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  • Aaron's Name
  • Benjamin Griffin (bio)

Scholarship on Titus Andronicus, despite its special concentration on ethnographical approaches, has not yet given a satisfactory explanation of why Shakespeare's villainous Moor is named Aaron.1 Many, following Leslie Fiedler, have explored the "Jewish" connotations of the name, and several have examined the Moor in search of specific analogies to Aaron, the brother of Moses.2 These biblical and Jewish resonances are legitimately available to reader or audience response, and they will remain so. But it is notable that the suggested allusions to the biblical Aaron and to the Jews are a suspiciously varied crop. None has gained general acceptance. Jonathan Bate supposes that the Moor's eloquence is implicitly compared to that of Moses's brother: "An Elizabethan audience would have known that the biblical Aaron had an eloquent, persuasive tongue (Exodus, 4.10–16)."3 For Stephen Orgel, the name shows how English anxiety over "secret contamination" by black people is formed on the model of anxiety about the Jews, while Russ McDonald asserts that Elizabethans would have had "positive, biblical associations" with the high priest of Israel.4 Francesca [End Page 296] T. Royster writes that the Moor's incongruously "Jewish name" is "symptomatic of the instability of race and of the boundary between civilized and barbaric."5 Ian Lancashire's claim that the name evokes aron, a common English ground plant (Arum maculatum)—thus explaining why the character's final punish-ment "is to be 'planted' or 'fast'ned in the earth'"—is perhaps to be received as a jeu d'esprit.6

In researching the sources of this "sourceless" play, scholarship has not recognized the historical Moor named Aaron who was known to Tudor readers: the one who led a great army against the Roman Empire, forced its emperor Nicephorus to pay tribute, and carried on diplomatic relations with Charlemagne. For "Aaron" is the usual early English form of the Arabic name Harun, and the historical individual in question is Harun al-Rashid.7

In the sixteenth century Harun (763?–809 CE), the fifth Abbasid caliph, had less fame than he would enjoy in the eighteenth century with the European vogue of the Arabian Nights. Nevertheless, he is mentioned in several works available to the author (or authors) of Titus Andronicus. Thomas Newton's Notable Historie of the Saracens (1575, frequently reprinted) translates the work of the Italian humanist Celio Augustino Curione. This translation is a known source for the play of 1 Selimus, attributed to Robert Greene, and is agreed to be a probable source for Marlowe's Tamburlaine.8 In Newton we read of "Aaron Prince of Saracens" and "Aaron the high Caliph of Persia and Arabia," who "rufflingly" [End Page 297] invaded the provinces of the eastern Roman Empire with an army numbering three hundred thousand, forcing the emperor to secure the peace of his empire "by paying yeerely an annuall fee in gold."9 Newton writes roughly a page and a half on "Aaron," describing his pillages, which "miserably afflicted and frusshed the Romane empyre," as well as his diplomatic mission to the court of Charlemagne.

Another chronicler who mentions Aaron is Leo Africanus in Della descrittione dell'Africa (1550). Leo was a "more" himself, "borne in Granada, and brought vp in Barbarie," as the first English translation styles him. His Descrittione, a key document for the growing Renaissance European knowledge of Africa and a recognized source for Othello, had been translated into Latin and several modern languages before 1590.10 In addition to mentioning Aaron, Leo gives an account of Aaron's near kinsman, Idris, who died without lawful issue, but "ancillam reliquit grauidam, quae ex Gothis in illorum fidem illecta erat" (in Purchas's translation, "he left his slaue with child; shee was a Goth become mahumetan, and had a sonne").11 This moorish-Gothic child born into the house of Aaron should be of interest to students of Titus Andronicus, recalling as it does the child born to Aaron and Tamora (4.2).

The two books mentioned so far represent the Renaissance's newer African scholarship, translated from sixteenth-century Italian sources. But Harun alRashid also turns...


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