Book review: This Orient Isle by Jerry Brotton

March 24, 2016
Allen Lane, £20

A tapestry still hanging in Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire shows the start of England’s discovery of Islam. The Prophet Muhammad lies at the feet of a personification of Faith (resembling Queen Elizabeth) about to be converted to Christianity. This triumphant image hid the truth: at the time, the Queen was engaged in negotiations with the Ottomans to form an anti-Spanish alliance—with England the junior partner.

As Jerry Brotton explores in his well-researched new book, Elizabeth had always been keen on dealing with the east. Soon after she was crowned, she sent an ambassador to the Persian “Sophy,” or Shah, with letters in Latin, Hebrew and Italian. The Shah gave him short shrift, claiming not to have heard of Elizabeth or even England. After she was excommunicated by the Pope in 1570, the Queen tried the Ottomans and Moroccans with more success. Towards the end of her life, her teeth were rotted by Moroccan imported sugar.

Brotton tells the story well and has a good eye for detail. But he slightly overplays his analysis of how playwrights such as Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare engaged with Islam. Marlowe’s eastern characters were amalgamated bogeymen—Tamburlaine is as much a radical atheist as Muslim—and Shakespeare, beyond setting Othello in a Cyprus under Turkish attack, had little interest in Islam.

Still this beautifully presented book shines an important light on a world of diplomatic intrigue and unexpected alliances—where mutual interest and trade trumped entrenched religious affiliation.