Othello's "Malignant Turk" and George Manwaring's "A True Discourse'': The Cultural Politics of a Textual Derivation

By Habib, Imtiaz | Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England, January 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Othello's "Malignant Turk" and George Manwaring's "A True Discourse'': The Cultural Politics of a Textual Derivation


Habib, Imtiaz, Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England


I

OTHELLO," declares a modern study, "remains a textual mystery."1 Although the essay is a useful review of existing scholarly knowledge on the complicated publication history of the play, its characterization of the play as "a textual mystery" resonates with the origins of a particular allusion in it that has remained unacknowledged and ignored. At the end of Othello, just before killing himself in remorseful self-punishment for his Iago-induced murder of his wife, to affirm his continuing civic uprightness and integrity as an officer of the Venetian government the title character alludes to an incident in his past that happened in Aleppo:

And say besides, that in Aleppo once,

Where a malignant and a turbanned Turk

Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,

I took by th' throat the circumcised dog

And smote him-thus! He stabs himself.

(5.2.350-54)2

The source of this allusion has remained unremarked in the play's critical exegeses, and has been regarded silently as an instance of Shakespeare's literary imaginativeness in keeping with the rest of the geographic references (to Arabia and Judea or India) in the lines preceding the passage in the same speech.3 Yet, just a few years before the staging of the play, there may have circulated in some circles in London a manuscript account of an Englishman's recent journey to Aleppo with the following passage in it:

At the sixth days end, we came safe to Aleppo, where we were kindly received by one Mr. Colthurst then being consul for the English merchants, and also of the merchants themselves who lodged us in their houses and furnished us with such things as we did want but the Turks did use us somewhat ill for we could not walk in the streets but they would buffet us and use us very vildly; except we had a Janisary with us; for it is the fashion there that all strangers hath commonly a Janisary in ther house with them for ther safety; one day it was my hap to walk alon in the streets, where to my hard fortune I met with a Turk, a gallant man he seemed to be by his habit, and saluting me in this manner took me fast by one of the ears with his hand, and so did lead me up and down the streets, and if I did chance to look sour upon him, he would give me such a ring that I did think verily, he would have pulled of my ear, and this he continued with me for the space of one hour, with much company following me, some throwing stones at me, and some spitting on me, so at the last he let me go, and because I would not laugh at my departure from him he gave me such a blow with a staff that did strike me to the ground; So returning home to the Consul house the Consul's Janisary seeing me all bloody asked me how I came hurt I told him the manner of it: he presently in a rage did take his staff in his hand, and bade me go with him and shew him the Turk that had used me so; Within a small time we found him sitting with his father and other gentlemen, so I did shew the Janisary which was he; who ran fiercely to him, and threw him on his back giving him twenty blows on his legs and his feet, so that he was not able to go or stand; he was clothed in a cloth of gold undercoat and a crimson velvet gown but his gay clothes could not save him from the fierceness of the Janisary's fury; and in this sort our men were served diverse times.4

The account in which the passage appears was written by George Manwaring, a gentleman in the retinue of the notorious Elizabethan aristocratic adventurer, Sir Anthony Sherley, in what is the most well-known of the latter's many dubious political capers: his journey with his brother Robert to Shah Abbas's Persia in 1599 supposedly on the encouragement of the Earl of Essex to forge an Elizabethan alliance with Shah Abbas against Ottoman Turkey.5 The Uves and careers of the Sherley brothers are too well known in historical scholarship to require any further enumeration here.6 Only one fact needs to be repeated here and that is the extreme displeasure with which Anthony Sherley was regarded by Elizabeth at the time of his journey to Persia, stemming from allegations of Sherley's acceptance of foreign allegiance in the form of a knighthood from the French Henry IV in his earlier mission to France in 1591, allegations for which he was briefly incarcerated. …

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