Pity the Bard of Avon. William Shakespeare has long been the subject of conspiracy theories, including some emanating from the Muslim world. Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddafi claimed in 1989 that Shakespeare was an Arab whose real name was “Sheikh Zabir.” Turkish conspiracy theorist Kadir Mısıroğlu made news in 2016 by claiming that “Shakespeare was not English and his original name is ‘Sheikh Pir.’ Even more, he was a secret Muslim.”
The latest salvo from the grassy knoll of literary criticism came last month from TRT World — an Ankara-based Islamist outlet controlled by Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) — in an article by Nadia Khan declaring absurdly that “there would have been no Shakespeare were it not for Islam.”
Given the source of this far-fetched proclamation (TRT’s American branch is registered as a foreign agent), one might easily dismiss Khan as an unimportant staff writer for Turkey’s propaganda media and conclude that her opinions are on par with those of Qaddafi and Mısıroğlu. Qaddafi’s mental stability has long been suspect, and Mısıroğlu was a fake historian who also wrote that Das Kapital was dictated to Karl Marx by demons. But Khan’s article, titled “The Centrality of the Muslim World to Shakespeare’s Work,” is based on the writings of a real historian: Matthew Dimmock, a professor of early modern studies and associate dean of research at the University of Sussex (U.K.). Dimmock shoulders much of the blame for the caricature of Shakespeare as beholden to Islam.
Early in Dimmock’s career, when he was a lecturer at Sussex, he wrote cogently about the influence of Islam on English literature in the 15th and 16th centuries. But on December 27, 2015, he took a turn into left field when he asserted on the Oxford University Press blog that “without Islam there would be no Shakespeare.” The facts belie this preposterous statement.
If Islam truly were central to Shakespeare’s thought and work, one might expect the word “Islam” to appear somewhere in his oeuvre. It does not. Nor does “Alcoran” (the spelling in Shakespeare’s day), or any other variant of “Koran.” In all the plays, there is a single reference to “Mahomet.” There are 25 references to “Jesus/Jesu,” nine references to “Christ,” and 796 references to “God,” but no references to “Allah.”
If Shakespeare had been greatly or even moderately interested in Islam, one might expect him to have written plays in which Muslims are central characters. He did not. In all of his plays, only a single Muslim ever appears on stage, and he is a minor character. Nor did he set any plays in the Muslim world. The Comedy of Errors is set in Ephesus, a Roman city in pre-Islamic Turkey, and Pericles is set in the city of Tyre, located in pre-Islamic Lebanon. About half of Antony and Cleopatra takes place in pre-Islamic Egypt.
The truth is, Shakespeare wasn’t even Islamo-curious.
How about cultural influence? Did Shakespeare appropriate his mastery of stagecraft from contemporaneous Muslim playwrights? That’s unlikely, since Islamic drama in Shakespeare’s lifetime was far less developed than European drama. Islamic drama before the 18th century consists mostly of puppet and marionette shows and a collection of brief miracle plays. In Turkey, a tradition of improvisational performance called Ortaoyunu dates to the 13th century, but drama as Shakespeare knew it didn’t begin in the Muslim world in earnest until the 19th century. The Oxford History of Islam features discussions of Islamic architecture, pottery, painting, sculpture, weaving, mosaic, and calligraphy, but not a word on theater or drama (neither term is even in the index). As one author puts it, “theater in the Arab world” experienced a “difficult birth.”
Dimmock claims to have found “150 references to Islamic motifs in 21 plays” and pays particular attention to “The Merchant of Venice and Othello, both of which,” he claims, “foreground encounters with Islam.” From this slim evidence, he concludes that “without Tudor and Jacobean England’s rich and complex engagement with Islamic cultures, the plays written by William Shakespeare would be very different, if they existed at all.” Pish posh, as Shakespeare would say.
Nowhere in his Oxford blog post does Dimmock explain how he came upon the number 150 or by what criteria the references qualify as “Islamic,” so I wrote to him asking for the list. He replied: “In terms of a list, I’m afraid that there isn’t one, at least not exactly. When I was a doctoral student I compiled a series of lists and charts for that research — references to Islamic places and ideas in Shakespeare; early modern English plays on that theme; copies of translations of the Qur’an that are still extant — that sort of thing. Most of that material if I still have it is on formats that I can’t now retrieve.”
A special issue of the journal Shakespeare from 2008 titled “Shakespeare and Islam” offers some hints about the kinds of references Dimmock may have relied upon. Guest editor Mark Hutchings explains that the journal “conceives of ‘Shakespeare and Islam’ in its broadest sense . . . ‘Islam’ is a flag of convenience for our purposes, an umbrella term that takes in not only the Ottoman Empire but also the Persian.” In a similar vein, a website called Sheikhy Notes has a page on Islam and Shakespeare that counts references to Arabia and India as Islamic elements. It considers Lady Macbeth’s post-murder line “All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand” as an Islamic reference instead of simply an accurate reference to the luxury-goods market in Shakespeare’s day.
The only examples of these “150 references” that Dimmock cites consist of decorative items, such as the “Turkish tapestry” in The Comedy of Errors, “Turkey cushions bossed with pearl” from The Taming of the Shrew, and references to clothing styles such as “Morisco gowns” and “barbarian sleeves.” These references suggest that Islamic culture is only peripheral to Shakespeare’s world.
Even if we accept as authentic Dimmock’s 150 references to things vaguely Islamic, that evidence does not substantiate his claim that “without Islam there would be no Shakespeare.” It doesn’t even justify the more modest claim of Clair Chambers, professor of global literature at the University of York, who wrote, “it is indisputable that without contact with the Muslim world, Shakespeare’s plays would not be so opulent, spicy, or political.”
In fact, even if we accept the number 150, it does not seem all that significant. Consider, by comparison, that in Shakespeare’s plays the word “Jew” appears 167 times. The word “Jerusalem” appears nine times (that’s nine times more than it appears in the Koran, by the way). And the three Jewish characters in The Merchant of Venice (Shylock, his daughter Jessica, and his friend Tubal) amount to three times the number of Muslim characters in all of Shakespeare’s plays. Using Dimmock’s logic, there would definitely have been no Shakespeare without Judaism.
The second part of Dimmock’s evidence, that The Merchant of Venice and Othello both “foreground encounters with Islam,” is also misleading, beginning with the fact that these are just two of Shakespeare’s 37 plays.
The Prince of Morocco, in The Merchant of Venice (1596–97), is the one and only Muslim character in all of Shakespeare’s plays. In his two brief scenes, he is portrayed as one of many superficial and greedy fools vying for a chance to marry Portia, the rich heiress of Belmont. He is no more a “foreground” character than any of the other failed suitors: the Prince of Aragon, who also fails on stage, and the assortment of aristocrats from Naples, France, Scotland, England, and Germany whose offstage failures we learn about through dialogue between Portia and her maid.
Othello, the Moor of Venice (1604) is Shakespeare’s one and only play that features Islam in any meaningful way, though again it is in the background. The tight and compact tragedy focuses on the villainous Iago as he manipulates Othello into believing that his faithful wife Desdemona is cheating on him. Nearly every scene in the play is about Iago’s Machiavellian plot or Othello’s jealousy.
Dimmock also exaggerates when he argues that “Shakespeare’s fame” is tied to the so-called “Turk play,” a popular sub-genre of the day prominently featuring Turks or Muslims and set in Muslim lands. Examples of the genre include anonymous plays such as Solymannidae (1582), Mahomet (1599), and Muly Molocco (1599), as well as plays written by Shakespeare’s main competitors: Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, Part 1 (1587) and Tamburlaine, Part 2 (1588), George Peele’s The Turkish Mahomet and Hiren the Fair Greek (1588 ) and The Battle of Alacazar (1589), and Robert Greene’s Selimus (1592).
The problem with this argument is that Shakespeare didn’t write any “Turk plays,” and Dimmock’s efforts to turn Othello into one are unsuccessful. If Othello is a “Turk play,” it must be the only one in which the “Turk” is neither a Turk nor a Muslim.
The text tells us Othello’s backstory: When he was seven years old, he was “taken by the insolent foe/And sold to slavery” and became a warrior. At some point thereafter he achieved “redemption” when he was “baptized.”
When Othello finds two of his officers fighting, he chides them:
Are we turned Turks, and to ourselves do that
Which heaven hath forbid the Ottomites?
For Christian shame, put by this barbarous brawl!
Not only is the main character not a Muslim, but in fact no Muslims appear on stage. The “Turks” of the play exist exclusively in speeches made by others alluding to an imminent Ottoman invasion. Most of them occur in a single scene in which the Duke of Venice and several senators discuss the impending invasions of Rhodes (which occurred in 1522) and Cyprus, a possession of Venice in the play (as it was from 1489 to 1571). Othello goes into battle against a 30-ship-strong Ottoman naval force heading for Cyprus, but a storm does them in, and, as he announces, “the Turks are drown’d” before the play’s midpoint.
Finally, in Dimmock’s reading, the term “Moor” is a religious signifier, but in fact Shakespeare uses it only to signify Othello’s race. As the great Shakespeare scholar David Bevington cautioned, “Elizabethan usage applied the term ‘Moor’ to Africans without attempting to distinguish between Arabian and Negroid peoples.” Shakespeare’s only other “Moor” character is Aaron from Titus Andronicus (c. 1590), which, although it is set in pre-Islamic ancient Rome, has not stopped some from erroneously calling Aaron one of “Shakespeare’s Muslim characters.”
Nadia Khan interviewed Dimmock on May 23, 2022, for her “Golden Threads” YouTube program. She begins by praising his “really hard-hitting” claim that “without Islam there would be no Shakespeare.” He laughs a bit and acknowledges the obvious: that it was made to get people’s attention. As Dimmock explained to me, “The ‘without Islam’ angle came from a blog I was commissioned to write for OUP seven or so years ago, and (as with such pieces) they wanted something that would catch a reader’s attention.” This, of course, is disingenuous. It’s not as though the Oxford editors stuck him with a bad title that didn’t reflect his essay.
It’s also not as though he has moved beyond these ideas, which are now seven years old. At the 14:56 mark of the “Golden Threads” interview, Khan asks Dimmock outright: “Would you still say though that, like, the Islamic world is pretty core to Shakespeare’s work?” He answers in the affirmative.
Why would a reputable British scholar go to such lengths to dissemble about the impact of Islam on Britain’s greatest writer?
Dimmock’s efforts to ascribe Shakespeare’s success to Islam resemble in some ways Martin Bernal’s efforts to ascribe ancient Greek civilization to Africa in his book Black Athena (1987). With weak archeological and misleading linguistic evidence, but dedicated to the political goal of promoting “Afrocentrism,” Bernal claimed that Hellenism was pilfered from Africa. Mary Lefkowitz thoroughly refuted him in Not Out of Africa: How “Afrocentrism” Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History (1996), and as one Egyptologist explained, when Bernal “wants a particular conclusion” he manipulates the evidence so that it appears to “fit that conclusion.”
Bernal had his moment, but his name is now a symbol of political activism masquerading as scholarship. And, like Bernal, Dimmock exaggerates the influence of non-Western elements (Islam) on the West (Shakespeare) by manipulating and misrepresenting evidence. But to what end? Bernal was frank about his work, claiming that “the political purpose of Black Athena is, of course, to lessen European cultural arrogance.” But Dimmock’s motives aren’t as clear.
Three options come to mind.
The first option, that he really believes “without Islam there would be no Shakespeare,” is easily dismissed. Dimmock’s earlier work is rational and responsible, and he understands that Islam is incidental to Shakespeare’s plays. Otherwise, he would have undertaken a book-length project on the topic.
The second option is that he thinks that he’s playing a harmless, Puckish game, getting some attention but not embarrassing himself too much with his over-the-top claims. He knew in 2015, and he knows now, that his hyperbole will bring him attention. He acknowledged to me that he has received “a steady trickle of emails from all over the world asking about the piece.” But it’s not harmless. The idea of Shakespeare dependent on Islam emboldens and feeds the triumphalism of Islamists from Istanbul to Ipswich.
The third option is the most intriguing: Dimmock believes he is rescuing Shakespeare by linking him to Islam.
In the age of wokeness, the entire canon of Western literature is under assault. Some want to diversify it by adding “marginalized” or “underrepresented” authors, while others want to eliminate it altogether. And no author draws more ire from the canon-busters than William Shakespeare. Academia wants to “decentralize” and “decolonize” him. High-school teachers complain that the plays, with their “toxic masculinity” and “white supremacy,” are not relevant to their multicultural students. Even acting companies formerly devoted to Shakespeare’s plays are abandoning Shakespeare “in the name of diversity,” as one critic puts it.
William Shakespeare might need rescuing, but he doesn’t need diversifying, and he certainly doesn’t need Matthew Dimmock or Islam to make him relevant.
Reprinted with author’s permission from Middle East Forum