The Turkish Influence on English Drama

Pompa Banerjee
University of Colorado, Denver

The establishment 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 (1623).

Taken together, 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")Click to See a Larger View, 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 English.

The plays 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.

Many of 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.

Other plays 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 whiteness—and by implication, her virtue—is 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, 1987.

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 Press, 2000.

——. "Turning Turk in Othello: The Conversion and Damnation of the Moor." Shakespeare Quarterly 48 (1997): 145-77.