1 Imagining Islamicate Worlds: Race and Affect in the Contact Zone

Ambereen Dadabhoy

Embodied Affects

Reading is an affective relation. In reading the canon, the reader’s subjectivity and embodiment come into contact and conflict with the normative identity on which that canon builds and in which it has material investments. What happens when you read texts for whom you are not the intended audience, by writers who could not have imagined you as a reader? I experience the stigma of demonization because I embody the identity of the antagonist in almost everything I read, study, and analyze.[1] My identity challenges the canon’s universalism. Steeped in centuries of authority, canons are constructed bodies of texts from a very specific culture, geography, nation, and language. They overcome their local particularity and are transcendent, seemingly able to speak to and for all humanity, as vessels for articulating the universal human condition. I, then, must stand apart — or more accurately — be prohibited from the universal. My identity, however, has been essential to its formation. I cannot be a universal subject because I experience harm from the can(n)on fire.[2] I am the detritus that results from its discharge; the waste, excess, or abject; the requisite material necessary to its successful colonial trajectory; the ambit of its imperial aspirations.

These provocations haunt my work as a literary scholar, as I negotiate the field’s mandates that I deny my-self in service of the universal, normative whiteness inscribed within the canon. I seek permission to assert my raced, sexed, gendered, classed self into my analysis and risk delegitimization because my interlocutors believe themselves to be none (or just one) of those. I presume to have a locus of enunciation even though my object of study could not even conceive of me as an audience, a reader and/or a critic. I risk the charge of anachronism by bringing my-self to my intellectual efforts despite knowing that the universal white subject can function in and out of time. I try to protect my being from the constant assault on my subjectivity because I am enveloped by structures of thought designed to teach me how to hate myself and my kind.[3]

My investigation into race, religion, and affect in the contact zone of the early modern Mediterranean interprets through these affective states because they signal my position as a literary critic and my dis/connection from/to the objects I examine. Who I am, my social and cultural identity, shapes how I interpret and analyze texts and cultures. Who I am in relation to my objects, determines not just their meaning but also the ways their meanings play in and on me, how they affect my being and subjectivity; how they construct their own narratives and logics about my identity; and how they enmesh me within a network of relations and significations over which I have little control. When I talk about race, religion, and affect, who am I, if I am not the person–scholar who is raced, whose religion has been demonized through the US-led War on Terror, and who perceives how this demonization is not unrelated to the dangerous and derogatory constructions of Muslim identity in the early modern English imaginary. These bald facts, these reflections, and the rhetorical and ideological violence of these texts undergird the study I attempt here. They accompany my readings, my focus on those identities labeled by the dominant culture as different, and hence other, that are constructed only to service that same culture and ideology. I reckon with the shame of identifying with the other and feeling that I, too, am coerced into service. If I must serve, then, I choose to serve my-self. I choose to love my being, my culture, and my kind by problematizing the false image of me that treads the boards of the early modern stage and continues to circulate in the canon. In doing so, I attend to that estranged other in whom I perceive a distorted reflection, a construction I can succor by illuminating the very many political, cultural, and ideological forces contouring her discursive being.

Deviating from previous investigations of the early modern Mediterranean and Islamic identity — which sought to foreground the real and material power of Islamicate and Ottoman regimes in the period, thereby obviating the need for analysis rooted in the kinds of racialized Orientalism in which these texts neatly trafficked — here, I foreground the constitutive role of race in constructing Muslim alterity.[4] Rather than arguing for the primacy of religious difference as the form of otherness par excellence in the period, particularly in relation to the circulation of Islamic identity in early modern English texts, I consider how religious difference must be racialized in order to be made legible on the English stage. Discursively racializing Islam serves to locate it within a specific geography and boundary, thereby ideologically diminishing its threat while simultaneously rendering Islam visible in non-white bodies. In this study, I examine the contact zone of the early modern Mediterranean, as it is constructed in the English imaginary, to argue that the traffic and intercourse it facilitates between European Christians and non-European Muslims create and sustain racial formations by establishing the modes and mores of normative whiteness.[5] Thus, I claim that the contact zone aids in the construction of a kind of hegemonic whiteness that relies on locating and stabilizing race as whiteness within Christianity and race as non-whiteness within non-Christian confessional traditions.

Affective Geographies

Perhaps the most important contact zone in the early modern period, the Mediterranean Sea connected Europe, Africa, and Asia. Its boundaries and borders cinched together different religious and imperial traditions, bringing into intimate proximity Christendom and Islam, the Hapsburgs and the Ottomans, and several other confessional cultures, ethnicities, and societies. The polyphony of the Mediterranean was signaled by the various competing interests that traversed its geography and who it served through its porous fluidity. In other words, the slippery boundaries of the Mediterranean allowed for all forms of movement and transformation. The many ways the Mediterranean became a site for various forms of border crossing, whether literal or symbolic, point to both the opportunities and dangers of the locale. The region could enrich or impoverish those who sought their fortunes in its waters; that fickleness emblematized the anxieties, fears, and desires inherent therein. Sustained English interest in the Mediterranean began in 1581 when Elizabeth I granted the Levant Company its charter and monopoly to explore and buoy trade in the east.[6] Moreover, the queen cultivated special relationships with Muslim potentates, such as the Moroccan king, Abd-el Malik, and the Ottoman sultan, Murad IV.[7] The ascension of James I in 1604, his rapprochement with Spain, and open hostility towards the Ottoman Empire (best manifested in his poem Lepanto, 1591) shifted England’s ideological position vis-à-vis the Islamicate societies of the Mediterranean despite ongoing commercial exchange within that sphere.

Like the mercantile enthusiasm for Mediterranean exchanges, the early modern stage was attentive and vulnerable to the allure of that geography. Several English plays featured an imagined, discursive, and constructed Mediterranean, which allowed playwrights to experiment with the fears and desires generated by the contact zone, where peoples, cultures, languages, and goods mixed and mingled.[8] Moreover, this contact zone furnished the opportunity to represent various racial and religious identities, signaling the multicultural and multiethnic composition of this space. The genre of the “staged Mediterranean,” as I call it, allowed playwrights to bring home and domesticate the foreign through dramatic representation. England’s shifting political alliances found ready and convenient analogues in the drama, so that “commercial activity was accompanied by corresponding ideological changes: the culture and literature of the time were profoundly affected by the intensified international circulation of people, goods, and texts.”[9] As I have argued elsewhere, the polysemy of the staged Mediterranean demonstrated its aptness as a site to interrogate the intimacies fostered by increased contact, exchange, conflict, and intercourse with the foreign other; furthermore, it positions the Mediterranean as “a space for experimenting with both the imperial project and national subjectivity.”[10] This national subjectivity is rooted in forms of race-making, specifically in making whiteness paradoxically both visible and hegemonic. The geography of the Mediterranean assists in these efforts because it felicitously necessitates contact with the non-English and non-European.

Philip Massinger’s The Renegado (1624) follows in the tradition of staged Mediterranean plays such as Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (1589), Thomas Kyd’s Soliman and Perseda (1599), Thomas Heywood’s The Fair Maid of the West (1597), William Shakespeare’s Othello (1603), and Robert Daborne’s A Christian Turn’d Turk (1612). These plays exhibit and instantiate topoi and tropes that become standard motifs of the staged Mediterranean: an interest in traffic and exchange; imperiled European Christian subjectivity; racial and religious variation; Islamic violence and tyranny; the allure and seductions of Muslim women; and, above all, European Christian triumph and primacy over the cultures and peoples of this geography. Thus, these plays contribute to the burgeoning desire for, and ideology of, empire. The very threats posed by the multiplicity of culture, custom, and identity in this geography are what facilitate the construction of a nationalist subjectivity. Expressions of normative and local subjectivity require forms of religious and racial difference in order to constitute and make themselves legible.

Massinger sets his tragicomedy, The Renegado, in the Ottoman-controlled suzerainty of Tunis. While the plot flirts with the very real possibility of altered identity, of the extreme early modern fear of “turning Turk,” its ideological and political thrust is to turn “Turks,” or Muslims, into Christians.[11] The plot involves the influx of European Christians into Ottoman lands for the ostensible purposes of trade, but, we soon learn that these merchants are also on a mission to recover Paulina, a Venetian gentlewoman captured by the titular renegade, Grimaldi, and sold to the viceroy of Tunis, Asambeg. Paulina’s rescuers are her brother Vitelli, who is disguised as a merchant, Gazet, his servant, and Francisco, a priest. On the whole, this group makes up the majority of the European Christian characters. The one exception is Carazie, a eunuch who serves the Sultan’s niece, Donusa. A romance plot involving Vitelli and Donusa, her rejection of the Muslim suitor, Mustapha, sent to her by her uncle, the Ottoman Sultan, and the discovery of their illicit sexual escapades by the viceroy, fully encapsulate the dangers of cross-cultural intercourse. Donusa and Vitelli are summarily sentenced to death, yet before their executions, Donusa attempts to save them both by convincing Vitelli to convert to Islam. However, her scheme is foiled by Vitelli’s Christian conviction, in the face of which she is moved to convert to Christianity. Meanwhile, Paulina pretends that she will “turn Turk” and succumb to Asambeg’s advances, all the while strategizing with the priest Francisco and his new ally, the repentant and newly redeemed Grimaldi, to engineer their escape. The play ends not with death, but with the European Christians triumphing over the Muslims. Through these stratagems, Massinger emplots the precarious position and bodily danger faced by European Christians within the domain of the foreign other; moreover, the plot instrumentalizes religious and racial difference to construct and buttress European Christian cultural supremacy.

Through its many completed and aborted conversions, the play puts pressure on the overdetermined trope “turning Turk,” which requires further investigation, particularly in its associations with the Mediterranean. A common phrase in early modern English drama, “turning Turk” indicates conversion to Islam, yet it is often glossed as a betrayal or a form of inconstancy, to abjure religion, culture, and nation.[12] In the geography of the staged Mediterranean, “turning Turk” operates on literal and symbolic registers: to become a Muslim — from the Christian perspective — means that one has enacted a betrayal against God and country. The phrase also subsumes religious identity within an ethnic or imperial one, and effects the erasure of a competing religion by elevating a distinct and different cultural identity. Islamic cultures were more diverse than is represented by the Ottoman Empire; yet through the mobilization of “turning Turk,” Islam became synonymous with an ethnicity, and so its theology was circumscribed and diminished. Moreover, the term “turning Turk” locates Islam within racially marked bodies. Even though Ottoman identity in the early modern English imaginary was often void of somatic markers, certain symbolic accoutrement, such as turbans and scimitars, stood as proxy signs of its difference. Islam, then, served as the ultimate form of both racializing and differentiating Ottomans from other Europeans. Thus, racial formation in the Mediterranean relied on making religion visible via the body. A further meaning of “turning Turk,” is its temporary or transient status: if one can “turn Turk,” one can similarly turn back. In this capacity, “Turk” functions as an unstable marker of identity, but perhaps only for those who make that first turn. The possibility of becoming a “Turk” is open to any and all who enter the geography of the Mediterranean. However, The Renegado demonstrates that its opposite, to become Christian, is only available to a few. The logics of conversion that cohere around this term signal the flexibility of race within the marker of “Turk,” but only for those discovered to be fit for Christian salvation and its attendant whiteness.

Set in the contact zone of the early modern Mediterranean, The Renegado mobilizes the vexed affects this geography elicits: fear, desire, and the precarious contingency of these emotional states. I borrow the term “contact zone” from Mary Louise Pratt, who defines these zones as “social spaces where disparate cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in highly asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination.”[13] In fact, the contact zone “is the space of imperial encounters, the space in which peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations, usually involving conditions of coercion, radical inequality, and intractable conflict.”[14] Pratt’s formulation attends to the operations of power and affect within this geography, especially if we consider the relational and enmeshed quality of affect that “marks the body’s belonging to a world of encounters; or a world’s belonging to a body of encounters but also in non-belonging.”[15] The contact zone encodes hierarchies of power and subjectivity, the power inherent in some subjects, and the power of some bodies to be affected by and to affect their own subjectivities in this space. We must recall, however, that the staged Mediterranean is a particular kind of contact zone — a discursive one. As Edward W. Said cogently demonstrates in Orientalism, such discourses do not require any real corollary.[16] There obtains, then, a rupture between the staged Mediterranean and the political and imperial powers dominating the actual geography. The ideological function of the staged Mediterranean and the popularity of these plays reside in the tidy ways these scripts make England’s imperial desires and designs legible for audiences at home.[17] They create, as Pratt argues, “in the imperial center of power an obsessive need to present and re-present its peripheries and its others continually to itself. It becomes dependent on its others to know itself.”[18] While early modern England did not yet possess its full imperial power, these dramas collude in a discourse that imagines, consumes, and celebrates the desirability and availability of such power for their domestic public.

Racial Affects

If part of the ideology subtending The Renegado (and most staged Mediterranean plays) is to certify imperial power and logics, then it does so, I argue, by simultaneously producing race, specifically through its construction of normative or hegemonic whiteness. Critical scholarship on The Renegado has tended to focus on its generic qualities and mercantile and religious arguments, prioritizing the ways the Mediterranean and its primary occupation, commercial traffic, contribute to anxieties about identity and subjectivity and its positive representation of Catholicism.[19] Given the Mediterranean’s discursive positioning in the European imaginary as a site of contest between Islamicate and Christian powers, The Renegado’s emphasis on such religious conflict adroitly validates that enmity. Scholars have, therefore, focused on the surprising celebration of Catholic ritual and practice, particularly in light of prior English animus toward that confessional tradition. The greater threat of Islam, especially conversion to Islam — “turning Turk” — renders sectarian conflict redundant in this geography. Similarly, scholars have targeted their analyses of the play on the centrality of trade and the marketplace, tracing the anxieties contouring the fungibility of goods and people. The marketplace is, after all, the primary and public locale drawing all characters together, turning buyers into sellers, and destabilizing identity positions of rank, religion, and race. While some studies index race as a cognate to these anxieties, they have not tethered racial formation in the contact zone to imperial praxis that manifests and makes visible the normative power of whiteness. Following Kim F. Hall’s powerful exegesis on the racialization of gender through the discourse of fairness in Things of Darkness, I demonstrate how whiteness materializes in affective relation to non-white, Ottoman, and Muslim identity.[20] Furthermore, I argue that this discourse makes race as non-whiteness visible in non-Europeans, facilitating asymmetric relations of power and domination while yoking to whiteness the hegemonic power of racial purity.

Charting the discourse of fairness within The Renegado exposes the term’s malleability in service of white Christian identity. Fairness, as Hall argues, is both a moral and aesthetic category, implicated in tropes of beauty and race, and consequently in the imperial enterprise.[21] In The Renegado, the term is most often applied to the play’s two female characters, the Ottoman princess and femme fatale, Donusa, and the virtuous Christian captive, Paulina. Although Paulina is also a femme fatale of a kind — because she orchestrates the destruction of the viceroy Asambeg — she is celebrated by the European cultural supremacist logic of the play. As applied to Donusa, fairness signals her beauty and desirability: she offers the seductive allure of the exotic, erotic east, in the face of which Christian masculinity becomes submissive and endangered. Her beauty points to an aggressive Muslim sexuality and to degeneracy because it signals her lack of chastity, which further demonstrates her religious alterity. Indeed, Francisco’s caution to Vitelli expresses this specific danger:

you are young
And may be tempted, and these Turkish dames —
Like English mastiffs that increase their fierceness
By being chained up — from the restraint of freedom,
If lust once fire their blood from a fair object,
Will run a course the fields themselves would shake at
To enjoy their wanton ends. (1.3.8–14)[22]

As depicted by Francisco’s xenophobic screed, Muslim women are animalistic in their sexual appetites. Particularly because of the sex-segregated societies they inhabit, their perceived lack of liberty feeds their instinctive and bestial sexuality. By figuring Muslim women as demonically libidinous and licentious, Francisco creates and promotes a discursive othering that facilitates a relation of domination, whereby he attains power in a world where he ostensibly lacks it. He can define and represent, establishing an epistemic regime about Islam and Muslims that authorizes his racist comparison of “Turkish dames” to “English mastiffs.” The essentializing difference of Muslim women that Francisco constructs is furthered by his claim about the fairness of the objects of their desire. His use of “fair” suggests beauty and desirability, but also whiteness in explicit contrast to the racialized animal imagery of Ottoman women. Positioned as a fair object, Vitelli is feminized by his relation to Donusa, which corresponds to his social position within Tunis. Here, whiteness and European Christian masculinity are imperiled because the contact zone makes inevitable intimate proximity to more powerful Muslim women who will “enjoy their wanton ends.”

The Renegado counters Donusa’s false fairness with Paulina’s chaste, virtuous, Christian one. Paulina’s position — as Vitelli’s “fair sister” (1.1.127) and the “fair Christian virgin” (1.1.115) imprisoned by Asambeg and “mewed up in his seraglio and in danger / Not alone to lose her honor but her soul” (1.1.129–30) — reflects the common position of many early modern women who were taken captive by Mediterranean pirates and sold into Islamic slavery. Writing about the women in the Sultan’s seraglio, George Sandys claims that the occupants of the harem “are his slaves, either taken in the wars, or from their Christian parents, and are indeed the choicest beauties of the Empire.”[23] Similarly, Nicolas De Nicolay notes that in the seraglio

do dwell the wives and concubines of the great Turk, which in number are above 200 being the most part daughters of Christians, some being taken by courses on the seas or by land … some of the other are bought of merchants, and afterwards … presented unto the great Turk, who keepeth them within this Sarail, well appareled, nourished and entertained under straight keeping of … an eunuch.[24]

Joannes Leo Africanus, in his description of the King of Fez’s harem, writes: “And yet his queen is always of a white skin. Likewise in the king of Fez his court are certain Christian captives, being partly Spanish, and partly Portugal women.”[25] These historical examples all point to the common practice of Muslim rulers enslaving Christian women in their households, and more importantly, to the inherent appeal of fair, white, European Christian women. According to these narratives, white women were the most desirable objects that Muslim men could possess.

Paulina’s captivity also reflects the commodification of white womanhood that occurs in historical accounts. Captured by pirates and sold in the slave markets of either the Ottoman regencies or in Istanbul — the foremost marketplace of the Ottoman Empire — these women were alienated from their identity, transformed into sexual objects, and exchanged for profit. The danger of the enslaved Christian woman or concubine is not just illicit sex with a Muslim man, but also the potential loss of religious identity through conversion. Looking at Sandys’s account of the treatment of enslaved people betrays a concern regarding apostasy. He writes that slaves are chosen according to certain attributes:

the women for their youths and beauties, who are set out in best becoming attires, and with their aspects of pity and affection, endeavour to allure the Christians to buy them, as expecting from them a more easy servitude and continuance of religion: when being thrall to the Turk, they are more often enforced to renounce it for their better entertainment [ … ] If any of their slaves will become Mahometans, they are discharged of their bondage.[26]

Conversion to Islam results in immediate freedom for the enslaved person. The act, however, was condemned in European accounts because it was seen as emancipation at the expense of the captive’s soul; consequently, the renegade “was the coward who deserved dire condemnation and judgment: he was the unheroic Christian unwilling to imitate Christ.”[27] While The Renegado flirts with the issue of conversion for its male characters, that option is utterly denied to Paulina, even though her situation makes it a very real and perhaps necessary possibility. Paulina must remain immune to the allure of freedom offered by conversion, even though her captivity and the sexual advances of Asambeg conspire to endanger her body (with the threat of rape) and soul (through the possibility of apostasy). Her resolute Christian faith, her insistence on a fundamental difference between herself and the culture and religion of her captor, keeps her from slipping into the dangerous position occupied by the enslaved women in the historical narratives. Paulina’s Christian ardor reinforces her virtue, signaling her fairness in body and mind.

Paulina’s fairness is further yoked to her virginity, thus fetishizing whiteness in order to mobilize the discourse of color as race. She represents the white women who populate Islamicate harems who attest to, by their very confinement and enslaved status, the military, social, and cultural power of these empires. Their captivity points to the dominance and the hypermasculinity of Muslim potentates. The imperiled whiteness of these women, their personal vulnerability to sexual violence and aggression, establishes them as figures of sympathy. Their plight produces affective responses in the domestic audiences to whom these discourses are targeted. Endangered, fragile, chaste, and virtuous white femininity not only censures the regimes imprisoning these subjects, but also mobilizes European ideological and imperial aggression against those cultures. Paulina’s virtue, chastity, and religious conviction shape her as the ideal fair woman, whose trajectory in The Renegado serves the interests of normative whiteness; therefore, Paulina’s whiteness must remain inviolate and whole. The talismanic relic she wears offers her supernatural protection against Asambeg’s sexual assault. It is, as Jane Hwang Degenhardt argues, an external manifestation of her unbroken hymen, her pristine chastity.[28] Moreover, the play’s insistence on her somatic fairness secures her virginity, further inscribing her within the regime of white Christian identity by positioning her as endangered because of the desirability of her whiteness.

The play simultaneously reinforces the racial desirability of whiteness through Donusa’s rejection of her Muslim suitor, Mustapha. While initially indifferent to Mustapha’s romantic interest, Donusa turns cruel in her rejection after she has consummated her relationship with Vitelli. Her words repudiating his advances feature some of the play’s most overtly racist language. Violently rebuffing Mustafa, Donusa exclaims:

I have considered you from head to foot,
And can find nothing in that wainscot face,
That can teach me to dote, nor am I taken
With your grim aspect, or tadpole-­like complexion,
Those scars you glory in, I fear to look on;
And had much rather hear a merry tale
Than all your battles won with blood and sweat,
Though you belch forth the stink too, in the service,
And swear by your mustachioes all is true.
You are yet too rough for me, purge and take physic,
Purchase perfumers, get me some French tailor,
To new create you; the first shape you were made with
Is quite worn out, let your barber wash your face too,
You look yet like a bugbear to fright children. (3.1.47–60)

Donusa initially rebuffs Mustafa on the grounds of his unhandsome and dark face, before swiftly turning to his hard military life, which has left his face marred with scars earned in battle. His aspect, in its purported darkness and his militarism, situate him outside the circuit of her desire. Michael Neill’s editorial gloss on “wainscot face,” notes that it could mean “hard, dark, and perhaps wrinkled or scarred”; and for “tadpole-like complexion,” he similarly notes that it signifies color, this time “black.”[29] From these textual clues, Neill suggests that Mustapha may have been performed in blackface.[30] If we follow Neill’s hypothesis, Donusa’s direction to “let your barber wash your face too,” might seem an analogue to the proverbial white-washing of the Ethiope, another racially coded idiom, wherein non-whiteness, specifically Blackness, is constructed as dirty and unclean. Accepting Neill’s interpretation of Mustafa’s racialized representation, Donusa’s criticism of him, specifically on his lack of desirability because of his color, confirms the beauty and allure of whiteness. Indeed, Mustafa’s Blackness makes Vitelli’s whiteness visible and underscores how the European merchant is a more enticing and valuable erotic object. Moreover, Mustafa’s Blackness emphasizes the racialized composition of Islamicate societies. Grafted onto Muslim identity, Blackness or somatic non-whiteness symbolically others Islam to darken the religion and its adherents.

The Renegado’s construction of Islam as a competing theology vis-à-vis Christianity, as embodied by the anxiety of conversion or “turning Turk,” is managed through strategies of racial alterity and domination. Early on, Vitelli warns Gazet, his servant, not to trifle with the customs and conventions of the Ottomans, “Remember where you are too [ … ] / Temper your tongue and meddle not with the Turks, / Their manners nor religion” (1.1.44–48). While the Ottomans grant outsiders the liberty to trade within their domains, this permission remains precarious and vulnerable to Ottoman political whims. The play fastens this cultural danger and allure onto anxieties about religious inconstancy: with Grimaldi, the renegade, serving as an example of the moral bankruptcy of conversion to Islam; Carazi, Donusa’s eunuch, signaling the loss of European Christian vigor and masculinity; and Vitelli’s sexual liaison with Donusa, indicating his abdication of Christian virtue. As the cause of these affective moments of shame and loss, Islam, its peoples, and societies, are positioned as materially alluring yet spiritually void. The fact that Francisco easily restores Vitelli’s Christian fervor, which leads him to embrace martyrdom rather than convert to Islam, bolsters the claims of Christian superiority at the core of the play. Indeed, the temptation scene — initiated by Donusa to save both herself and Vitelli from the execution mandated by the Sultan for their illicit sexual relationship — affirms the spiritual truth of Christianity by further demonizing and denigrating Islam. Donusa begins her persuasions by highlighting the glories and riches of the Ottoman Empire: “Look on our flourishing empire — if the splendor, / The majesty and glory of it dim not / Your feeble sight — and then turn back and see / The narrow bounds of yours. [ … ] You must confess the deity you worship / Wants care or power to help you. (4.3.95–103). The generic and ideological logics of the play demand the failure of Donusa’s arguments, which rely on worldly rather than spiritual rationales. In fact, the play has earlier pointed out the religious hypocrisy of the sexual charge against Donusa, because Islam allows Muslim men ultimate sexual freedom while limiting Muslim women’s sexual agency:

Indulgent Mahomet, do thy bloody laws
Call my embraces with a Christian, death —
Having my heat and May of youth to plead
In my excuse — and yet want power to punish
These that with scorn break through thy cobweb edicts
And laugh at thy decrees? To tame their lusts
There’s no religious bit: let her be fair
And pleasing to the eye, though Persian, Moor,
Idolatress, Turk or Christian, you are privileged
And freely may enjoy her. (4.2.128–33)

Massinger renders Donusa sympathetic through her attacks on Islamic sexual license and hypocrisy, a disposition that also fashions her as fit for conversion to Christianity. Her ability to expose the double standards at the root of Islamic law and prescription dissolves the bonds between her and the religion and culture of her birth. Moreover, her righteous complaints construct her as a victim of the tyranny of her religion.[31] She is transformed from the sexual aggressor of the earlier scenes into a victimized Muslim woman in need of saving by benevolent Christians.

Therefore, when Vitelli rejects Donusa’s attempts at conversion, his appraisal of Islam similarly incriminates its materiality and venality, which corroborate its non-white racialization. Vitelli’s language pays homage to common early modern stereotypes about Islam that rely on the supposed moral degeneracy of its prophet and therefore of his message.[32] Following the convention of staged Mediterranean plays, Vitelli is allowed an uninterrupted monologue that excoriates Islam and its prophet in front of an audience of shocked and immobile Muslims:

Dare you bring
Your juggling Prophet in comparison with
The most inscrutable and infinite Essence
That made this all and comprehends his work?
[ … ]
Of your seducer, his base birth, his whoredoms,
His strange impostures; nor deliver how
He taught a pigeon to feed in his ear,
Then made his credulous followers believe
It was an angel that instructed him
In the framing of his Alcoran. (4.3.114–31)

Vitelli’s screed discredits the religion by demeaning Muhammad as a counterfeit and dishonest “juggler.” His use of foul in relation to Muhammad’s supposed sorceries accesses racialized tropes because it indicates corruption, staining, and darkening. His words depict Islam as a hoax full of false and “strange impostures,” in contrast to Christian truth, transcendence, and salvation. By submitting to a fraudulent message, Muslims are also fouled — raced — by the degeneracy of their religion and enmeshed within a spiritual contest wherein the darkness of their belief must surrender to superior the light of the Christian faith. The scene mobilizes racial discourse by suturing spiritual and moral foulness onto the Muslims who would espouse and defend such a polluted doctrine.

Indeed, Donusa’s subsequent conversion is punctuated by her violent rejection of Islam, making her a fit vessel to receive Christian truth. Moved by Vitelli’s brazen Christian zeal, she exclaims, “I came here to take you, / But I perceive a yielding in myself / To be your prisoner, [ … ] Then thus I spit at Mahomet,” confirming the conflation of somatic markers of race with religious alliances (4.3.148–49; 158). This alignment depends upon the play’s recurring deployment of the discourse of fairness. In preparation for his wedding and ensuing execution, Vitelli seeks Francisco’s counsel on baptizing Donusa so that she may be redeemed by a Christian death: “Willing she is, / I know, to wear it as the choicest jewel / on her fair forehead” (5.1.24–26). Even though she has yet to be made fully Christian, the restoration of her fairness positions her as appropriate for conversion. Such scenes of female conversion are familiar topoi of early modern staged Mediterranean plays. As Ania Loomba notes, “the most common form of sexual transgression had in fact involved Christian men and Muslim women. In stories of Christians turning Turk that circulated in early modern times, Muslim women are temptresses who ensnare Christian men into a licentious faith. [ … ] But such fears are theatrically allayed by either the destruction of such women or their own conversions to Christianity and marriages to Christian men.” [33] In addition to relieving the anxiety of such intimacies between European Christians and non-European Muslims, the discourse of race ensures that whiteness makes legible Donusa’s fitness to enter the European Christian community even as that whiteness confirms Christian identity. Massinger emphasizes racial legibility and Christian whiteness during the actual baptism: tricking Asambeg into allowing the ceremony, Vitelli points out that the holy water “washes off / Stains and pollutions [ … ] / It hath power to purge those spots that cleave upon the mind” (5.3.112–15). The baptism transforms Donusa “I am another woman — till this minute / I never lived” (5.3.121–22); moreover, she once more rejects her former faith “False Prophet. / Impostor Mahomet” (5.3.132–33). Born again into whiteness, Donusa’s curse functions as another sign of her newly acquired hegemonic position: the ability to perceive the theological emptiness and moral darkness of Islam.

Like other plays set in the Mediterranean contact zone, The Renegado ends with a well-timed rescue of the tragic lovers through the relentless plotting of Francisco, his newly re-Christianized henchman Grimaldi, and the intelligent schemes of Paulina. The intrepid Europeans happily evacuate the dangerous geography of Ottoman-controlled Tunis and leave the viceroy, Asambeg, to face the fatal fury of the Ottoman Sultan. The Renegado’s tidy ending confirms the cultural, religious, and racial superiority of the European Christian characters, thus conveying to its domestic audiences the appropriateness of their proto-imperial mission in the Mediterranean.

Embodied Affects Redux

The Renegado is a deeply Islamophobic play. As a Muslim woman, the final acts of the play inflict violence upon me as a reader and scholar. The play, like so many other staged Mediterranean dramas of the period, denigrates my religion and suggests that the only way for my Muslim identity to be commensurate with normative identity is for me to abrogate my faith. Moreover, in its rehearsal of the “plight” of Muslim women, I encounter a familiar script, a mainstay of the United States’ endless War on Terror. In the justifications for that conflict, Muslim women were constructed as victims of Islamic fundamentalism and in desperate need of Western liberation. Here I am not apologizing for extreme and cruel acts of violence attributed to religious extremists, but rather pointing to the historical links between these narratives and the insidious operations of an imperial feminism that licenses unlimited death and destruction in the morally hollow name of equality. The promise of freedom and liberty, of being seen as a full person rather than a dehumanized mass — as Muslims are often represented — comes with the steep price of rejecting and despising my identity, religion, and culture. The demands of white Christendom in The Renegado are the full and complete erasure and destruction of Muslim life. If we teach and study this play, we must recognize that for some members of its current and future audiences, its tragicomic message is neither a rhetorical exercise nor an intellectual pastime with which to wrestle. The Renegado traffics in their / my humanity.[34] To read this play is to experience the trauma of Islamophobia — it is part of an English literary can(n)on that contributed to our colonization and the degrading forms of imperial violence that accompanied it. When we pick up this play, we must consider who and what it serves, and who and what we serve with our engagement.

  1. Shokoofeh Rajabzadeh, “The Depoliticized Saracen and Muslim Erasure,” Literature Compass 16, nos. 9–10 (2019): e12548, https://doi-org.ccl.idm.oclc.org/10.1111/lic3.12548.
  2. Toni Morrison, “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature,” in The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations (New York: Knopf, 2019), notes the homology between cannon and canon: “when the two words faced each other, the image became the shape of the cannon wielded on (or by) the body of the law. The boom of power announcing an ‘officially recognized set of texts.’ Cannon defending canon” (161). I employ her formulation in my construction here.
  3. Malcolm X, “Who Taught You to Hate Yourself,” posted by Bihibindi News on 28 June 2016, YouTube video, 3:46, https://youtu.be/sCSOiN_38nE. Speech delivered on May 5, 1962 in Los Angeles, following the LAPD killing of Ronald Stokes. https://www.themelaninproject.org/tmpblog/2020/2/11/malcolm-x-may-20-1962-speech-on-police-brutality-in-los-angeles-california. I use Malcolm X, rather than el Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, because of its more familiar circulation within Anglo-American culture; however, I believe it is vital to recognize the multiple identity transformations he underwent, from Malcolm Little to Detroit Red to Malcolm X and finally to el Hajj Malik el-Shabazz. These different naming practices are suggestive of his conscription within and resistance to normative racist regimes of whiteness and his embrace of a global anti-racist Muslim identity.
  4. See, for example, Nabil Matar, Turks, Moors, and Englishmen in the Age of Discovery (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000); Daniel J. Vitkus, Turning Turk: English Theater and the Multicultural Mediterranean, 1570–1630 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016); Jonathan Burton, Traffic and Turning: Islam and English Drama, 1579–1624 (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2005); Matthew Dimmock, New Turkes: Dramatizing Islam and the Ottomans in Early Modern England (London: Routledge, 2017).
  5. I use “European” here with full awareness of the way this term lacked any coherent logic in the period, and to distinguish the kind of Christianity of this locale and its differences from the forms of Christian identity within the broader Mediterranean, specifically Eastern Orthodox Christianity. The use of European is further complicated by the fact that the Ottoman Empire controlled much of Eastern Europe and yet there is a hesitancy in the discourse to refer to them as a European empire. These terms deserve further scrutiny and study.
  6. I do not capitalize the east in order to signal the diversity of customs and cultures that comprise this geography. I want to deliberately undermine Orientalist framing that positions the east as a monolithic entity.
  7. Nabil Matar, ‘Queen Elizabeth I through Moroccan Eyes,” Journal of Early Modern History 12, no. 1 (2008): 55–76; Bernadette Andrea, Women and Islam in Early Modern English Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 13–14.
  8. Louis Wann, “The Oriental in Elizabethan Drama,” Modern Philology 12, no. 7 (1915): 423-447.
  9. Daniel Vitkus, “‘The Common Market of All the World’: English Theater, the Global System, and the Ottoman Empire in the Early Modern Period,” in Global Traffic: Discourses and Practices of Trade in English Literature and Culture from 1550 to 1700, ed. Barbara Sebek and Stephen Deng (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 27.
  10. Ambereen Dadabhoy, “The Other Woman: The Geography of Exclusion in The Knight of Malta (1618),” in Remapping Travel Narratives, 1000–1700: To the East and Back Again, ed. Montserrat Piera (York, UK: ARC Humanities Press, 2018), 237–38.
  11. Vitkus, Turning Turk, 161.
  12. Daniel J. Vitkus, “Turning Turk in Othello: The Conversion and Damnation of the Moor,” Shakespeare Quarterly 48, no. 2 (1997): 145–76.
  13. Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2007), 7.
  14. Pratt, Imperial Eyes, 8.
  15. Gregory J. Seigworth and Melissa Gregg, “An Inventory of Shimmers,” in The Affect Theory Reader, ed. Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 2.
  16. Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 2003), 5.
  17. Kim F. Hall, Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995), 59.
  18. Pratt, Imperial Eyes, 4.
  19. Burton, Traffic and Turning; Benedict S. Robinson, Islam and Early Modern English Literature: The Politics of Romance from Spenser to Milton (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007); Michael Neill, “Turn and Counterturn: Merchanting, Apostasy and Tragicomic Form in Massinger’s The Renegado,” in Early Modern Tragicomedy, ed. Subha Mukherji and Raphael Lyne (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2007), 154–74; Jane Hwang Degenhardt, “Catholic Prophylactics and Islam’s Sexual Threat: Preventing and Undoing Sexual Defilement in The Renegado,” Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 9, no. 1 (2009): 62–92; Dennis Austin Britton, Becoming Christian: Race, Reformation, and Early Modern Romance (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014).
  20. Although the entire monograph works through this argument, I am particularly focused here on Chapter 3 (Hall, Things of Darkness, 123–76).
  21. Hall, Things of Darkness, 3–9.
  22. I cite throughout from Philip Massinger, The Renegado, ed. Michael Neill (London: Arden, 2010).
  23. George Sandys, “The Relation of a Journey Begun an: Dom: 1610 (1615),” in Race in Early Modern England: A Documentary Companion, ed. Jonathan Burton and Ania Loomba (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 196. The complete quote is: “His virgins, of whom there seldom are so few as five hundred, are kept in a seraglio by themselves, and attended on only by women, and eunuchs. They all of them are his slaves, either taken in the wars, or from their Christian parents, and are indeed the choicest beauties of the Empire.”
  24. Nicolas De Nicolay, “The Navigations, Peregrinations and Voyages, Made into Turkie (1585),” in Race in Early Modern England: A Documentary Companion, ed. Jonathan Burton and Ania Loomba (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 116–17.
  25. Joannes Leo Africanus, “A Geographical Historie of Africa (1600),” in Race in Early Modern England: A Documentary Companion, ed. Jonathan Burton and Ania Loomba (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 157.
  26. Sandys, “The Relation of a Journey Begun an: Dom: 1610 (1615),” 195 emphasis added. Sandys also relates how the virginity of the female slave is determined before the sale, and claims that a Christian is more likely to set a slave free if he has had sex with her and not sell her to someone else. The text remains ambivalent regarding the sex act itself between a Christian and his slave (195).
  27. Nabil I. Matar, “‘Turning Turk’: Conversion to Islam in English Renaissance Thought,” Durham University Journal 86, no. 1 (1994): 35.
  28. Degenhardt, “Catholic Prophylactics and Islam’s Sexual Threat,” 73.
  29. Michael Neill, ed., The Renegado by Philip Massinger (London: Methuen, 2010), 153.
  30. Neill, The Renegado by Philip Massinger, 153.
  31. Britton points out that in early modern English Mediterranean plays featuring the “infidel-conversion motif [,] … the religious identities of women are more malleable than those of men [and that] women who do convert are racial anomalies” (Becoming Christian, 171).
  32. See for example, Richard Knolles, The Generall Historie of the Turkes from the First Beginning of that Nation to the Rising of the Othoman Familie: With all the Notable Expeditions of the Christian Princes against Them. Together with the Liues and Conquests of the Othoman Kings and Emperours Faithfullie Collected out of the Best Histories, Both Auntient and Moderne, and Digested into one Continuat Historie Vntill this Present Yeare 1603 (London: Adam Islip, 1603); Paolo Giovio and Peter Aston, A Short Treatise upon the Turkes Chronicles, Compyled by Paulus Paulus Iouius Byshop of Nucerne, and Dedicated to Charles the V. Emperour. Drawen oute of the Italyen Tong in to Latyne, by Franciscus Niger Bassianates. And Translated out of Latyne into Englysh by Peter Ashton (Imprinted at London: In Fletestrete at the signe of the Sunne ouer agaynst the conduyte by Edvvarde VVhitchurche, 1546).
  33. Ania Loomba, “‘Delicious Traffick’: Racial and Religious Difference on Early Modern Stages,” in Shakespeare and Race, ed. Catherine M. S. Alexander and Stanley Wells (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 214.
  34. The critical position I adopt here and throughout the section on embodied affects is influenced by bell hooks’s theory of the “oppositional gaze” (“The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators,” in Black Looks: Race and Representation [Boston: South End Press, 1992], 115–32) and Kim F. Hall’s recent work on the trauma of the archive (“I Can’t Love This the Way You Want Me to: Archival Blackness,” Postmedieval 11, nos. 2–3 [2020]: 171–79). I am deeply indebted to the work of Black feminists who offer a mode of critique and activism attuned to intersectional forms of domination, violence, and erasure.


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