The Moorish Figure and Figures of Resistance

Khalid Bekkaoui, Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdallah University, Fez, Morocco


English Renaissance drama is massively peopled with Moroccan figures. One can cite as examples George Peele’s The Battle of Alcazar (1594), (1) Thomas Heywood’s The Fair Maid of the West (1601-03), William Rowley’s All’s Lost by Lust (1633), Thomas Rawlins’ The Rebellion (1640), William Berkeley’s The Lost Lady (1637), and William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus (1594), The Merchant of Venice (1600) and Othello (1622). There is even a play with the hybrid title The English Moor (1640) by Richard Brome.

Playwrights, it might be argued, have discovered in this visual form ample opportunity to bring a remote country and a seemingly alien race before the gaze of an English audience. The enclosed stage seems to offer not only a space for action but also a strategic position for control. (2) In this respect, Terence Hawkes makes an interesting association between the colonialist and the playwright: "A colonialist acts essentially as a dramatist. He imposes the ‘shape’ of his own culture, "embodied in his speech", on the new world, and makes that world recognisable, habitable, ‘natural,’ able to speak his language." (3) And, by implication,

the dramatist is metaphorically a colonialist. His art penetrates new areas of experience, his language expands the boundaries of our culture, and makes the new territory over in its own image. His ‘raids on the inarticulate’ open up new worlds for the imagination. (4)

In a similar vein, E. C. Bartels claims:

Because of its licensed social and geographic marginality, the theatre was one of the few and most accessible arenas where a large portion of the populace could safely "see" the wonders of the world .... In bringing such figures as Cambyses, Muly Hamet, Tamburlaine, and Cleopatra to center stage, dramatists ... capitalised on public interest. In doing so, they re-enacted the imperialist appropriations happening around the world, turning difference into spectacle and spectacle into profit. (5)

Edward Said, too, evokes the stage as a space of hegemony and colonial dominance. In Orientalism Said discusses playwrights such as Shakespeare, Marlowe and Dryden as Orientalists and usually employs theatrical metaphors to talk about Western construction of the Orient, describing Orientalism as "part of a general European attempt ... to put a representative Orient in front of Europe, to "stage" the Orient." (6) Elsewhere in the same book, he claims:

The idea of representation is a theatrical one: the Orient is the stage on which the whole East is confined. On this stage will appear figures whose role it is to represent the larger whole from which they emanate. The Orient then seems to be, not an unlimited extension beyond the familiar European world, but rather a closed field, a theatrical stage affixed to Europe. (7)

Said is right in stressing the coercive nature of Orientalist discourse; however, one has to bear in mind that Said’s theory is, in essence, the product of his reflections on the novel, a genre which he considers to be "immensely important in the formation of imperial attitudes, references, and experiences." (8)

Drama is inherently different from narrative fiction. In fiction, foreignness can be narrated through an omniscient point of view (representing colonial power). Drama, on the contrary, is a visual form. While fiction allows for "a centre of consciousness," to use a phrase from Henry James, which filters the action and comments on the characters, drama, on the other hand, privileges visual encounters, sight and direct contact. The characters, whatever their race, have to be seen and heard. On stage, the Other is more able to address the audience directly. Therefore, although the stage is a place of coercion, it offers the Other greater opportunity for self-expression, hence more space for self-assertion, transgression and resistance.

In this respect, it is instructive to invoke Michel Foucault’s analysis of power and resistance in the spectacle of torture in Discipline and Punish. For the execution of criminals and the exercise of power to take place, spectators are necessary to the scene of torture. However, what sometimes happens is that if the criminal is eloquent enough, s/he might convince the spectators of his/her innocence and move the mob into releasing him/her and attacking the executioner, the instrument of power. Foucault remarks: `In these executions, which ought to show only the terrorising power of the prince, there was a whole aspect of the carnival, in which rules were inverted, authority mocked and criminals transformed into heroes.' (9)

With this passage in mind, I analyse Lust’s Dominion; or, the Lascivious Queen, a Renaissance play published anonymously in 1657, in order to consider how the Moroccan figure mocks and transforms the system of power relations. (10) Arguing against Said, I shall demonstrate that the stage can be explored as a site for political and cultural struggle and resistance. Furthermore, it can be seen as a space where Orientalist ideology is subverted rather than confirmed.

Lust’s Dominion focuses on Eleazar, the prince of Fez. Before the opening of the play, Philip II of Spain invaded Barbary, slew King Abdella and captured Eleazar. The young prince is brought up in Spain; he is Christianized, married to a Spanish lady and turned into a warrior against the Muslim Turks. Yet, to the indignation of the court, the black Moor is engaged in an adulterous relationship with the Spanish queen.

King Philip dies in the first act and Fernando, his son, ascends the throne. Philip, his younger brother, and Cardinal Mendoza seize this opportunity to confiscate the property of Eleazar and banish him from the court. The Moor is, however, restored to favour by Fernando, who is in love with the Moor's wife. Eleazar is resolved to avenge the wrongs inflicted upon him. He makes use of his white mistress, the queen, to overthrow his enemies and advance his standing in Spanish society. He gains the crown of Spain and incarcerates all his detractors, including the queen herself. His next move is to wed Isabella, daughter of the late king and the legitimate heiress. But, Isabella induces Zarack, one of Eleazar’s henchmen, to rescue her from the Moor. Zarack frees the prisoners and Philip stabs Eleazar to death and orders the deportation of all the Moors from Spain.

As in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and Rowley’s All’s Lost by Lust, racial stereotyping is strongly expressed in Lust’s Dominion. In his hysterical pursuit of revenge and personal ambition, Eleazar, the black Moor, appears to be immersed in Satanic horror: he scandalously tempts the Spanish Queen into debauchery and is willing to prostitute his own wife in order to rise in the hierarchy. He remorselessly slaughters both foes and friends. Eleazar is resolved to bring destruction on all Spain. Through brutal genius the Moor eventually overruns his enemies and makes a play for the Spanish throne.

Eleazar’s blackness and diabolical exploits vilify him as the incarnation of devilish horror. Eleazar orders his Moorish servants to murder the Cardinal, reminding them: "Your cheeks are black; let not your souls look white. (11) And, as it is often the case with Moorish villains in Renaissance drama, Eleazar invokes evil powers to assist him carry out his Satanic deeds. Because of his black complexion and evil exploits the Christians call Eleazar: "the black prince of devils" (I, i, p. 100), "this black fiend" (III, iv, p. 140), "A bloody tyrant and usurping slave" (III, iv, p. 143) and a "damned hellhound" (V, i, p. 172). Philip condemns him as a "hell begotten fiend" (I, iii, p. 109) and a "true-stamp’d son of hell" (IV, i, p. 150). Cardinal Mendoza refers to Eleazar as "that fiend, / That damn’d Moor, that devil, that Lucifer" (II, i, p. 115). The King of Portugal asserts that

The Moor’s a devil: never did horrid fiend,

Compell’d by some magician’s mighty charm,

Break through the prisons of solid earth

With more strange horror than this prince of hell,

This damned negro.

(IV, ii, p. 152)

Thus, Orientalist ideology depicts the Moor as irrevocably different, a diabolically wicked alien. He is the enemy within, a perilous presence that threatens the stability and security of Christian Europe. Therefore, the Moor deserves to be annihilated. Hence, the play ends with the execution of Eleazar and the expulsion of the Morisco minority from the Iberian Peninsula. Philip ends the play with the following words:

And now, Hortenzo, to close up your wound,

I here contract my sister unto thee,

With comic joy to end a tragedy.

And, for the barbarous Moor and his black train,

Let all the Moors be banished from Spain.

(V, vi, p. 192)

So, once the forces of evil and the powers of darkness are exorcised, Spain regains its lost peace and harmony and general rejoicing follows. The throne is restored to Philip, the rightful heir. The danger is removed and the community healed. Moral regeneration and comic reconciliation are achieved and consolidated with the marriage between the brave Hortenzo and the fair Isabella.

Obviously, Orientalism as theorised by Said finds expression in the play. However, in spite of this apparently coherent colonial discourse, the perception and conception of the Moor is shrewdly traversed by a counter-stereotypical discourse which regularly undermines and vigorously contests the hostile portrait. Eleazar is a complex character rather than merely a conglomeration of contemptuous stereotypes. King Philip recommends him as "Both wise and warlike" (I, iii, p. 107). Fernando tells Eleazar: "My father lov’d you dearly, so will I" (I, iv, p. 112) and calls him the "most valiant husband" (Ibid.). "Although my flesh be tawny," the prince of Fez asserts, "in my veins / Runs blood as red, as royal, as the best / And the proudest in Spain" (I, iii, p. 103). Eleazar has distinguished himself as a defender and protector of Christian Spain against the perilous Turks. He is the author of the Spanish reconquest of Naples and "his victories, / Achiev’d against the Turkish Ottoman" are widely acclaimed (II, ii, p. 122).

Eleazar is aggressively determined to cling to his identity with an existentialist "raison d’ętre". In The Merchant of Venice, the Prince of Morocco refers to his black colour apologetically: "Mislike me not for my complexion," he tells Portia, "The shadow’d livery of the burnish’d sun, / To whom I am a neighbour and near bred." (12) Othello himself considers blackness an emblem of evil. For example, when he suspects the chastity of Desdemona and the fair purity of her whiteness, Othello begins to see her face as black and evil. "Her name," he announces, "that was fresh / As Dian’s visage, is now begrim’d and black / As mine own face." (13) The Ethiopian women in Ben Jonson’s The Masque of Blackness (1605), too, talk of their blackness with self-hatred and grieve that they have lost their original whiteness. They sail from Ethiopia to England, hoping to "leave / Their "blackness" and true beautie receive." (14) In a stark contrast, Eleazar is proud of his blackness. He even swears by his complexion: "Now, by the proud complexion of my cheeks / Ta’en from the kisses of the amorous sun" (III, Iv, p. 140). He proudly talks of his majestic countenance and associates himself with "the imperious sun" (III, vi, p. 148).

For Said one of the most salient "feature[s] of Oriental-European relations was that Europe was always in a position of strength not to say domination." (15) This statement does not seem to apply to the Moorish protagonist in Lust’s Dominion. Eleazar is endowed with majesty and power. He is the prince of Fez, powerful, proud and brave. He asserts his Moorish dignity and honour and fiercely warns:

Who spurns the Moor,

Were better set his foot upon the devil.

Do spurn me, and this confounding arm of wrath

Shall, like a thunderbolt breaking the clouds,

Divide his body from his soul! Stand back.

Spurn Eleazar!

(II, i, pp. 113-14)

Elsewhere, he stabs the lascivious king of Spain and threatens to slaughter any Spaniard who dares to oppose him:

In his breast,

That dares but dart a finger at the Moor,

I’ll bury this sharp steel, yet reeking warm

With the unchas’d blood of that lecher-king,

That threw my wife in an untimely grave.

(III, iv, p.140)

So, although Eleazar is tightly controlled and intensely exposed to colonial hegemony – he is brought up in Spain since infancy, Latinized and Christianised, married to a Spanish lady and converted into a faithful warrior of the Cross – he manages to wrest himself from Western hegemony and dominance and drift out of its control. The Moor refuses domestication or assimilation; he is neither simply submissive to authority nor available to scrutiny.

When the Queen-Mother warns the Moor to flee since the Spaniards are in arms against him, he allays her fear :

Are these your fears? Thus blow them into air.

I rushed amongst the thickest of their crowds,

And with a countenance majestical,

Like the imperious sun, dispers’d their clouds;

I have perfumed the rankness of their breath,

And by the magic of true eloquence

Transform’d this many-headed Cerberus,

This pied chamelion, this beast multitude,

Whose power consists in number, pride in threats,

Yet melt like snow when majesty shines forth,

This heap of fools who, crowding in huge swarms,

Stood at our court gates like heap of dung,

Reeking and shouting out contagious breath

Of power to poison all the elements –

This wolf I held by th’ ears, and made him tame,

And made them tremble at the Moor’s great name.

(III, vi, p. 148)

The power that the Moors enjoyed in the Middle Ages pervades Eleazar’s speech. The Moor glorifies himself as "the imperious sun" and thinks of his Spanish enemies as inferior, "a heap of dung". The Queen-Mother warns the court of the terrible consequences the Spaniards would face if they ever attempt to oppose the Moors:

When Indian slaves thirst after empery!

Princes and peers of Spain, we are beset

With horror on each side; [if] you deny him,

Death stands at all our backs: we cannot fly him.

(III, iv, p. 142) (16)

Another subversive aspect of the Moors in Lust’s Dominion is their ironic subversion of colour symbolism. For instance, when the friars first see Eleazar, they are horrified by his blackness, "seeing your face," they tell him with undisguised effrontery, "we thought of hell." But, ignoring this display of insolence, the Moor, who has in the opening scene described his white mistress as a "strumpet" who is "Ugly as hell", retorts with his unfailing philosophical humour: "Hell is a dream" (II, ii, p. 122). Thus, once racial prejudice is given voice, it is reappropriated and subverted by the Moorish figure and used against its source. Instead of being offended by the overriding hostility and effrontery of the friars, Eleazar outfaces his detractors by playing with and subverting the racial stereotype.

Eleazar’s henchmen, Zarack and Balthazar, too, make fun of the notions of blackness and whiteness. Consider the following dialogue:

ZAR. Our amiable faces cannot be seen if we keep close; therefore hide your cock’s head, lest his burning cock’s comb betray us. But soft; which of the two shall be thy white?

BAL. That black villain friar Cole.

ZAR. I shall have a sharp piece of service; friar Crab shall be my man. Farewell, and be resolute.

BAL. Zounds! Zarack, I shall never have the heart to do it.

ZAR. You rogue, think who commands – Eleazar. Who shall rise – Balthazar. Who shall die – a lousy friar. Who shall live – our good lord and master, the negro-king of Spain.

(III, v, p. 144)

Here, the Moors are jeeringly playing white and black against each other. When asked if the friars were killed, Zarack answers: "We saw ‘em sprawl, and turn up the white of the eye" (III, vi, p. 147). This is a clear example of what Homi Bhabha defines as strategic reversal of domination "so that other ‘denied’ knowledges enter upon the dominant discourse and estrange the basis of its authority." (17)

But, for Bhabha, native resistance is essentially an unconscious political act. (18) Moorish political and discursive insurrection against racial stereotyping is more violent than Bhabha could envisage. While the natives discussed by Bhabha remain almost totally unaware of the slippages they produce, the Moors are more than self-conscious about their resistance. They endeavour to acquire power and usually succeed in bringing under control the very enemies who have defeated and captured them.

The Moors approach the stereotype inventively and imaginatively. They deftly reinvent, articulate and cultivate the subversive potentialities encapsulated within the mask of difference. By so doing, the Moors manage to achieve mastery and control not only over the injurious stereotype and the prejudiced community which voices it, but also over the plot itself.

Significantly enough, it is Eleazar who pinpoints the racial stereotype for the first time in the play. His effective engagement with racial discourse – appropriating and manipulating it – is evidenced when Alvero comes to the castle of the Moor in search of the Queen-Mother. We know that the Queen of Spain has abandoned her husband / king on his death bed and has come to see Eleazar, driven by fierce desire for the Moor. But, Eleazar, who is actually hiding the Queen, tells Alvero with a shrewd mockery:

Queen with me!

Because, my lord, I’m married to your daughter,

You, like your daughter, will grow jealous:

The queen with me! with me a Moor, a devil,

A slave of Barbary, a dog – for so

Your silken courtiers christen me.

( I, ii, p. 103)

This is a stunning dislocation of surveillance and an effective displacement of racial discourse. The passage aptly illustrates how Eleazar strategically uses racial prejudice not only as an opportunity to escape from the bigotry of Spanish society, but also as a subtle weapon to outface and offset the hostile prejudice and vigorously turn it against its source. In other words, what Eleazar is saying is that since he is a racially and culturally despised creature why should the Queen of Spain visit him in his house? But, of course, the audience knows that the Queen is with the Moor. Thus, Eleazar grapples with racial prejudice, outwits his detractors and ironically turns the tables on them.

The ability of Eleazar to break through stereotypical discourse finds its most powerful enactment in the final Act. The Spanish prisoners appear showering Eleazar with racial abuse, calling him with seething fury: "Moor, devil, toad, serpent!" However, Eleazar is not in the least provoked, he teasingly mocks them with cheerful playfulness:

ELE. O sweet airs, sweet voices! ...

Do not these birds sing sweetly Isabella?

O, how their spirits would leap aloft and spring,

Had they their throats at liberty to sing!

PHIL. Damnation dog thee!

CAR. Furies follow thee!

QUEEN-MOTHER. Comets confound thee!

HOR. And hell swallow thee!

ELE. Sweeter and sweeter still. O harmony!

Why, there’s no music like to misery.

(V. v, p. 180)

This passage clearly exemplifies the way in which Eleazar is able to triumph over the injurious defamation by thwarting it into "sweet air," mere signifiers which are exorcised of any harmful signification, and emptied of any racial hostility.

Under the combined effect of alliteration, rhyme and rhythm, the abusive aggressivity of the racial discourse is sapped away. Eleazar seizes the opportunity to convert his adversaries into an orchestra and assigns himself the role of the maestro:

ALL. Worse than damnation! fiend, monster of men!

ELE. Why, when! Down, down!

CAR. Slave, as thou thrust me down

Into this dungeon, so sink thou to hell. [Down Cardinal]

QUEEN.-M. Amen, amen. [Down Queen Mother.]

ELE. Together so, and you ....

ALL. Mischief and horror let the Moor pursue! [Under Stage.]

ELE. A concert! that amain; play that amain;

Amain, amain. No; so soon fallen asleep!

Nay, I’ll not lose this music, sirrah, sirrah,

Take thou a drum, a trumpet thou; and hark,

Mad them with villanous sounds.

(pp. 181-82)

Eleazar even urges his Moorish servants to play music and "Mad them with villanous sounds." But the outwitted and muted Spaniards vanish in complete silence for almost the entire scene. They have, Eleazar informs us, "so soon fallen asleep."

It is important to be aware of the extraordinary deftness with which the Moor absorbs, foils and disperses these racial curses and quickly reduces his aggressive detractors to speechless subjection. He paradoxically does so not by means of violence, but by intervening with the colonial stereotype, fissuring it and turning it to his benefit by mocking it in jokes. Thus, the Moor intercedes with and interrupts colonial discourse.

There runs through Eleazar’s ribald spirit a thoroughgoing sense that if racial prejudice cannot be eradicated, at least, it can be controlled and counter-acted by reinventing it into through humour. Through jest, the Moor effectively masters his masters and manages to erect a counter-stereotypical discourse which is capable of shielding him from the hostility and cruelty of racial abuse. Thus, Eleazar, who is acutely aware of his position in Orientalist discourse as "a Moor, a devil, / A slave of Barbary, a dog" and the "monster of men," self-consciously mobilises that very position in order to launch his resistance and defiance against Orientalist representation. The passage discussed above illustrates how the Moroccan figure enters white, racist discourse and subverts it from within by challenging, interrupting and muting its authors and reducing them to absurd figures. Eleazar obtains discursive and political power and confirms his grip on his overlords.

Thus, the Moorish Other refuses to be assimilated or silenced, refuses to be turned into an object of European hegemony and dominance. Eleazar’s verbal presence is further endorsed by physical valour. It is the Moor who brings his Spanish opponents under control and crushes them into silence. This relentless determination to drive his opponents into silence is manifest in his terrible warning: "He that first opes his lips, I’ll drive his words / Down his wide throat upon my rapier’s point" (III, iv, p. 141). The Moor confines the Queen-Mother and the Cardinal to the dungeon, urging the princes of Spain: "Be deaf, be blind; hear not, behold her not" (V, ii, p. 173). And when the Cardinal and the Queen plead to be heard, the Moor denies them permission to speak.

In the context of Orientalism, Said affirms that "The West is the actor, the Orient a passive reactor. The West is the spectator, the judge and jury, of every facet of Oriental behavior." (19) Arguing against Said’s notion of Oriental powerlessness, I have demonstrated that the Moorish figure reverses the configuration of actor / reactor. He earns the status of the central character by crushing and silencing anyone who stands in his way: for example, the Queen-Mother, Philip, the Cardinal, and Hortenzo, among others.

Clearly, then, the Moroccan figures tactically transform the stage into a space for spectacular resistance and defiance and a power-base from which to perform a sweeping onslaught on Orientalist discourse.



1. See my edition of The Battle of Alcazar (Casablanca: Moroccan Cultural Studies Centre, 2000).

2. The participation of drama in the confirmation and consolidation of imperial dominance is discussed in J. S. Bratton, et al. eds., Acts of Supremacy: The British Empire and the Stage, 1790-1930 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991). Another useful work is John M. Mackenzie, "Orientalism in the Theatre," in Orientalism, History, Theory and the Arts (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995) 176-207.

3. Terence Hawkes, Shakespeare’s Talking Animals (London: Edward Arnold, 1973) 211.

4. Terence Hawkes, 212.

5. Emily C. Bartels, Spectacles of Strangeness: Imperialism, Alienation, and Marlowe (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993) 10.

6. Edward Said, Orientalism (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978) 61.

7. Edward Said, Orientalism, 63.

8. Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (London: Chatto & Windus, 1993) xii.

9. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of Prison, trans. A. M. Sheridan (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1991) 61.

10.See my edition of Lust’s Dominion (Casablanca: Publications of the Faculty of Letters Dhar al Mahraz, 1999).

11. Lust’s Dominion; or, the Lascivious Queen, in A Select Collection of Old English Plays, vol. XIV, ed. W. Carew Hazlitt (London: Reeves and Turner, 1875), II, ii, 121. All subsequent citations are from this edition and will be given in the text.

12. William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, in Shakespeare: Complete Works, ed. W. J. Craig (London: Oxford University Press, 1974), II, i, 1-3.

13. William Shakespeare, Othello, in Shakespeare: Complete Works, III, iii, 387-89.

14. Ben Jonson, The Masque of Blackness and of Beauty, in Ben Jonson, vol. III, eds. C. H. Herford Percy and Velyn Simpson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1941), II, 68-9.

15. Edward Said, Orientalism, 40.

16. This passage contrasts very sharply with Marlowe’s conception of the Moors as inferior in his play Doctor Faustus (1604). He associates the Moors with the American Indians in the following terms: "As Indian moors obey their Spanish lords. / So shall the spirits of every element / Be always serviceable to us" (Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, in The Complete Plays, ed. J. B. Steane [Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1983], I, i, 120-22).

17. Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994) 114.

18. See my Signs of Spectacular Resistance: The Spanish Moor and British Orientalism (Casablanca: 1998) 57-74.

19. Edward Said, Orientalism, 109.