- The Crescent Moon and the OrbPolitical Allegory and Cosmographic Detour in Gabriel Bounin’s La Soltane
“O jour phoebien, jour saint ou je dois voir / Mes fils en majesté, en hauteur, & pouvoir, / Les primes du levant, & du fer de leurs lances / Reduire tout ce rond soubs leurs obeissances”—thus Rose, the female protagonist of Gabriel Bounin’s little-discussed tragedy La Soltane (Paris: Guillaume Morel, 1561) makes her frenzied demand that her sons, rather than Moustapha, Sultan Solyman’s oldest son, rule the whole terrestrial orb.1 Rose’s words announce the political question that organizes the play, namely, what is the special nature of monarchical power (“majesté”) and who has it in a kingdom. In La Soltane’s byzantine plot, Rose, Soltan Solyman’s wife, and Rustan, his first vizier, scheme to have Moustapha, Solyman’s oldest son born to another woman, executed in an attempt to ensure that Rose’s four sons will eventually rise to power.2 Rose’s maid Sirene tries to temper Rose’s desire to rule while Moustapha’s friend, the Sophy, attempts to save his friend with his prudent advise to flee; but Rose and Rustan prevail despite these efforts, and Solyman, who has been led to believe that Moustapha is trying to overthrow him, has his son strangled by his mutes for alleged rebellion. The play presents a fictionalized version of the actual struggle for power within the Ottoman dynasty, which led to the ordered execution of şehzade Mustafa, sultan Süleymân I’s son in 1553, and it was composed in France at a time when the religious divide between Catholics and Protestants and the rivalry of aristocratic factions threatened the power of the Valois monarchy. This play is thus about very topical issues in France—monarchy and its crisis—and I trace Bounin’s ideas about them in the play. I show that the author’s political thought is situated in the middle between anti-absolutism and the desire for a strong central government. Being in the middle of the political spectrum, Bounin also finds himself between the nobility and the monarchy, which makes his thought rather conflicted. [End Page 1]
Although La Soltane has often been called “the first Orientalist tragedy” in France, I argue that the organizing principle of the play is a political idea rather than Orientalism (understood as the systematic denigration of Eastern peoples and cultures by the West), which makes it one (perhaps the first) of a series of minor plays and pamphlets written in French in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in which the figure of the “Turk” and the Ottoman court serve as political allegories for French audiences.3 Thus the play’s Turks—or “the Solymans “as Bounin prefers to call them4—indeed constitute an Oriental mirror but this mirror is to reflect the political problems that France is facing. In addition, by situating the Solymans in a picturesque cosmography that renders them exotic, even outlandish, Bounin creates an effect of distancing. The distance created by this Oriental detour reassures the audience that while this sort of crisis could happen to them it will not. While the political intrigues of the Solymans, the flows in their cosmography, prefigure the ambitions of the various fractions in France that destabilize the monarchy, they never come home to France, or so Bounin wants to reassure his audience.
1. La Soltane and the Challenges of Reading
As Michael Heath notes, Bounin’s Solymans go around swearing by ancient gods—including Rose’s Phoebus—and invoking the demons of Tartary.5 Although Bounin borrows the story of Mustapha’s execution from a contemporary pamphlet written by the soldier who had escaped from Turkish captivity, Nicolas Moffan, he replaces the factual descriptions of Ottoman society and politics with references to Greek and Roman mythology, culture, and geography.6 Thus, La Soltane contains only a handful Ottoman realia: place names like Amasie, Moustapha’s seat, proper names like Solyman and Moustapha, and references to kaftans and L’alcoran. The Solymans are no longer anchored in the geographic space of the Ottoman Empire and its culture, but are afloat in ancient Greco-Roman geography...