Daniel Vitkus. Turning Turk: English Theater and the Multicultural Mediterranean, 1570-1630. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. 244pp. ISBN 0 312 29452 2.

Andrew Duxfield
Sheffield Hallam University

Duxfield, Andrew. "Review of Daniel Vitkus, Turning Turk: English Theater and the Multicultural Mediterranean, 1570-1630." Early Modern Literary Studies 12.3 (January, 2007) 13.1-5 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/12-3/revvitk.htm>.

  1. Daniel Vitkus, in his book Turning Turk, offers a revealing exploration of England's early modern relationship with the Ottoman Empire and with Islam as a whole, and, more generally, its position as a power in the fiercely competitive economical, martial and ideological space of the Mediterranean. Evidently high on the book's list of aims is a re-appraisal of that position, particularly in relation to what Vitkus sees as an anachronistic popular conception of England as an active colonial power in the late sixteenth century. Instead, Vitkus posits an England whose perceptions of foreignness, and even notions of national identity, are constructed, or at least heavily influenced, by an increased involvement in the porous environment of Mediterranean trade, and that claims to imperial power are little more than fancy. Through critical analysis of representations of Islam, and foreignness in general, in early modern drama, English conceptions and misconceptions of the Turk and Islam are explored against a background of increasingly regular cross-cultural encounters in the Mediterranean marketplace.

  2. The book's first two chapters establish a historical context before the study moves on to the discussion of dramatic texts. In "Before Empire", Vitkus problematises the idea of England as a colonial power in the mid to late fifteen-hundreds, arguing instead that at this time its presence in the Mediterranean is purely based on a fledgling trade enterprise, and accordingly questions the common figuration of English encounters with foreignness as a dichotomy of 'self' and 'other'; foreign encounter in trade, we are told, lacks the stability provided by the presupposed power dynamic of colonial encounter, and involves an altogether more complex and fluid set of relationships. In "The English and the Early Modern Mediterranean", the focus turns to an England at the end of the sixteenth century that, while very much dwarfed by the Ottoman Empire in terms of martial force, has established itself in Mediterranean trade, and whose popular drama was beginning to show an interest in foreign concerns; Vitkus emphasises the role of the London stage in "adapting, articulating and disseminating foreignness" (29).

  3. The third chapter, "Marlowe's Mahomet", is the first in the book to offer a critical analysis of a contemporary text. The complex inter-cultural relations in Marlowe's Tamburlaine, Vitkus argues, reflect a post-Reformation Mediterranean in which there is no longer a binary opposition between Christian and Turk, but rather a perplexing dynamic involving Turk, Catholic and Protestant, in which it is no longer clear who represents the greatest theological anathema to whom. Furthermore, Marlowe's manipulation of the audience's sympathies in the play, presenting them with a protagonist who "is a paradoxical model of what to be or do, and what not to be or do" (65), resonates with contradictions inherent in contemporary attitudes towards the Ottoman Empire.

  4. In the fourth chapter, "Othello Turns Turk", attention turns to Shakespeare, and an examination of contemporary anxieties regarding religious conversion through an analysis of his play. Othello, Vitkus states, plays on contemporary ideas of the Muslim as governed by passions; many Christians were tempted to convert to Islam, contemporary reports tell us, by its comparatively liberal sexual attitudes, and, as such, Christian conversions to Islam tend to be figured in terms of sexual transgression. This play, however, is concerned primarily with a convert in the opposite direction, in the shape of its eponymous Christianised Moor. As Othello's jealousy overcomes him, however, the audience witnesses what Vitkus argues is an inevitable revealing of the Moor's true colours, and a reversion to a contemporary religio-racial stereotype: "Once Othello gives way to his jealous will and "tyrannous hate (3.3.453), the audience sees him transformed into a version of the Islamic tyrant." (99). The theme of conversion is continued in the next chapter, "Scenes of Conversion: Piracy, Apostacy, and the Sultan's Seraglio", this time through analysis of five lesser known plays, namely Kyd's The Tragedye of Soliman and Perseda, Heywood's The Fair Maid of the West (parts I and II), Daborne's A Christian Turned Turk and Massinger's The Renegado. Here again, the sexualisation of conversion to Islam is highlighted, and Vitkus also takes pains to emphasise the haziness of religious and professional distinctions; foreign encounter occurs within
    a complex matrix in which "turning" was common and in which Christians, Muslims, and renegades worked cooperatively and shifted identities as they negotiated for places in the multicultural Mediterranean's violent marketplace. (113)
    Similarly, trade takes place in an environment wherein one may not be able to distinguish a pirate, a privateer, a merchant or a renegade. The chapter goes on to discuss contemporary drama's registering of anxiety concerning the effects of increased contact with Islam on a national level; England itself, through increased exposure to and reliance upon trade relations with Mediterranean Muslims, is, in a sense, "turning Turk".

  5. The final chapter of Turning Turk, "Machiavellian Merchants", explores the role of the early modern Jew in the relations between England and the Ottoman Empire. With reference to the medieval drama The Croxton Play of the Sacrament, Marlowe's The Jew of Malta, Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice and A Christian Turned Turk, the Richard Daborne play also discussed in the previous chapter, Vitkus examines contemporary English attitudes to Jewishness, relations between Jews and the Ottoman Empire, and again emphasises a mutability of identity across cultures:
    In these three plays, religious and racial affiliations are unstable, giving the audience a sense of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian identities as interchangeable roles in a Machiavellian marketplace where identity was a slippery matter indeed, and where, from an English perspective, various forms of foreignness (or religious difference) were blurred, or in some cases, indistinguishable. (195)
    This emphasis on the fluidity of intercultural relations in the early modern Mediterranean is synonymous with the overall project of Turning Turk. Throughout the work, Vitkus goes to great lengths to deconstruct reductive preconceptions regarding the cultural dynamics of the region, and England's place within it. The result is a fascinating and enlightening work that convincingly demonstrates the complexity of foreign encounter conducted through trade as opposed to empire building, and illustrates the equally complex process of the London stage both absorbing and creating contemporary attitudes to these encounters. In Turning Turk: English Theater and the Early Modern Mediterranean, 1570-1630, Vitkus provides essential reading to those with an interest in the meeting of early modern cultures.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2007-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).