Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1330, (2 - 8 February 2017)
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1330, (2 - 8 February 2017)

Ahram Weekly

An orient isle?

A new book emphasises the oriental entanglements of Elizabethan England

The “Armada Portrait” of Queen Elizabeth I (1588) (Woburn Abbey — Collection of the Duke of Bedford)

Once upon a time, it was relatively straightforward to write the history of Elizabethan England. Queen Elizabeth I, daughter of king Henry VIII by his second wife Anne Boleyn, came to the throne in 1558 and died in 1603. In the interim, she became “Good Queen Bess,” the “Virgin Queen,” and a monarch who, like Victoria some 250 years later, gave her name to a whole period of English history.

Artists and writers did their part, rifling through mediaeval chivalry and Italianate romance to produce an idea of Elizabeth, balding and toothless by the end of her reign, as the object of every young man’s dreams. She became Gloriana, the Faerie Queene of courtier Edmund Spenser’s poem, and the woman who in the famous “Armada Portrait” is shown with her hand on the globe, the fleet assembled by king Philip II of Spain to invade England in 1588 ignominiously scattered behind her.

All this makes wonderful copy. Add to it Elizabeth’s execution of her cousin Mary, queen of Scots, her toying with a series of favourites, from the earl of Leicester to the earl of Essex, some of them locked up in the Tower of London or executed when they lost her favour, and it is not hard to see why historians have long been drawn to her reign.

However, the picture has recently become more complicated, with the traditional idea of “Merrie England” giving way to a more nuanced image of a brutal and paranoid Elizabethan regime. Insecure at home and threatened abroad, not least by the power of Spain, Elizabeth and her advisors were obliged to look for friends and allies where they could find them. As it turned out this meant not only subsidising anti-Spanish forces on the European continent and harrying Spanish forces abroad, but also seeking alliances with a range of non-European powers, including Morocco, the Ottoman Empire, and Persia.

None of these attempts were successful, the Ottomans, the Persians, and the Moroccans being finally unconvinced that they had much to gain, and possibly much to lose, by drawing too close to this troublesome northern European nation. It had grand ambitions, but it was hardly a major player. It could act as an irritant to Spain, the superpower of the age, by subsidising rebellion in the Netherlands and financing piracy abroad, but it could not seriously threaten the balance of European power. 

As British academic Jerry Brotton writes in This Orient Isle, his new book on this perhaps under-appreciated aspect of Elizabethan England, English trading relations with the Muslim world had gone back decades, if not centuries, by the time Elizabeth came to the throne. There would have been few prosperous English homes without “Turkey carpets” made by Ottoman, Egyptian, Syrian or Persian weavers for the export trade among other goods. However, by the end of the century these relations had both deepened and migrated to other spheres, with the result that, in Brotton’s words, in the “half century of Elizabeth’s rule Protestant England came closer to Islam than at any other time in its history.”

London dramatists, among them Shakespeare, “saw the potential of putting Moors [Moroccans or North Africans], Turks and Persians on the Elizabethan stage,” he adds. Perhaps the best known example is Othello, the “Moor of Venice,” in Shakespeare’s play of the same name, traditionally linked to a very public visit by a Moroccan ambassador, Abdel-Wahab bin Masoud bin Mohamed al-Annuri, to Elizabeth’s court in 1600.

In his report of the visit, quoted by Brotton, al-Annuri says that having come to London “to speak in secret to her serene majesty” about the “king of Spain’s perfidious ways,” it would be an “act of compassion for the benefit of all mankind if her serene majesty should embrace the perpetual friendship between her and the serene emperor [the Moroccan sultan] and join forces against the king of Spain, their common foe.”

However, Othello is by no means the only example of the Elizabethan fashion of placing Moors and other Muslim characters on the London stage. Brotton thinks that the Moroccan ambassador “could have seen” a production of the poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe’s 1587 play Tamburlaine the Great while in London, a suitably epic work based on the story of Timur, the founder of the Central Asian Timurid Dynasty, who “in 1402 marched into Syria, defeating the Egyptian Mamelukes and taking Aleppo and Damascus before overcoming and capturing the Ottoman sultan Bayezid I at the Battle of Ankara.”

He has also dug up a play by the dramatist Thomas Kyd, Soliman and Perseda, which “focused on the Ottoman sultan’s invasion of Rhodes,” and another one, The Battle of Alcazar by George Peele, which presents the Moroccan sultan Abdel-Malik in English guise as “Abdelmelec, also known as Mulay Morocco.”

In fact, Brotton says, in the 1590s, perhaps the high point of Elizabeth’s anti-Spanish diplomacy, “almost every Elizabethan dramatist began to include despotic sultans [and] deceitful moors” in plays. “Of more than sixty plays featuring Turks, Moors and Persians performed in London’s public theatres between 1576 and 1603, at least forty were staged between 1588 and 1599.”


Abdel-Wahab bin Masoud bin Al-Annuri during his visit to England in 1600 (University of Birmingham, UK)

DIPLOMATIC FAILURES: Most of these plays were hardly flattering, however. Brotton seems to blame Marlowe for this, since his Tamburlaine may have functioned as a kind of archetype for “violent, despotic characters, strutting, stamping, ranting and bellowing their way across the stage” in the works of other playwrights.

He does not explain how these plays might have contributed to Elizabethan diplomacy, as the official policy of the government at the time was to woo the Muslim world, not to insult it. Elizabeth’s reign was notorious for its censorship, including of plays, so her agents must have decided that there was no harm in allowing the theatre a certain license.

Perhaps al-Annuri did see a production of Tamburlaine the Great while he was in London in 1600 as Brotton speculates, though there is no evidence to suggest that he went near a playhouse. However, if he had done, would he have liked it?

After earlier chapters on Elizabeth’s diplomatic missions to the Muslim world, including to Morocco and the Ottoman Empire, the later parts of This Orient Isle deal with literary representations of the Muslim world in Elizabethan England, including the ways in which individual Muslims were represented.

On the whole, these were negative, and while it seems possible that the vogue for Muslim subject-matter among English dramatists in the late Elizabethan period had something to do with the government’s policy of attempting to make alliances with the Muslim states of the time, one might have expected, given the propaganda function of the London theatre, that some at least of them might have been more positive.

Perhaps this would be to over-estimate government control or the importance of the public theatre, however. Al-Annuri was treated as an honoured guest by the Elizabethan government and as the representative of a friendly power with which it was seeking to make an alliance. It would not have mattered much what members of the public were watching in the playhouses at the time, since their opinions of Morocco and the Muslim world would have been irrelevant to the calculations made by the queen and her advisors.

On the other hand, the regime was not indifferent to the material appearing on the public stages, as the companies had to be licensed and the plays, like other materials, were censored. Shakespeare is notorious for his English history plays, for example, which among other things sing the praises of the Tudor Dynasty from which Elizabeth herself was descended. Given the way things were, it is hard to imagine him taking a contrary view.

Brotton’s solution to this problem is to suggest that the best of these plays, more or less hostile to the Muslim world at a time when the state was trying to draw closer to it, are in fact ambivalent.

Of Othello, he writes that in this play Shakespeare drew on “Elizabethan England’s horror and fascination with the figure of the Moor, culminating in al-Annuri’s embassy.” But he later adds that the psychological depth that Shakespeare lavishes on Othello, making him fully the equal of the conflicted protagonists of his other major tragedies, means that he is a “profoundly ambivalent figure who embodies so much of Elizabethan England’s contradictory relations with the Islamic world,” being characterised at once by attraction and repulsion, even love and hatred.

LITERATURE AND POLITICS: But Othello is hardly typical of the other plays containing Muslim or Arab characters, most of which are bad in the sense that despite (in Marlowe’s case) their rhetorical magnificence they deal in stock characters and images.

This is not true in the case of Othello, since here Shakespeare has left prejudice behind to create a play which though it contains much racist sentiment is not in itself racist. Much the same thing might be said about Shakespeare’s other Venetian play, The Merchant of Venice, which is awash in anti-Semitic sentiments from the play’s Christian characters directed against the Jewish money-lender Shylock, but is arguably not in itself anti-Semitic.

Reading Othello in the context of the other plays from the period can thus be like stepping from an enclosed room into the open air, leaving the time-bound products of the Elizabethan commercial theatre behind for a work of more permanent importance.

Brotton’s book reconstructs the historical and diplomatic background to Shakespeare’s play and to the 60 others featuring Muslim characters that he has counted. One is left thinking that for better or worse the theatre of the time must have had a high degree of autonomy, since the attitudes it presents of “despotic sultans [and] deceitful moors” were so out of sympathy with the official policy that sought to make allies of those sultans and shift the European balance of power in England’s favour.

Perhaps what appeared on the London stage did not matter much to the Elizabethan authorities, though it is known that anything to do with contemporary history or politics was best avoided. Shakespeare deals with tyranny, regicide and other matters that might be thought to be close to Elizabethan preoccupations, for example, especially if one wanted, as many did for religious or other reasons, to see an end to Elizabeth’s government. However, he transposes the action to other times and places.

Prince Hamlet in his play of the same name wonders whether he should kill the king and liberate the state from tyranny, but he asks this question in the context not of contemporary England but of Denmark in what appears to be the Middle Ages.

Brotton’s book contains much fascinating detail about the overseas entanglements of Elizabethan England with the Muslim world and of the English government’s attempts to ally itself with Muslim states as a way of outmanoeuvring its rivals in continental Europe. It will be essential reading for anyone interested in England’s historical relations with the Muslim world and the Elizabethan period.

However, it does not seem to do much more than sketch how Elizabeth’s policies interlocked with the representation of Muslim history, Muslim states and Muslim individuals on the London stages. Or if it does, this reader at least has missed it.


Jerry Brotton, This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World, London: Allen Lane, 2016, pp.384.

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