Printer Friendly

Sultanic Drag in Ben Jonson's Epicene.

SCHOLARS OF ANGLO-ISLAMIC CONTACT understandably focus on the so-called Turk plays--a dramatic corpus starring Muslim characters and set in Ottoman-occupied lands. Yet genre-specific portrayals of Islamic alterity offer an incomplete picture of global contact. We must broaden this archive to see the diversity of English responses to the Islamic world. I suggest that we look to a counterintuitive genre: the city comedy. London-based dramas fold Islamic cultural materials into the fabric of metropolitan life. These plays are not only littered with Levantine imports and Arabic loanwords, but include frequent moments of cross-cultural masquerade--scenes in which English characters make imaginative excursions across racial and religious boundaries. In the pages below, I look to Ben Jonson's Epicene to explore the comic displacement of a Turk-play stock character: the Ottoman sultan. (1) Jonson's comedy stars a cantankerous bachelor who sees the Ottoman monarch as an enviable model of heterosexist mastery. Spinning a fantasy of oriental dominion, this would-be sultan experiments in ethnic drag. He not only dons a turban, but establishes a seraglio in central London. Epicene offers insight into the counterintuitive identity experiments precipitated by global contact. More to the point, it permits us to consider the effects of genre on Islamic representation. The netted echoes of Turk plays past haunt the performance of this city comedy. But while Turk plays subject Muslim characters to the purgative logic of tragedy, city comedies defang but do not excise alterity. (2)

In its very first scene, Epicene introduces audiences to a turbaned Morose. Truewit reports, "I met that stiff piece of formality ... yesterday, with a huge turban of night-caps on his head, buckled over his ears" (1.1.140-42). (3) On the early modern stage, turbans were used to designate Muslim characters. (4) This visual code would have registered with audiences in Whitefriars, for Epicene was performed in repertory with Turk plays like Robert Daborne's A Christian Turn'd Turk. (5) The repertory functions like a living, mnemonic palimpsest; it thickens performance by activating meanings across playscripts and genres. (6) In Epicene, Jonson activates the theme of conversion--or, more exactly, the turned-Turk topos. Like the renegades of Turk plays, Morose adopts the material signifiers of a Turkish identity to announce his withdrawal from the social and specifically auditory landscape of London. His costume indicates that he has a border-bridging identity; he, like his "turban of nightcaps," entangles the foreign and familiar.

In this early scene, Epicene toys with generic expectations, both playing upon and inverting the conventional portrayal of Turkish characters. Truewit first teases the arrival of the Ottoman scourge--a figure typically depicted as formidable and masculine. He declares Morose a "stiff piece," which could describe a durable firearm or well-protected fortress. (7) Relatedly, the term "to buckle" was often used to describe the donning of armor prior to a battle or expedition. (8) Morose is fashioning his body as a weapon or barricaded enclosure, his ears girded to withstand a metropolitan theater of war. Yet his makeshift armor highlights rather than obscures his vulnerability. Despite the obviously phallic connotations in "stiff piece," Morose's body reads as uniquely penetrable: his ears are under constant siege by the clamor of city life. Here, Epicene inflates, then immediately punctures an image of Turkish virility. The humor lies in the mishmash of conflicting generic cues--or, put differently, the jerk of thwarted expectations. Audiences must reconcile the potent image of a turbaned Turk with the comic reality of a noise-averse recluse. The play has smirkingly dismantled our flight of orientalizing fancy.

We next discover that Morose has begun construction on something like a seraglio--a term evocatively defined by lexicographer John Florio as "an inclosure, a close, a padocke, a parke, a cloister or secluse." (9) Morose "hath chosen a street to lie in so narrow at both ends that it will receive no coaches nor carts nor any of these common noises ..." (1.1.166-68). He commands his servant to cover the walls, floors, and staircases with "thick quilt or flock-bed"--"nowhere worn out and bare" (2.1.11, 27). Visitors are required to remove their shoes, but are permitted to wear "socks, or slippers soled with wool" (1.2.187-88). This textile-lined home loosely evokes the carpeted, tapestry-strewn surfaces of an Islamic interior. (10) But Morose has chosen to Anglicize his seraglio. Both his textiles and footwear are made of wool, England's leading domestic export. (11) Morose's wool-draped cloister, like his "turban of nightcaps," marries a foreign aesthetic to a domestic product. Epicene is gesturing to the contradictions plaguing English participation in the global marketplace. Morose neurotically embodies (a very literal) domestic protectionism, but both his clothing and living quarters hint at the exchange and naturalization of foreign imports. Morose, then, occupies a selectively hermetic home. Put simply, this is a seraglio with porous borders.

When Morose takes the stage in the play's second act, his identification with Ottoman culture leaves the realm of oblique reference. He immediately declares his home the monological space of a Muslim despot: "The Turk in this divine discipline is admirable, exceeding all the potentates of the earth; still waited on by mutes ... most of his charges and directions given by signs and with silence: an exquisite art! ... I will practise it hereafter" (2.1.30-38). Morose is referring to the Ottoman dilsiz, deaf-mutes employed as salaried pages in Constantinople's Topkapi Palace. (12) Hoping to flesh out the stage of his orientalist theater, Morose enlists his servant in a pantomime of genuflection. He requires the aptly named Mute to ape the proto-sign language of the Ottoman dilsiz. Over the course of 2.1, Mute performs seven consecutive bows in answer to Morose's queries. These bows and gesticulations visually incarnate Morose's designs on sultanic mastery. This recurring comic gag elongates the initial spectacle of obeisance, keeping in the minds of theatergoers Morose's status as a would-be Turk.

These early, tangible engagements with Ottoman culture attune audiences to the flickers of Islamic alterity in subsequent scenes. Much as the Ottoman sultan was said to use procurers to locate his concubines, Morose employs the barber Cutbeard to identify his prospective wife. Audiences learn that Cutbeard is aiding Morose's nephew in laying an elaborate trap to emasculate his uncle. Which is to say, a barber--a term interchangeable with surgeon and circumciser--labors to unman a pseudo-sultan. This is a plot twist that calls to mind the castration anxiety so pervasive in Turk plays. (13) The irony, of course, is that the sultan in a Turk play is never at risk of gelding. Once more, the play's generic baggage serves to deflate Morose's pretensions to Turkish masculinity.

Islamic resonances similarly thicken Morose's decision to divorce his bride. In the year Epicene was first staged, anti-divorce tracts circulating among Londoners decried the westward spread of the "Turkish libertie of putting awaie such wiues as [husbands] like not." (14) The divorce proceedings culminate in a telling moment of rhetorical misprision. When Morose insists that he suffers from impotence, the mock-curate is expected to say, "Your impotentes ... are minime apti ad contrahenda matrimonium," or "impotent men are least suited to contracting marriages" (5.3.188-9). Yet he inadvertently exchanges "impotentes" for "omnipotentes" (5.3.186). The mock-curate's error strikes at a core contradiction in the English construction of the Ottoman sultan. Though supposedly a figure of unlimited sovereignty, the Muslim potentate was said to be rendered impotent by the very potency of his desires. Morose neatly embodies this self-defeating paradox. It is his fantasy of hypermasculine control which sets in motion his emasculation. The play's conclusion reveals Morose's bride to be a boy in drag--a plot point that places Morose in a potentially sodomitical relationship. (15) And to be sure, sodomy was widely considered a Turkish and specifically sultanic vice. (16)

In close, the sultan accrues new facets when transposed into the city comedy. It has previously been argued that emasculation "overrides" Morose's brief "Turkification," but these processes are in fact simultaneous. (17) Morose is at once a Turk, an agoraphobe, a melancholic, an impotent spouse, and an unwitting sodomite. These are coincident, not discrete, vectors of his identity, for characterization is always an additive process. Epicene shows the flexibility with which the theater reconfigures available types, forging stock characters who impose a provisional coherence over discontinuity and difference. Though we are accustomed to thinking that Jonsonian characters are merely types--monadic and onedimensional--we need to recall that types are by no means static facts. They are flexible composites. The product of generic and discursive bleed, Morose emerges as an identity bricolage. Cobbled from a mixed inventory of urban and Turkish types, his characterization is a testament to the burgeoning cosmopolitanisms of seventeenth-century London.

Epicene relies on the use of anti-Islamic tropes to disempower and therefore quell the threat of an imagined sultanate, but there is an additional, equally significant process at work. At the level of plot, we are witnessing the humiliation of a self-styled sultan, but as a matter of form, Morose's layered identity works implicitly to inscribe Islamic alterity in the social world of London. The Turk proves malcontent, gull, and sodomite--all identifiable types on the English stage. The foreign settles within the accreted layers of the familiar. We should construe Epicene's revisions to sultanic characterization as both the comic deflation of an historically imposing other and, less obviously, the neutralization of alterity by its formal or discursive inclusion. Jonson's comedy fragments and remediates Islamic representation, placing unobtrusive allusions on the very threshold of visibility. Absorbed into the layered languages of London's streets and stages, the Turk ceases to be wholly xenos, or an unassimilated stranger in urban space. The city comedy neither generically nor geographically sequesters difference. In lieu of pitting London in opposition to a discrete, exogenous "East," Epicene works to erode borders--generic, national, and characterological. Jonson's audiences both breach the sultanic cloister and witness the trespass of Turkish types into the imaginative landscape of metropolitan fiction. By play's end, we have entered and demystified the seraglio, denying its status as a world apart.


(1.) While few have commented on Jonson's engagement with Islamic culture, important exceptions include: Justin Kolb, " 'A Turk's Mustachio': Anglo- Islamic Traffic and Exotic London in Ben Jonson's Every Man Out of His Humour and Entertainment at Britain's Burse," in Early Modern England and Islamic Worlds, ed. Bernadette Andrea and Linda Mcjannet (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 197-214; Barbara Sebek, "Morose's Turban," Shakespeare Studies 35 (2007): 32-38; Daniel Vitkus, " 'The Common Market of All the World': English Theater, the Global System, and the Ottoman Empire in the Early Modern Period," in Global Traffic: Discourses and Practices of Trade in English Literature and Culture from 1550 to 1700, ed. Stephen Deng and Barbara Sebek (New York: Palgrave 2008), 19-37.

(2.) In the early twentieth century, Louis Wann identified 47 Tudor and Stuart dramas starring "oriental" characters. Wann lists 19 tragedies, nine conqueror plays, seven travel plays, five tragicomedies, and only four comedies. (Three nonextant plays are of unknown genre.) "The Oriental in the English Drama of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries" (PhD diss., University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1919), 168.

(3.) Ben Jonson, Epicene, or The Silent Woman, ed. Richard Dutton (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003). All quotations from Epicene refer to this edition.

(4.) For the use of turbans on the early modern stage, see Matthew Dimmock, "Materialising Islam on the Early Modern English Stage," in Early Modern Encounters with the Islamic East, ed. Ralf Hertel, Sabine Lucia Muller, and Sabine Schutting (London: Routledge, 2012), 115-34; and "Old Mahomet's Head: Idols, Papists and Mortus Ali on the English Stage," in Matthew Dimmock, Mythologies of the Prophet Muhammad in Early Modern English Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 116-25.

(5.) We do not have a precise date of composition for A Christian Turn'd Turk, though it was likely produced between 1609 and 1612. See Daniel Vitkus, introduction to Three Turk Plays from Early Modern England (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 24.

(6.) For the intertextuality of the repertory theater, see Gina Bloom, Anston Bosman, and William West, "Ophelia's Intertheatricality, or, How Performance Is History," Theatre Journal 65, no. 2 (2013): 165-82; Marvin Carlson, The Haunted Stage: The Theatre as Memory Machine (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006); William West, "Intertheatricality," in Early Modern Theatricality, ed. Henry Turner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 151-72.

(7.) OED Online, s.v. "piece, n," accessed June 13, 2017,

(8.) OED Online, s.v. "buckle, v.," accessed June 13, 2017,

(9.) John Florio, A Worlde of Wordes, or Most copious, and exact dictionarie in Italian and English (London: Arnold Hatfield for Edw. Blount, 1598), 366. Through Morose does not explicitly refer to his home as a "seraglio," we know Jonson was familiar with and saw the theatrical potential inherent in this term. In The Alchemist, Sir Epicure Mammon is, like Morose, prone to orientalizing fantasies. He muses that he means to make the city's gallants the "eunuchs" in his "seraglio." Ben Jonson, The Alchemist, ed. Elizabeth Cook (London and New York: A&C Black, 1991), 2.2.68, 34.

(10.) For a description of Islamic interiors, see Sebastian Munster, A Briefe Collection and Compendious Extract of the Straunge and Memorable Things, trans. Richard Eden (London: Thomas Marshe, 1572), F3v.

(11.) That said, Truewit specifically notes that Morose owns a "carpet" (4.5.242)--a term often used in reference to the knotted pile weaves imported in large numbers from the Ottoman Empire or, alternatively, produced in Europe but modeled on Anatolian design. For the emblematic significance of carpets in Jacobean London, see Gerald M. MacLean, Looking East: English Writing and the Ottoman Empire before 1800 (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 30-42.

(12.) M. Miles, "Signing in the Seraglio: Mutes, Dwarfs and Jestures at the Ottoman Court 1500-1700," Disability and Society 15, no. 1 (2000): 115-34. For contemporaneous accounts of the Ottoman mutes, see Michel Baudier, The History of the Imperiall Estate of the Grand Seigneurs, trans. Edward Grimeston (London: William Stansby for Richard Meighen, 1635), 126; Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, The Life and Letters of Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, ed. C. T. Forster and F. H. B. Daniell (London: Kegan Paul, 1881), 156, 303.

(13.) For references to circumcision and representations of the Ottoman eunuch, see Dennis Britton, "Muslim Conversion and Circumcision as Theater," in Religion and Drama in Early Modern England: The Performance of Religion on the Renaissance Stage, ed. Elizabeth Williamson and Jane Hwang Degenhardt (New York: Routledge, 2016), 71-88; Jonathan Burton, Traffic and Turning: Islam and English Drama, 1579-1624 (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2005), 106-26.

(14.) Edmund Bunny, OfDiuorce for Adulterie, and Marrying Againe: That There Is No Sufficient Warrant so to Do (Oxford: Joseph Barnes, 1610), A.

(15.) For Morose's associations with sodomy, see Mario DiGangi, The Homoerotics of Early Modern Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 74.

(16.) Joseph Boone, The Homoerotics of Orientalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), esp. 27-43.

(17.) Sebek, "Morose's Turban," 33.
COPYRIGHT 2019 Associated University Presses
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2019 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Next Generation Plenary
Author:Zeman, Corinne
Publication:Shakespeare Studies
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2019
Previous Article:Matisse in the Playhouse.
Next Article:Staging Rhetorical Vividness in Coriolanus.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters