restricted access Islamic Conversion and Christian Resistance on the Early Modern Stage by Jane Hwang Degenhardt (review)
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Islamic Conversion and Christian Resistance on the Early Modern Stage. By Jane Hwang Degenhardt. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010. Illus. Pp. viii + 264. $105.00 cloth.

Jane Hwang Degenhardt's Islamic Conversion and Christian Resistance on the Early Modern Stage takes a fresh look at the politics of "turning Turk" in post-Reformation English theater. Coming after seminal work by Nabil I. Matar, Daniel Vitkus, Matthew Dimmock, and Jonathan Burton on Anglo-Islamic relations, especially in real and staged apostasy, Degenhardt's book turns to modes of embodied Christian resistance to conversion.1 Read alongside "the physical technologies of the theater" (2), Christian bodies become sites where wars waged against the Ottomans are lost or won. The temptation to convert appears inextricably linked with sexual desire, and physical markers such as circumcision or castration distinguish [End Page 587] renegades from Christian martyrs. This emphasis on the physicality of labels lends itself to broader discussions on the political, religious, and protoracial implications of "turning Turk" and not surprisingly brings in a wide range of contemporary sermons, travel narratives, and anatomical treatises. Despite detailed studies of The Comedy of Errors and Othello, Degenhardt mostly relies on non-Shakespeare plays to trace the gendered effects of apostasy. Nonetheless, she opens up new ways of reading Shakespeare, particularly in light of the rising prominence of English trade with Ottomans. What is particularly significant about Degenhardt's book is the way it situates opposition to Islam alongside England's conversions to Protestantism, revealing how older and often-discredited rituals of Catholicism made a return on stage. Moreover, the very materiality of Catholic objects in turn reflect upon the ways in which male and female bodies countered Islam. Degenhardt's book provides a richly evocative and nuanced way of looking at emergent racial categories, apostasy, and the human body.

Chapter 1 opens with a discussion not on "turning Turk" but on turning Christian, against the context of "Pauline universalism" and the possibility of eradicating all "bodily distinctions" (33). While identical brothers in Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors "[test] the practical ramifications of a universal spiritual fellowship" (33) within the context of Mediterranean commerce, the eponymous hero's baptism in Othello comes under scrutiny for its ability to erase his ethnic and religious differences. Turning to the "essential figure" of the Ethiopian eunuch in Pauline conversion, Degenhardt argues that "Othello was his early seventeenth-century equivalent" (39) and that he offers a radical way of recognizing spiritual fellowship that transcended material proof. Such early modern debates on the all-inclusive Pauline system acquired greater urgency in light of England's own conversion to Protestantism and its increased reliance on trade with the Ottoman Empire.

Questions about Protestant reception of bodily proof take on a new turn in chapter 2, in readings of a cluster of Catholic martyr plays staged at the Red Bull, including Dekker and Massinger's Virgin Martyr, Henry Shirley's Martyred Soldier, and the anonymous Two Ladies of London and the Converted Conjuror. Despite their pagan settings, these plays were performed around the same time that Robert Daborne's Christian Turned Turke and Philip Massinger's Renegado gained great popularity and dealt with similar problems of conversion and redemption. That these martyr plays evaded censure from the Master of the Revels and enjoyed considerable success with contemporary playgoers leads Degenhardt to suggest that they offered ways of imaginatively fighting Islamic conversion that otherwise eluded post-Reformation writers. In particular, the chastity of female martyrs and their ability to withstand torture presented a viable, if Catholic, model for combating Ottoman captivity and persecution. For these martyrs, their "miraculously preserved virginity reveals their innate virtue," unlike Protestant martyrs, whose status did not depend upon "their sexual or physical constancy" (100).

Degenhardt illustrates how Islamic conversion was literally different for men and women, affecting their bodies in fundamentally distinct ways. While apostasy [End Page 588] in men manifested itself through circumcision or castration, for women rape and ensuing pregnancy contaminated entire bloodlines. Turning to Foxe's Book of Martyrs and Hakluyt's Principal Navigations, Degenhardt reveals how "anxieties about female sexuality . . . were exacerbated by the role Christian women were perceived to...