Academic journal article Early Theatre

Early Modern English Drama and the Islamic World: Islam and English Drama: A Critical History

Academic journal article Early Theatre

Early Modern English Drama and the Islamic World: Islam and English Drama: A Critical History

Article excerpt

Early Modern English Drama and the Islamic World Islam and English Drama: A Critical History

Though it may seem to be a recent phenomenon, scholarly interest in Islam and early modern English drama goes back almost a hundred years to Louis Wann's 'The Oriental in Elizabethan Drama' (1915) and Warner Grenelle Rice's 'Turk, Moor, and Persian in English Literature' (1927). (1) In its exhaustive scope, Rice's unpublished dissertation anticipates Samuel C. Chew's The Crescent and the Rose (1937), which is usually seen as the pioneering discussion of the topic in modern times. (2) The dominant concerns of these early critics were the historical accuracy (variously defined) and aesthetic merits of the plays in hand. Wann identified the historical sources used by the playwrights and judged that, while the sources themselves were often inaccurate, the dramatists achieved 'a much more accurate and dispassionate portrayal of oriental character than we are wont to [assume]'. (3) By contrast, both Rice and Chew were more likely to see the representations of Islamic characters (especially Moors) as examples of monstrous cultural stereotypes. In their view, the playwrights' adherence to their sources doomed rather than redeemed them, and their interventions were seen as usually making matters worse. (4) Rice argued that as a result Muslim characters are 'dreadful beyond belief' and are therefore 'failures'--artistically and perhaps ideologically, though this category was not explicit in his analysis. (5) Chew likewise comments with mordant irony on the plays' excess of prejudice and lack of artistic merit. After summarizing the denouement of The Courageous Turk, he concludes: 'and the tragedy comes to an end--much to the reader's relief'. (6) Similarly, having noted that prefatory verses to Osmond the Great Turk stress the author's youth, Chew observes that the author 'needed whatever excuse could be offered for him'. (7)

Chew's identification and description of so many texts that dealt with Islam--histories, travelogues, captivity narratives, court masques, civic pageants, and poetic allusions as well as plays--was a boon to scholars and interested readers. As far as the drama was concerned, however, it was a mixed blessing. In covering so many texts, Chew devoted a paragraph or two to each play, but for several decades his judgments seemed to be the final word. As Byron Porter Smith explained in 1939, in deference to 'the material so ably handled in Professor Chew's book' he radically abbreviated his own discussion of Islamic themes in medieval and Renaissance literature and began instead with the age of Dryden. (8) Even Orhan Burian, a Turkish scholar who had translated Macbeth, Othello, Timon of Athens, and As You Like It in the mid-1940s, treated the drama only cursorily in his essay on Turkey and English Renaissance literature, focusing instead on histories and travel narratives. (9) Burian's essay was important, however, since it introduced the possibility of ambivalence and conflicted reactions towards the Ottomans and other eastern peoples on the part of English travelers and perhaps English readers as well. (10) During the 1960s and early 1970s, historians Norman Daniel, R.W. Southern, Brandon Beck, and others provided valuable analyses of European religious writings and other genres in order to trace the development of European images of Islam, (11) but students of the drama such as Eldred Jones and Anthony Gerard Barthelemy, perhaps inspired by the civil rights movement in the U.S. and elsewhere, focused on Africa and the question of race rather than on religion or Islamic civilization. (12) Once Chew had more or less established the canon of Renaissance works on Islamic themes and lamented their shortcomings, the subject seemed to disappear from studies of early modern English literature.

The publication of Edward W. Said's Orientalism in 1978 changed all that. Said's provocative and sweeping analysis of the role of discursive construction in the West's domination of the East in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries focused the attention of scholars in many fields once more upon the 'Orient'--a word now permanently endowed with quotation marks, if used at all. …

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