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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.

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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!

Why, she defies me,
Like Turk to Christian


As You Like It (IV.3)

World Map by Diogo Ribeiro, “Propaganda map” (1529), Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana |  National Library of Australia Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Jalo using CommonsHelper.  | Public Domain | Original Text, translated to English by Cassidy Cash using Google Translate: “Original text: National Library of Australia World Map) Description = Universal chart containing everything that has been discovered in the world so far ago, made by Diego Ribero, cosmographer of his magestad, year 1529, in [n] Seville / Which is Devide in two parts according to the capitulation made by the Catholic Kings of Spain and King Don Juan de Portogual In Tordesillas Year 1494 Facsimile made in London by W. Griggs, ca. 1887? 1 map on 2 sheets: col .; 58 x 140 cm., Sheets 61 x 79 cm and 61 x 66 cm. Note: “Reproduced from the original in the Museum of the ‘Propaganda’ in Rome, lent by His Holiness Pope Leo XIII, by W. Griggs, London.” In lower margin: The second Borgian map by Diego Ribero, Seville 1529″ | Source



The Orient on the Map

When we talk about “The Orient” that can be a vague term. To help us get, well, oriented, Aisha explains what this term means the geographic area to which it applies:

The Orient is a term for the East, traditionally comprising anything that belongs to the Eastern world, in relation to Europe. It is the antonym of Occident, the Western World. Orient  : regions or countries lying to the east of a specified or implied point : the eastern regions or countries of the world : EAST sense 2  —formerly understood to include regions (such as the Middle East) lying to the east and southeast of southern Europe but now usually understood to refer to regions and countries of eastern Asia (Merriam Webster Dictionary, 2021). 

The Ottoman Empire was a former Turkish sultanate in southeastern Europe, western Asia, and northern Africa including at its greatest extent Turkey, Syria, Mesopotamia, Palestine, Arabia, Egypt, the Barbary States, the Balkans, and parts of Russia and Hungary. a member of a Turkish dynasty founded by Osman I that ruled the Ottoman Empire; a citizen or functionary of the Ottoman Empire (Merriam Webster, 2021). Put a picture of this emperor in the show notes.

During the Early Modern period, most English playwrights, including Shakespeare, either conflated the two terms due to lack of understanding of the correct differentiation, or completely omitted both terms, favouring instead the term ‘Turk’. The stereotyped features, like lustfulness, political corruption, and barbarism, attached to the Turk in cultural discourse are also mirrored in the drama of the period. A simple search on the Literature Online database demonstrates how theatre appropriates the stereotype of the lustful Turk in plays published before and after the Restoration. The adjective ‘lustful’ (in all its variants and spellings) is attributed to the ‘Turk’ in a selection of 43 plays published during the years 1600-1670. What is interesting, however, is the texts’ widespread combination of the Turk’s sensuous appetite with political tyranny, as evidenced in plays such as Lust’s Dominion (1600) THomas Dekker, The Fair Maid of the West (1602),Thomas Haywood (Sp?) and The Renegado (1630), to mention but a few of the most popular performed works. In these dramatic works, the traditional Orientalist stereotype of lustful Turks reappears in the characters of Eleazar, Mullisheg, and Asambeg, who successfully contribute to the downfall of European monarchs by persuading them to embrace a lustful behavior, thus becoming unfit rulers in the eyes of their subjects (Lamiya Almas, 2009). 

Other world maps from the 16-17th century that reference the Orient:

Hendrik HondiusNova Totius Terrarum Orbis Geographica ac Hydrographica Tabula, 1630 Source

Mercator Nova et Aucta Orbis Terrae Descriptio, 1569. High res image. Source

Ortelius‘s map Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (1570) Source 

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Valide Safiye Sultan (wife of Murad III), c. 1575 – 15 January 1595. She exchanged gifts with Elizabeth I after the establishment of the Levant Company (according to report by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in 1763). Image: Photograph of a portrait, taken by Jacob Historian –CC BY-SA 4.0

The Ottoman Empire and Turkish Orient

During Shakespeare’s lifetime, the Muslim Turks were the enemy you know for England, and Elizabeth I specifically, who had chosen to align with the Muslim Ottoman Empire in her plight against the agressive Spainish monarchy. The conflict this alignment created in the minds of Elizabethans, however, is that many of them remembered the Crusades under Richard the Lionheart, where the Muslim Turks were seen as the aggressor, the enemey, and a group to oppose. This conflict shows up on the early modern stage in representations of Muslims and Turks. Aisha explains:

What is now known as Orientalism gave English Christians during the early modern period the opportunity to build their own identity as being directly opposed to that of the identity of the cruel, barbarous Muslim ‘Turk’. Thus, the construct of the Turkish Muslim as a theatrical type on the early modern stage fuelled the perception that the English should compete against the Ottomans to obtain more land and, as a result, to increase the global presence of both Christianity and English commerce. 

      One way that the English could have competed with the Ottomans was by waging a crusade—or, a holy war—against them. Manion outlines that a crusade could be defined as a widespread military cause or as a conflict in which an individual or small collection of individuals participated. These definitions of the crusading discourse in early modern drama, specifically ‘Turk plays’, are not simply conceived as having the sole focus of “conversion and racial identity”, according to Manion (2014, p. 6), but as being predominantly based around the medieval crusading narrative. These medieval narratives advocate for “united Christian action against the Turks to the populace despite the conciliatory attitude of Elizabeth I’s government or the anti-Catholic polemic of ardent Protestant reformers” (Manion, 2014, p. 6).

      There also exists critical interest in the siege of Jerusalem at the end of the First Crusade, as well as how the literary representation of this holy city was altered (see Suzanne Yeager, 2004) by English writers to “promote personal devotion, claims to moral superiority, or national identity” (Manion, 2014, p. 5). In contrast, Suzanne Conklin Akbari (2004) examines how the Western conceptualisation of religious and geographical Otherness in medieval and early modern literature and culture contributed to Occidental perceptions of the Muslim Other. Akbari concludes that medieval and early modern Orientalism, which not only features in romance literature of both periods but also in dramatic works, attempted to create clear distinctions between the virtuous Christian and the villainous Muslim.

      Bearing all of this in mind, it is indeed possible that there could be some irony in Shakespeare’s references to holy war in context of England’s war against Spain, since Elizabeth I was at the time Shakespeare wrote King John, aligning with the same Muslims that Richard the Lionheart had opposed. The reproduction of medieval crusading ideals in early modern literature and drama cannot simply be “dismissed as crude, second-rate narratives that unquestionably reproduce established ideologies” (Nicola McDonald, 2013, p. 5), given the renewed interest in Ottoman culture and the way in which holy war held an unquestionable “narrative power and cultural influence in literary texts” (Manion, 2014, p. 5). 

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The first Palestine map of Ortelius | 1570 | by Abraham Ortelius – The Eran Laor Collection of the National Library of Israel | Public Domain | Source

Jerusalem in the Ottoman Empire

I found a map of Palestine from the 1570s, and it is situated where modern day Israel is located. For Shakespeare, Jerusalem was part of Palestine instead of Israel, including in the 1590s when King John (and Shakespeare’s references to Palestine) was written. Aisha explains:

From 1260[190] to 1517, Jerusalem was ruled by the Mamluks. In the wider region and until around 1300, many clashes occurred between the Mamluks on one side, and the crusaders and the Mongols, on the other side. When Nachmanides visited in 1267 he found only two Jewish families, in a population of 2,000, 300 of whom were Christians, in the city.[192] 

      Jerusalem was a significant site of Mamluk architectural patronage. The frequent building activity in the city during this period is evidenced by the 90 remaining structures that date from the 13th to 15th centuries.[194] The types of structures built included madrasas, libraries, hospitals, caravanserais, fountains (or sabils), and public baths.[194] Much of the building activity was concentrated around the edges of the Temple Mount or Haram al-Sharif.[194] 

      Following Mamluk rule, Jerusalem and environs fell to the Ottoman Turks, who generally remained in control until 1917.[181]  Ottoman Yavuz Sultan Selim entered Jerusalem on Dec. 29, 1516 and defeated the Mamluk ruler Kansu Gavri in the Battle of Marj Dabiq in 1516, resulting in Syria and Palestine joining the Ottoman lands.

Under Ottoman rule, the Palestinian territory was organized into three states, Jerusalem, Gaza and Nablus, all linked to the Damascus Province. Palestine, in the last period of the Ottoman Empire, was first linked to the state of Sidon, later to Syria and then to Beirut, which was founded in the last period.

Jerusalem enjoyed a prosperous period of renewal and peace under Suleiman the Magnificent—including the rebuilding of magnificent walls around the Old City. Throughout much of Ottoman rule, Jerusalem remained a provincial, if religiously important center, and did not straddle the main trade route between Damascus and Cairo.[196] The English reference book Modern history or the present state of all nations, written in 1744, stated that “Jerusalem is still reckoned the capital city of Palestine, though much fallen from its ancient grandeaur”.[197]

      The Ottomans brought many innovations: modern postal systems run by the various consulates and regular stagecoach and carriage services were among the first signs of modernization in the city.[198] The Ottoman Empire ruled Jerusalem and much of the Middle East from 1517 to 1917. After World War I, Great Britain took over Jerusalem, which was part of Palestine at the time. The British controlled the city and surrounding region until Israel became an independent state in 1948” ( 

From stubborn Turks and Tartars, never train’d
To offices of tender courtesy.
We all expect a gentle answer, Jew.


Merchant of Venice (IV.1)

Newington Butts Present Day Photograph by Laurie Johnson

IMAGE: Tartaria map and description by Giovanni Botero from his “Relationi universali” (Brescia, 1599).| Public Domain | Source | “Tartary” was a blanket term blanket term used in Western European literature and cartography for a vast part of Asia, including the Capsian Sea, Ural Mountains, the Pacific Ocean, and northern parts of India and China. During Shakespeare’s lifetime, this part of the world was largely unknown to European geographers (according to Connell, Charles W. (2016). Ryan, James D. (ed.). “Western Views of the Origin of the ‘Tartars’: An Example of the Influence of Myth in the Second Half of the Thirteenth Century”. The Spiritual Expansion of Medieval Latin Christendom: The Asian Missions. The Expansion of Latin Europe, 1000–1500. New York: Routledge: 103–25. ISBN 978-0754659570.). “Tartar” was an umbrella term for Turkish ethnic groups. Shakespeare uses Tartar and Turks in his plays.

The Ottoman Sultans considered Barbarians

The Ottoman Sultans on the stage of early modern plays seem to enact violence at the drop of a hat, without any lofty moral justification beyond their own greed or ambition. As Aisha explains, this war-like reputation was consistent with the contemporary perception of the leaders of the Ottoman Empire under Elizabeth I:

In the first half of the seventeenth-century the resurgence of the Crusades (1095-1291) as a historical context in early modern English literature is testimony to a renewed interest in the Ottoman culture (Lee Manion, 2014), very likely determined by the anxieties emerging from contemporary Anglo-Ottoman trade arrangements (Ágoston, 2013; Erkoç, 2016). Turks were, indeed, as Tiryakioglu highlights, compared to “the rampaging Goths, Vandals, and Lombards who were blamed for the destruction of ancient Rome” (Tiryakioglu, 2015, p. 65). Through the crusading discourse, it is possible to trace the roots of early modern representations of Turks back to the religious and cultural history of medieval Europe, when the First Crusade was seen as a means to relieve the Orient from what European Christians perceived as barbarism.

The resulting cultural anxiety situated within literature depicting crusades also took central stage in early modern works, where writers like Spenser in his Faerie Queene (1590), Marlowe in his Tamburlaine (1590), and Shakespeare in his Othello (1603) offer interesting perspectives on the crusading narrative and the way it fashioned the start of the modern age (Manion, 2014), resulting in an expected neat opposition between European audience and the Other, now perceived as the lustful Turk[1]. The derogatory representation of the Turks was even corroborated by the distorted narrative of Pope Urban II who claimed that Muslim Ottomans acted upon their lust against Christian males, females, and bishops in the form of sexual abuse: “They circumcise the Christians…What shall I say of the abominable rape of the women?” (Urban, 1095; see English translation in Munro, 1895). Even English travel narratives contribute to discussing Turkish male sexuality through the Orientalist discourse. Sir Henry Blount describes Turks as being “addict[ed] to sodomy” (Tiryakioglu, 2015, p. 134); an aspect which also recurs in the English travelogue written by William Lithgow (Blount, 1636; Lithgow, 1640). 

My research attempts to demonstrate how any strict East-West binary is unattainable. It does this by highlighting how early modern playwrights, like Goffe, Greville, and Boyle, recognised that a number of historical Ottoman authoritarian figures actually possessed admirable qualities, which resulted in a selection of battlefield victories; qualities which early seventeenth-century England may have wished to emulate under increasingly shaky political circumstances.[1]

      Edward Said’s original theory of Orientalism (1978), when applied to early modern literature, creates a twofold prototype which does not fully account for non-military interactions between those from the Orient and the Occident during the early modern period. Despite the recognition of Ottoman military capacity, as testified by early modern English dramatists who did not usually attempt to fictionalise Christian victory in a crusade against the Muslims, Turks were still depicted as cruel, lustful tyrants. Such a negative depiction may have been the product of English anxieties about being forced to undergo Islamic conversion (see Vitkus, 2003). 

Vitkus (2003) and Dimmock (2005) both elaborate upon Nabil Matar’s study of religious conflict between Muslims and Christians, and indeed, between Protestants and Catholics, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (1999). What is interesting is a distinction between the seemingly violent interactions between the Christian and the Turk portrayed in English drama in contrast to the lack of violence between these opposing groups historically. Drama of the period was used to create fictional terror by staging repeated Holy Wars inspired by the medieval crusades. This fictional terror created on the early modern stage may have been constructed because of hopes held by English Christians that a resurgence of nationalism in England would be initiated in preparation for a possible war between themselves and Muslim Turks. 

[1] See page 29: These qualities included of “unity, martial excellence, and strict justice” (Linda McJannet, 2006, p. 60).

[2] “A style of thought” meaning a construct or opinion “based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between ‘the Orient’ and ‘the Occident’”, according to Said (1978, p. 2). 

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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. (Book 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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