deserves attention as the year in which William Shakespeare and Miguel de
Cervantes died—it also saw the first sustained and documented contact between
the Islamic world and Britain. The life of Britain’s most celebrated writer
coincided with significant diplomatic relations between Protestant England and
Muslim dynasties in Morocco, the Ottomans and the Safavids of Iran. As trade
routes opened up and Queen Elizabeth I courted new alliances, dramatic ideas
about Muslims seeped into society. Britons were fascinated and alarmed
simultaneously; between 1576 and 1603 more than 60 plays featuring Muslims in
the guise of Turks, Moors or Persians featured on London’s stages.
canon, Shakespeare offers a multifaceted view of Islam. His knowledge of the
intricacies of the religion itself is sparse—he makes only one explicit
reference to the Prophet Muhammad, in “Henry VI”—yet this is hardly surprising,
given that the first English translation of the Koran emerged in 1649.
Shakespeare appropriates Islam for Protestant causes, aligning the false
prophecy of Muhammad with the inspired Joan of Arc;
Mahomet inspired with a dove?
with an eagle art inspired then…
may I reverently worship thee enough?
Arc’s inspiration seems like an endorsement of Christian superiority. Yet
Shakespeare is aligning a French Catholic with the false prophecy and
“idolatry” of Islam (an existent myth at the time was Muhammad formed part of a
trinity with Apollo); it is a clear example of Shakespeare manipulating
sectarian divisions for a Protestant audience.
first fully-fleshed out Muslim character emerges in “Titus Adronicus”. In his
most violent play, Aaron the “blackamoor” is a typical representation of
villainy; he is an unrepentant outsider, refusing to collude in social codes by
his “murders, rapes and massacres | Acts of black night”. Aaron’s religious
identity and race are indivisible, he is presumed to “have [a] soul black like
is not a simple embodiment of the period’s prejudices. Though he is the “chief
architect and plotter of [the play’s] woes”, he is also alarmingly eloquent and
elicits sympathy when he rebuffs accusations about his beliefs. Shakespeare
even suggests that it is society’s racism that drives characters to evil. The
nurse refers to his child in dehumanising terms—a “joyless, dismal, black and
sorrowful issue”—to which Aaron angrily retorts: “Zounds ye whore! Is black so
base a hue?” The Elizabethan audience, who heretofore may have agreed with the
nurse’s perspective, are directly invited to question their beliefs.
offers a less villainous Muslim character in “The Merchant of Venice”. The
Prince of Morocco is lined up among Europeans as one of Portia’s potential
husbands, yet she is disgusted by his skin colour (“If he have the condition of
a saint and the complexion of a devil, I had rather he should shrive me than
wive me”). He implores his would-be wife to “mislike [him] not for [his]
complexion | The Shadowed livery of the burnished sun” and to view him instead
as a man of accomplishment “that slew…a Persian prince | That won three fields
of Sultan Solyman”. Shakespeare’s choice of language—“livery”, associated with
the uniform of those in servitude—again suggests the inevitable degradation
suffered by these Muslim characters.
is unavoidably Shakespeare’s most nuanced attempt at a Muslim character. A
general in the Venetian army, he is repeatedly praised by his peers as “a very
gallant man”, “noble” and “valiant” and he speaks in eloquent blank verse. It
is mostly Iago, the villain of the play, who refers to him as a “Moor” and in
debasing terminology; it is he who refers to his sexual relationship with
Desdemona as “an old black ram tupping…[a] white ewe”, where the word “tupping”
is reserved for the copulation of animals. He continues this animalistic train
of thought to Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, by saying “your daughter [is]
covered with a Barbary horse / you’ll have nephews neigh to you." Critics
such as Jean Howard suggest that Shakespeare necessarily had Desdemona die, not
due to the limits of the tragic form but because she had crossed a sacred
social barrier in marrying outside her social and ethnic milieu. In Elizabethan
drama, the sexual transgression of “miscegenation” was punishable only by
himself struggles to reconcile his race, religion and position in Venetian
society. In his final lines before committing suicide, he sees himself
base Indian, [who] threw a pearl away...
tears as fast as Arabian trees
medicinal gum. Set you down this,
say besides that in Aleppo once,
a malignant and turbaned Turk
a Venetian and traduced the state,
took by th’ throat the circumcised dog
denigrates himself as a “base Indian” who didn’t understand the value of his
“pearl” Desdemona (once again bound up in racial language), yet goes on to
distance himself from his Moorish heritage by reasserting his allegiance to
Venice in smiting the “malignant and turbaned Turk”. By then killing himself,
he proclaims himself comparable to a dog or a Turk. As Professor Jerry Brotton
of Queen Mary University notes, Othello is an embodiment of coexisting yet
contradictory relations with the Islamic world.
as proven time and again in other fields, was ahead of his time in his
sensitivity to the Islamic world and its inhabitants. Of course, his plays
reveal his own set of prejudices, fascinations and contradictions, but over the
course of his career the myth of the bloodthirsty Muslim is eclipsed by a more
sensitive depiction in Othello—a change possibly influenced by the visit of
Morocco’s ambassador to London in 1600. In our present day, where skewed
misconceptions about Islam in Europe is the norm, there is much Shakespeare can
teach us about who and what we identify with.