Political Allegory in Late Elizabethan and Early Jacobean "Turk" Plays: Lust's Dominion and the Turke

By Jowitt, Claire | Comparative Drama, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview
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Political Allegory in Late Elizabethan and Early Jacobean "Turk" Plays: Lust's Dominion and the Turke


Jowitt, Claire, Comparative Drama


Recent work on representations of Turks in early modern literature and culture has shown the often complex and contradictory ways in which the English understood Muslim peoples at this time. (1) As Nabil Matar observes, "Muslims were seen to be different and strange, infidels and 'barbarians' admirable or fearsome, but they did not constitute colonial targets." (2) In fact, it is precisely because Muslims possessed an empire that rivaled, indeed superseded that of England in this period that "Britons began to demonize, polarize, and alterize them." (3) As a result, though English travelers in Islamic countries--for example, Thomas Saunders in his account of a trip to "Barbarie" in 1583, Richard Hasleton's narrative of "ten yeares travailes in many forraine countries" which was published in 1595, and the more famous early-seventeenth-century accounts of encounters with Muslims by George Sandys and William Lithgow--might describe with some admiration and envy the imperial achievement of the Ottoman Empire, by contrast early modern drama, pageants, and masques tended to emphasize negative characteristics. (4) "Turks" were tyrannical and cruel, "Moors" were lascivious and violent. (5) As a result critics have read literary representations of Muslims as playing an important role in the shaping of an anti-Muslim national consciousness. The present essay, however, suggests that this dominant view of early modern Turk plays only provides us with a partial understanding of the significance of these cultural documents. Lust's Dominion and John Mason's The Turke are both plays that portray Islamic men in negative ways, and clearly they should be seen as contributing to contemporary popular fears and anxieties about Muslims. However, to read these plays merely as expressions of anti-Muslim sentiment is to neglect central aspects of their significance since the plays' Islamic villains and the activities in Christian courts that prove to be corrupt also must refer to domestic English political issues. In what follows, the two closely related early modern English "Turk" plays, Lust's Dominion and The Turke, are read against the context of the politics of the culture within which they were produced.

Similar to other dramatic subgenres of the period--Roman plays, history plays, travel drama, to name just three--which have increasingly been recognized as possessing allegorical dimensions, "Turk" plays should also be seen as offering comments on sensitive topical issues. (6) For instance, Ben Jonson's Sejanus His Fall (1603), which concentrates on the relationship between the Emperor Tiberius and his evil minion, has been read as an equivocal allegory about James Stuart and his favorites. (7) Yet, because it was conceived and partly written while Elizabeth was on the throne, Jonson's play has also been seen as a comment on her tarnished reputation at the end of her reign and especially as a late meditation on the Essex crisis. (8) While for my purposes here the intricacies of Jonson's allegory are not relevant, its ambivalent political direction is useful since it is in a sense matched by that of the plays discussed in this article. In other words, in Lust's Dominion and The Turke we have two versions--one written in Elizabeth's reign, one in James's--of a very similar story about an evil Mohammedan's interactions with a Christian court. In what follows, the ways this allied story is able to encode shifting political allegories will be seen to be central. Just as Sejanus can be read as allegorically directed at different targets, these plays should also be understood to present political and sexual ambition as covert meditations on English domestic concerns.

It is now well attested that Christopher Marlowe was not responsible for Lust's Dominion; or, The Lascivious Queen, though the play is attributed to him on the title page of the 1657 edition. (9) Rather, the playtext is thought to have involved collaboration by John Marston (who was paid for a play or part of a play called The Spanish Moor's Tragedy by Philip Henslowe in the autumn of 1599 for the Fortune or Rose) and Thomas Dekker, William Haughton, and John Day who revised and renamed it in 1600.

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