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Welcome to Episode 195 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that goes behind the curtain and into the real life and history of William Shakespeare by interviewing the experts who know him best. 

In a series of highly political and pro-English history plays known as his “Henriad” performances, Shakespeare uses a variety of figurative words and expressions to describe the “Turks” or members of the Ottoman Empire. Almost all of Shakespeare’s references are rather negative towards the Ottomans, which at face value may lead you to believe that Shakespeare and his contemporaries were opposed to, or perhaps at war with, the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. However, historical exploration into the real political situation of England towards the then-called Ottoman Turks was far from negative. In fact, Elizabeth I saw the Ottoman Empire as an essential ally in her post-Catholic England currently at war with Spain. So how do we reconcile the essential nature of the Ottoman Empire under Elizabeth I with Shakespeare’s negative references to them by the characters in his history plays? Our guest this week, Aisha Hussain, is here to take us back to the 16th century and introduce us to the Ottoman Empire, what it meant to be Turkish, and what we need to know about the Ottomans in Shakespeare’s plays.

Join the conversation below.

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Aisha Hussain is a final-year PhD candidate at the University of Salford whose research interests include of Turkish Otherness, fictional terror, Anglo-Ottoman commerce, gender studies, Orientalism, and, in particular, crusading and anti-crusading discourses in early modern English drama. She also oversees the Events page at Medieval and Early Modern Orients (MEMOs). Aisha holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and Drama (University of Salford, 2017) and a Master of Arts in Renaissance English Literature (University of Leeds, 2018). She was awarded the Pathways to Excellence Studentship by the University of Salford upon commencing her PhD studies in September 2018. Her current research investigates how the emergence of a more positive theatrical Turkish type in the works of Fulke Greville, Thomas Goffe and Roger Boyle reflects, in a shift from their contemporaries, what can be considered an anti-crusading discourse. She tweets @AishaHussain96. She can be reached at

In this episode, I’ll be asking Aisha Hussain about :

  • During the reign of Elizabeth I, the Queen firmly reinforces the country’s Protestantism and acts violently against Catholicism. There’s a ban on Jews in England that would not be reversed until well after Shakespeare in the 17th century, and yet with all of her opposition to non-Protestant religions, we see Elizabeth I actively court and work hard to solidify a political alignment with the Ottoman Empire, which was decidedly non-Protestant. Why was she not more opposed to their predominantly Muslim religion?
  • What was the feud between the Ottomans and the Hapsbergs about during Shakespeare’s lifetime and did England get involved?
  • What is the difference between the Orient and the Ottomans, are these geographically different for Shakespeare? 

… and more!

Here’s what’s available for this episode:

  • World Map by Diogo Ribeiro, 1529: Universal chart showing discoveries up to 1529, divided per Treaty of Tordesillas.
  • Portrait of Valide Safiye Sultan, c. 1575-1595.
  • First Palestine map by Abraham Ortelius, 1570: Early depiction of Palestine.
  • Tartaria map by Giovanni Botero, 1599: Representing a broad area of Asia, including the Caspian Sea and Ural Mountains.
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Use our collection of activity kits to can cook, play, and create your way through the life of William Shakespeare with recipes, games, and crafts straight from Shakespeare’s lifetime (and mentioned in his plays!) It’s the most fun way to explore history.

Books & Resources Aisha Hussain Recommends (A history of the Ottoman Empire, which can be found at

This spans the years 1299-1716 and was written by Medieval and Early Modern Orients’ deputy Editor, Samera Hassan, and Research Team Members, Munire Maksudoglu and Nat Cutter. (My blog entitled “This is the English, not the Turkish Court”: Ottomans and Shakespeare’s Henriad, which can be found at both and

In Shakespeare’s Henriad – Richard II (1595), Henry IV Part I (1596), Henry IV Part II (1597), and Henry V(1599) – English Christian characters frequently employ negative Turkish tropes when criticizing each other’s corrupt political agendas. However, these tropes differ from the more positive characterisations of the Ottomans found in English chronicles of Turkish history. By engaging with the intersections between crusading and anti-crusading discourses and Orientalism, we can see how the Shakespearean character of Henry Bolingbroke seeks to elevate himself and his political agenda by casting the Turks as a negative contrast. (Journal Special Issue edited by Mark Hutchings on ‘Shakespeare and Islam’, published in the Shakespeare journal (2008) ).

This special issue conceives of “Shakespeare and Islam” in its broadest sense, conceptually, and opens up the conjunction to consideration of both the early modern and more recent periods. It is not directly concerned with addressing doctrinal questions: “Islam” is a flag of convenience for our purposes, an umbrella term that takes in not only the Ottoman Empire but also the Persian (a subject that, perhaps unsurprisingly, tends to be overshadowed by its stronger neighbour), and extends to a discussion of twentieth- and twenty-first-century issues of Shakespearean interpretation. (Book by Lee Manion entitled Narrating the Crusades: Loss and Recovery in Medieval and Early Modern England (2014) ).

Manion examines crusading’s narrative-generating power as it is reflected in English literature from c.1300 to 1604. By synthesizing key features of crusade discourse into one paradigm, this book identifies and analyzes the kinds of stories crusading produced in England, uncovering new evidence for literary and historical research as well as genre studies. by Matthew Dimmock entitled New Turkes: Dramatizing Islam and the Ottomans in Early Modern England (2017) ).

New Turkes: Dramatizing Islam and the Ottomans in Early Modern England explores the ways in which print culture helped define and promulgate a European construction of ‘Turkishness’ that was nebulous and ever shifting. By placing in context the developing encounters between the Ottoman and Christian worlds, it shows how ongoing engagements reflected the nature of the ‘Turke’ in sixteenth century English literature. (Article by Shouhed Ahmad Tilwani entitled ‘The Orient: Villains in the Plays of Marlowe and Shakespeare’, published in the Rupkatha Journal on Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities (2020) ).

This article underlines how, in view of the 16th century British socio-cultural and economic scenario, that held a remarkable efficacy in shaping the characters in literature, the Oriental Muslim characters were portrayed, particularly, penned by the two prominent playwrights of the time- Shakespeare in Titus Andronicus and Othello, and Marlowe in Tamburlaine the Great I and II. 

The Ottoman Empire and the World Around It (2004)

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