The centrality of the Muslim world in Shakespeare’s work
Ignored for centuries, the presence of Muslims figures prominently in the work of one of Britain’s most iconic figures.
William Shakespeare (1564-1616), England’s most famous playwright and symbol of Britishness, had close ties to the Islamic world through his vast body of beloved works.
“Without Islam, there would be no Shakespeare,” says Mathew Dimmock, Professor of Modern Studies (English) at the University of Sussex.
“Without the rich and complex engagement of Tudor and Jacobean England with Islamic cultures, the plays written by William Shakespeare would be very different, if they existed,” Dimmock said. World TRT.
Due to Queen Elizabeth I’s political and commercial alliances with the Muslim world, particularly the Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Morocco, the influence of Muslim culture on England was immense and permeated literature and theater.
The first commercial playhouse in London opened in 1576. By the time Shakespeare came on the scene, there were already plays that used the Islamic world as a backdrop, and the stories of Muslim empires and peoples were extremely popular. There were in fact over 60 plays between 1576 and 1603 featuring Turks, Moors and Persians.
Shakespeare’s most famous portrayal of a main character of Muslim descent was “Othello”, described as a “Moor” from Venice. In the play, it is implied that he had converted to Christianity. However, there have been plausible theories that Othello never actually changed his faith.
A 2018 rendition of Othello by English Touring Theater and directed by Richard Twyman presents this alternative view of Othello as a practicing Muslim.
In a interview with AlJazeeraRichard Twyman said historian Jerry Brotton’s research on this topic was an eye-opener.
“We historically knew about the Moorish Kingdom of Spain (where Spanish Muslims or Moriscos were forcibly converted to Christianity in 1492.) But I never imagined that Moor could also refer to the spiritual and cultural identity of Spain. ‘Othello,” Twyman said.
Yet Shakespeare’s connection to the Muslim world has been downplayed in recent centuries. “Modern times have made Othello a tragedy of racial conflict. Post-20th-century depictions have downplayed the Muslim context, which excludes the complexity of its meaning and a key element in understanding the play,” says Dimmock.
Part of the confusion seems to stem from the meaning of the word “Moor” during this period which has been lost in our current interpretation. At the time Shakespeare was writing, the word “Moor” did not just refer to a darker complexion, but to a Muslim from anywhere in the Islamic world.
Elizabethan English did not use the term “Muslim”; instead, a multitude of words have been used to describe followers of the Islamic faith, from “Moorish”, “Arab”, “Saracen” to “Turkish”. The words were often used interchangeably, and a lack of understanding of this terminology resulted in the omission of the Muslim world and its importance to Shakespeare’s work, and English literature in general, at that time.
There were many more plays by Shakespeare beside Othello which featured Muslim characters, places and objects. Theater manager Sean Aita says “Twelfth Night presents us with a setting that shows evidence of being Islamic in culture, despite sharing many characteristics of Elizabethan England”. There are also references to the Islamic world in “Titus Andronicus” which has a Moorish character, and “Taming the Shrew” refers to “turkey cushions embossed with a pearl”.
However, these mentions only scratch the surface. In fact, Dimmock states that Shakespeare included “about 150 references to Islamic motifs in 21 plays – to Turks and Saracens, ‘Mahomet’, Morocco and Barbary”.
The reality is that Shakespeare and the English of the sixteenth century knew the Muslim world; they may not have understood Islam but were fully aware of Muslim wealth and power. That was the context at the time. Theater has helped to make this awareness more common.
Some Englishmen may even have encountered Muslims who came to England as diplomats, traders, or captured slaves. Wealthier Englishmen were certainly familiar with the goods and indulgences of the Muslim world, including carpets, exotic foods, and coffee.
“We need to look at the context of the world in which Shakespeare was writing and the connection to Islam. It cannot be otherwise, because the Muslim world was at the heart of Shakespeare’s work,” Dimmock said.
The Muslim presence in England and even in the Western world is a historical fact and not a 20th century phenomenon. The mainstream narrative erroneously revolves around Muslims as outsiders to the West, having only arrived in the UK with the waves of immigration of the 1950s and 1960s, and subsequently as refugees.
This narrative conveniently ignores the depth of interaction the West has had with the Muslim world, as well as the latter’s massive influence on this small island.
The presence of Islam is in fact deeply rooted even in quintessential British symbols such as William Shakespeare.
Source: World TRT