What lost Turk plays can tell us about Shakespeare’s England and about ourselves

The study of extant early modern plays is a painstaking business that moves along a fine line of conjectural and historicist study. With the advent of the Lost Plays Database in 2009, scattered primary and secondary materials have been brought into a searchable database. Yet, shortened references, ellipses, variant titles, and possible failures in the memories of the early modern authors of these materials still make it difficult to identify and analyze lost plays. This is even more valid for lost Turk plays, the extant ones of which resulted from a multifaceted tradition of the intersections of market economy and racism.

The predominantly systematic and institutionalized racial prejudices against non-Christian and Eastern people, amalgamated into the term “Turk”, were fostered by most early modern homilies, ballads, and literature that wrestled capital from the real and imagined anxieties of captivity and conversion. This prevented a healthy relationship across racial borders and a full understanding of the many technological and social advancements in the regions dominated by these people, such as those regarding infrastructure or proto-welfare state policies of free education and health services. The apprehensiveness regarding the Turk was transformed into tragic or comic cathartic reliefs on the early modern stage that profited from the voyeuristic purge of the public’s (imagined) fears through (sadistic) laughter.

Letter from Henry, Prince of Purpoole to the Great Turk
‘Letter from Henry, Prince of Purpoole to the Great Turk’ (Folger MS V.a.190), parodies Anglo-Ottoman Diplomacy. Image via LUNA

Like ‘The Turkish Mahomet and Hiren the Fair Greek’ (1589?) and ‘Mahomet’ (before 1594), ‘The Blacksmith’s Daughter’ (1578) probably showed the advancements of a Turkish sultan to a Christian maiden. But probably like most of the historical romances of their time, these three plays might have depicted a formulaic characterization and plotline that could be easily interchanged with English or Roman rulers for the sake of didacticism coupled with the need to feed the playgoers’ thirst for exotic costumes and adventurous plots on the early modern stage.

A more mature form could be found in the tragic mode that tried to give more psychological depth to the characterization of staged Turks by peeping into the hidden lives of powerful figures, highlighting the discrepancies between essence and appearance and avenging the Christian imagination via poetic justice. For example, the exceptionally detailed two-leaf manuscript fragments of ‘The Stately Tragedy of the Great Cham’ (c. 1590) outline the play as one of the many Marlovian plays that build upon extreme passions, bombastic diction, massacres, and the downfall of Turkic characters, in this case the title character.

Abraham Hill’s list
Abraham Hill’s list that mentions the name of the play. Sloane MS 2893 p. 190 via Lost Plays Database

Conversely, even though the later play ‘The Actors Mufti Nassuf’ (1614?) is only found as a title in a list of Jacobean and Caroline plays compiled by the book collector Abraham Hill (1635-1721), it has possibly more in-depth characterization compared to the former play. The protagonist of the play was possibly the historical figure Nasuh Paşa, the Ottoman Grand Vizier executed in 1614, and the suggested probable narrative sources of the play give as much information about the plotline as the fragments of the former play do.

Similarly, although we have only the title of ‘Osmond the Great Turk’ (c. 1622), it possibly deals again with a historical figure, namely with the assassination of Osman II (1604-1622). The graphic details of the sultan’s gruesome death and the ever-present dread felt about probable assassinations of royals because of sectarian conflicts in Europe made the sensational death of the sultan a hot topic that was financially exploited through the publication of several pamphlets.

Osman II
Osman II in The generall historie of the Turkes … by Richard Knolles, 1603. Folger STC 15051

The analogies of non-dramatic texts and the possible dramatic text not only provide extensive narrative sources about the possible plotline of the now lost play, but also how the image of the Turk in the early modern period was fed by sensationalism that created its own economy.

Osmond the Great Turk
‘Osmond the Great Turk’ is the fifth title in NA LC5/12 p. 213 via Lost Plays Database

But the early modern playgoers did not just want to see how the Turk was subdued by his/her own wrongdoings, but also how (Christian) champions could actively challenge the non-Christian superpower on the early modern stage via figures from the past and present. These champions’ exploits, which postponed the advancement of the Turks, had been celebrated in hagiographic non-dramatic literature and furthered through the Marlovian tradition that imitated and built upon the success of the Tamburlaine plays. The title character of the now lost Admiral’s Men play ‘Vayvode’ (1598), for example, probably depicted the life of a regional Christian ruler at the borderlands of the Ottoman Empire. Similarly, a now lost play on the Albanian ‘George Scanderbeg’ (c. 1601) might also have served as a Marlovian hero of the extended universe of champions against the Turks on the early modern stage. ‘The (Emperor of Constantinople) Tartarian Cripple’ (1600?), which possibly dealt with Timur the Lame’s visit to Constantinople and his peace treaty with the Byzantine Empire following his defeat of the Turks, is another play that probably capitalized on the success of Marlowe’s plays and playgoers’ interest in the past disgrace of the Turks.

The playgoers’ malicious satisfaction was directed not only toward historical figures of the past, but also relatively contemporary figures. ‘The Hungarian Lion’ (1623), for instance, probably dealt with the achievements of Captain John Smith on the Hungarian front against the Turks.

Captain John Smith
Captain John Smith (1624). Houghton Library, Harvard University, STC_22790.

Further research in the archives could possibly give us more insight about this economy and how it affected the consciousness of early modern playgoers who were bombarded with references to Turks, even when the plays were not about Turks. For example, Shakespeare seems to be deliberate in his choice of having Henry V’s first words after his coronation allude to the “fear” generated by what was envisioned as Machiavellian means of succession and the subsequent downfall of Turks (2 Henry IV 5.2.47-9); or in the words preceding Henry V’s marriage to Princess Katherine about how he hopes that the Anglo-French marriage will produce heirs that would subdue the Turk (Henry V 5.2.204-8). Both instances allude to the ever-present fear of Turks generated and fostered in the early modern English consciousness through the justification of the cruelty of the Turk to (re)define Christian ethics.

Even lost Turk plays show the extent of the institutionalization and normalization of racial prejudices, how the fears of the geographically, racially, and religiously other were prevalent in the consciousness of people, and how these fears created their own economy that fossilized these fears even more. Despite the fact that searching for lost plays is more or less a mission impossible in the majority of cases, studies in lost plays have the possibility to broaden our understanding not only of extant plays, but also of early modern theatrical and cultural receptions of social issues like racism that are still ingrained in our modern societies.

We want to express our thanks to the Folger Shakespeare Library for their collaboration with MEMOs and for allowing our researchers to use the Folger’s extensive resources to illustrate cross-cultural interactions in the early modern period. We hope that this fruitful collaboration with the Folger Shakespeare Library has been helpful for our readers who struggle with and try to make sense of the timely issue of structural racism, which can be traced back to the early modern period.

This blog post is the final installment in a series with Medieval and Early Modern Orients (MEMOs). For citations and bibliography, please see the full version of this post on the MEMOs blog.