The Moroccan of Venice

Shakespeare and Islam at London's Globe Theatre

Four hundred years ago this year, Shakespeare's theatre group performed Othello for the first time. London's Globe Theatre is marking the Moor of Venice's stage anniversary with a forum for cultural exchange. By Patricia Benecke

Four hundred years ago this year, Shakespeare's theatre group performed Othello for the first time. London's Globe Theatre is marking the Moor of Venice's stage anniversary with a forum for cultural exchange. The focus of the forum, "Shakespeare and Islam", builds bridges between the past and the present, and between East and West. By Patricia Benecke

photo: Peter Sanders
The "Green Dome" logo of the Islam and Shakespeare Festival

​​Ever since George W. Bush stood side by side with Tony Blair and declared the "war on terror", the different denominations in what truly is a multi-cultural London are not as indifferent to one another as they used to be. "We have noticed a general increase in the fear and estrangement of Muslims," says Sher Khan of the Islamic Society of Britain.

Approximately two million Muslims live in Great Britain today. Some use humour to try and defuse the situation: who wouldn't relax upon catching sight of someone with the slogan "Don't Panic I'm Islamic" emblazoned across his T-shirt? Another, less contradictory and in all probability more lasting approach to the situation is the organisation of active cultural encounters.

Desdemona's Egyptian handkerchief

This is why the British theatre world is showing an increased interest in the Middle East and the Islamic cultural scene. The Arab-Israeli Cookbook at the Gate Theatre or the performance of Women of War by the Iraqi author Jawad al-Assadi are just two examples of this trend.

Surprisingly, London's Globe Theatre was the very first English theatre to tackle the subject over an extended period. This month will see the 400th anniversary of the first performance of Othello, the Moor of Venice for which there is written evidence.

In Shakespeare's time, as today, the term "Moor" was used to describe a member of a Muslim people that inhabited North Africa.

Othello was probably a Moroccan

Patrick Spottiswoode, head of the Globe Education Department, explains that everything points to the fact that Shakespeare's Othello was a Moroccan.

He was probably inspired to write the play by the Moroccan ambassador's spectacular visit to England in the year 1600: "From the Ottoman invasion of Cyprus to Desdemona's fateful handkerchief, which was spun in Egypt, the play is peppered with references to Islam."

And so the Education Department decided to use the anniversary to make contact with the Islamic Society of Britain and other organisations to put together a "Shakespeare and Islam" season.

The aim is to explore Elizabethan attitudes to the Muslim world; part of the Globe's remit is to work towards a better contemporary understanding of Shakespeare and to examine the social and political context in which his plays were written.

But the Globe also saw the opportunity of using the Bard, the quintessential vehicle of English culture, to pave the way for encounters with Islamic culture in modern Britain.

Othello is right at the heart of this extensive cycle of events, which includes Globe youth workshops in English and Arabic and a reading of the rarely performed first printed version of the play dating from 1622.

Seven other plays from the Shakespeare era, which are either set in Islamic countries or in which Islamic figures play an important role, will be read, book in hand, by actors including forgotten masterpieces like the 17th Century pieces Emperor of the East by Philip Massinger and The Battle of Alcazar by George Peele.

Islamic interpretations of Shakespeare's sonnets

There will also be a series of lectures, one of which will be given by the American expert in religious studies Shaykh Hamza Yusuf and will focus on Islamic interpretations of Shakespeare's sonnets. In a lecture entitled "The Iago Factor: Obstacles on the Path to Peace", he will examine the theme of war and peace in Othello and will draw parallels with today's political situation. The London-based Academic Dr. Martin Lings will reveal possible references to Sufi thought in his lecture. The event is certainly full of new ideas.

It is true to say that Islam played a not insignificant role in Shakespeare's time. Moreover, Elizabethan ideas, fears, and hopes with regard to the Muslim world are reflected in some of the works written by the Bard and his contemporaries.

At the time, the Ottoman Empire still constituted a latent threat: in 1570, the Turks conquered Cyprus after a bloody invasion. At the same time, Morocco, which was not under the yoke of Constantinople, was an important ally of England in its animosity towards Catholic Spain.

Elizabeth and the Moroccan King even hatched plans to colonise America together. According to sources, Shakespeare himself actually read Richard Knolle's book General History of the Turks.

He refers to Islam at least 141 times in 21 different plays: this includes references to the prophet "Mahomet", Morocco, Constantinople, Turks, Ottomans, Saracens, Sultans, and Moors.

"Souk Lectures"

But for all of this exploration of the past, the Globe always builds bridges to the present. Last weekend's hourly "Souk lectures" highlighted the meaning of Islam in England both today and yesterday.

For these lectures, the inner courtyard of the theatre was transformed into an Arabic market. The selection of goods on offer ran from spices to calligraphy, and the whole thing was underpinned by eastern market theatre performances by the Khayaal Theatre Company.

This sensual example of Muslim culture, which was closely linked to this year's British Islam Awareness Week, attracted over 10,000 visitors.

Apart from a few unavoidable, bitter commentaries on the Internet, the series of events at the Globe was generally very well received in all quarters, not only by the British broadsheets and Anglo-Muslim publications.

Spottiswoode tells the story of meeting a Muslim taxi driver who was not only interested in the Globe events himself, but wanted to pass on information about them to two mosques.

The interest in this initiative was such that a follow-up project is now in the pipeline. Next year, the Globe Education Team intends to go on tour taking an Othello-inspired trans-cultural Shakespeare workshop to over 60 British schools.

Among other things, the aim of the tour is to allow Muslim schoolchildren to discover part of their cultural heritage in this British classic and to share this heritage with their classmates. As part of the workshop, all of the children will visit a church and a mosque together in order to get to know both Othello's world and their own a little better.

Patricia Benecke

© NZZ

Translation from German: Aingeal Flanagan

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