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Jane Grogan, The Persian Empire in English Renaissance Writing, 1549-1622
by Matthew Birchwood

Grogan, Jane. The Persian Empire in English Renaissance Writing, 1549-1622. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. x + 256 pp. ISBN: 978-0230343269. $100.00 cloth.

 

Jane Grogan’s important study of English engagement with Persia follows on from much recent scholarship devoted to the revaluation of the role of Islam and the “East” in Early Modern literary-political culture. As the author notes, much of this work has focused on burgeoning Anglo-Ottoman exchanges—economic, diplomatic and cultural—epitomized by the inauguration of the Levant Company in 1592 and finding popular expression in the prominence of the so-called “Turk plays” of the late Elizabethan and Jacobean period. The particular significance and distinctiveness of Persian representations as opposed to those more broadly “Islamic” has been an open question since Anthony Parr observed that Persia was “not so much Europe’s Other as its opposite or foil.”[1] The Persian Empire in English Renaissance Writing, 1549-1622 is the first sustained attempt to answer that question and as such stands as a vital contribution to the wider field.

In setting out to define Persia’s unique place in the English imaginary, Grogan structures her material thematically around four related areas: Persia’s classical pedigree, Persia in the romance tradition, Persia on stage and, in the crowning chapter, a reappraisal of the exploits of the infamous Sherley brothers. The abiding theme throughout is the use to which the idea of Persia might be put in imagining the problem of empire itself. As is now axiomatic in Early Modern studies, the classical empires of Rome and Greece were not the only models available for testing the efficacy and proximity—both historically and ideologically—of a nascent English imperialism. Dealing as she does with the crucial years of the mid-sixteenth to the early-seventeenth centuries, Grogan deftly demonstrates the ways in which ciphers of empire might be read in a host of contemporary sources including poems, drama, polemic and pedagogical texts. Throughout, close readings of primary texts both canonical and neglected are invariably astute and expertly situated in the wider context both of historical events and of traditions of reading in genre and form.

The dates included in the book’s title delineate a precise period of English interest in Persia and their markers serve to demonstrate the breadth and variety of material under consideration. The first are translations. In 1549, two English travelers returned from Italy with the seeds of a new interest in Persian history and culture. As ever, the scholarship of continental Europe proved the conduit through which ideas of the East might reach English readers. Thus, William Thomas’s translation of Giosafat Barabaro’s Travels to Tana and Persia, recounting the fifteenth-century Venetian embassy to Uzun Hasan and its “marginal glosses explaining terms such as ‘caravan’, ‘scimetarra’ [scimitar] and ‘Musaico’ [mosaics] … helpfully show English lack of familiarity with contemporary Persia at this moment” (11). More importantly for Grogan’s central argument asserting the exemplary importance of Achaemenid Persia for contemporary political thought, William Barker embarked for Italy in the same year and made the first English translation of Xenophon’s Cyropaedia (1552) from manuscripts obtained there. In one of many evocative moments, the author reminds us that the life of Cyrus was schoolboy knowledge: Sidney and Spenser would “have first met Xenophon’s Cyrus as schoolboys during their Greek studies at grammar school” (13).

This opening sets up a detailed and convincing evaluation of the importance of the Cyropadeia to English appreciation of Persian history and culture in the period. Although energized by the possibilities of new trading and military agreements with the Safavids, contemporary English understanding of Persia’s complex histories, territories and achievements tended to be governed by the classical Persia of Cyrus and Darius. This critical distinction between contemporary and classical appreciation of Persia gets to the heart of the complex and contradictory responses found in English writings on Persia, poised as they are between admiration for the moderation, continence and self-discipline required of Empire builders and the accusations of luxury and excess which had long been routinely ascribed to Eastern polities. Grogan offers a neat and convincing explanation for this apparent contradiction via the contrasting influences of Xenophon and Herodotus. Whereas Xenophon’s semi-fictional biography of Cyrus might be adduced as a handbook for imperialism in the mirror-for-princes vein, Herodotus’s Histories read more like a warning from history against the koros (“insatiety”) of imperial ambition. In a section entitled “Persia in Faeryland,” Grogan demonstrates the ways in which Spenser’s epic enacts this fundamental conflict, “pitting his Xenophontic knights against such Herodotean trials” (97-8). In this lively reading, the Bower of Bliss becomes “easily readable as an Orientalized location” (93) and Duessa the personification of “that dreaded pairing of Catholic and Islamic forces” (94). Alongside readings of Spenser and Sidney in this context, there are also detailed discussions of two lesser known romances which treat Persian material more directly in Anthony Munday’s Zelauto (1580) and William Warner’s Pan his Syrinx (1584) and neatly concludes with a section on Lady Mary Wroth’s Urania, arguing that in its second part, “Wroth’s Persia carefully updates and renews her uncle’s imperial ideals of Persia” (111) even as English diplomatic and commercial energies seemed to be turning towards the Ottoman rather than Persian Empire.

In the penultimate chapter treating staged representations of Persia, Grogan acknowledges the dominance of the Ottoman model for dramatic mediations of empire, with their characteristic preoccupation with apostasy and conversion. By contrast, however, when conversion is encountered in the Persian context it tends to be intra-faith, that is, motivated by an interest in the schism within Islam rather than any existential threat to Christendom. This revealing observation corresponds to an apparent bifurcation of audiences for Ottoman as opposed to Persian material, so that a “clear division between the political work of the public and private stage becomes evident” (115). Persian dramas remain self-consciously rooted in their prose source material and consequently appear to maintain a particular appeal for elite, coterie audiences.

A summary of the glancing but pervasive references to Persia in Shakespeare’s canon follows the same trajectory, from evocations of classical precedents in the earlier works to the luxurious Persia familiar from the romance tradition, with Othello as the turning point. Particularly suggestive here is a reading of Henry V as an interrogation of imperium after the model of Cyrus: “Shakespeare evidently knows his Xenophon too” (118). Employing the same methodology as earlier sections, this chapter follows with a valuable survey of non-canonical plays treating Persia—Richard Farrant’s The Warres of Cyrus (1594), Samuel Daniel’s closet drama Philotas (1605), William Alexander’s Monarchick Tragedies (1604-7), and Thomas Tomkis’s Albumazar (1615), the latter notable for presenting a Persian hero who is not king or soldier but rather a mystic/trickster in the Jonsonian mold. Conspicuous by its absence throughout all these examples, though, is any apparent interest in the religious identity of contemporary Safavid Persia as a Muslim empire, despite the increased availability of accounts and reports of travellers, diplomats and merchants. However, it is in Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, Grogan argues, that the tension between classical precedent and the “contemporary geopolitics of the Eastern Mediterranean” are most readily discernible, making it “the richest and most important exploration of Persia and Persian empire on the early modern stage” (127). Here Grogan finds strong echoes of the Cyropaedia again, and reads this “Persianized Tamburlaine” (131) as a hero whose seemingly unstoppable rise enacts a fantasy of anti-Ottoman militarism in ways designed to appeal to English religious sensibilities if not to commercial realities. It is the mobilization of a classically-grounded Persian hero which allows for a critique of empire at the very moment when England was contemplating its own imperial ambition. As all of the above examples demonstrate, to “the readers and audience of early modern English drama, Persia was never simply a distant exotic place, but something more familiar, complex, even domestic” (148).

The final chapter addresses the obligatory topic of the Sherley brothers and the proliferation of texts generated by their exploits, including Anthony Nixon’s pamphlet of 1607, Anthony Sherley’s own Relation of his Travels (1613), and of course the collaborative play The Travailes of the Three English Brothers (1607) attributed to John Day, William Rowley and George Wilkins. As the author is acutely aware this is, to some extent, well-trodden territory, but the story is expertly untangled here and crucially not subject to “exceptionalizing treatment” (151) or hagiography, but rather resituated in the context of a longer cultural tradition of English engagement with Persia both real and imagined, as cogently set out in the preceding chapters. Illuminated in this way, the Travailes is revealed as more than simply an opportunistic “news play” but as one steeped in the “intertextual richness” (171) of English writings about Persia. Here again we find Cyrus’s Persian Empire reinstated as “exemplar and desideratum” (171) for English audiences. As the final section compellingly argues, however, this would be Cyrus’s last stand as the embodiment of a particular kind of humanistic idealism increasingly outmoded by fast-changing political and commercial realities. The capture of Ormuz from the Portuguese in 1622 by a joint Anglo-Persian force provides the end point for the study, and the role of the East India Company points towards a new set of relations between England and Persia.

The Persian Empire in English Renaissance Writing 1549-1622 amounts to a comprehensive and overdue account of Persia’s distinct place in English literary and political discourses of these formative decades. Marked by the lucidity and authority of its writing and research, this study makes an invaluable contribution to current scholarship and—as the epilogue gestures—ought to provide a firm foundation for further investigations of the ensuing period.

 

Matthew Birchwood
Kingston University

 


[1] Three Renaissance Travel Plays, edited by Anthony Parr, Manchester UP, 1995, p. 11.

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46.1.7

Cite as:

Matthew Birchwood, "Jane Grogan, The Persian Empire in English Renaissance Writing, 1549-1622," Spenser Review 46.1.7 (Spring-Summer 2016). Accessed June 19th, 2018.
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