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date: 26 February 2024

English Literature and the Ottoman and Persian Empires in the Renaissancefree

English Literature and the Ottoman and Persian Empires in the Renaissancefree

  • Ladan NiayeshLadan NiayeshEtudes Anglophones, Université de Paris


Far from being sheer proto-orientalist stereotypes of political tyranny, barbarous superstition, or sexual deviousness, literary portraits of the Ottoman and Persian empires in early modern English literature are varied, complex, and nuanced. Influenced by both classically inherited sources and contemporary travelers’ updates on diplomatic and commercial ties with eastern empires, literary works showcasing the two empires were inflected by the versatile genre of historical romance, be it in prose, poetic, or dramatic forms. The scenarios of interaction with which these works experiment range from fantasies of competing with otherness and overcoming it to assimilating and incorporating it, at a time when England was still in the process of sizing up the Islamic empires’ wealth and might from a perspective of “imperial envy” (in Gerald MacLean’s phrase) rather than from a posture of already established superiority. Topically presented as foils or alternatives to each other in the East, the Ottomans and Persians were seldom conflated for the readers or spectators, but rather demarcated along confessional and political divides entailing distinct literary and dramatic portraits. Finding their ways into the repertory history of English drama, the highly influential families of “Turk plays” and “Persian plays” also had a progeny well beyond the works officially listed by critics under those labels. Further study of performance history and editing of travel material hold the promise of research developments in these directions, bringing, in particular, English history plays into the conversation, with the Ottoman and Persian models allowing these plays’ larger articulations of the stages of history and forms of nationhood.


  • British and Irish Literatures
  • Middle Ages and Renaissance (500-1600)
  • Enlightenment and Early Modern (1600-1800)

Range of the Material: An Overview

The Raging Turk, The Courageous Turk (both by Thomas Goffe, c. 1613–1618), A Christian Turned Turk (by Robert Daborne, 1612): a random look at the titles of a few early modern plays with actions taking us to the Islamic East is enough to announce the wide range of scenarios for cultural interaction considered in this type of literature. In some cases, like Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (1589) or George Peele’s The Battle of Alcazar (before 1591), plots are coalesced around complex historical moments involving scenarios of renegadism and shifting allegiances on the part of both Christian protagonists and their Muslim or Jewish antagonists. Others approach the complexity and nuances of Islamic lands through their characterization of emblematic rulers, from Christopher Marlowe’s two-part Tamburlaine the Great (1587–1588), to Robert Greene and Thomas Lodge’s Selimus (before 1592), and all the way down to John Denham’s The Sophy (1642). Others still resort to the literary artifice of historia fingida or “feigned history” to rewrite such landmark European setbacks as the historical fall of Rhodes to the Ottomans in 1522 as a Christian victory in Thomas Kyd’s Soliman and Perseda (1589).1 At times, they even cast back their London popular audiences as medieval Crusaders conquering Jerusalem in Thomas Heywood’s The Four Prentices of London (before 1599), or rewrite the Ottoman conquest of Cyprus as a temporary alarm, quickly deflected on the margins of the plot in William Shakespeare’s Othello (c. 1603). Last but not least, some put their geographical focus on the Islamic East as a topical arena for showcasing enterprising European heroism in an age of global ambitions. Such is the case in John Day, William Rowley, and George Wilkins’s The Travels of the Three English Brothers (1607), which stages the adventures of the contemporary Sherley brothers from Ottoman prisons to the court of the Sophy of Persia and back to Europe as the latter’s ambassadors. Such is equally the case in Robert Daborne’s A Christian Turned Turk (1612), which romanticizes the trajectories of two contemporary Mediterranean pirates, the English John Ward and the Dutch Simon Dansiker, venturing their Christian souls for worldly benefits as they “turn Turk” (convert to Islam) in the Barbary states.

The public stage is the most visible arena of literary engagement with the Ottomans and Persians in the literature of the early modern period, and it is also the field which is best covered by modern literary critics. But the primacy given in our time to early modern drama, with such major names as Shakespeare and Marlowe, should not make us forget the impact and success of other literary forms for both learned and more popular early modern reading audiences, including tales, romances, and travel material blending actual contacts with fiction and fantasy. Some literary revisitations were translated or derived from older continental originals, like the Alexander romance dating back to the 4th century ce.2 Some others criss-crossed the porous generic frontier which the period drew between history and fiction, with frequent transpositions of recent historical episodes in collections of sensational tales. The example of William Painter’s 1558 translation of the Horrible and Cruell Murder of Sultan Solyman forming the basis of Novel 34 in his Palace of Pleasure (1566–1567) comes to mind. Equally frequent in the period were dramatic adaptations of successful prose romances taking popular English heroes on quests to the Eastern Mediterranean. Such is the case for Richard Johnson’s two-part The Most Pleasant History of Tom a Lincolne (1599, 1607), following the adventures of its hero to the land of a Prester John figure portrayed as a tyrannous Ottoman sultan. The material is adapted to dramatic form in the anonymous play Tom a Lincoln, surviving in manuscript.3 Such adaptations are a further demonstration not just of the popularity of the matter of the East across a large social spectrum in the late Tudor and early Stuart periods, but also of the generic fluidity and adaptability of the romance frame which they adopt and which also spills into the realm of travel accounts striding the divide between report and romance. The title page of The Rare and Most Wonderfull Things (1590), penned by master gunner and war captive Edward Webbe, can be cited as an example of blending the promise of a first-hand account of the “warres of the great Turke, against the lands of Persia” with a claim to have visited the “lands of Prester John” in Mandevillian fashion. Though an extreme case, Webbe is certainly not an isolated one of an English traveler adding fantastic touches to his account of Eastern Muslim lands. Even commercial company agents’ essentially factual reports of their missions to their employers are at times not immune to fantasizing touches. Such is the case with the curious claim to have visited Persepolis, appearing in a report made by Muscovy Company agents for their employers in London, about a trading journey over the Caucasus in 1568–1569.4

Romancing the East: Literary Texts and Historical Contexts

As illustrated by the example of the classical Alexander romance, the period’s literary fascination for the matter of the East is indebted to both ancient sources (classical or biblical) and modern ones. The humanist legacy of classical texts like Xenophon’s Cyropaedia (or “Education of Cyrus,” first translated into English by William Barker in 1552), and the work of Renaissance cosmographers giving the pride of place to ancient authorities, such as Herodotus, Pliny, or Strabo rather than actual contemporary travelers, are the standard through which the early modern period measured its new knowledge of Islamic lands beyond the Mediterranean and accommodated the latest incoming data about them.5 This classical legacy cohabited with the chivalric tradition of medieval crusaders, revived as a specific Renaissance heroic form by the likes of Ludovico Ariosto in his Orlando Furioso (1532) or Torquato Tasso with La Gerusalemme Liberata (1581). English versions and adaptations of these continental landmarks, like Thomas Carew’s early translation of the first five cantos of Tasso’s poem under the title of Godfrey of Bulloigne, or the Recouerie of Hierusalem (1594), or Robert Greene’s dramatic adaptation of part of Ariosto’s material as The Historie of Orlando Furioso (1592), attest to the vitality of the form in Elizabethan England. England’s own post-Armada spirit of Protestant militantism and adventuring entrepreneurism was especially welcoming to this type of literary fiction, embodied by such allegorical figures as the lady knight Britomart, whose very name brings together Britishness and martial prowess in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590 and 1596), engaged in interfaith battles against Saracens and a Souldan figure molded on Philip II of Spain.6 This romanticizing tendency was nourished by the promoters of the idea of a British empire, like Richard Hakluyt, whose Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation (1589, 1598–1600) announced as early as the volume’s title his project of legitimizing his compatriots as global precursors and leaders, or Samuel Purchas, who presented himself as the inheritor of Hakluyt’s project through his own choice of title, Hakluytus Posthumus, or Purchas his Pilgrimes (1625). Such collections contributed to rewriting England’s burgeoning diplomatic and commercial successes eastward as the heroic tale of its enterprising sea captains, privateers, and agents trading for its first joint stock international companies. Chief among these companies were the Muscovy Company (chartered in 1555), the Levant Company (1592), and the East India Company (1600).

Set between a loosely historical ground which gives it a basis in collective memory and the realm of fantasy to which it largely opens, the genre of romance is by far the most favored literary vehicle for addressing the matter of the Islamic East in the literature of the period. The “capaciousness and waywardness” of the genre, which Barbara Fuchs lists among its chief characteristics, endow that literary frame with the necessary flexibility that allows it to experiment with multiple cultural encounters and endless transcultural combinations in this era of global expansion.7 Romance’s “expansiveness and maverick sense of heroism,” its episodic structure and many digressions deferring closure and ending, added to with a vague sense of geography easily accommodating historical and legendary data, made it an eminently malleable instrument for expressing England’s fears, fantasies, and ambitions regarding Eastern Others.8

Indeed, it is true that those Islamic empires of the East were the lands of confessional and political Others in the absolute, but political, religious, and economic needs increasingly made it necessary to turn to them as potential allies and trading partners. Such was particularly the case after Elizabeth I’s excommunication by the Pope in 1570, bringing about her rapprochement with the Ottoman Porte and an active correspondence with the Ottoman Sultan Murad III and his wife, Safiye.9 Study of this material over recent years has opened avenues into considering the agency of women and the exchanges in which they engaged through the Ottoman and Safavid royal harems as an essential part of the history of diplomacy in the period.10 But here again, this actual female component of historical contacts cannot always be easily untangled from romance material. A case in point is the romanticized figure of Lady Teresa Sherley, becoming the Sophy’s “neece” or “cousin Germains” in Sherley propaganda material, such as Anthony Nixon’s pamphlet The Three English Brothers (1607, sigs. K4r-v).11

Cutting across all strata of the society in narrative or dramatic form and thriving in the nation-building rhetoric of the Armada years and afterward, romance was recurrently enlisted to imaginatively engage with Islamic lands and rescript their contemporary history along Anglophile lines. This phenomenon occurred not just on the public stage or in popular prose romances, but even in such monuments of aristocratic literature as Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590 and 1596), which famously casts Philip II of Spain as the evil sultan of its Book 5. This tendency continued well into the Jacobean period, with, for example, Lady Mary Wroth’s The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania (1621 for the first part, and unfinished for the second), written during the run-up to the cooperation between the forces of Shah Abbas I of Persia and the East India Company ships offering their service to the Safavids to help capture the strategic territory of Hormuz from the Portuguese in 1622. Casting the Sophy of Persia as the distressed Persian-Tartarian princess Lindafillia needing to be rescued by Western forces from her usurping and tyrannous uncle, the unnamed sultan, Wroth’s romance prefigures a scenario of imperialist takeover. This could only be done in fantasy in the 1620s, as the East India Company in its early years did not have the material means to achieve such a goal in southern Persia, even if it later could and did manage to do so in other parts of south Asia. Offering what Daniel Vitkus called “imaginary resolutions of real anxieties about Islamic wealth and might” in the period, aristocratic and popular romances staging the East can thus best be defined as literary instruments of “conquest,” not just in the sense of overcoming Otherness or of incorporating it, but more interestingly in the etymological sense of “questing with” Otherness and experimenting with a variety of either feared or desired options which did not contradict, but rather complemented each other within the cumulative logic of romance.12

“Turk Plays,” with and without Turks

Jonathan Burton’s list of sixty-two plays with Islamic characters, themes, or settings from the period between 1579 and 1624; Peter Berek’s list of ten out of the thirty-eight extant plays for the 1587–1593 period, which he considered to be modeled after Christopher Marlowe’s trend-setting Tamburlaine; or Mark Hutching’s contention that eighteen Shakespearean plays (in other words, half of that author’s canon) were connected to the “Turk play” legacy: all of these point to the success and impact of a repertory “Turk” recipe for dealing with the matter of the East on the early modern public stage. Yet, what exactly did the standard called so by modern critics consist in, besides its obvious reference to Turkish characters or Turkish locations?

First, for the purposes of this article, we need to work our way through the fine distinction between Turk plays and “Moor plays.” Though intersections are inevitable in a number of plays, the Moor play appears to primarily address the issue of difference along racial lines (or at least what our modern terminology refers to as “race,” with skin color as its focus), while confessional Otherness is principally at stake in a Turk play. As examples of plays striding the two categories, we can cite The Battle of Alcazar in which only one of the two contending Moroccan princes, referred to as a Black Moor, is supported by the Ottomans, or Othello, which pushes the Ottoman subplot of the invasion of Cyprus to its margins while center-staging its Venetian Moorish hero. Only in the closing lines of Shakespeare’s tragedy does the “malignant and turbaned Turk”—possibly malignant by reason of his wearing that Islamic headdress—show through the character of the hero who kills the portion of “circumcised dog” in himself by committing suicide onstage.

The centrality of Islamic faith as the chief characteristic of “the Turk” stands out of this shorthand definition provided by Othello, who uses the two stereotyping terms “turbaned” and “circumcised.” Each of the two terms is denigrated and rejected through its coupling with a highly derogatory term, “malignant” in one case and “dog” in the other. Appearing as a semiotic sign of Islamic allegiance, the turban features prominently in plays concerned with staging Muslim belonging. Such is especially the case in conversion scenes for Christian characters “turning Turk.” The most detailed example of such an episode is the one fulfilling the promise of the play’s title in A Christian Turned Turk and described in stage direction for the extensive dumb show of scene 8.13 Here, the turban decorated with an Ottoman half-moon offered to the converting pirate character replaces the unseen act of circumcision, suggesting that, as Robert Lublin summarized, on the early modern stage, “the presence of the Muslim headpiece visibly asserted the absence of the foreskin.”14 The same costuming convention appears in a number of plays set in Ottoman land or their tributary states. Such is the case for the opening scene of Philip Massinger’s The Renegado (1623), set in Tunis, suggesting upon entry that the eponymous character, pirate Antonio Grimaldi, is a Muslim convert, since he is wearing the turban.

The visual effect of that inflated element of costuming for stage Turks is generally accompanied by the equally inflated verbal style associated with that type of character. Standing out prominently in that group is the stock figure of the cruel but gullible “Great Turk.” The latter is placed in a number of set situations resulting in his tyrannizing or murdering his next of kin or suffering defeat and shaming at the hands of confessional or foreign opponents. An example of this trend is found in the anonymous John of Bordeaux (before 1592), where the Turk Amewroth (a deformation of Amurath or Murad, possibly after the name of the reigning Sultan Murad III) temporarily loses his regalia—“thy croune thy robe/ & semester”—to the English magician Roger Bacon. Robert Greene’s Alphonsus, King of Aragon (c. 1587) makes the defeat more definitive, as the character of Amurack—another variant on the same generic sultan’s name—is betrayed by his false idol Mahomet into losing both his kingdom and his daughter to the play’s eponymous Western hero, who thereby doubly inherits the Turk’s empire.15 This late 1580s to early 1590s family of plays is humorously referred to by Peter Berek as “Tamburlaine’s weak sons,” by reason of their collective emulation of Marlowe’s overreaching characterization and thundering blank verse. The Marlovian style of “bombastic ranting and railing” is listed by Matthew Dimmock as yet another character note for oriental stage tyrants.16 That style was possibly also cultivated under the influence of Edward Alleyn, the star of the company of the Admiral’s Men, credited with having been the first to hold the part of Tamburlaine, as well as several other leading roles modeled on that part, such as Muly Mahamet in The Battle of Alcazar, or Tamar Cham in the two-part play of that name.17

Yet, to call 1 Tamburlaine and its portrayal of the Great Turk Bajazeth the original or standard for the Turk play family is not an unproblematic assertion. There is clearly a case for questioning the appellation in a play whose main protagonist is neither the Ottoman sultan himself nor a character whose chief ambition is simply to conquer the Turk’s dominion. Ranging freely over the expanses of history and geography, the historically Tatar hero of this play starts off the action as a more classically styled “Scythian” shepherd. The antiquated touch of this rebranding is used even on the 1590 title page of the printed version of the play.18 Tamburlaine’s “rid[ing] in triumph through Persepolis” (2.5.50) by the middle of the first part kindles classical memories of Alexander’s conquests, and he stays close to that model throughout the two parts of the play by choosing, as Javad Ghatta underlined, to keep only that classically charged crown and title of King of Persia for himself, while he distributes all other crowns and titles between his lieutenants after each conquest.19

The example of Tamburlaine shows how right from the start, the so-called Turk play of modern critics cannot simply and straightforwardly be reduced to staging bragging Turkish tyrants or setting the action in the Ottoman Empire. Like all stereotypes, Dimmock noted, the stock type of the Turk is “open to challenge and nuance.”20 He cited as an example in this respect the radically differing characterizations of the three princes competing for the Ottoman throne in Selimus, including the gracious and pacifist Corcut, who converts to Christianity before getting murdered by the chief protagonist. The cameo appearances of Haleb and Amurath, the two radically opposed brother figures of the eponymous sultan in Thomas Kyd’s Soliman and Perseda (act 1, scene 4), point to the same variety in characterization, suggesting the possibility for more nuance and complexity in the main character’s pedigree, even though the outcome of the tragedy irrevocably pushes him toward the more bloodthirsty variant. In these plays, the historical and cultural reclamation of the Turk type sometimes involves a religious conversion, as in the case of Prince Corcut in Selimus, while sometimes classicizing the Turk is a strategy achieving a similar result. The extreme case in this respect is perhaps what happens in Greene’s Alphonsus in which the sultan is introduced as wedded to a queen of the Amazons, advised by a sorceress called Medea, and as father to a princess whose very name, Iphigina, proleptically announces her sacrifice. Such persistent allusions help shape the plot as an iteration of the Trojan War, with a twist, leading to the happy ending of a transcultural wedding rather than a tragedy resulting in the mass destruction of one side in the conflict. Revisiting the late medieval legend of the Turks’ possible Trojan origin ultimately puts in place a scenario of translatio imperii, incorporating the Other within the imaginative pan-European fantasy world of the romance.21 Such literary reimaginings balance and mitigate the barbarous view of the Turks as an “obscure and base” race emerging out of ancient Scythia in the often-quoted passage from Richard Knolles’s The Generall Historie of the Turkes (1603).22

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum of the Turk play, Ralf Hertel called The Travels of the Three English Brothers “almost the Turk play without Turks,” since here the action ranges over three continents while following the anti-Ottoman diplomatic and military endeavors of the Sherley brothers around the Mediterranean.23 The contract of this play, in Hertel’s view, is to “oust” the Turks from both the stage space and the geopolitical sphere covered by the action. For Ghatta, the proliferation of cultural and religious belongings in this play was a clear sign of early modern audiences’ awareness of distinct identities within the Islamic East, in particular when it came to staging Safavid Persia’s unique blend of sectarian shi’ism and ancient monarchic myths.24

“Bringing in a Persian”: The Case for the Specificity of Persian Plays

Although Ottoman and Persian characters are sometimes placed side by side as counterparts or foils to each other in the drama of the period—witness the old sultan and the young Sophy as the Crusaders’ adversaries in The Four Prentices of London, or the matching Turk and Persian figures appearing at two corners of the stage in one of the six tableaux of Thomas Dekker’s civic pageant, London’s Tempe (1629)—they are certainly not conflated as iterations of the same stereotypes.25 Symmetrically posited as the “non-Mediterranean, non-Turkish, non-Sunni” alternative to the Ottoman on Dekker’s animated map of the East, Persia both enters the literary imaginary of the early modern period through different channels and produces connotations that are distinct from those of the Ottomans.26

In her survey of Persian presences and references on the early modern stage, Linda McJannet identified three types of influences: classical, biblical, and contemporary. The range of classical histories available in translation was broad in the period, with such standards as Xenophon’s Cyropaedia (first translated in 1552, and again in 1567), Plutarch’s “life of Alexander,” available in Thomas North’s 1579 translation, Herodotus’s Histories, in various versions, and such post-Reformation moral revisiting of episodes related to the lives of ancient Persian monarchs as Richard Taverner’s Garden of Wisdom (1539).27 Identified as one of the “four monarchies” or world empires of the biblical Book of Daniel, Persia is also celebrated in a number of other Old Testament books for the righteous and magnanimous conduct of its Achaemenid kings, in particular toward the Jews, reported to have been freed by Cyrus of their Babylonian captivity and elevated through Esther’s marriage with King Ahasuerus in the Book of Esther.28 Interest in contemporary Persia first circulated through accounts of other European voyagers, notably Venetians like Giosafat Barbaro, whose travels to Tana and Persia were translated in 1551 by William Thomas as a new year gift for Edward VI.29 English travels to Safavid Persia and attempts at establishing diplomatic and commercial ties were soon to follow through the action of agents of the Muscovy Company, reaching the court of Shah Tahmasp as early as 1562–1563. The material related to their journeys, as compiled by Richard Eden and Richard Willes in The History of Travayle to the West and East Indies (1577) and reproduced in Richard Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations (1589), built an updated record of Safavid Persia for early modern readers. Striding the divide between travel account and travel fiction, the large body of propaganda writing commissioned by and around the Sherley brothers over the first two decades of the 17th century further contributed to keeping Persia on the English radar, not just as distinct from the Ottomans, but as a natural ally against them. The Sherleys’ attempts at brokering an anti-Ottoman alliance between Shah Abbas and various Western powers were instrumental in encouraging an image of Safavid Persia which, in the words of Javad Ghatta, was one of “a powerful, independent Islamic state, one that invested in the legacies of ancient Persia in order to define itself in contradistinction to Ottoman Sunni hegemony.”30

Though we do not quite have the same plays on our lists, both Linda McJannet and I have identified around thirty early modern plays including Persian elements, “whether ancient, modern, or a conflation of both.”31 Classical treatments of Persian monarchy dominate in earlier plays, with Achaemenids chiefly figuring in earlier Tudor interludes, moral plays, and classical histories, such as Godly Queen Hester (1527), King Darius (1565), and The Wars of Cyrus (1588). Overall, in the dramatic literature of this period, McJannet concluded, “Persian figures were associated with majesty, authority, and wisdom.”32 Even the one negative portrait of an Achaemenid king, Cambyses, in the tragedy of the same name (1561), makes room, she noted, for his one good deed of punishing the corrupt judge Sisamnes.33

But while the classical memory of the Achaemenids continued to inhabit the political morality of Senecan closet dramas by William Alexander, Samuel Daniel, and Fulke Greville in the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean periods, the public stage gradually took on a more composite approach to Safavid Persia as a blend of Islamic sectarianism and ancient legacies of monarchic myths and Zoroastrian beliefs. We can concur with Matthew Dimmock’s assessment of the propagandist Travels of the Three English Brothers as a fiction which “dramatizes a greater range of religious belief than any other play of the early modern period.”34 This variety does not merely serve to distinguish between Ottoman Sunni foes and Persian Shi’a friends for the Sherleys, but sometimes we even witness shifting connotations for the same characters at different moments of the action. The most extreme case is that of the Sophy himself, fleetingly associated with the defeated Muslim Sultan of medieval romances when he exclaims “Mahomet! It thunders!” (1. 117) at the firing of an English canon.35 But elsewhere in the same scene, he rather appears as a pagan, adding a modern Shi’a reference to his classically inherited pantheon as he submits himself to Anthony Sherley: “Next Mortus Ali, and those deities/ To whom we Persians pay devotion,/ We do adore thee” (1. 87–89). By the end of the play, the Sophy’s conversion to Christianity appears imminent, as he accepts to be the godfather of Robert Sherley’s son, born in Persia, and allows the building of Christian churches in his new capital of Isfahan. Overall, the effect of this confessional confusion in the play is to mark the Sophy as a kind of Prester John figure out of crusading legends, “a figure whose exact religious faith is a mystery, but who is nevertheless on the Christians’ side as a whole.”36

Persians are less present than the Ottomans in the dramatic literature of the later Jacobean period, though Persia continues to be a source of inspiration for decors and costumes in court entertainments. An example of this trend is the casting of Asia “in a Persian lady’s habit, with a crown on her head” in Thomas Campion’s Masque of Squires (1613).37 Later iterations of the matter of Persia in the Caroline period are much influenced, McJannet stressed, by the aftermath of the Dodmore Cotton embassy of 1626, in particular the account left by Thomas Herbert, a younger member of the expedition, in A Relation of Some Yeares Travaile (first edition 1634).38 Herbert’s report included developments on the legacy of ancient Persia, including Persepolis, which he boasted to have been the first Englishman to visit, as well as an update on the later, crueler phase of the reign of Shah Abbas involving the blinding and killing of his son and heir.39 Both sets of reports on ancient and contemporary Persia find their way into the English drama of this period with such plays as John Suckling’s Aglaura (1637) and John Denham’s The Sophy (1642). William Cartwright’s syncretic The Royal Slave (1636) even brings together the two trends by relocating in antiquity a sensational episode from the reign of Shah Abbas and giving it a tragicomic twist.40

As is shown by this necessarily limited survey of early modern literary renderings of the Ottoman and Persian empires, engagements with the two Eastern powers were both sustained and vibrant throughout the period. Europe’s military, commercial, and diplomatic contacts with the two empires brought about continuous adjustments in their literary portraits, from fantasizing the hegemonic Ottomans’ defeat to energizing the image of their Persian rival as a “brother” rather than an “Other.”41 Critical engagements with this literary legacy have likewise remained both sustained and vibrant over the past few decades.

Critical Legacies and Ongoing Conversations

More than eighty years after its original publication, Samuel Chew’s The Crescent and the Rose (1937) still remains a valuable repository of primary sources on the Ottomans and Persians. It is true that our critical outlook has much changed since the habits of his generation. which was, in McJannet’s words, predominantly concerned with “historical accuracy (variously defined) and aesthetic merits” (equally variously defined, we may add).42 But the sheer amount of the data gathered by Chew still makes his book a resource to turn to if wishing to go deeper into any specific aspect of the topics surveyed here.

But recent decades have seen more and more interpretive models emerge, in addition to a growing documentation of early modern England’s literary engagements with Islamic lands. One thriving area of interpretation has been the post-Reformation context of production of both literary and polemical works in which Islam provides a framework for conceptualizing an antagonized religious Other, from “Papal Turk” to “Lutheran Mahomet,” as summed up by Matthew Birchwood.43 Instances of such co-constructions of religious Otherness in relation to both Ottoman Sunnis and Persian Shi’as are modelized by Matthew Dimmock in Mythologies of the Prophet Muhammad in Early Modern English Culture.44 Recent updates on this field of inquiry and an enlarging of its time frame are provided in John Tolan’s Faces of Muhammad (2019), covering the topic of co-constructions of religious identity in the West through the mediation of Islamic references from medieval to present times.45 The ERC-EuQu (The European Qur’an) project, of which Tolan is a principal investigator, holds the promise of further developments into that line of study in the coming years.46 Meanwhile, Jerry Brotton has tackled the issue of identity co-constructions from the perspective of political references, in addition to theological ones, thereby offering new readings of the ambivalent Turk figure getting “ghosted” in the context of post-Armada history plays and fictions, from Shakespeare’s Henry V to Richard Johnson’s The Seven Champions of Christendom (c. 1596).47

Among the other, most promising avenues of research pursued in recent years in respect to Turk plays has been to look for their ramifications through the repertory history of early modern playhouses and theatrical companies. As pointed out by Mark Hutchings in Turks, Repertories, and the Early Modern English Stage (2017), when we change our approach to plays, conventionally read as individual ones in our modern editions, and more contextually apprehend them “as components of a sequence, patterns of association emerge.”48 Such playhouse practices as the migration of costumes and props from one company to another, investing in star actors (Edward Alleyn for the Admiral’s Men or Richard Burbage for the Chamberlain’s Men) with their specific acting styles, or intertextual responses to previous stage successes, are particularly well accommodated within the malleable and not genre-specific frame of the Turk play. Enlarging the network of plays around that core helps bring into the conversation a number of plays not hitherto associated with the Turk play family. Chief among them are Shakespeare’s history plays, with their scattered but recurrent Turkish vignettes, bringing the Ottoman model into their larger articulations of the stages of history and forms of nationhood.49 Work on repertory Turks and Persians has also benefited from valuable digital resources such as the “Lost Plays Database,” which helps with restoring missing links and derivations, especially in the crucial post-Armada, post-Tamburlaine years.50

Last, but not least, inquiries into Ottoman and Persian connections have been on the forefront of both global and material studies over the past three decades, with such landmark publications as Lisa Jardine and Jerry Brotton’s Global Interests (2000) or Anne Gerritsen and Giorgio Riello’s The Global Lives of Things (2016).51 The impact of material and global history research on our understanding of the literature of the early modern period has been immense and goes well beyond identifying anecdotal references to goods and gifts transiting between East and West, such as the well-documented Dallam organ sent as an English state present to Sultan Mehmet III in 1599. The gift’s delivery by its maker, Thomas Dallam, himself in Constantinople, is detailed in his Diary (or “Account of an Organ Carryed to the Grand Seignor and Other Curious Matter”), recording the incidents of his journey and the figures and ceremonies involved in such diplomatic transactions. These have been the focus of recent studies beyond the sheer materiality of the presents that were exchanged.52 Among the fascinating connections made in the process between diplomatic circulations and literary incidences, we can quote Matthew Dimmock’s “Tudor Turks: Ottomans Speaking English in Early Modern Sultansbriefe” (2020), which considers the effect of the writing style attributed to the Ottoman sultan in his widely copied and circulating letters (genuine or fake) on the style of acting and speaking used for public stage portrayals of the figure in England.53 Further opening the scope of literary declensions to legacies of diplomatic and commercial contacts has also made room for subaltern and gendered refracted voices and agencies. Bernadette Andrea’s Lives of Girls and Women from the Islamic World in Early Modern British Literature and Culture (2017) applies this type of methodology to literary works treated as supplementary archives potentially yielding traces of the role played by displaced women from the Islamic East in the formation of English canonic literary works, such as Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1594).54 Ladan Niayesh’s “Patterning the Tatar Girl in George Puttenham’s The Art of English Poesy” (2021) takes a similar direction in looking for the material and global background of an early modern poetic fashion—pattern poetry—seeking legitimacy by working a fictive lineage for itself through Persian and Turkic originals.55

Discussion of the Literature

Samuel Chew’s The Crescent and the Rose (1937) may still be cited near-systematically for its status as a precursor in a now well-established field of scholarship. Yet, it is worth noting that this classic had no immediate progeny in its own time. Critical and public interest in early modern English literature’s engagements with Islamic lands truly rose in the last two decades of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st century. The field has thrived under the growing influence of postcolonial studies, but has also been marked by the lasting influence of such traumatic contexts as post-9/11’s “clash of civilizations.”56 The public’s present take on the sensitive topic of Islam on both sides of the Atlantic has at times necessitated critical interventions to reposition the lens through which we consider English material from pre- and proto-imperial periods. Such is especially the case in relation to Ottoman and Safavid lands with which—let us remember—the English model of engagement remained “para-colonial” throughout.57

This is why, however epoch-making and influential Edward Said’s Orientalism was in the critical field when it first appeared in 1978, its theoretical frame was never fully felt to be applicable to the study of early modern English literature’s engagements with Eastern empires. Orientalism certainly played a role in sparking new research into the material, but much of that research went into demonstrating the anachronism of applying a discourse of European domination on the literature of this specific period. The one possible exception remained the case of the empire-building rhetoric of court masques, even though these mostly envisioned the prospect of an empire in the West rather than the East in the period. Some of the best representatives of the critical challenge to Said’s theories include Nabil Matar’s Islam in Britain, 1558–1685 (1998) and Richmond Barbour’s Before Orientalism: London’s Theatre of the East, 1576–1626 (2003). The works of these and other critics showcase the early moderns’ interest in the great empires of the East, not as an inferior stereotype always already subdued, but as both mighty and wealthy rivals or allies. If empire was never absent from the preoccupations of English literary works addressing them, the posture adopted toward them was, in Gerald MacLean’s phrase, one of “imperial envy,” as those fictions exorcised fears of Ottoman advances on Europe and inspired England’s own dreams of empire rather than being subjected to them.58

Over recent years, new research in the field has been aided by several key critical editions bringing to the fore a number of previously understudied literary works from the early modern period, especially dramatic ones. In this respect, critical thinking owes much to the long-lasting influence of Anthony Parr’s Three Renaissance Travel Plays (2000), Daniel Vitkus’s Three Turk Plays from Early Modern England (2003), and Charles Edelman’s The Stukeley Plays (2005). Further research into understudied plays staging Ottomans and Persians may follow Ladan Niayesh’s Three Romances of Eastern Conquest (2018). Major undertakings in the field of editing travel writings from the early modern period are also likely in coming years to give way to fruitful engagements with their literary ramifications, and Oxford University Press’s project of a modern 14-volume edition of Richard Hakluyt’s late 16th-century compendium, Principal Navigations, is an example in that respect.59 Scholarly prepared editions of source materials play a key role, not just in expanding our knowledge of the period, but also in keeping the right balance between societal commitments from our time and the necessary historical contextualization of debates to avoid back projections and anachronisms. Equally valuable in this respect is ERC-TIDE’s Keywords of Identity, Race, and Human Mobility in Early Modern England (2021), historicizing words and concepts for the period on such key terms as “Mahometan” or “Turk.”60 Together, these tools provide excellent resources for linking research and education, as well as past and present engagements with the legacies of Ottoman and Persian material in early modern English literature.

Links to Digital Materials

  • EuQu (The European Qur’an): for research into the uses of Islamic references and stereotypes in post-Reformation inter-Christian debates.
  • Lost Plays Database: expanding the range of known-of early modern plays, many of them dealing with the matter of the East.
  • MEMOs: Medieval and Early Modern Orients: a decolonial hub for exploring early modern encounters between England and the Islamic empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals.
  • Reading East: Irish Sources and Resources: a catalogue of early modern printed texts on European contacts with the East.
  • TIDE (Travel, Transculturality, and Identity in England, c. 1550–1700) Keywords: conceptualizing and historicizing key terms of identity and transculturality in the early modern period.

Further Reading

  • Anderson, Benedict. Islam and Early Modern English Literature. The Politics of Romance from Spencer to Milton. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
  • Andrea, Bernadette. Women and Islam in Early Modern English Literature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Andrea, Bernadette, and Linda McJannet. Early Modern England and Islamic Worlds. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
  • Barbour, Richmond. Before Orientalism: London’s Theatre of the East, 1576–1626. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  • Birchwood, Matthew. Staging Islam in English Drama and Culture, 1640–1685. Woodbridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 2007.
  • Burton, Jonathan. Traffic and Turning: Islam and the Early Modern English Drama, 1579–1624. Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 2005.
  • Chew, Samuel. The Crescent and the Rose: Islam and England during the Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1937.
  • Dimmock, Matthew. New Turkes: Dramatizing Islam and the Ottomans in Early Modern England. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2005.
  • Grogan, Jane. The Persian Empire in English Renaissance Writing, 1549–1622. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.
  • Hutchings, Mark. Turks, Repertories, and the Early Modern English Stage. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.
  • MacLean, Gerald. Looking East: English Writing and the Ottoman Empire before 1800. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
  • Matar, Nabil. Islam in Britain, 1558–1685. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  • McJannet, Linda. “Bringing in a Persian.” Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England 12 (1999): 236–267.
  • Niayesh, Ladan. “Shakespeare’s Persians.” Shakespeare 4, no. 2 (2008): 127–136.
  • Niayesh, Ladan. Three Romances of Eastern Conquest. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2018.
  • Robinson, Benedict. Islam and Early Modern English Literature: The Politics of Romance from Spenser to Milton. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
  • Schülting, Sabine, Sabine Lucia Müller, and Ralf Hertel. Early Modern Encounters with the Islamic East: Performing Cultures. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2012.
  • Vitkus, Daniel. Turning Turk: English Theatre and the Multicultural Mediterranean, 1570–1630. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.


  • 1. For more on this literary convention, see Helen Moore, “The Eastern Mediterranean in the English Amadis Cycle, Book V,” Yearbook of English Studies 41, no. 1 (2011): 113–125; 116.

  • 2. The first surviving printed edition in English is a fragment of the volume produced by R. Faques in 1525, but manuscript versions of King Alisaunder in Middle English circulated since at least the late 13th century.

  • 3. Anon., Tom a Lincoln, ed. G. R. Proudfoot, Malone Society Reprints (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).

  • 4. For more on this, see Ladan Niayesh, “Reterritorializing Persepolis in the First English Travellers’ Accounts,” in Beyond Greece and Rome: Reading the Ancient Near East in Early Modern Europe, ed. Jane Grogan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), 115–131, 118–119.

  • 5. On the significance of this work, especially for depictions of Persia, see Jane Grogan, ed., William Barker, Xenophon’s “Cyropaedia” (Cambridge, UK: MHRA, 2020), “Introduction,” 1–67.

  • 6. For an overview of the intercultural valency of Saracen figures in The Faerie Queene, see Talya Meyers, “Saracens in Faeryland,” Spenser Studies 29 (2014): 37–61.

  • 7. Barbara Fuchs, Romance (New York: Routledge, 2004), 69.

  • 8. Ladan Niayesh, Three Romances of Eastern Conquest (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2018), 1.

  • 9. Susan Skilliter, “Three Letters from the Ottoman ‘Sultana’ Safiye to Queen Elizabeth I,” in Documents from Islamic Chanceries, ed. Samuel M. Stern (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1970).

  • 10. See for details Sara Morrison, “‘I shall endeavor for her aims’: Women’s Alliances and Relational Figurations of Freedom,” Humanities 7 (2018): 117.

  • 11. For more details on Teresa Sherley, see Bernadette Andrea’s ODNB entry on her.

  • 12. Daniel Vitkus, Three Turk Plays from Early Modern England (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 7; Niayesh, Three Romances, 2.

  • 13. Jonathan Burton, Traffic and Turning: Islam and English Drama, 1579–1624 (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 2005), 257–258; Peter Berek, “Tamburlaine’s Weak Sons: Imitation as Interpretation Before 1593,” Renaissance Drama 13 (1982): 55–82; Mark Hutchings, Turks, Repertories, and the Early Modern English Stage (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 152; and Edition used: Three Turk Plays from Early Modern England, ed. Daniel Vitkus (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), sc 8, SD10.

  • 14. Robert Lublin, Costuming the Shakespearean Stage: Visual Codes of Representation in Early Modern Theatre and Culture (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2011), 147.

  • 15. John of Bordeaux, or the Second Part of Friar Bacon, vol. 2, ed. William Lindsay Renwick, Malone Society Reprints (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936), 171–172; and For more on this stock figure, see Matthew Dimmock, New Turkes: Dramatizing Islam and the Ottomans in Early Modern England (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2005), 169.

  • 16. Matthew Dimmock, “Materialising Islam on the Early Modern English Stage,” in Early Modern Encounters with the Islamic East: Performing Cultures, ed. Sabine Schülting, Sabine Lucia Müller, and Ralf Hertel (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2012), 115–132, 118.

  • 17. For details on that lost play and its surviving plot (along with that of The Battle of Alcazar) in the Alleyn papers, see the relevant entry in the Lost Plays database.

  • 18. Tamburlaine the Great. Who, from a Scythian Shephearde, by his rare and woonderfull Conquests became a most puissant and mightye Monarque (London: Richard Jhones, 1590).

  • 19. Javad Ghatta, “Prsian Icons, Shi‘a Imams: Liminal Figures and Hybrid Persian Identities on the English Stage,” in Early Modern England and Islamic Worlds, ed. Bernadette Andrea and Linda McJannet (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 53–72, 56.

  • 20. Dimmock, “Materialising Islam,” 118.

  • 21. For more on this, see James G. Harper, “Turks as Trojans; Trojans as Turks: Visual Imagery of the Trojan War and the Politics of Cultural Identity in Fifteenth-Century Europe,” in Postcolonial Approaches to the European Middle Ages: Translating Cultures, ed. Ananya Jahanara Kabir and Deanne Williams (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 151–179; for more on this, see Niayesh, Three Romances, 18.

  • 22. Richard Knolles, The Generall Historie of the Turkes (London: Adam Islip, 1603), sig. A4r.

  • 23. Ralf Hertel, “Ousting the Ottomans: The Double Vision of the East in The Three English Brothers,” 135–151 in Schülting, Müller and Hertel, ed. Early Modern Encounters, 135–151, 143.

  • 24. Ghatta, “Persian Icons,” 58–59.

  • 25. “At the foure angles of the square [. . .] are placed a Turke, and a Persian. A pikeman and a Musketeere” (Thomas Dekker, Tempe Restored, in The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker, ed. Fredson Bowers [Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1961], 106); and This section’s title, “Bringing in the Persion,” takes up that of a groundbreaking article by Linda McJannet, one of the first to establish the specificity of Persian plays within the larger ensemble of early modern plays on the Islamic East; and see Linda McJannet, “Bringing in a Persian,” Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England 12 (1999): 236–267.

  • 26. Ladan Niayesh, “Shakespeare’s Persians,” Shakespeare 4, no. 2 (2008): 127–136; 127.

  • 27. McJannet, “Bringing in a Persian,” 243–244.

  • 28. See, among other examples, 2 Chronicles 36:23, Ezra 6:3–5, Isaiah 45:13.

  • 29. Royal MS 17 C X, British Library.

  • 30. Ghatta, “Persian Icons,” 66–67.

  • 31. McJannet, “Bringing in a Persian,” 240; and Niayesh, “Shakespeare’s Persians,” 136.

  • 32. McJannet, “Bringing in a Persian,” 242.

  • 33. McJannet, “Bringing in a Persian,” 245.

  • 34. Matthew Dimmock, Mythologies of the Prophet Muhammad in Early Modern English Culture (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 142.

  • 35. All references are to Anthony Parr’s edition of Three Renaissance Travel Plays (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2000).

  • 36. Ladan Niayesh, A Knight’s Legacy: Mandeville and Mandevillian Lore in Early Modern England (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2011), 166.

  • 37. A. H. Bullen, Thomas Campion: Songs and Masques (London: Bullen, 1903), 221.

  • 38. McJannet, “Bringing in a Persian,” 242.

  • 39. See more on this in Niayesh, “Reterritorializing Persepolis.” The first English engraving showing Persepolis, from the 1634 edition of Herbert’s A Relation, is reproduced on page 124.

  • 40. For more on the conglomerate of epochs in these plays, see Chloë Houston, “Persia and Kingship in William Cartwright’s The Royal Slave,” Studies in English Literature 1500–1800 54, no. 2 (2014): 455–473.

  • 41. Shülting, Müller, and Hertel, Early Modern Encounters, “Introduction,” 7.

  • 42. McJannet, “Bringing in a Persian,” 237.

  • 43. Matthew Birchwod, Staging Islam in England: Drama and Culture, 1640–1685 (Woodbridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 2007), 59.

  • 44. Dimmock, Mythologies of the Prophet Muhammad, chap. 3: “Old Mahomet’s Head: Idols, Papists, and Mortus Ali on the English Stage,” 101–148.

  • 45. John Tolan, Faces of Muhammad: Western Perceptions of the Prophet of Islam from the Middle Ages to Today (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019).

  • 46. The European Qur’an.

  • 47. Jerry Brotton, “Shakespeare’s Turks and the Spectre of Ambivalence in the History Plays,” Textual Practice 28, no. 3 (2014): 521–538.

  • 48. Hutchings, Turks, 104.

  • 49. Hutchings, Turks, chap. 5: “Shakespeare’s Turks,” 151–193.

  • 50. Lost Plays Database.

  • 51. Lisa Jardine and Jerry Brotton, Global Interests: Renaissance Art between East and West (London: Reaktion, 2000); and Anne Gerritsen and Giorgio Riello, The Global Lives of Things: The Material Culture of Connections in the Early Modern World (London: Routledge, 2016).

  • 52. See for details Lawrence Danson, “The Sultan’s Organ: Presents and Self-Presentation in Thomas Dallam’s Diary,” Renaissance Studies 23, no. 5 (2009): 639–658.

  • 53. Matthew Dimmock, “Tudor Turks: Ottomans Speaking English in Early Modern Sultansbriefe,” ELR 50, no. 3 (2020): 335–358.

  • 54. Bernadette Andrea, The Lives of Girls and Women from the Islamic World in Early Modern British Literature and Culture (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017).

  • 55. Ladan Niayesh, “Patterning the Tatar Girl in George Puttenham’s The Art of English Poesie (1589),” in Jyotsna Singh, ed., A Companion to the Global Renaissance: Literature and Culture in the Era of Expansion, 1500–1700, 2nd ed. (Chichester, UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2021), 377–386.

  • 56. The phrase, popularized by Samuel Huntington in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996) and much used in the immediate post-9/11 context, was engaged with by Edward Said in “The Clash of Ignorance,” The Nation, October 4, 2001.

  • 57. The “para-colonial” concept was coined by John Archer, Old Worlds: Egypt, Southwest Asia, India, and Russia in Early Modern English Writing (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001), 16–17.

  • 58. Gerald MacLean, Looking East: English Writing and the Ottoman Empire before 1800 (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2007), 20–23.

  • 59. The Hakluyt Editorial Project.

  • 60. TIDE Keywords.