The women of the early modern Turk and Moor plays

by Almas, Lamiya Mohamed, Ph.D., UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA, 2009, 170 pages; 3371822


On close examination of a number of early modern Turk and Moor plays written between 1586 and 1642 female characters are: cast in the shadow of Elizabeth, the rose of England, or wither in comparison; portrayed as temptresses who act as catalysts in the conversion and corruption of English and European men; or portrayed as lustful, vain, selfish, immodest and immorally inferior to their Christian and English counterparts. This dissertation analyzes the female character in a handful of Turk and Moor plays. So far there has been much discussion of the roles of Turkish and Moorish male characters, but the influences of the women characters in the very same plays have hardly been discussed. Their roles prove vital as in the case of Bel-Imperia whose consent tomarry the Prince of Portugal will determine the future of the throne and succession of both Spain and Portugal; Zenocrate the Egyptian Queen/Empress whom Tamburlaine courts and marries in order to climb the social ladder and rise from a shepherd to an emperor; the Moorish women Abdil Rayes and Rubin who, with the help of the Turks, attempt to restore order in their war torn stage by guiding and leading their men against the usurpers of the throne of Barbary. This dissertation will take a primarily textual analytical approach to the plays, with consideration of available scholarship as well as historical background.

The first chapter of the dissertation, entitled "Overshadowed by Elizabeth," is concerned with the uniformity in the image of the Muslim and non-Muslim women characters in four plays--Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, Marlowe's Tamburlaine Part I, Peele's The Battle of Alcazar and Heywood's The Fair Maid of the West Part I and II. Regardless of whether they are Muslim or non-Muslim, some of the women in these plays, in varying degrees, resemble Queen Elizabeth; and those who do not are her antitheses. For instance, Bess's perfection in physical stature and morals emphasizes Tota's physical imperfections and degenerate morals in Heywood's play, and Marlowe's absolute monarch and heiress to the throne of Egypt, Zenocate, emphasizes two-fold the limitations of women's sovereignty, based on association, in Zabina. The first chapter also sheds light on national sentiments that emerged as a result of Elizabeth's political and military involvement with the Muslims.

The sexual allure of Islam that perverted and converted, as it is expressed through the women of Islam on stage, is the subject of the second chapter, "Lust is a Definite Must." After Elizabeth's death, and just before and after the staging of the first early modern English conversion play in 1610, the Muslim menace hit very close to home in the form of piracy and forced conversion to Islam, also known as "turning Turk." Although the Englishmen who took up piracy and turned Turk were rumored to have led prosperous lives, the loss of their irredeemable souls was much lamented. They had sunk lower than the Turks and Moors themselves by surrendering gleefully to the new erotic, irascible, and libidinous desires they acquired through mingling freely with the "loose women" of Tunis, Barbary, and Algiers. These national anxieties over the result of English and Christian close commercial and cultural encounters were reenacted within a sexual context, with Turkish and Moorish "loose" women predators roaming the streets of Tunis and Malta lusting after European men. Such representations came at a time when the Barbary corsairs claimed an alarming number of English captives and converts to Islam. Playwrights attempted to quell heightened national anxiety by propagandizing against the allure of Islam through plays such as Daborne's Christian Turned Turk and Fletcher's The Knight of Malta.

The third chapter, "The Conversion of Turkish Harem Women," takes a sharp turn. The depictions of Turkish women in two plays are a far cry from the just previously demonized sexual creatures Agar, Voada, and Xanthia. All was not grim and horrid on the English stage. Hearts may have doubted that waves of captivity and conversion could be prevented, but the imagination of playwrights could transgress bitter reality. Relief on stage, although imaginary, came through the crafting of conversion narratives of two virtuous female harem characters--Fletcher's, Lucinda, in The Knight of Malta, and Massinger's, Donusa, in The Renegado--whose inherent goodness, although corrupted by a false religion that legitimizes their submission and victimization under an Islamic tyrant, is reversible. The chapter dwells on early modern English thought that saw harem women as oppressed slaves held against their will, subsequently waiting to be rescued and incorporated into Christian society through conversion. The chapter also entertains the possible gender discourses that emerged as a result of the development of English women's public roles that could have contributed to the positive models we see in the Turkish harem characters on stage.

The dissertation concludes with the most controversial Turkish concubine ever to exist, Roxolana. Her appeal to playwrights is noteworthy. In the time period under study, from 1594-1664, she appears in three early modern plays--Greville's Mustapha (1594), William Davenant's The Siege of Rhodes (Parts I and II) and Earl of Orrery's Mustapha (1664). The evolution of her image from an ambitious, shrewd and scheming intriguer who threatens the order of the monarch to the quintessential sultana, who takes on noble political roles, will be traced in the fourth chapter, entitled "Roxolana: the Most Popular Turkish Concubine on the English Stage." Interestingly, early modern ideas of Muslim and English women flourish within new contexts in plays featuring Roxolana.

AdvisersJohn Watkins; Nabil I. Matar
Source TypeDissertation
SubjectsComparative literature; Middle Eastern literature; English literature
Publication Number3371822

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