Islamic Conversion and Christian Resistance on the Early Modern Stage

Islamic Conversion and Christian Resistance on the Early Modern Stage

Islamic Conversion and Christian Resistance on the Early Modern Stage

Islamic Conversion and Christian Resistance on the Early Modern Stage


This book explores the threat of Christian conversion to Islam in twelve early modern English plays. In works by Shakespeare, Marlowe, Massinger, and others, conversion from Christianity to Islam is represented as both tragic and erotic, as a fate worse than death and as a sexual seduction. Degenhardt examines the stage's treatment of this intercourse of faiths to reveal connections between sexuality, race, and confessional identity in early modern English drama and culture. In addition, she shows how England's encounter with Islam reanimated post-Reformation debates about the embodiment of Christian faith. As Degenhardt compellingly demonstrates, the erotics of conversion added fuel to the fires of controversies over Pauline universalism, Christian martyrdom, the efficacy of relics and rituals, and even the Knights of Malta.


Nay, if the flesh take hold of him, he’s past redemption.
He’s half a Turk already; it’s as good as done.

Robert Daborne, A Christian Turned Turke (c.1610)

Could anything be worse than being captured by Turks, stripped, beaten, and mercilessly killed? in the minds of early modern English people, there was one thing even worse than dying at the hands of Turks: conversion. Whereas a death by martyrdom offered the chance for salvation, converting to Islam set one on a path of irredeemable damnation. in addition, “turning Turk” implied not just a religious conversion, but also the complete undoing of all things constitutive of an English Christian identity.

It was a threat that was oddly familiar to those living in and around London in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. the Ottoman empire may have been halfway across the globe, but its influence was increasingly present in the daily lives of English Christians – in the foods they ate, the clothes they wore, the sermons they heard at church, the stories they read in the news, and the fears and fantasies that filled their imaginations. in particular, English awareness of the Ottoman empire heightened as the result of England’s growing participation in Mediterranean trade. Commerce brought eastern imports into English spaces and drew increasing numbers of English citizens to the waters and ports of the eastern Mediterranean. But commerce depended upon certain risks, which included not only the dangers of seafaring and the economic risks of piracy and foreign investment, but also the personal risk of losing English bodies and souls to Islamic conversion. the more general threat of Ottoman imperialism – of course linked to commerce in various ways – also raised the specter of conversion. Stories of Muslim conquest and forced conversion in places such as Greece . . .

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