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Home :: Archive :: 2006 :: July ::
Shakespeare and Islam
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 17.0649  Wednesday, 12 July 2006

From: 		Cary DiPietro <
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Date: 		Wednesday, 12 Jul 2006 04:34:24 +0900
Subject: 17.0627 Shakespeare and Islam
Comment: 	RE: SHK 17.0627 Shakespeare and Islam

My thanks to those who responded both on and off-list to my initial 
query about Shakespeare's possible encounters with Islam in the period 
of his writing of Titus, and for pointing me in the direction of many 
valuable sources.  All of this is leading to a presentist-inflected 
reading of the play in terms of the intersection of violence, race, and 
religion.  Although I share V K Ingram's reservations about the 
potentially inflammatory language and hyperbole of his comments, Nabie 
Swaray answers my question precisely when he writes, 'The entire world 
is gripped in this dilemma, and the media continues to bombard us with 
images and news about Islamic atrocities. The parallels are similar. If 
the method of conquest and conversion employed by the " barbarous Turks" 
are [were?] as frightening and threatening to the safety of the rest of 
the world and her citizens [as they are today?], this and other factors 
must have fueled a passionate interest in Islam...This must have been 
the dilemma Shakespeare and even other writers such as the Elizabethan 
and Jacobean dramatists had to face... Islam, which is linked with the 
rise and dominance of the Ottoman Empire at that period must have 
sparked a global interest, especially when that part of the world 
remained threatened by this unfamiliar enemy.' The issue to be 
determined is whether Titus (as opposed to the later Othello which 
likely occurs in the wake of the first Moorish embassy to London and 
after the publication of popular travel narratives, in particular, the 
second edition of Hakluyt's Principal Navigations and John Pory's 
English translation of Leo Africanus) supports such a view.

I'm alert to the objections which might be raised to such a post hoc 
position, and the teleological implications of reading for historical 
continuity between present and past.  Such assertions, however 
qualified, potentially flatten out the heterogeneity and specificity of 
the past to read the present as the culmination of a recognizable, 
knowable history.  This is essentially the nature of V K Ingram's 
response to my question about whether Edward Said's theory of 
Orientalism can be read back to the period of Titus, in which he cites 
recent comments by Katherine Scarffe Beckett (I have yet to read the 
book).  Her reservations make perfect sense, that western commentaries 
on the East through the medieval and early modern periods were more 
complicated than Said's thesis allows.  As she rightly notes, Said is 
concerned with principally the eighteenth century to the present day, 
and the diverse ways in which orientalist discourse reifies an Orient 
which serves as colonial subject to western imperialist interests. 
While Beckett supports Said in his claims, it's not hard to see how the 
objections commonly raised against Said's Orientalism might also be 
applied to such a reading of Titus - that a theory of Orientalism 
flattens out the heterogeneity of Foucault's discourse analysis upon 
which Said builds; that the theory itself constitutes an act of 
colonizing Orientalism.

Said was himself alert to such objections.  There is a great moment in 
Said's 'Orientialism Reconsidered' when he compares the epistemological 
problem of positing an Orient with the Shakespeare text:  'The 
interesting point here is how difficult it is to try to understand a 
region of the world whose principal features seem to be, first, that it 
is in perpetual flux, and second, that no one trying to grasp it can by 
an act of pure will or of sovereign understanding stand at some 
Archimedean point outside of the flux... Similar problems are 
commonplace in the interpretation of literary texts.  Each age, for 
instance, re-interprets Shakespeare, not because Shakespeare changes, 
but because despite the existence of numerous and reliable editions of 
Shakespeare, there is no such fixed and non-trivial object as 
Shakespeare independent of his editors, the actors who played his roles, 
the translators who put him in other languages, the hundreds of millions 
of readers who have read him or watched performances of his plays since 
the late sixteenth century.  On the other hand, it is too much to say 
that Shakespeare has no independent existence at all, and that he is 
completely reconstituted every time someone reads, acts, or writes about 
him... The point I am making is a rudimentary one:  that even so 
relatively inert an object as a literary text is commonly supposed to 
gain some of its identity from its historical moment interacting with 
the attentions, judgements, scholarship, and performances of its 
readers.'  Unsurprisingly, Said turns out to be a presentist, 
negotiating a balance between the alterity and specificity of the past, 
and our interactions with and negotiations of history in the present.

In the case of Titus, while it may be anachronistic to read Orientalism 
back to Titus (though anachronism offers a useful point of entry into 
this epistemological problem, which is, in a sense, my point), at the 
same time, is it too much to argue that Shakespeare's representation of 
Aaron in Titus contains potentially discursive functions in the context 
of the triangulated Protestant-Catholic-Ottoman conflict, and increasing 
commercial trade, as well as piracy, in the Mediterranean passages 
connecting England and Europe with the Levant and North Africa?  Thanks 
to those who pointed me in the direction of work by Nabil Matar, Daniel 
Vitkus and Jack D'Amico precisely on this subject.  Disappointingly, 
Vitkus gives Titus only a passing mention.  Perhaps more remarkably, 
D'Amico's book, in an extended chapter on Titus which follows a 
wonderful discussion of representations of and encounters with North 
Africans in England and in the context of such texts as Peele's The 
Battle of Alcazar, goes on to treat Aaron strictly as a Marlovian 
Machiavel.  I'm assuming this is his debt to Jonathan Bate's Arden 3 
edition, and to the influence of such seminal studies as Heather James' 
'Shakespeare's Troy', clearly dependent upon the assumption of single 
authorship.  But read in the context of Peele's Moors, I find it hard 
not to see the rich texture of classical allusion in Aaron's language, 
his 'barbaric' predilection for violence and his opportunistic 
Machiavellianism as also indicative of early modern English literary 
representations of the 'infidel' Moors.

Just some thoughts yet to be worked out.

Cary DiPietro

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