An intriguing look at England’s contact with the Ottoman Empire and its enormous influence on Elizabethan commerce and culture, especially the theater.
Brotton (Renaissance Studies/Queen Mary Univ. of London; A History of the World in 12 Maps, 2013, etc.) explores the fascination of Britain with the Islamic world before Queen Elizabeth first wrote to the young sultan, Murad, in 1579, in response to his granting of commercial privileges to the English merchant William Harborne. During the reign of her father, the English world was crazy about commodities from the Islamic world, such as sugar and indigo as well as rich silks and textiles. Yet over the next 17 years of Elizabeth’s reign, the commercial and cultural contact intensified, especially as the Protestant queen, excommunicated by the pope in 1570, used the exchange to wily purpose in countering the Catholic opposition to her reign, especially from Spain, against which the Moroccan sultan Ahmad al-Mansur proposed a military alliance in 1600. The Catholic world excoriated Elizabeth for her alliance with the Turkish “heathens” (as did plenty of internal critics), yet she was clever in the keeping of peace and prosperity considering Ottoman Turkey was a world military power and England a fairly insignificant player on the stage. Brotton looks into the early English travelers to that fabled land of the Mahometans or Moors (the term Muslim was not yet being used)—e.g., the young merchant Anthony Jenkinson, who became head of the new Muscovy Company and traveled to meet and charm the Moorish leaders; Harborne, the “apt man in Constantinople” who navigated the Anglo-Ottoman Capitulations of 1580; and the vainglorious Sir Anthony Sherley, who gained a mention in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. In several chapters Brotton explores the Elizabethan theater’s fairly stereotyped representations of the Moors, culminating in Shakespeare’s fully fleshed, sympathetic Othello.
An erudite work that presents a fresh facet to Elizabeth’s reign.