“The General Enemy” and “the present terror of the world:” Writing the Ottoman Empire at the Time of Othello

Ambereen Dadabhoy, Harvey Mudd College

The first act of William Shakespeare’s Othello (1601–4) promises but never fulfills the spectacle of a naval showdown between Venice and the Ottoman Empire. The entirety of 1.3 presents a fervent debate among the Venetian senate as to the real target of the Ottoman fleet, whether it makes for Rhodes or Cyprus, and from which island “the Turk” would gain the most advantage. At the time of Othello’s composition and performance in the early years of the seventeenth century, both Rhodes and Cyprus were under Ottoman control: Rhodes having been won by Süleyman the Magnificent in 1522 and Cyprus by Selim II in 1571. The fait accompli of Ottoman control and dominance of the eastern Mediterranean of Shakespeare’s contemporary moment is belied by the indeterminate historical setting of his play. Even as Shakespeare alters the historical record and rehearses a Venetian triumph evocative of the Holy League’s victory against the Ottoman navy at Lepanto (1571), the “malignant and turbaned Turk” so essential to the cultural and imperial ambit of the play remains immaterial (5.2.352).

Knolles, Richard. The generall historie of the Turkes, from the first beginning of that nation to the rising of the Othoman familie: with all the notable expeditions of the Christian princes against them. Together with the liues and conquests of the Othoman kings and emperours faithfullie collected out of the- best histories, both auntient and moderne, and digested into one continuat historie vntill this present yeare 1603: by Richard Knolles. Printed by Adam Islip, London: 1603.

Recent literary criticism of Othello has recovered “the Turk” from the depths of the Mediterranean to which Shakespeare summarily consigned him and exposed the mechanisms through which the play manifests the external threat of “the Turk” internally in Othello’s psyche as he slowly “turns Turk” under Iago’s tutelage. Consequently, Othello’s slow degeneration and murder of Desdemona are marks of “the Turk” that that can only be exorcised through his identification and murder of that figure: “I took by the throat the circumcised dog / And smote him thus” (5.2.371–372).The return of “the Turk” in analyses of the play reflects a critical reorientation toward the geographies of the old world and near east in early modern English literary studies; moreover, it situates early modern English drama set in the Mediterranean within a larger geopolitical schema, wherein the Ottomans are not merely figures at the margins of Europe but significant imperial rivals.

In fact, many late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English texts, including historical, political, literary, and travel writings, betray an intense fascination with the Ottoman Empire and its culture. Of particular interest is Richard Knolles’ The Generall Historie of the Turkes (1603). The monumental study, over 1,500 folio pages in length, presents (as its complete title indicates) an exhaustive history of the Ottomans, from their nomadic, mercenary origins to their present glory. The dedication to James I—the new English monarch and author of the epic poem, Lepanto, celebrating that conflict—reveals The Generall Historie’s proto-Orientalist ideological investments: the mobilization of historical discourse in the service of an imperial agenda and the accumulation of knowledge about the Ottoman Empire to facilitate English and European supremacy over it.

At the same time that the censorious authorial voice denounces the Ottomans as “the greatest terror of the world,” the catalogues of sultans, their conquests, and the vast size of the empire elicit words of admiration and envy, “So that at this present if you consider the beginning, progresse, and perpetuall felicitie of this the Othoman Empire, there is in this world nothing more admirable or strange; if the greatnesse and lustre thereof, nothing more magnificent or glorious; if the power and strength thereof, nothing more dreadfull or dangerous.” Such instances of praise undermine Knolles’ polemical presentation of Ottoman history and point to the problematic position the Ottoman Empire occupied in the early modern English imaginary.

Given the close proximity between the composition of The Generall Historie and Othello (the early years of the seventeenth century), it is possible that it was a source for the Ottoman historical material in the play. One instance where Knolles’ text seems to be echoed in Shakespeare is during the above mentioned Venetian senate debate. In Knolles, however, the uncertainty regarding the Ottoman’s target occurred before the siege of Rhodes. The Grand Master of the Order of St. John sent spies to Istanbul to determine the extent of the preparations, and he learned that:

The Turkes were preparing a great fleet, and raising a mighty army, advertising him also of a wonderful proportion of artillery prepared for battery; but against whom was not commonly known, some deeming it to be for the invasion of Italy, some for Rhodes, and others supposing it to be for Cyprus or Corsica; which diversity of conjectures made many (whose conceits averted from themselves the fortune of that war) to be more careless and secure. (573)

The gathering of Ottoman naval forces combined with the mystery of their intended target and the urgency of an accurate European assessment and response is reflected in the senate’s anxious deliberations:

‘Tis a pageant
To keep us in false gaze: when we consider
Th’ importancy of Cyprus to the Turk,
And let ourselves again but understand
That as it more concerns the Turk than Rhodes.

The closeness of the two passages suggests that Shakespeare was familiar with The Generall Historie. More important, in the context of a global or transnational discourse in the early modern period, is a consideration of how the texts might be ideologically similar. Knolles’ aim, as he tells us in his dedicatory epistle to James I, in his induction, and throughout his narrative, is to gain a level of mastery over the Ottoman Empire through epistemological mechanisms of control. To know its history, the sources of its greatness and its failings, is to discursively dominate it. For Shakespeare, mechanisms of control involve disengagement and dismissal. Othello challenges the primacy of “the Turk” in the eastern Mediterranean, yet the return of “the Turk” in the figure of Othello makes this an uneasy and incomplete process.

Suggested Reading

Burton, Jonathan. Traffic and Turning: Islam and English Drama, 1579–1624. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2005.

Loomba, Ania. Shakespeare, Race and Colonialism. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

MacLean, Gerald and Nabil Matar. Britain and the Islamic World, 1558–1713. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

MacLean, Gerald. Looking East: English Writing and the Ottoman Empire before 1800. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Matar, Nabil. Islam in Britain, 1558–1685. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

----. Turks, Moors and Englishmen in the Age of Discovery. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Vitkus, Daniel. Turning Turk: English Theater and the Multicultural Mediterranean, 1570–1630. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.