of the Levant Company in 1581 and the publication of such travel narratives
as George Sandys's Relation of a Journey
in 1615 had a profound impact on English imaginations and on the drama
in particular. Between 1581 and the 1620s, several English plays dramatized
the Ottoman presence just beyond the borders of Europe. The plays that
appear at this time include Marlowe's Tamburlaine,
Part I and Part II (1587
and '88), George Peele's The Battle
of Alcazar (1588) and Soliman
and Perseda (1590), Robert Greene's Selimus,
Emperor of the Turks (1594), Thomas Dekker's Lust's
Dominion (1600), Thomas Heywood's The
Fair Maid of the West (1602), William Shakespeare's Othello
(1604), Robert Daborne's A Christian
Turned Turk (1612), Thomas Goffe's The
Raging Turk (1618), John Fletcher and Philip Massinger's The
Knight of Malta (1618), Thomas Middleton and William Rowley's
All's Lost by Lust (1620), and
Philip Massinger's The Renegado
these plays reflect the complex English responses to the Ottoman empire.
On the one hand, the texts recognize the formidable economic and military
strengths of the Turks. Such recognitions are often based on the cross-cultural
exchanges resulting from diplomatic ties between England and the Ottoman
empire or from increased English trafficking in the vital Islamic commercial
hubs of Tunis, Algiers, and Tripoli. On the other hand, many of these
plays also exoticize Turkish encounters and circulate rabidly anti-Ottoman
cultural stereotypes, gradually constructing a generic anti-Islamic
type that frequently conflates "Turk" and "Moor."
While Barbary pirates appeared off the coast of England and an expansionist
Ottoman empire threatened at the gates of Europe, many English plays
staged the collective anxiety about Turks (and Moors). There were recurrent
literary tropes of conversion (Christians "turn'd Turk"),
circumcision, and castration. Readers of Captain John Smith's True
Travels (1630)will recall Smith's escape from Turkish slavery;
Smith's account of his relationship with the Turkish woman he served,
Charatza Tragabigzanda, may well have reminded readers of the manifold
anxieties hovering around the Turkish experiences of Englishmen. The
English plays also disseminated images of the festering corruption of
the Ottoman court. In these plays, the opulence and wealth of the Turkish
court frequently concealed the insatiable greed, lust, and cruel despotism
of Islamic potentates. Fears of sexual contamination and miscegenation
lurked just beneath the surface of exotic encounters between Turk and
dramatize multiple aspects of such encounters. The best known, Shakespeare's
Othello, stages the electrifying
presence of the Turk at the gates of Venice. The text dramatizes English
fears about Ottoman imperialism and the threat of conversion; Othello
explicitly voices the threat of "turning Turk" in Act 2 (2.3.189).
Even as he defeats the Ottoman enemy, by the end of the play, Othello
identifies with the enemy and in effect "turns Turk." His
murder of innocent Desdemona suggests the cruel and barbaric excesses
of the Turkish sultan who jealously guards the chastity of his seraglio.
Shakespeare's contemporaries also staged Turkish plays. Philip Massinger's
The Renegado (1623) is set in
the Tunisian court of the lustful tyrant Asembeg. He has enslaved and
"mewed up" in his seraglio the virtuous Paulina, sold to him
by Grimaldi the renegade (1.1.129). Paulina is the prototype of the
submissive Christian beauty who is repeatedly saved from ravishment
by the power of a Christian relic. Paulina's chastity contrasts with
the sexual excesses of "Turkish dames" whose repressed desires
are released in fiendish orgies of lust. These Turkish ladies are compared
to chained "English mastiffs" that turn, when unleashed, to
ferocious bloodlust (1.3.8-13). Although this play reflects the Turkish
impact on English travelers, the reference to English mastiffs also
uncannily inverts the English experiences in the New World. In Massinger's
play, the lustful Turkish ladies are compared to fierce mastiffs; yet,
as we know, the Algonquian Indians were terrified of the mastiffs that
the English brought with them to Virginia. Virginia, then, becomes a
subtext of both Massinger's play and of English experiences with Turkish
dames in the East. In The Renegado,
the Christian merchant Vitelli, the brother of Paulina, falls in love
with one of these Turkish dames. Donusa is a Turkish princess who is
the sexual aggressor in that relationship, and Vitelli is "ravished"
by her (2.3.12). Massinger plays on the anxieties of menacing Islamic
alterity through images of Turkish cruelty, lust, violence, and castration.
For example, Vitelli's servant Gazet is constantly in danger of being
"caponed" (1.1.58) and being "libbed in the breech"
(2.1.63). Although The Renegado
stages the various anxieties associated with the Turkish threat, by
the end of the play those fears are deflected. The threat of "turning
Turk" is neutralized when Vitelli converts Donusa to Christianity.
Even the renegade Grimaldi is redeemed and saved.
exploit the racial valences of conversion. In Beaumont and Fletcher's
The Island Princess (1621),
Princess Quisara's Islamic otherness is offset by her inner sweetness
and light skin: "The very Sun, I think affects her sweetness, /
And dares not, as he does to all else, dye it / Into his tauney Livery"
(1.1.60-2). The princess will translate her inner sweetness into a spiritual
(Christian) conversion by the end of the play, but the text reminds
us that the princess cannot allow the sun to "like" her. An
inner blackness lurks within the princess; only rigid chastity and Christian
conversion keep her white. Yet if Quisara passes as white by protecting
her complexion from the sun, then her whitenessand by implication,
her virtueis false. Her twinned conversion and whiteness camouflage
a double passing which masks her Islamic faith and racial darkness.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Bartels, Emily C. "Making More of the Moor:
Aaron, Othello, and Renaissance Refashionings of Race." Shakespeare
Quarterly 41 (1990): 433-54.
Barthelemy, Anthony G. Black
Face, Maligned Race: The Representation of Blacks in English Drama from
Shakespeare to Southerne. Baton Rouge: Louisiana University Press,
Chew, Samuel. The
Crescent and the Rose: Islam and England during the Renaissance.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1937.
D'Amico, Jack. The
Moor in English Renaissance Drama. Tampa: University of South
Florida Press, 1991.
Lewis, Bernard. Islam
and the West. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Matar, Nabil. Turks,
Moors, and Englishmen in the Age of Discovery. New York: Columbia
University Press, 1999.
Patrides, C. A. "'The Bloody and Cruell Turke':
The Background of a Renaissance Commonplace."
Studies in the Renaissance 10 (1963): 126-35.
Vitkus, Daniel J., ed. Three
Turk Plays from Early Modern England. New York: Columbia University
. "Turning Turk in Othello:
The Conversion and Damnation of the Moor." Shakespeare
Quarterly 48 (1997): 145-77.