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Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 30.1 (2000) 125-156

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Anglo-Ottoman Relations and the Image of the Turk in Tamburlaine

Jonathan Burton

"A friendly parle"

Most readings of Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine plays rely on the assumption that early modern Europe sustained "an immovable stereotype of the raging and expansionist Turk." 1 While this figure is certainly visible in Marlowe's plays, he is not the only version of the Turk Marlowe represents. 2 In fact, Marlowe's plays reveal the image of the raging Turk as just one variation within a rather elastic set of representations. Immovable stereotypes of the Ottoman Turk as an ahistorical, irrational, despotic, and fanatical "Other" are more characteristic of nineteenth-century Orientalism than of early modern structures of thought. Yet the intermediary location of Orientalist ideas between the early modern period and our own has encouraged their backward imposition onto early modern subjects. Not only does this practice obscure significant aspects of Marlowe's plays, it preserves a set of colonial and imperial paradigms that fail to represent instances of bilateral exchange in early modern Europe's experience with other civilizations.

In the essay that follows, I demonstrate the need to calibrate the models of postcolonial theory with case-specific historicism. In the case of Marlowe's Tamburlaine plays, documentary sources and revisionist histories of early modern Anglo-Ottoman relations help to reveal a context quite unlike those described by Edward Said's Orientalism, the predominant academic model for East-West encounters. Said presents "orientalism as a dynamic exchange between individual [Western] authors and . . . large [Western] political concerns." 3 Marlowe's plays, on the other hand, arise from a culture in which there was a more reciprocal relation between East and West. The early modern term trafficking may best describe the period's dynamic exchange, pursued by and equally consequential for both the East [End Page 125] and the West. 4 Although the imprint of trafficking is discernible througout the period's drama, critics continue to maintain that the Ottomans were portrayed exclusively as stereotypes, with no allusion "to specific aspects of Muslims that could be traced to actual meetings with them." 5 I argue instead that Marlowe's plays are crucially marked by England's reciprocative commerce with the Ottoman Empire.

The place of the Ottoman Empire in European history has often been underestimated. As Jason Goodwin explains, the Ottomans are a people who no longer exist, and "the word 'Ottoman' does not describe a place." 6 There was a time, however, when the Ottoman Turks constituted the greatest threat to European Christendom. Descended from a minor fourteenth-century Anatolian estate, the Ottomans established their empire in the place of the decaying Byzantine Empire. After conquering Constantinople in 1453, they expanded their empire for the next two hundred years. Ottoman armies carried the banner of Islam across Egypt and the Maghreb, east to Mecca, Medina, and the Caspian Sea, and across Greece and the Balkans as far as Budapest in Europe. The empire was at the height of its power under Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-66), but Ottoman forces continiued to threaten Europe until the failed siege of Vienna in 1683. Ottoman military successes had significant mercantile implications. The annexation of Egypt secured Ottoman control of trade routes to the East, while Ottoman suzerainty in North Africa involved the Turks in developing Atlantic markets. 7 European trade depended upon interaction with the Turks to such an extent that Halil Inalcik argues that without the trade in Ottoman territories, "it is difficult to comprehend the rise of Western capitalism." 8 At the same time, the term Turk was coextensive with Islam in early modern European rhetoric. To turn Turk was to abandon Christianity and embrace Islam. Thus Europe's extensive relationships with the Ottomans were complicated by notions of apostasy and religious corruption. 9

Recognizing the importance of the Ottoman Turks in early modern European culture helps to produce a new reading of the Tamburlaine plays where Tamburlaine's shifting religious identity is not merely...


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pp. 125-156
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