Fear of the Moors

BBC History Magazine - - Shakespeare’s Plays - Was mod­elled on a Moroc­can am­bas­sador to the English court?

Subti­tled ‘The Moor of Venice’, Othello is one of Shake­speare’s great­est high tragedies, writ­ten ei­ther just be­fore or af­ter Queen El­iz­a­beth’s death and King James VI and I’s ac­ces­sion in 1603. The play con­tained highly top­i­cal res­o­nances for its English au­di­ence. ‘Moors’ came from Mau­re­ta­nia (as Iago says), in what’s now Morocco, and inspired both racial and re­li­gious anx­i­eties for El­iz­a­bethans.

The re­gion was pre­dom­i­nantly Mus­lim, un­der the con­trol of the Sa’adian dy­nasty. El­iz­a­beth al­lied her­self with Morocco, es­tab­lish­ing the Bar­bary Com­pany to trade English mu­ni­tions for sugar (which wreaked such havoc on her teeth). In the sum­mer of 1600 the Moroc­can am­bas­sador Muham­mad al-An­nuri and his ret­inue ar­rived in Lon­don and stayed for six months, ne­go­ti­at­ing treaties with El­iz­a­beth. Al-An­nuri, ru­moured to be a Morisco (a Span­ish-born Mus­lim forced to con­vert to Chris­tian­ity, but who in this case then re­verted) even had his por­trait painted.

Was al-An­nuri the model for Othello? Shake­speare’s Othello de­scribes him­self in am­bigu­ous terms, speak­ing “Of be­ing taken by the in­so­lent foe”, which we as­sume to be the Ot­tomans, and then of be­ing “sold to slav­ery”; his “re­demp­tion thence” sug­gests his con­ver­sion to Chris­tian­ity. But by the end of the play, af­ter killing Des­de­mona, he com­pares him­self to “a ma­lig­nant and a tur­baned Turk”. His iden­tity is clearly far more com­plex than that of be­ing sim­ply ‘black’, and sug­gests how con­flicted the El­iz­a­bethans felt about the Mus­lim world.

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