. In its place new dynamics and a more nuanced version of heroism and of encounter emerged, with Shakespeare at the forefront.

Why then did he return to the matter of the ‘Turk play’ in Othello (1603)? Partly he did so to capitalise on the continuing currency of Islam and Islamic themes in England – a Moroccan embassy had been resident in London in 1600-01 – and partly to innovate. Indeed, Othello rips up the rulebook. An audience is presented with a protagonist from beyond Christendom, a Moorish warrior-convert, and given expansive Mediterranean geographies across which they expect to see him battle the Turkish foe. At the very least they would have anticipated an enactment of the great siege of Cyprus (conquered by the Ottomans in 1570). Instead those geographies rapidly contract into suffocating domesticity, the Turks never appear and Othello only draws his sword on Desdemona and himself. The play’s tragic conclusion, when Othello smites the ‘circumcised and turbanned Turk’ that he has become, completes this process of turning the ‘Turk play’ inside out.

Othello reveals a dramatist continuing to challenge theatrical precedent, in particular hackneyed caricatures of Muslims and ‘Mahometanism’, and producing something more elusive, more reflective of the complex ways in which his culture engaged with Islam. Moreover, it was out of this long and fruitful contention that something distinctively Shakespearean emerged.

Matthew Dimmock is Professor of Early Modern Studies at the University of Sussex. He is the author of a number of books on English encounters with Islam – most recently Mythologies of the Prophet Muhammad in Early Modern English Culture (Cambridge University Press, 2013) – and an editor of Shakespeare.

Featured image credit: Battle of Lepanto in 1571 by Yogesh Brahmbhatt. National Maritime Museum. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.



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