This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World – Jerry Brotton
Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps the way to attract the publisher’s eye these days is to find an Islamic slant to your subject matter if Brotton’s rather curious book is anything to go by.
It is curious because the reader soon discovers that the author hasn’t really made up his mind what it is really about. On the one hand we have detailed accounts of the diplomatic toing and froings between the Elizabethan court – Liz 1 not 2 in case you think it is an account of contemporary history – and the major Islamic power bases, principally Constantinople and Morocco, a sort of populist light historical portraiture of some of the characters who represented the English interests and on the other hand, some heavy duty literary criticism of some of the major playwrights of the era, Marlowe and Shakespeare to the fore, and their attitudes, to the extent that they can be deduced, from their texts. The result is uneven and a tad unsatisfying.
The Elizabethans’ dalliance with the Islamic world was driven by realpolitik and trade. In the minds of the Counter Reformation Catholics Protestants and Moslems were as bad as each other and the aggressive Spaniards pushed the two to forming alliances. After all, your enemy’s enemy is your friend. And much diplomatic effort was spent trying to persuade the Ottomans to attack Philip in the Mediterranean to forestall his eventually ill-fated Armada against our sceptred isle. The Elizabethans had developed a taste for sugars and spices which livened up otherwise dull fare and trade routes and pacts that ensured a plentiful supply and avoided the Catholic monopolies were anxiously sought. And the Ottomans were keen for metals and in a delicious moment of irony the English sold them bells and ornamental trappings stripped from churches during the Reformation to make artillery with which to fight the Catholics.
Brotton is at his best in describing some of the characters who were active in forging these links. Often they had little idea where they were going and had letters of introduction which were as likely to be their death warrant as to open doors. Particularly remarkable was Anthony Jenkinson who managed to meet (and survive) Ivan the Terrible, Suleyman the Magnificent and the Persian Shah Tahmasp in a few short years. Another fascinating character was Thomas Dallam who travelled to Constantinople in 1599 with a clockwork organ, a gift from Queen Bess to the Sultan.
The book starts with the pomp and ceremony with which the Moroccan ambassador, al-Annuri, was received in London, in a display which was intended to cement the special relationship between the two powers sandwiching the Spanish.
But where the book loses its sparkle is in the lengthy discussions of the supposed influence of the on-going diplomatic rapprochement with the Islamic world. Yes, there are touches of exotica in some of these plays – some are set in the Mediterranean, Marlowe’s Tamburlaine is a tour-de-force of exotic places and characters and there are references to Turks in some and, of course, there is Othello. But to say that Shakespeare’s history plays are haunted by the spectre of the Turk seems a little too desperate to add some gravitas to Brutton’s theory. I’m sure the playwrights did reflect contemporary thoughts, opinions and fears but it takes a rather blinkered view to accept the extent of the influence that Brotton is propounding.
It is a readable book and sheds a fascinating light on to Elizabeth’s court’s machinations to secure the peace and independence of our island.