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Arab Influence on Shakespeare

As we mark the anniversary of William Shakespeare's birth and death this month, it is a perfect time to reflect on his timeless legacy and enduring impact on literature. While many know him as the greatest English playwright and poet, not many are aware of the fascinating influence that Arabic culture had on Shakespeare's works. In this special blog post, our guest blogger Natalie Mallat delves into the Arab influences in Shakespeare's writing.

Shakespeare home and statute
Shakespeare

Natalie Mallat is a freelance writer with a particular interest in Medieval Arab history. She enjoys running the history blog Biblioteca Natalie. You can follow her Instagram @medievalarabhistory and Linkedin @bibliotecanatalie for regular posts.


Queen Elizabeth I’s era saw closeness with the Arab monarchs in Morocco. The Saadis were a noble sheriff clan which descended from Prophet Muhammad. After the fall of Al Andalus, the Saadis had confrontations with Spain aiming to reconquer the lost Andalusian lands. Queen Elizabeth I, who was isolated by the Catholic powers in Western Europe, developed close relations with the Arabs. Thousands of her subjects were to be found in the Arab world, travelling from Morocco through Aleppo, Al Raqqa, Tripoli, Baghdad, and Algiers.

 

Elizabeth I was Shakespeare’s patron for many years. She watched many of his plays. The actors were called to play at court for private performances. In the summer of 1600, the Saadi Sultan of Morocco Al Mansur wrote to Elizabeth I informing her that he was sending a diplomatic embassy disguised as a trade delegation travelling through Aleppo enroute to London. This was led by the Arab ambassador Abdelwahed ibn Masoud ibn Muhammad Al Annuri who was given orders by Al Mansur to verbally and privately discuss a proposed Anglo-Moroccan attack on Spain. Abdlewahed was described as having sharpness of wit and gift of pen.

 

The delegation of 16 men left Morocco in late June on board the Eagle. They arrived in Dover on August 8th and were taken to London. Al Annuri spent 6 months at Elizabeth’s court. Some accounts report that they were very strangely attired and behavioured. The English royal preparation is described by an eyewitness: Rich hangings and furniture sent from Hampton Court; the guard very strong in their rich coats; the pensioners with their axes; the lords [of the Order of Garter] with their collars; a full court of lords and ladies. Al Annuri and the delegation had a private audience with Elizabeth I. Al Annuri, on behalf of the Arab King, proposed a joint military attack on Spain and a joint campaign against Spain’s colonies in the Americans and the Far East.

 

In November, the delegation was still in London and attended the public events of the Accession Day held in Whitehall marking the 42nd anniversary of Elizabeth’s reign. Al Annuri caught the attention of thousands of Londoners who came to see him.  John Stow wrote the assembly had a great number of people never seen in that place before. The Arab ambassador was distinguishable from the crowds, wearing a long black robe, white linen turban and a richly decorated steel scimitar. Thousands of Londoners came to watch.

 

The excitement and danger created by the English-Arab relations inspired writers. In the Spring of 1600, Ralph Carr published the Mahumetane which was translated from various Italian and French sources. Few months later, a play appeared titled The Spanish Moor’s Tragedy which portrays the Moors and Spaniards having uncontrollable lust. Racist connotations were used such as: And for this Barbarous Moor, and his black train Let all the Moors be banished from Spain. Around this time, Shakespeare began writing The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice which was set in the Mediterranean. The main character “Othello” included elements of the black Moors associated with Spain in The Spanish Moor’s Tragedy. It is also possible that Shakespeare might have been influenced by Abdelwahed while writing his play.  By this time, many Arabic scholarly works and folk tales which were a result of centuries of Arab presence in Italy, Spain and Portugal were circulating around Western Europe. The Arab presence in Southern Italy, Spain and Portugal resulted in the transmission of Near Eastern knowledge and culture.


Some scholars paralleled Shakespearean works to the 1001 Arabian Nights. Examples of such influences can be seen in his play The Tempest and the Arabian tale “Jazirat al Kanz” (Treasure Island), King Lear and “Al Malik Yunan wal Hakeem Rowyan” (The King Yunan and the Wise Rowyan) and All's Well That Ends Well based on The Decameron, which was in turn influenced by the 1001 Arabian Nights. As for Othello, the British orientalist Aruthur John Arberry highlighted that this story has unmistakable similarities with the Arabian tale “Qamar al Zaman and his lover”. The name Othello is a possible Latinization of the hero’s name “Obaid Allah al Jawhari”. Othello and the story of Qamar al Zaman both include the concept of the cheating wife. The Arabic wife and Desdemona were both strangled by their husbands.

 

In this tragedy, Shakespeare portrays Othello as a “Noble Moor” who is loyal and courageous. In a way, this could represent Elizabeth’s politics with the Arab and Muslim word, an England ready to accept the so-called Moors. Nothing about Othello’s racial identity is given. Before he stabs himself, he tells his story showing Eastern links: Drops tears as fast as the Arabian trees Their medicinal gum. Set you down this, And say besides that in Aleppo once, Where a malignant and a turbaned Turk Beat a Venetian and traduced the state.

 

In the play, Shakespeare highlights several racist beliefs regarding Moors using offensive terminologies and animal imagery such as the “Barbary horse” and “an old black ram”.  In the end, Othello allows these animalistic behaviours to take over him and he strangles his wife. The stereotypes presented connect Black features such as “thick lips” to ugliness. Othello was often described as black and ugly while Desdemona was fair and beautiful. When Othello admitted his marriage to Desdemona, Brabanito said: To fall in love with what she feared to look on!. This unusual union and Othello’s features continued to trouble the Western mind for many centuries. Samuel Taylor Coleridge claimed that Othello cannot be a negro because it would be something monstrous to conceive this beautiful Venetian girl falling in love with a veritable negro.

 

Although Othello was a respected leader, he was often openly humiliated and called offensive words such as “barbarian”. Despite being brave and confident at war, he was always insecure about himself and his past. No matter how hard he tried, he would not fit in the Venetian culture. The Western perception fails to look at “Moors” as individuals with identities and cultures. Moor was a general term given to Muslims in Spain, Portugal, Italy, North Africa and sometimes even in India and Philippines. Although these groups comprise various races and identities, the term “Moor” dehumanises them and portrays them as savages, villains and barbarians. In Shakespeare’s play, Othello at many times was only labelled simply as the Moor: “Due to the Moor my lord”, ‘Come hither, Moor”, “That I love the Moor”, “Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see”, and “I hate the Moor”. This European image of the “other” as a contrast to the Western looks, values, and culture appeared in Edward Said’s famous critical work “Orientalism” which continues to fuel many stereotypes towards Arabs, Muslims and Africans.

 

Shakespeare’s Moor however has more than this racial “other” element. He was a noble warrior who was deceived by his European friends. Othello was another face of the Andalusians, who were deprived of their identities, seen as the contrasting “others”, and dehumanised. Both of them struggled to find a place in their new worlds. Although they served the Europeans and converted to Christianity, they were perceived as outsiders and lower-class citizens.

 

References

Jerry Brotton. The Sultan and The Queen

Salah Abdelrakez. Translations of the One Thousand and One Nights Book and its impact on European Literature and Art



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