Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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The Persian Empire in English Renaissance Writing, 1549-1622

Jane Grogan, The Persian Empire in English Renaissance Writing, 1549-1622 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). ISBN: 978-0-230-34326-9,  272 pp., €83,19.

Reviewed by Gerald Maclean

9780230343269[1] What did English Renaissance writers have in mind when writing about Persia? In her new book, Jane Grogan illuminates the flourishing of English writing about Persia that corresponded with both the resurgence of the Iranian Empire under the Safavids and the emergence of English mercantilism and overseas commercial interests. Linking these historical developments, Grogan argues, was ‘the imperial model of ancient Persia’ which was powerfully shaping ‘the English (and later British) literary and political imaginary’ (3) at a time when expanding overseas trade and maritime adventuring made thinking about empire a compelling activity. Educated Elizabethans knew rather more about the ancient emperors Cyrus, Darius and Xerxes than about Tahmasp or even the reigning Shah ‘Abbas. But some were looking to Safavid Iran for providing an imperial as well as a commercial and religious alternative to the Ottomans.

[2] Grogan convincingly demonstrates how English writers fabricated, debated, and distributed ideas about ancient Persian imperial rule through histories, translations, romances, closet dramas and travel accounts from the mid-sixteenth century until the early seventeenth century. By the 1620s, Anglo-Ottoman trade was booming, colonial ventures were paying dividends, and Anglo-Iranian relations entered a new phase when East India Company ships helped Safavid Shah ‘Abbas expel the Portuguese from Ormuz in 1622. With the dawning of this new era of trading agreements and joint-stock companies, Grogan argues, English interest in ancient Persian history declined, along with interest in ‘theories of imperial models of conquest’ which were being displaced by ‘practices of commerce and plantation’ (11).

[3] Grogan’s argument, in other words, is that when the English wrote about Persia between the mid-sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries they had empire on their minds. Put the other way – when English writers of those years thought about empire, they thought about Persia – the importance of the argument becomes more apparent. The scholarly quest for the intellectual and imaginative origins of what would become the British Empire has long ventured beyond Roman history, competition with Spain, trade with the Ottomans, and ventures into the Indian Ocean; Grogan now adds Persia to the early-modern imaginative mapping of empires past, passing, and to be. Examining the substantial body of English writing about Persia and Persian history that appeared during the later decades of the sixteenth century, Grogan persuasively demonstrates how ‘years of imagining an English empire’ on the ‘barbarian’ Persian model shaped English expectations of empire and the ethics of empire, the ‘how to’ and the ‘why not’ (179) until that imperial model became largely irrelevant to English imperial interests and imaginings. Despite a brief resurgence of publications focussed on the adventures of the Sherley brothers between 1607 and 1613 – here neatly discussed in the final chapter – English writing about Persia turned from questions of empire as such to occasional travelogues, such as Thomas Herbert’s 1634 account of a diplomatic mission, and, later in the century, popular translations of French travellers such as John Chardin, Jean de Thevenot, and Jean-Baptiste Tavernier.

[4] At the core of English interest in Persia was an imperial model based on conflicting versions by Xenophon and Herodotus. If you were taught Greek at school, like Marlowe, Spencer or Sidney, you read Xenophon’s praise of Cyrus and his imperial rule. The Cyropaedia, Grogan pithily reminds us, ‘was deeply embedded, intertextually networked, proficiently plumbed and vastly informative’ (15). Here was a version of an ancient empire to be admired, one based on civic virtues of moderation, justice, continence, unity, and obedience. King James himself found it persuasive for thinking about a model of imperial monarchy superior to that of Rome. English writers of romance, such as Spencer and Sidney, however, also knew their Herodotus and took his more cautious lead to describe an ancient Persia that was ‘full of cruelty and vice’ (75). Persian material features in English romances such as the Faerie Queene to reveal and elaborate the ethical and political problems attendant on imperial insatiability, such as an emperor’s desire for ever more power over ever more lands, and the limitless worship of riches and luxury. Here, as in romances such as Anthony Munday’s Zelauto (1580) and William Warner’s Pan his Syrinx (1584), Grogan discovers a general ‘antipathy … to empire qua empire’ (77) signalled through Persian characters and scenarios filtered through Herodotus.

[5] On the public London stage of the time, Grogan observes, ‘Turk’ plays largely overshadowed representations of Persia as a venue for staging contemporary imperial anxieties about eastern empires. Nevertheless, closet dramas continued to plunder Persian imperial history to present examples of ethical dilemmas for elite audiences. With evident familiarity, Shakespeare scattered allusions to ancient imperial Persia throughout numerous characters’ mouths, though after Othello he mostly refers to Persia to signal romance, wealth and luxury. Grogan examines how Richard Farrant’s The Warres of Cyrus (perf. 1576?) set out to combine both versions of that emperor’s reputation and empire by following ‘competing traditions’ – Xenophon and Herodotus – that ‘were current and appealing … each offering a different view on the merits and methods of the empire that he established’ (124). Ancient Persian Empire: admirable or not? Farrant’s sententious script encouraged the debate by elaborating it through speeches rather than staged action, preferring ‘wordiness rather than spectacle,’ and left matters pretty much in historical terms. But, Grogan announces, ‘the Tamburlaine plays will change everything’ (124).

[6] Marlowe’s Tamburlaine plays certainly brought action and spectacle to the imperial debate. But more importantly, Grogan argues, the two parts dramatically sutured ancient and modern, exploring Xenophon’s political ideals by setting the career of a ‘notorious fourteenth-century Mongol ruler’ inside a resonantly contemporary world of Christian slaves and Ottoman-Safavid conflicts in order to ‘challenge the nature and desirability of those ideals in an English context’ (127). Tamburlaine’s aspirational Persian identity nourishes his imperial ambitions even as it exposes ‘the less palatable moral and political values of empire’ once ‘the rewards of one victory are suddenly not enough’ (131). But that same assumed Persian identity also renders him ‘readable’ as a Shi’a ruler opposing the Sunni Ottomans, a matter that ‘English Protestant audiences’ might have admired in principle (134), even as booming trade with the Ottomans was making many of them rich. Shaped by that Persian identity, Marlowe’s Tamburlaine performed ancient Persian imperial ideals coming to crisis within recognizably contemporary settings and terms, and in doing so effectively shifted focus from an increasingly irrelevant Persian past to the Anglo-Ottoman present. Persia was proving a dead-end for thinking about actually emerging imperial formations.

[7] Grogan usefully reminds us that even while Marlovian ‘Turk’ plays were captivating London theatre audiences, closet plays and court masques continued to engage educated audiences and readers with the ethical and political debates arising from thinking about Persia, past and present. Samuel Daniel’s The Tragedy of Philotas (1605) daringly presented the Jacobean court with an Alexander who was ‘paranoid, deceitful and hubristic’ (139), while William Alexander flattered the king in his four Senecan Monarchick Tragedies (1602-7) with their prophecies of Protestant imperium. But were it not for the notorious adventures of the Sherley brothers, which briefly brought the actually existing Safavid court to the attention of English readers, the rise of English interest in Persia as an imperial model would, according to Grogan’s compelling argument, have ended here.

[8] Writing about the Sherleys is a perilous enterprise, but Grogan pulls it off with panache and to good effect. Their story has often been told by admirers who praise the brothers’ rugged independence and derring-do as exemplary models of Elizabethan adventuring. Grogan briefly reminds us of Sir Thomas’ three sons, Thomas, Anthony and Robert, in more revealing terms. ‘If corruption,’ she writes, ‘expensive tastes and indebtedness already ran in the family, the brothers added a catalogue of further transgressions to their account: spying for other countries, privateering, obstruction of English trade and interests, lying, embezzlement, probably murder, recusancy and connections with Jesuits and Catholics including one of the figures behind the Gunpowder plot’ (156). Grogan’s aim is not to revile but to demonstrate and explore how otherwise establishable facts about the Sherley brothers becomes the stuff of fabrication in John Day, William Rowley and George Wilkins’ play, The Travailes of the Three English Brothers (1607), and the stuff of self-representation in Anthony Sherley’s Relation of His Travels (1613).

[9] In a bravura contextual reading of The Travailes, Grogan illuminates the play’s achievement at staging the contemporary status of the Persian imperial model in terms of English interests refracted through romance narrative. Chronology is collapsed and events distorted in order to bring all three brothers together in Persia where their evident mission is to make the Persians more like the English, in part through common cause against the Ottomans. Unlike the conversion narratives of ‘Turk’ plays, at issue here is the fantasy that the Safavids were awaiting conversion to Anglo-Protestantism, and the play concludes by promising such a take-over through dynastic intermarriage. Attentive to the dramatic design of the play, Grogan shows however that ‘what the play actually depicts’ in terms of performed staged action, ‘is Englishmen acting like Persians’ (167). In this theatrical dis-articulation of the ‘likeness’ between the English and Persians, Grogan reveals The Travailes offering a last-ditch effort to stage, literally, the complex and ambiguous fantasies of Cyrus’ ancient Persian empire as a model worthy of emulation by the English.

[10] If, by the time the Sherleys were in the news, the relevance of Persia as an attractive imperial model was proving rather hard to sustain, the ‘uncertainty of tone, genre, ethos, purpose and perspective’ (172) of Anthony’s Relation fall into place. A ‘hodge-podge of genres’ that ‘oscillates between travel and news’ (174, 175), Anthony’s praises of Shah ‘Abbas failed to convince Samuel Purchas any more than his advocacy of developing Anglo-Iranian trade persuaded investors. Anthony himself, it seems, was unable to provide a coherent rationale for continuing to think of Persia – ancient or modern – as a model for actually existing imperial ideals and practices. The burst of publications concerning the Sherleys, however, put Safavid Iran on the literary agenda, not so much as an imperial model but more as a culturally interesting commercial region with a fascinating past.

[11] The Persian Empire in English Renaissance Writing, 1549-1622 is a learned study that convincingly establishes the importance of ancient Persia for English writers in those dynamic decades when ideas about empires were taking on an imaginative and aspirational urgency, and making deals with eastern empires was enriching London’s merchants. Demonstrating a commanding purchase over early-modern writing about ancient Persia and Safavid Iran (including classical sources and relevant contexts) as well as recent scholarship and debates, Grogan writes with admirable clarity, confidently enlivened by witty outbursts. Packed with historical insights and illuminating asides, this book is a pleasure to read and learn from, and should prove a new touchstone for all scholars of the period.

University of Exeter, November 2015

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