How Islam Shaped Shakespeare

Did you know there was a time when Protestant Christians partnered with Muslims to usurp the Catholic Empire? Did you know that Queen Elizabeth sent a carriage to the head of a harem as a political gift? Did you know Shakespeare included many Muslim characters in his most famous plays? If you knew all these things give your brain a break and go watch the remake of Gilmore Girls. For all of us still reading, let’s take a weird journey into 16th century England where the teeth were black from Moroccan sugar and the houses were ordained with Turkish rugs. As a guide to our journey, we will reference my most recent read – The Sultan and the Queen: The Untold Story of Elizabeth and Islam by Jerry Brotton.

Our journey begins in 1558 when Queen Elizabeth took the throne and began ruling a island in a very fractured world. Elizabeth was a protestant while Spain and the Holy Roman Empire were obviously Catholic. The Holy Roman Empire was the beez neez back in those days and made the rules of the land. Well, Pope Pius V and King Phillip II of Spain hated Queen Elizabeth because of her religious views. They colluded against her for decades and finally in 1570 the Pope excommunicated Queen Elizabeth from the church and all of its domains. This put the Queen in a sticky situation – England could no longer trade openly with European countries but needed trade to survive on an island. Added to her woes, Elizabeth was also cut off from the Americas because of Spain and Portugal’s dominance. She had one option that could work but the chances of success were slim. Trade with Muslims in North Africa and the Ottoman Empire.

Englishmen were sent to the Ottoman Empire and Morracan Sultanate in hopes of opening up economic partnerships. What is interesting is the fact that when the Englishman met with the Turkish Sultan, he didn’t know where England was and viewed it as politically insignificant. He was correct in this assessment because England and Europe as a whole during the 16th century were far less powerful than the Ottoman Empire (Constantinople had a population of 500,000 compared to 200,000 in London). The Sultan agreed to the trade because he needed valuable metals to make weapons and in exchange the English would receive all sorts of exotic goodies. Guess where a lot of the metal came from for the production of Turkish weapons? Catholic church bells. Protestant English were using Catholic metal to arm Muslims. The same Muslims that were targeted by the Crusades. By the late 1580’s, thousands of English merchants, sailors, and privateers were moving about the Muslim world exchanging goods, beliefs, and culture.

One unlikely cultural exchange occurred in the world of English theater. The theater, up until that point, had primarily consisted of moralistic plays which followed similar patterns of plot and structure. This all changed with the play Tamburlaine which enlisted Muslim characters with plots that included conflicts of religion, politics, and power. Guess who was inspired by Tamburlaine and came out with his own play 6 months later? William Shakespeare. Shakespeare would go on to include 150 references to Islam in 20 different plays – many of which included main characters who were Muslim.

This weird time in history, thanks to inter-Christian quarrels, led to major cultural changes that we still experience today. Every year thousands of students read about Islam through Shakespeare. Everyday millions of people use words that were introduced to the English language from this period of trade: candy, turquoise, and tulip to name a few. Maybe most of all, the Moroccan sugar that blackened Queen Elizabeth’s teeth, led many to search for new sources in the New World. Unfortunately, Christianity and Islam’s 16th century partnership soon ended after Elizabeth’s death. Fast forward today, what can we learn from these previous partnerships? Would we have Shakespeare? Would a England, who decided not to trade with Muslims, have the resources to settle the New World? Interesting questions that all root to the fact that intermingled cultures are powerfully synergistic.

The Christian Church and Jewish Hatred

Take this short history quiz.

  1. In what year did the first laws pass that required Jews to wear a special form of dress (making them identifiable in public), banned Jews from public office, forbade Jews from going out during Holy Week, and required Jews to pay a “Jew Tax?”

    A. 1933
    B. 1936
    C. 1215
    D. 1709

  2. Who was the first leader that actively forced Jews to live in a walled off “Ghetto?”

    A. Adolf Hitler
    B. Constantine
    C. Pope Paul IV
    D. Mussolini

  3. Who was the famous author of  The Jews and Their Lies

    A. Adolf Hitler
    B. Henry VIII
    C. Heinrich Himmler
    D. Martin Luther

  4. Name the famous person who said this quote: “By defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.”

    A. Pope John
    B. Martin Luther
    C. Adolf Hitler
    D. Jesus

1. The answer is C. 1215. This was the year Innocent III, the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, convened the Fourth Lateran Council which wrote the aforementioned laws into Constitution 68 of the church.

2. The answer is C. Pope Paul IV. In addition to walling off all the Jews in Rome, only a mile from the Vatican, this Pope forcefully took Jewish babies for baptism, required Jews to kiss the ground where he had just stepped, and required Jewish men to wear yellow conical hats.

3. The answer is D. Martin Luther. The man who started the Protestant Reformation in 1517 wrote this 65,000 word book in 1543. He described the Jews as poisonous worms who should be put into forced labor, expelled for all time, and slain as a despicable group of people.

4. The answer is C. Adolf Hitler. Hitler wrote this in his autobiography Mein Kampf. This quote has roots in the biblical interpretation of Romans 11:25, “I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in…” Medieval Christians used this verse as rationale to forcefully convert and persecute Jews throughout the 1st/2nd Millennium so that the end of times could begin and the Messiah could come again.

Did this quiz surprise you? I had no idea of the Catholic and Protestant Church’s history of antisemitism until I read Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews by James Carroll. This is a monster book that won the National Book Award and took me three weeks to read. The whole book details the church’s views on antisemitism and how it nurtured the environment which allowed Hitler to slaughter 11 million Jews. This atrocious act was done without any major protest from the vast Christian population in Germany. Essentially, the church turned on the gas and Hitler was the one who lit the match-Christians didn’t directly kill 11 million Jews but they were responsible for the antisemitic environment that inundated the church and shaped many of Hitler’s beliefs. Hitler was a baptized Roman Catholic that was obviously off his rocker and took antisemitic views to a whole new level. But Hitler was not raised in a vacuum. The quiz I listed above highlights only a few incidences of Jewish hatred by the Christian church that occurred before Hitler’s time. During the first crusade, thousands of Jews were killed by righteous Christians on their way to Israel. During the Spanish Inquisition, Jews were tortured and many times killed for not converting to Christianity. During the Black Plague, Jews were blamed for the 25 million deaths because people believed they were poisoning wells. During the 13th/14th centuries in Italy and France there were mass public bonfires of confiscated Talmuds-one of the Jewish holy books.

The extent of the hatred towards Judaism is somewhat staggering and the next question you probably have is why all the hatred in the first place? This requires a extremely long answer that is best understood by reading Constantine’s Sword. To briefly explain it we have to go all the way back to the time of Jesus. Jesus was a Jew but this was soon forgotten by early Christians who saw Jesus as an outsider who was then crucified by the Jews. Concurrently,  Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus, framed many Christian’s views of Jews-betrayers, money obsessed, weak, sinister, etc. Added to this negative image was the fact that Jews rejected Christianity’s main belief-Jesus as the Messiah. Hence there was resentment from Christians towards “stubborn” Jews which eventually evolved into conspiracy theories, restrictive laws, and the mentality that Christians should not allow Jews to thrive because of their obstinate beliefs. Multiply all these views by 1900 years and you have Hitler officially being supported by the Catholic Church. In 1933, the Christians of Europe and America knew about Hitler’s antisemitism. Why didn’t they protest? Some did but the majority remained silent. This is because the antisemitism, by that point in time, was an established, almost commonplace belief system. I am not saying that the church supported the killings of 11 million Jews, but they did allow Hitler to continually worsen his antisemitic policies for almost 10 years.

I am a Christian. I know the Church does many amazing things. However, I know the Church is not perfect because it is made by man. I write about these things because we must recognize the sins of the past to prevent similar atrocities in the future. Today we have many Christians who view Muslims negatively. They view Muslims as backward unbelievers who are unloving and misguided-all the while questioning how a “peaceful” religion can motivate its followers to kill. Does any of this sound familiar?