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Traffic and Turning: Islam and English Drama, 1579-1624.

Jonathan Burton. Traffic and Turning: Islam and English Drama, 1579-1624.

Cranbury: University of Delaware Press, 2005. 320 pp. index. append. illus. chron. bibl. $55. ISBN: 0-87413-913-9.

In Constantinople, before Thomas Dallam accompanied the gift organ he built to the court of Mohamed III, ambassador Lello warned him of the despotic protocols of this "grand Enemy to all Christians ... in pain of my head I must not turn my back upon him, and therefore you must not look to have a sight of him." Yet when the Grand Signior asked if a human being could play the automatic machine, the frightened Dallam, lacking fit apparel, was produced, and a comic interlude ensued. To reach the keyboard, he could not avoid turning his back and brushing the Sultan's "knee with my britches." When the monarch rose to watch Dallam's hands, "he gave me a thrust forwards ... he sat so near me; but I thought he had been drawing his sword to cut off my head" (from The Diary of Master Thomas Dallam, 1599-1600, in J. Theodore Brent, ed., Early Voyages and Travels in the Levant [London, 1893], 65, 70, 71). Instead the Sultan, more generous than Dallam's Levant Company patrons, rewarded him with gold.

The advance from fearful English projection to the corrective surprise of Muslim reception is an important theme of Jonathan Burton's engrossing study, which maintains that, like Dallam, scholars of early modern English literature and culture should check the ethnocentrism of their discipline by engaging the Islamic representations that contested and impacted English constructions. The latter's more dominant archive obscures the Ottoman dominion, and the genuine polyculturalism, of the early modern Mediterranean world. Calling for "a more decisive turn to the East" (38), Burton essays such "contrapuntal analysis" (39, quoting Edward Said) in brief discussions of The Diadem of Histories by Khojas Sa'd-ud-Din, The Supporter of Religion Against the Infidels by Ahmad Ibn Qasim al-Hajari, and The Geographical History of Africa by Hassan-ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan (Leo Africanus). As a corrective to the sometimes unidirectional "encounter," Burton puts exemplary stress on "traffic," a confluent term to which both Latin and Arabic etymologies apply (15). Nevertheless, as an English professor he sensibly grounds the book on English drama with Islamic characters, themes, or settings; and he appends a useful list of sixty-two such works. Like Daniel Vitkus, he offers that they constitute a genre, though the forms and venues are clearly disparate: civic pageants, closet dramas, court masques, royal entertainments, and stage plays. Of these, Marlowe's Tamburlaine and Jew of Malta, Daborne's A Christian Turn'd Turk, Fletcher's Island Princess, Massinger's Renegado, Middleton's mayoral pageants, Fulke Greville's Mustapha, and Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice and Othello, earn sustained, productive attention.

Burton's initial premise, "English representations of Islam were complex and nuanced" (11), is less surprising than he would have us think. Many, including Said, have observed that such constructions are ambivalent and contradictory. But for Shakespeare and Marlowe, the complexity Burton advertises is mostly cumulative, deriving rather from the range of representations than from the partial, stereotypic, though thickly situated, case in view. Burton grants that he joins a wave of recent scholars in maintaining that Said's model of hegemonic orientalism does not account for preimperial discourse. It is in the careful accounting for the diversity he finds--the informed attention to political, economic, and religious interests inflecting particular constructions--that the book offers fresh and important vistas of analysis.

He argues that Tamburlaine's renowned doubleness--sympathetic and terrifying, the hero is a Christian-friendly scourge of Turks in part 1, an Islamicized conqueror in part 2--is a "congener to the conditional treatment of Islam" (57) in Elizabeth's rapprochment with Murad III: their correspondence, as they seek mutual advantage against Catholics, downplays their religious differences even as other Elizabethans foregrounded the same, demonizing Islam. Diagramming the disparities between Muslims on stage and in travelers' accounts, where Christian women scarcely appear, Burton argues interestingly that the plays make "Christian women ... proxies for the compromised Christian male bodies of travelers' tales," while they enlist "Muslim men ... as straw men" (111) to fortify Christian patriarchy. While the travelers depict dauntingly empowered Muslims, the compliant Moors of the civic pageants assuage anxieties that countered mercantile interests. The disturbing friendliness with Turks invigorates the vilification of Jews, necessary parties to the traffic. Burton lifts Leo Africanus from the "umbra of Shakespeare studies" (234) the better to distinguish this "conforming alien-insider" (235) from the less resilient Othello, who succumbs to the Eurocentric ideology he mimics. Having confessed, "it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the borders of my own thinking" (7), Burton, while lionizing Ania Loomba, is more fastidious about his differences from, than his debts to, various other scholars. Yet the book makes important advances in its attention to Muslim voices and to the interests and inventories that diversified English constructions of Islam.


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Author:Barbour, Richmond
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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