Turks on the Early English Stage

The expansion of the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries down as far as the Persian Gulf and northwards through the Balkans including parts of present day Hungary, Croatia and Slovenia, across the Caucasus, to Cyprus and Crete, culminating in the siege of the city of Vienna twice (1529 and 1689), deeply worried Europe. In addition to the fear of Ottoman expansion into the heart of Europe through numerous victories in the sixteenth century, the new Anglo-Ottoman economic relations that were officially started with the establishment of the Levant Company by a group of merchants from London under the auspices of Queen Elizabeth in 1581 led to a surge of interest in Turks, their religion, history and culture. This new interest was also felt in a variety of literary texts such as plays, prose fiction and travel accounts.

 The fact that a great number of plays were written about the Turks in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries proves that the Turks were a subject of great interest for the English people; and this interest continued on into the eighteenth century as well (English Theatre, 344). The earliest plays about the Turks can be traced back to 1580. From that time up to the end of the seventeenth century lots of plays were written with a few or even with all the characters in them being Turks. Utilising Turkish history as source material, these plays were written according to the theatrical taste of the time.

 The best known images of Turks which appeared on the early English stage generally portray the conflict as opposition between Christians and Turks. In most of these plays, sensuality and cruelty seem to be dominant characteristics of the Turks. The focus is on pride, passion, horror, cruelty, revenge, intrigue, treachery, i.e. the Turks are portrayed as the incarnation of such motifs, as in Marlowe's The Jew of Malta, Mason's The Turks, Graville's Mustapha and Carlell's Osmand the Great Turk. Ithamore, the Turkish slave whom Barabas bought in the slave-market in Marlowe's The Jew of Malta is designated as an agent of the devil, an agent that works on the destruction of Christendom. He is introduced to the audience through his utterances about his cruel past, how he set Christian villages on fire, chained eunuchs, mistreated galley-slaves, and assassinated western travellers by cutting their throats at night (57). Another such example is to be found when Othello expresses his contempt and condemnation of the Turks before his tragic suicide at the end of the play:

And say, besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban'd Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduc'd the state,
I took by th' throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him thus (v.ii 354-358) (58).

 This trend in play-writing, exemplified by Christopher Marlowe with his Tamburlane the Great (1590) and The Jew of Malta (1592) was carried on by his contemporaries and successors. The list, particularly in the form of tragedy, includes such texts as Thomas Kyd's The Tragedy of Soliman and Perseda (1599), Fulke Greville's The Tragedy of Mustapha (1609), John Mason's The Turks (1610), Robert Daborne's Christian turn'd Turke (1612), Thomas Goffe's The Raging Turke or Bajazet the Second (1631), Ladowick Carlell's The Famous Tragedy of Osmand the Great Turk (1657), Nevile Payne's The Siege of Constantinople (1675), Elkonah Settle's Ibrahim the Illustrious Bassa (1677), and Mary Pix's Ibrahim the Thirteenth Emperor of the Turks (1696) (The Bibliography, 20-55).

 In his A Critical Edition of Thomas Goffe's The Raging Tyrke or Baiazet the Second (1631), Ahmed Alam El-Deen states that the stories concerning Turks, usually with some negative connotations of as cruelty, malice and violence, not only impressed and appealed to the English public, but also motivated English playwrights to introduce Turkish characters in their plays: 'To satisfy the popular demand, playwrights - like Marlowe, Kyd, Shakespeare, Heywood, Messinger, Peele and Goffe - resorted to Turkish history as a source of material’ (59). He also notes that ‘playwrights portrayed the Turks as ruthless, brutal villains, and this portrayal drew large audiences to the theatres... The gruesome, malicious Turkish character became extremely popular on the English stage’ (A Critical Edition, 56).
Rana Kabbani analyses the general characteristics of Elizabethan plays and points out that:

The Saracen, the Turk, ... were key villains in the drama of the period, crudely depicted as such by the lesser playwrights, but drawn with more subtle gradations by a Marlowe or a Shakespeare. Although Shakespeare 'whitewashes' Othello by making him a servant of the Venetian state, a soldier fighting for a Christian power, and most importantly, a killer of Turks (60).

Similarly, Simon Shepherd maintains that there was a fashion for plays about the Turks (and other Islamic nations) in late Elizabethan drama in his examination of the nature of Elizabethan plays in relation to politics in which he describes the depiction of the cruelty of the Turks as analogous to that of the Catholics (Marlowe and the Politics, 142). In other words, Protestant propaganda compared the alleged cruelty of Catholics in general and Spaniards in particular to that of Turks in order to emphasise the critical political situation between Protestant England and Catholic Spain during this period which was simply expressed in reference to Foxe's speech to Protestants when he pointed out that:

The Turk with his sword is not so cruel but the Bishop of Rome on the other side is more fierce and bitter against us...such dissension and hostility Satan hath sent among us that Turks be not more enemies to Christians than Christians to Christian, Popists to Protestants (Marlowe and the Politics, 144).

 With regard to such eighteenth-century plays as The Christian Hero (1735), Zoraida (1780) and The Siege of Belgrade (1791) playwrights continued to take interest in the sensuality, passion, cruelty, injustice of the Turkish sultans in horrible court intrigues, rebellions and in the murder of the sultans, which were usually caused by rivalry in love. These bloody subjects were, for the most part, treated in heroic plays, a type of drama in which love-passion is the prime motivation. There is usually a conflict between love and honour, and it usually ends with the triumph of love. Such noble feelings as fame, friendship, duty etc. should kneel before love. Heroic plays are also rich in spectacle; and the speeches of the characters abound in exaggeration, rant and bombast. As for the Turkish characters in the plays: sensuality appears as the dominant characteristic of the Turks both in the tragedies and in the comedies. In the former it is followed by cruelty, pride, passion and treachery as the wicked tyrant who is always either a Turkish Sultan or a Pasha or a General usually separates two virtuous lovers by falling in love with the girl he has kept in his possession through force. These are some of the qualities that the Turks had inherited from the Renaissance drama (English Theatre, 345-7).


57-Christopher Marlowe, The Jew of Malta (1588), ed. Richard W. Van Fossen, (London: Edward Arnold, 1965), II. iii. 206-15.

58-H. C. Hart, The Works of Shakespeare: The Tragedy of Othello (1604), (London: Methuen, 1934), fifth edition, p. 255.

59-Ahmed Alam El-Deen, A Critical Edition of Thomas Goffe's The Raging Tyrke, or, Baiazet the Second (1631), unpub. diss. (West Virginia: West Virginia University, 1984) pp.55-6. Further reference to this work will be given after quotations in the text or footnotes, by mentioning its shortened title, 'A Critical Edition'.

60-Rana Kabbani, Europe's Myths of the Orient (London: Macmillan, 1986) p.20. Further reference to this work will be given after quotations in the text or footnotes, by mentioning its title, 'Europe's Myths of the Orient'.