Relatively isolated on the edge of Europe, English merchants and government officials from the mid-sixteenth century through the end of the seventeenth century launched ventures across the globe for the purposes of trade, diplomacy, proselytizing, and education. While some of these ventures led to the founding of the first British Empire in North America during the seventeenth century and the second British Empire in South Asia during the eighteenth century, most were to lands where the English (and other British travelers) were received as supplicants and not sovereigns. These included the powerful empires of the Ottomans (centered in modern Turkey but spreading at its height through Eastern Europe, the Arabian Peninsula, and North Africa), Safavids (centered in modern Iran), and Mughals (centered in modern India). Especially after its turn to Protestantism, which resulted in increasing antagonism with the Spanish empire, English officials sought diplomatic, trade, and even military alliances with these Islamic polities against their common Catholic foes. Some Englishmen (and a few women) converted to Islam in the Ottoman Mediterranean, where they resided; others brought back to the British Isles Muslim habits such as drinking coffee and water instead of wine, wearing turbans, and reading Arabic. This engagement with the Islamic world of the early modern era led to a spate of plays based on these travellers’ narratives that variously attempt to understand and contain the allure and threat that Islam posed for the English in an era when the former, not the latter, were viewed as wealthy, powerful, and expansionist. These plays – which constitute a subset of the genre of travel drama – therefore precede, and perhaps prepare the way for, the mode of Orientalism associated with the British Empire at its height, even as they sometimes present counter-Orientalist alternatives. In this class, we will read a range of travel narratives along with the plays that relate to them in order to explore these issues and to raise further questions about cross-cultural encounters in terms of religion, ethnicity, race, gender, sexuality and other social vectors. Our aim will be to read these plays closely and to put them in their historical and literary contexts. In short, this course will introduce students to a fascinating, but often overlooked, aspect of English drama in the era of Shakespeare and beyond.
Andrea, Bernadette, ed. English Women Staging Islam, 1696–1707. Toronto: ITER & Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 2012.
Parker, Kenneth, ed. Early Modern Tales of Orient: A Critical Anthology. New York: Routledge, 1999.
Vitkus, Daniel, ed. Piracy, Slavery, and Redemption: Barbary Captivity Narratives from Early Modern England. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.
Vitkus, Daniel, ed. Three Turk Plays from Early Modern England. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.