In February 1682, it was reported in the London newspaper Loyal Protestant, and True Domestic Intelligence that ‘His Excellency the Morocco Ambassador is exceedingly well pleased with his Entertainments; Insomuch that he declared, that he thought there were not such Divertisements in the whole world, much less in England; so that he is very earnest in concluding a Peace with his Majesty’.
Muhammad ben Hadou had been sent to England by Sultan Mawlay Isma’il ibn Sharif to mediate a treaty regarding the embattled colonial outpost at English Tangier. In the course of his six-month visit the ambassador was treated to public entertainments and performances of all kinds: theatre, music, dancing, bear-baits, horse-baits, banquets, hunting displays, and visits to Oxford, Cambridge, York, Newmarket, and the Royal Society. He also presented a public spectacle of his own, famously exercising his retinue’s horses in Hyde Park to the admiring gaze of John Evelyn and others, and sitting for a horseback portrait by Godfrey Kneller. Newspapers reported lavishly on his entertainments, his gracious and enthusiastic reception thereof, and on the avid public following he gathered along the way.
In subsequent decades, Hadou’s successors as ambassador, and counterparts coming from the neighboring “Barbary” regencies of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, were confronted with growing public interest, cultural triumphalism, and commercial opportunism. In 1700, the London Post reported that ‘This Afternoon there was such a Crowd about the House of the 2 Morocco Ambassadors in Lisle–street Soho, that there was no free Passage to, or from the House; insomuch, that the Constables of the Parish of St. Anos were obliged to disperse the Mob’. In the same year, the English Post announced, ‘The Ambassador from Tripoli with his Retinue came last Friday to the King’s Play-House to see a Play, called Volpone, or the Fox; and his Excellency being in a Scarlet Gown, and his Gentlemen all in genteel Turkish Habits, made a very fine show in the Boxes, and drew upon them the Eyes of the whole Audience’.
By 1706, the Daily Courant made a regular habit of advertising plays ‘For the Entertainment of his Excellency Ahmed Ben Ahmed Cardenas, Ambassador from the Emperor of Fez and Morocco’, who remained in London for two years, and in 1710, Isaac Bickerstaff of the Tatler accepted an invitation from promoter Thomas Dogget to appear at a performance, which Dogget declared, ‘will bring me as great an Audience, as ever there was at the House since the Morocco Ambassador was there’. In the same year, two separate papers explicitly encouraged audiences to view not only the plays themselves (in this case, Shakespeare’s Henry IV), but also the ambassador and royal messenger from Morocco ‘with their Attendants in their several Habits, &c. having never as yet appeared in public’. Thus newspaper advertisers treated ambassadors not simply as audience members, or even honored guests, but as part of the spectacle for London crowds.
Theatrical performances of all kinds graced the eyes of these visiting Maghrebi ambassadors, but most intriguing are those that represented, favorably and otherwise, Muslims and Maghrebi peoples – Shakespeare’s Othello with its darkened Moor and The Tempest with its Algerian witch – as well as those with explicitly colonial and racial overtones – Thomas Southerne’s adaptation of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, Peter Anthony Motteux’s adaptation of John Fletcher’s The Island Princess, and John Dryden’s The Indian Emperour, or the Conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards. Thus London audiences were encouraged by newspaper advertisers and theatrical promoters to enjoy not only public performances, but also the spectacle of exotic visitors, as the visitors observed representations of themselves, their countrymen, and their coreligionists, and as they were exposed to English cultural attitudes and colonial ambitions.
This intricate combination of intersecting practices – diplomatic personnel bringing Maghrebi ambassadors to public performances and selecting plays with racial and imperial overtones, theatrical promoters welcoming these dignitaries to their establishments and partnering with newspaper editors to advertise the plays with reference to their illustrious and exotic attendees, and audiences of all classes flocking to see both the visitors and the performances – evidently served the interests of all concerned, and hints at fascinating and underexplored elements of Restoration and Augustan political, diplomatic, media, and popular culture.
Why would English diplomatic functionaries, informed by experienced advisors and sometimes themselves experienced on the ground in the Maghreb, choose to invite foreign dignitaries to such potentially risky performances – and perhaps even more importantly, how did they decide which similar plays, such as Elkanah Settle’s Empress of Morocco and Heir of Morocco, John Dryden’s Don Sebastian, or Aphra Behn’s Abdelazer, to scrupulously avoid? As English power in the Mediterranean increased, and Maghrebi power declined, the messages they intended to send most likely shifted, but in all cases the messages were certainly deliberate. Were audiences, and the advertisers that sought to attract them, simply interested in increasing the exotic spectacle by highlighting the ambassador’s presence, or was there something special about observing the ambassadors watching such plays? I will engage with these questions, and others, in a chapter coming soon from Bloomsbury/Arden Shakespeare, but for now, the play-visiting ambassadors and ambassador-chasing audiences pose more questions than answers.