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‘This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World’, by Jerry Brotton

‘This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World’, by Jerry Brotton History

In 1579 Bernardino de Mendoza, the Spanish ambassador in London, wrote to his masters in Madrid to report that numerous English ships had departed for Constantinople carrying cargos of tin and lead. Some of this he called “bell metal”: the Elizabethan authorities sought to turn a profit by taking bells and ornamental features stripped from churches during the Reformation, and selling them to the Sultan. The Ottomans valued this metal greatly, Mendoza reported, as they were at war with Spain and other Christian powers, and “they cannot cast guns without it”. The trappings of England’s own Catholic past were being used by a great Muslim power to make artillery with which to batter other Catholics.

For the title of his impressive and highly readable new study of Anglo-Islamic relations under Elizabeth I, Jerry Brotton has chosen to adapt the description in Shakespeare’s Richard II of “this sceptred isle”, the most famous account of England as a proudly insular nation. The contrast with one of the seminal works on the topic, Samuel Chew’s 1937 study The Crescent and the Rose, is telling: rather than suggesting two fundamentally opposed cultures destined to clash, Brotton emphasises the extent to which Elizabethan England was shot through with influences, stories, individuals and products drawn from the Islamic world. The Orient is not elsewhere but already here, both thrillingly and uncomfortably close to home.

The account of English bell-metal forged into Ottoman cannons is just one among Brotton’s many striking examples of this cultural cross-pollination. At the core of his narrative is the fact that, for as long as the King of Spain was the most dangerous and powerful enemy not only of Elizabeth I but of the Ottoman and Moroccan potentates, forms of alliance were always possible on the basis that an enemy’s enemy was a potential friend. Throughout the latter half of the 16th century, increasing numbers of travellers and traders ping-ponged between England and the Islamic world. They brought new ideas and goods with them, and prompted new forms of mutual understanding and misunderstanding.

rotton, the author of several earlier studies of east-west relations in the Renaissance, tells this complex story with scrupulous care. He illuminates the contrast between “the monoglot world of England and Ireland and its stark religious divisions” and “the multi-confessional and polyglot world” encountered by Mediterranean travellers. This polyglot world comes cacophonously and vividly to life when Brotton describes a ship carrying English travellers, Persians and Portuguese monks that was pounded by a storm in the Caspian Sea: “One heard a dreadful medley of voices,” an Englishman reported, with the Protestants praying, the monks throwing figures of the Agnus Dei into the waves to calm them, and the Persians calling to Mohammed for aid.

When Brotton relates these travels, his book crackles with an energy that illuminates and vivifies its larger claims. In an age when the vast majority of English people moved within tight social and geographical boundaries, it is striking to encounter the peregrinations of figures such as Anthony Jenkinson, who, at the very outset of Elizabeth’s reign, managed the remarkable feat of meeting the Russian Tsar Ivan the Terrible, the Ottoman Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent and Shah Tahmasp of Persia — all in the space of a few years.

Equally compelling is the story of Thomas Dallam, who in 1599 travelled to Constantinople with a clockwork organ sent as a gift from Elizabeth I to the Sultan. On his homeward journey, passing through Ottoman territories, Dallam was aided by a local guide whom he repeatedly called “our Turk”; only belatedly did he note that before converting to Islam this man had been “an Englishman, borne in Chorley in Lancashire; his name Finch”. Dallam was from Warrington, scarcely 20 miles from Chorley, and the startling encounter on the outer fringes of the Mediterranean between these Lancastrians who had lived very different lives encapsulates the hybridisation between east and west that became possible in this period.

Alongside these narratives, Brotton argues that the dazzling literary works written under Elizabeth emerged, in part, from the need to ruminate upon these complex engagements with the Islamic world. He considers minor writers such as Robert Wilson and George Peele and canonical figures including Christopher Marlowe, Edmund Spenser and, above all, William Shakespeare. The literature of this period was distinguished, as Brotton shows, by a fascination with foreignness in all its manifestations: from the vast swathes of Asia Minor traversed by Marlowe’s antiheroic Tamburlaine to the Mediterranean backdrops chosen by Shakespeare for plays from Twelfth Night to Othello.

In general, however, Brotton’s readings of these works fail to match the liveliness of his historical accounts. He spends rather too much time summarising the plots and backgrounds of plays, and is overly determined to include any work by Shakespeare that features the most passing of references to Islam, providing rather flimsy justification after the fact: the leap from occasional allusions to the claim that Shakespeare’s history plays are “haunted by the spectre of the Turk” seems a large one, and to suggest that Henry V’s darker machinations “reveal a latent ‘Turkish’ side to his character” is frankly specious. Similarly, the reading of Othello with which the book culminates spends an unnecessary amount of time on the play’s publication history, pushes an unconvincingly close parallel between Shakespeare’s hero and the Moroccan ambassador to England (“Just like al-Annuri, Othello possesses a ‘sharpness of wit and gift of pen . . . ’” — but so did countless others) and bizarrely claims that Iago “turns Turk” in making himself a “mute slave” at the play’s close.

It is unsurprising that there has been a huge upsurge of interest in the history of Anglo-Islamic relations since 2001, and Brotton tactfully refrains from stressing the contemporary relevance of his book until a heartfelt and touching coda, recalling his own childhood in Bradford among Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. His accounts of Shakespeare are the only parts of the book compromised by this generally laudable concern for the present, for Brotton cannot resist attributing to the plays an open-mindedness ahead of their time: “perhaps buried within their dramas”, he suggests, is an abiding sympathy for toleration and reconciliation”.

But this is too easy and comfortable an account of what we get from Shakespeare. The unsettling power of his works arises in part from the difficulty of deciding whether he was ahead of his time or entirely of it, subverting prejudices or recapitulating them. The greatest strength of Brotton’s book is its general refusal either to idealise the past in this fashion or to ossify its conflicts and divisions. He resoundingly insists that the Elizabethan age, for all its opposed fanaticisms and pockets of enlightenment, was characterised above all by “messy and uneasy coexistence”.

This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World, by Jerry Brotton, Allen Lane, RRP£20, 384 Pages

Joe Moshenska is a lecturer in English at the University of Cambridge. His ‘A Stain in the Blood: The Remarkable Voyage of Sir Kenelm Digby’ is published by Heinemann in May

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