Shakespeare’s complex views of the Islamic world

Economist Blogs: 1616 deserves attention as the year in which William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes died—it also saw the first sustained and documented contact between the Islamic world and Britain. The life of Britain’s most celebrated writer coincided with significant diplomatic relations between Protestant England and Muslim dynasties in Morocco, the Ottomans and the Safavids of Iran. As trade routes opened up and Queen Elizabeth I courted new alliances, dramatic ideas about Muslims seeped into society. Britons were fascinated and alarmed simultaneously; between 1576 and 1603 more than 60 plays featuring Muslims in the guise of Turks, Moors or Persians featured on London’s stages.

Across his canon, Shakespeare offers a multifaceted view of Islam. His knowledge of the intricacies of the religion itself is sparse—he makes only one explicit reference to the Prophet Muhammad, in “Henry VI”—yet this is hardly surprising, given that the first English translation of the Koran emerged in 1649. Shakespeare appropriates Islam for Protestant causes, aligning the false prophecy of Muhammad with the inspired Joan of Arc;

Was Mahomet inspired with a dove?
Thou with an eagle art inspired then…
How may I reverently worship thee enough?

Joan of Arc’s inspiration seems like an endorsement of Christian superiority. Yet Shakespeare is aligning a French Catholic with the false prophecy and “idolatry” of Islam (an existent myth at the time was Muhammad formed part of a trinity with Apollo); it is a clear example of Shakespeare manipulating sectarian divisions for a Protestant audience.

Shakespeare’s first fully-fleshed out Muslim character emerges in “Titus Adronicus”. In his most violent play, Aaron the “blackamoor” is a typical representation of villainy; he is an unrepentant outsider, refusing to collude in social codes by his “murders, rapes and massacres | Acts of black night”. Aaron’s religious identity and race are indivisible, he is presumed to “have [a] soul black like his face”.


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