- Staging Islam in England, Drama and Culture,1640-1685
Our view of the representations of the Orient in early modern Europe has been undergoing a serious revision in recent years. Historians and literary scholars are challenging the image once commonly held that Western Europe and the Islamic countries (in particular the Ottoman Empire, Safavid Persia, and Morocco) were opposed in a rigid binary. Evidence of sustained trade, cultural, and diplomatic relations is being increasingly uncovered. Unsurprisingly, this leads to a reassessment of Edward Said's Orientalism, according to which Western views of the Orient were structurally the same from antiquity to the present. It has become increasingly questionable that his famous definition of Orientalism as a Western style of domination of the East, arguably adequate to the modern imperialistic period, should apply to earlier circumstances. Clearly, for two and a half centuries after 1453, Europeans saw the Ottoman Empire as a mighty threat, not as a decadent power.
Matthew Birchwood's study of English plays of the second half of the seventeenth century brings a welcome contribution to this reevaluation. Looking at the staging of Islam during the turbulent years 1640–85, he recognizes that the goal of the playwrights was not to understand the East, and that their representations were thoroughly Eurocentric, or, more precisely, anglocentric. However, Birchwood does not conclude from this unsurprising fact that the dramatists were imposing their views on a helpless Orient, but were rather using Islam as a metaphor, as a mirror, and as a vehicle for articulating ideologies deeply rooted in English politics.
Crucially, early modern authors were able to use Oriental characters and settings to express widely differing opinions on the troubled situation in England. Birchwood thoroughly studies the content and background of plays such as Baron's Mirza (1655), Boyle's Mustapha (1668), Settle's Empress of Morocco [End Page 1046] (1673), as well as other texts (or "texts" like the 1682 Moroccan embassy). For each, he examines the intricacies of domestic politics, points to the evolution of trade and diplomatic relations with Islamic countries, and evaluates the advance of Oriental studies around the two Arabic chairs in Cambridge and Oxford. A chronological approach allows Birchwood to illuminate how Islam could be used at all stages of the political crises of the times.
At a time of conflict and shifting allegiances, authors could, thanks to Islamic characters and situations, present widely diverging ideologies, and explore some of the notions at the center of the struggles of the Civil War, the Interregnum, and the Restoration, such as tyranny, regicide, conversion, and religious toleration. They were not attempting to analyze Islamic realities, but they do tell us that English culture at the time considered Islam in a decidedly ambivalent way, the Orient appearing as a repository of indeterminate meanings rather than a stable entity, and thus could be used to express all sorts of views. Far from being a fixed point of reference, the Orient is a shifting trope open to differing significations.
Birchwood is undoubtedly right to conclude that this shows that Turks, Persians, and Moors on the English stage were not simply "Others," since they could be identified as "Selves," and that an ambivalence in the representation of Islam allows for it to become the conduit for expressing all sides in the political and ideological struggles in England. However, he leaves a number of crucial questions unanswered or not considered at all. The inconsistencies of the representation of Islam in the context of the period or inside one text are often pointed out, but never really explained. There is some haziness as to how the vision of Islam during the period under review differs from the preceding or the following. Explaining the fact that Islam was given such a stage by narrowly political reasons avoids the consideration of the profound epistemological changes that allowed for the institution of Oriental studies in European universities and libraries.
This book is nevertheless a valuable contribution to the...