Foreigners in English Renaissance Drama

In the 1530’s, King Henry VIII broke from the Catholic Church.  His daughter, Protestant Queen Elizabeth I, obtained the monarchy in 1588 and was excommunicated by Pope Pius V whom identified Elizabeth as a “heretic and favourer of the heritics” in the1570 papal bull Regnans in Excelesis. England’s Protestantism contrasted mainland Europe’s strict Catholicism, instigating Catholic Spain’s campaign to regain England for the “true church” (Bevington xlvi).  In 1588, the Spanish Armada attempted to invade England but met opposition manifested in a sea storm nearly demolishing the entire armada.  English Protestants, as Bevington writes, believed “the hand of God manifested itself directly”, thus reaffirming English Protestantism and denouncing European Catholicism, creating a stable dichotomy (xlvi).  Concurrently, Renaissance drama flourished under Elizabeth’s support of the theater, restoring the art that suffered under Queen Mary’s stifling Roman Catholicism.  Therefore, numerous plays were commissioned reflecting anti-Catholic sentiment linked to the countries of Spain and Italy.  As a result of England’s preoccupation with external religious and national oppositions, the English identity was formed upon binaries.  Thus, English Renaissance drama evidences English national anxieties indicated in its presentation of and dealings with the foreign.  This notion is most apparent in The Spanish Tragedy, The Revenger’s Tragedy, Dr. Faustus, Tamburlaine the Great 1,and The Jew of Malta

Much of English Renaissance drama depicts characters in foreign settings away from

England’s censorship, providing authorial freedom.   In wake of the Spanish Armada, Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy is set in Catholic Spain and depicts the fall of Hieronimo, the Knight Marshal of Spain, whose center of state position exposes a corrupt Spanish court and church to an English audience experiencing Hispanophobia.  Hieronimo’s first theatrical production presented to the King of Spain and Ambassador of Portugal depicts three English knights whom, “by success of war” (1.5.144), force Kings of Spain and Portugal “To bear the yoke of English monarchy” (1.5.146).  An England threatened by political tyranny and religious conversion at the hands of Spain would find pleasure in viewing Hieronimo’s masque portraying Spain and Portugal’s weakness when confronted by English muscle.

Furthermore, Hieronimo’s final production in which life literally leaps from the art in murderous revenge eliminates “the whole succeeding hope / That Spain expected”, terminating the King of Spain’s bloodline (4.5. 204-05).  Although this evidences England’s hispanophobic feelings by annihilating Spanish hope, Hieronimo’s choice of a multilingual play further evidences English anxiety toward foreigners.  A.J. Hoenselaars explains, “the influx of foreigners during the second half of the sixteenth century . . . coupled nascent national awareness with a strident form of popular xenophobia” (27).  Hieronimo states,

Each one of us must act his part

In unknown languages,

That it may breed the more variety,

As you, my lord, in Latin, I in Greek,

You in Italian; and forebecause I know

That Bel-imperia hath practiced the French

In courtly French shall all her phrases be.

(4.1. 172-79)


In response, Balthazar fittingly acknowledges, “But this will be a mere confusion, / And hardly

shall we all be understood” (4.1. 180-81).  Writing in an epoch of “national awareness” and “xenophobia”, Kyd’s tragedy and Hieronimo’s play reflect the fear of an England vulnerable to heterogeneity resulting from foreign influx.  By constructing English actors to play Spanish and Portuguese characters speaking Latin, Greek, Italian, and French, Kyd points to a concern about the blurring of English identity and ruin of a “pure” English language.

England’s anti-Catholic attitude was intensified by the attempted Spanish invasion but the sentiment’s source was Italy, the center of Catholicism.  Faustus, in Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, with devilish powers, travels to Rome in order to “compass then some sport” to find “merriment” in the Pope’s “folly” (3.1. 54-5).  The third time the Pope “crosseth himself”, the invisible Faustus ‘hits him a box of the ear” (3.1).  The English audience would have found “merriment” in the Italian Pontiff’s “folly” proceeding Pope Pius V’s declaration that Queen Elizabeth was “the pretended Queen of England and the servant of crime” (Regnans in Excelesis).

However, the audience of Dr. Faustus only visits Italy.  Thomas Middleton’s (?) The Revenger’s Tragedy provides a detailed look at an unspecified Italian ducal court corrupt with lust and murder safely occupying a foreign other world.  The names of the persons in the play embody the shocking behavior of this Italian court (“revenger”, “lecherous”, “fool”, “bastard”, “ambitious”) (Bevington 1303).  Vindice, the revenger from which the play derives its title, is sparked into bloody vengeance because “The old Duke poisoned” Vindice’s mistress “Because thy purer part would not consent / Unto his palsy lust; for old men lustful / Do show like young men, angry, eager, violent” (1.1. 32-35).  Thus, Vindice’s problem is enacting revenge upon an individual at the head of a corrupt court.  Clearly, Middleton’s (?) play presents an anti-foreign sentiment centered upon Italy.

Another play evidencing the fear of foreign threat is Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great. Explaining the anti-Turkish sentiment felt around Europe and demonstrated in Tamburlaine, Richard Knolles writes that the Turkish have “grown to the height of majesty and power, as that it hath in contempt all the rest, being itself not inferior in greatnesse and strength unto the greatest monarchies” (49).  Tamburlaine embodies the spirit of the Renaissance, “Threat’ning the world with high astounding terms / And scourging kingdoms with his conquering sword” (prologue) and controlling “fortune’s wheel” (1.2. 175).  In representing the Renaissance man, Tamburlaine appeases English anxieties stating, “Tush, Turks are full of brags / And menace more than they can perform” (3.3. 3-4).  By conquering the Turkish Emperor Bajazeth, who proclaims “Now shalt thou feel the force of / Turkish Arms, / Which lately made all Europe Quake for fear” (3.3. 133-35), Tamburlaine eliminates a Muslim threat.  Furthermore, the English audience would have enjoyed the staging of a Turkish King and Queen braining themselves against their cages.

Although anti-Islamic sentiment is present in the play, as Tamburlaine’s actions force Zabina to state, “Then is there left no Mahomet”, she also questions the presence of “God”, which further points to Marlowe’s atheistic tendencies (5.1. 239-40).  Had Zabina’s questionings been uttered by an English(wo)man, the line would not have passed censor.  Marlowe utilized English xenophobia to attract audiences but the play is not entirely anti-Turk/Islam.  Although the audience was pleased to have witness Turkish downfall, Marlowe’s Tamburlaine questions the audiences’ blind spiritual obedience and gaze upon “some happy power” to “pity and

enlarge” them from earthborn sufferings (4.4. 104).

In Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, the Turkish are presented in a different light.  Calymath, the son of the Turkish Emperor, is noble, believing it to be “more kingly to obtain by peace / Than to enforce conditions by constraint” (1.2. 25-6).  However, Marlowe’s “other” is Barabas, the Jew of the play’s title.  Inclined to utilize the Machiavelli prototype throughout his plays, Marlowe’s depiction of Barabas as a Machiavellian villain is an easily adapted composition of

two “evils”.  In presenting the stereotypical immoral Jew “Who smiles to see how full his bags

are crammed, / Which money was not got without” (Prologue 31-2) the means of Machiavel and “wealthier far than any Christian” (1.1. 127), Marlowe develops a character easy to hate.  Barabas possesses no redeeming qualities, accumulating 12 murders and poisoning a convent of nuns and a group of carpenters.  His evilness is reinforced by Ithamore’s statement: “he that eats with the devil had need a long spoon” (3.4.59-60).

However, although the Jews were expelled from England in the 13th century, Marlowe’s play is not solely a demonization of the foreign Jew.  Rather than presenting noble Christian characters to counteract the “evil” Jew, the Christian knights of Malta, headed by Ferneze, are nearly as wicked, instigating Barabas’s killing spree.  Barabas states, “he from whom my most advantage comes / Shall be my friend. / This is the life we Jews are used to lead, / And reason, too, for Christians do the like” (5.2. 113-16).  In condemning Jewish and Christian’ actions alike while dignifying the Muslim Calymath, Marlowe disorients typical English prejudices, redirects them internally toward the Christian, and compares their actions to that of a Jew in a capital-driven society.  Not solely does the Jew have a thirst for blood but so does the Christian.  Therefore, anti-foreign sentiments within Renaissance drama mask underlying insights regarding English prejudices that may be turned inward.

English Renaissance Drama presents the English identity as a composite image.  Determined to maintain homogeneity in an epoch of foreign threat and influx, the drama of Marlowe, Kyd, and Middleton reflect the English anxiety of a blurred identity.  By depicting English prejudices toward Spanish, Italians, Turks, Jews, etc. and the theologies they represent, playwrights generate an audience.  However, once in the seats, as the foreign threat is being addressed, these playwrights slip in original themes, asking the English audience to judge the domestic world as well.


About Kyle

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One Response to Foreigners in English Renaissance Drama

  1. Pingback: Zenocrate and Zabina in Marlowe’s Tamburlaine » Muslimah Media Watch

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