Luxury. Power. Wealth. Exoticism. Sexuality.
Sixteenth century English scholars and travelers used these images of gluttony and lust to describe the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Sultans who built it.
Playwrights like Shakespeare and his predecessor Christopher Marlowe gave their audiences glimpses into the Oriental East by portraying such characters as arrogant pagans who thirsted for the spoils of war. Many believe these depictions helped create misguided stereotypes of the East, some of which exist today.
“London boasted a method of time travel: the theater,” Daniel Vitkus, associate professor in the Department of English at Florida State University, said at his lecture ‘Slaves and Sultans: Representations of Oriental Power and Bondage in Early Modern England’ last week.
“The London playhouses were sites of cultural production that appealed to audiences that were interested in imperial power. Some of the most popular plays of the day drew upon this new global geography.”
With the growing frequency of trade, shipping and more merchants taking advantage of the prevailing capitalist system, the West and the mysticized East boosted their economic relations. This venture had ushered exposure to strange peoples and traditions, an impact that went beyond economics to influence cultural interaction between empires.
The slave trade became a major fascination of historians and writers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The sensationalized images of harem women parallelled the real dangers of the Barbary corsairs and pirates that had began taking British merchant ships hostage, either holding them for ransom or selling them into slavery.
Soon, the ‘Great Turk’ came to paradoxically personify both a sultan and a slave.
“This connection between absolute power and abject enslavement was contrasted with a justice and freedom supposedly enjoyed in England.”
“The sixteenth century was a tense period of religious bickering, uncertainty, instability, surveillance and fear, stoked with conversions of all kinds,” Vitkus described.
He added that at a time when Britain was torn between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, Islam was understood as a hodgepodge of various belief systems. The conversions from one religion to another precipitated “a sort of cynicism, disinterest and even faith fatigue.”
This continuous fluctuation in theological policing led the English commoner to abandon concerns for religion: “The average Londoner would have reacted more along the lines of the popular proverb, ‘I have heard much talk of the Turk and the Pope, but my next door neighbor does more harm than them both,” he said.