On 7 January 1669, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary that he and his wife had seen ‘a pretty good play’ at the king’s playhouse, with ‘many good things being in it – and a good scene of a town on fire’. The ‘town on fire’ – a pyrotechnical display involving the controlled detonation of low-grade gunpowder or squibs – must have had a particular force for an audience still recovering from the Great Fire in September 1666. But the burning town wasn’t London. The play was John Fletcher’s The Island Princess, a tragicomedy written half a century earlier, and set on the islands of Ternate and Tidore in what is now Indonesia. The opening stage direction, however, states: ‘The Scene India’.
The Island Princess is the only surviving pre-Restoration English drama to be set in what was then known as ‘India’, a catch-all term spanning the vast area from the Subcontinent to the Spice Islands. The plot is straightforward. Armusia, a dashing Portuguese venturer, woos Quisara, the princess of Tidore. She entertains numerous other suitors, including the evil governor of the neighbouring island of Ternate, as well as her initial favourite, the indecisive Portuguese aristocrat Rui Dias. Armusia wins Quisara’s affections by freeing her brother, the king of Tidore, from the prison in which the governor of Ternate has cruelly confined him. Armusia and his men’s scheme to liberate the king gives rise to the scene that arrested Pepys: cramming a cellar next to the prison with gunpowder, they blow it up and set fire to the town, allowing the king to escape. Despite her growing love for him, Quisara tells Armusia that she will marry him only if he converts to her religion. He angrily refuses. The governor of Ternate, infiltrating Tidore disguised as a ‘Moor priest’, persuades the king to arrest Armusia for heresy; but when the Portuguese threaten another explosion, he is released, and Quisara – impressed by his ‘constancy’ – yields to him in both marriage and religion, converting to Christianity.
The play was immensely popular for more than a century after its first recorded performance in 1621. But after falling out of the repertory in the mid-18th century, it languished in critical and theatrical oblivion for more than 250 years. Since 9/11, however, there has been a resurgence of interest in it. Clare McManus’s edition is to a large extent organised around what she sees as the play’s ‘striking topicality in the post-9/11 moment’. The cover image seems designed to illustrate her point. Over an eerie, sepia-tinted image of a beautiful tropical scene – a river flanked by palm trees – we can make out the spectral form of a burqa-clad woman, her hands cupped in dua or prayer. The sepia tint either places the tropical scene in a distant past or suggests the haze of a conflagration just out of frame: perhaps it’s the burning town. It also recalls the pictures of Ground Zero taken as dust and debris fell from the burning towers. The ‘tropical’ thus blurs into the ‘topical’ – the eponymous island princess, the illustration tells us, is a devout Muslim.
McManus works hard to ground the play’s native characters in Islamic culture. When the governor of Ternate arrives in Tidore disguised ‘like a Moor priest’, she glosses the phrase as ‘an imam, a Muslim priest’, and she calls the island princess herself, Quisara, ‘a fully sexualised Muslim woman’. These glosses merge Fletcher’s 17th-century characters with what readers might understand Muslims to be now. Of course, this is what glosses are meant to do: translate unfamiliar terms into familiar words and concepts. Yet much can get lost in translation, especially when we dissolve the messy plurality of complex early modern representations, with all their unassimilable detritus, into the singularity of supposedly self-evident identities. If we think of The Island Princess’s ‘Moor priest’ as an ‘imam’, we might all too easily finesse the fact – noted by McManus – that he makes pantheistic references to ‘the gods’ and is addressed as ‘Don Governor’, a Spanish Catholic title. There is little in the text that identifies Quisara as ‘Muslim’: there is, for example, no indication that she is veiled. And when she asks Armusia to convert to her religion, she – like the governor – invokes her ‘gods’ in the plural.
Most early modern English playwrights knew little about Islam, but despite this they sometimes made references to particular aspects of Islamic faith or practice. The anonymous Selimus, Emperor of the Turks (c.1593) refers to the ‘holy rites of Mahomet,/His wondrous tomb and sacred Alcoran’. In Marlowe’s 1588 play Tamburlaine ends by railing against Mahomet and burning the Alcoran – for which, miraculously, he is struck down with a deadly illness. The Travels of the Three English Brothers (1607) by John Day, William Rowley and George Wilkins demonstrates some awareness of the doctrinal differences between the Sunni Islam of the Ottoman Turks and the Shia Islam of the Persians, stating that the Shia venerate ‘Mortus Ali’ (Ali ibn Abi Talib, the nephew of Muhammad). Philip Massinger’s The Renegado (1624), set in Tunis, presents Muhammad’s prophecies as a fraudulent trick involving a trained pigeon that whispered ‘in his ear’. The Admiral’s Men, the company of the impresario Philip Henslowe, listed among its stage properties ‘an old Mohammed’s head’ which was probably used in the temple scene of Robert Greene’s comedy Alphonsus, King of Aragon (1590) and the conversion scene in Robert Daborne’s A Christian Turned Turk (1612), a play dramatising the life of the renegade English pirate John Ward.
The difference between these plays and The Island Princess – and it’s a considerable one – is that they make some attempt to represent specific aspects of Islam, no matter how maliciously or erroneously. There is no such effort in The Island Princess. The closest it comes is a single reference to the islanders’ ‘maumet gods’. Maumet, meaning a ‘puppet’ or ‘effigy’, was derived from a 15th-century contraction of ‘Mohammed’. But the reference to ‘maumet gods’ is of a piece with standard Protestant invective against idolatry. After the Reformation, ‘maumet’ began to be used as a derogatory epithet for Catholic idols: Thomas Becon, for example, complains of ‘antichristian monsters’ who teach people ‘to run a Pilgrimage to this and that Idol, to paint this tabernacle, and to gild that maumet’. The Island Princess’s ‘maumet gods’ would have registered as an anti-Catholic jibe as much as an anti-Islamic one. McManus digs around in the play for other possible anti-Muslim insinuations (‘Hound’ as a version of ‘Mahound’, ‘hog’s pox’ as a religious slur), but finds at best only oblique references.
One of the most productive developments in early modern studies over the past decade has been the emergence of a body of scholarship which takes seriously England’s imaginary as well as actual encounters with Islam. Six or seven recent studies have shown that English writing of the time, especially drama, was fascinated by Mediterranean Islamic characters and settings. It is tempting to read The Island Princess in the light of this fascination, but we need a more nuanced account of religious conflict in the play, and what occasions it. We might start by thinking more carefully about the play’s opening stage direction, ‘The Scene India’, and its hint that Fletcher may have been fascinated not by Islam so much as a highly theatricalised notion of India.
For early modern Europeans, India was less a nation or even a vast swathe of territory than an idea. It was a cornucopia of riches – ‘th’Indias of spice and mine’, as John Donne put it – waiting to be exported to Europe. It was also a temperature. No matter how diverse its ethnicities, languages and religions, the people in India – as well as its animals, vegetables and minerals – were supposedly united by their exposure to heat. This made for unhealthy, overheated bodies. As the Portuguese priest Sebastien Manrique observed in 1640, to be in India was to be ‘heated by ague or by the heat which the titanic and glowing Planet causes’. This disabling heat was understood by Europeans to be more than just a function of the climate. It was also a property of India’s spicy foodstuffs. The Italian traveller Pietro Della Valle, for example, speaks of meeting four of his countrymen in Goa who had fallen sick through the combination of ‘hot air’ and ‘hot food’.
One of the abiding fears of travelling to India was that one’s body would be transformed by these hot elements. Edmund Scott’s An Exact Discourse of the … East Indians (1606) is an early exercise in ethnography written for the then fledgling East India Company. But as well as describing ‘Java Major, with the manners and fashions of the people’, Scott writes copiously about the illnesses of the small English merchant community at Bantam in Java, where he lived for two years. From March until August 1603, an epidemic of what Scott calls ‘looseness of the body’ laid them low, killing several and disabling the rest. Scott attributes the sickness to bad diet and bad water, but also to exposure to heat – both the torrid heat of the Javanese climate and the heat of the chief commodity exported by the English, pepper, whose fumes permeated their bodies.
Scott’s explanation for the transformation of English bodies is largely medical. But in England, this transformative power was also understood in theatrical terms. In his bizarre treatise The Unloveliness of Lovelocks (1628), an extended jeremiad against the fashion for men to wear their hair long, the radical Protestant William Prynne bemoaned what we might now think of as the effects of globalisation: Englishmen had degenerated from their God-given forms, he believed, because they had taken to emulating the bodies of ‘Indians’. The term was a shifting target for Prynne, who denounced the sinful hair of both the ‘Indian Brahmins’ and the ‘Indian Japonites’. As these instances suggest, ‘Indian’ was Prynne’s shorthand for any ‘idolator’ who violated the natural order. Prynne is mostly known now as the author of an almost unbearably long screed against the theatre, Histriomastix, whose arguments against boy actors playing women or poor men playing kings are almost identical to those he marshals against Englishmen who have turned Indian. Like an actor, a man with long ‘Indian’ hair is an instance of fraudulent representation: both theatre and lovelocks deform bodies from their God-given shapes, driven not by their creator’s will but by their own overheated, singular passions.
A fear of bodily transformation – whether by growing Indian hair, or inhaling Indian pepper – is the dark side of England’s early attempts to profit from trade in Indian commodities. It is what most closely connects an anti-theatricalist like Prynne and a travel writer like Scott. The two share a heightened anxiety about contagious touch. Indian objects that come into contact with the body don’t simply adorn it; they can also, through a perverse agency, pathologically transform it. The fear is pervasive in anti-theatricalist writing of the time. Although fuelled in large part by the Protestant aversion to fraudulent images – an aversion grounded in the equation of Catholic ritual with histrionic imposture – the anti-theatricalists’ iconoclasm shaded into a fear of bodily contamination. In his Treatise against Dicing, Dancing, Plays and Interludes (1577), John Northbrooke denounced theatre as ‘contagiousness’, and prayed that ‘vice shall not enter our hearts and breasts, lest the custom of pleasure touch us.’ This pleasurable vice, as Prynne made clear, was increasingly associated with fashionable commodities from India, many of which – silks, gemstones and even long hair – were on display in early modern playhouses.
Scott’s medical and Prynne’s anti-theatrical notions of contamination collide in the diary of Sir Thomas Roe, the East India Company’s ambassador to the Mughal court between 1615 and 1619. Granted an audience with the Emperor Jahangir’s son Pervez in late 1615, Roe complained that Pervez’s court ‘was like a great stage, and the Prince sat above as the Mock Kings do there’. He felt a similar surge of anti-theatrical bile when he received a gift from Jahangir’s favourite son, Prince Khurram, later the emperor Shah Jahan:
By and by came out a Cloth of gold Cloak of his own, once or twice worn, which he Caused to be put on my back, and I made a reverence very unwillingly. When his Ancestor Tamburlaine was represented at the Theatre the Garment would well have become the Actor; but it is here reputed the highest of favour to give a garment worn by the Prince, or, being New, once laid on his shoulder.
Roe here describes – and misrecognises – the Islamic tradition of khil’at, the gift of clothes as tokens of imperial favour. The ritual performed an important political function by producing bonds of cross-cultural reciprocity, but he understands it only as the theatrical performance of a ‘Mock King’. His reference to Tamburlaine – Khurram’s historical ancestor and Marlowe’s stage character – works in Prynne-like fashion both to theatricalise the Mughals and make them potential agents of unwanted bodily transformation. Roe thinks Khurram’s gold cloak is a gaudy garment more suited to a playhouse than an imperial court; as such, it is particularly dangerous for an English ambassador who saw his clothes not as theatrical costumes but as irrevocable signs of his God-given national identity.
Roe couldn’t escape the contagion of the Indian heat. Quite possibly because he insisted on wearing heavy English taffeta in the hot Ajmer sun – close to 50ºC at the height of summer – Roe spent most of his four years in India flat on his back, suffering, like Scott in Java, from ‘looseness of the body’: ‘Since my arrival in this Country,’ he wrote, ‘I have had but one Month of health, and that mingled with many relapses, and am now your poor servant, scarce a Crow’s dinner.’ For Roe, ‘The Scene India’ had pathological consequences that the anti-theatricalists would have recognised. Fletcher did too.
How might the heated words of Scott, Prynne and Roe make us read The Island Princess differently? For one, they might help us realise that ‘The Scene India’ suggests a world in which the contagious powers of the playhouse and of ‘India’ overlap. It’s not just that the governor’s priestly disguise and the religion Quisara offers Armusia are both ‘false’. More important, Fletcher’s ‘India’ transforms the bodies of the Europeans exposed to it. Most affected is Rui Dias, the Portuguese aristocrat who is Armusia’s rival for Quisara. His nephew Pinheiro says of him, ‘My uncle looks as though he were sick o’th’worms … [he] whistles, starts, cries and groans as if he had the bots’ – a reference to both tropical parasitical infestation and, via a double entendre on ‘worms’, to Rui Dias’s debilitating love-sickness. His body is transformed by love, but his symptoms are those of someone affected by heat – the heat of the climate as much as desire.
Rui Dias’s transformed condition is one the other Portuguese travellers ardently wish to avoid. As one of them says, the Portuguese will prevail only ‘if we be ourselves, honest and resolute,/And continue but masters of our ancient courages’ – that is, if they refuse transformation. Armusia stubbornly seeks to retain his European identity as if he were a Portuguese Thomas Roe. But like Roe on his sickbed, Armusia finds that the Indian heat gets to him. The play is full of subtle references to syphilis, a disease that was understood to ‘burn’ its victims by overheating their blood. In The Island Princess, this burning is easily attributed to exotic heat. Armusia’s attraction to Quisara induces in him a scalding fever of lust. But when she insists that he convert to her religion, he repudiates her demand as if it too were a venereal contagion: ‘Love ye this way,’ he responds, ‘This most destroying way? … I’ll love diseases first.’ Armusia speaks both as an anti-theatricalist objecting to the transformation of his God-given shape and as a traveller fearful of contamination by foreign bodies.
Burning down the town – a pleasure that evidently communicated itself to Pepys – might thus seem a way of coping with this fear of transformation in and by a foreign climate. Incinerating the town turns the Europeans into the masters, rather than the victims, of ‘The Scene India’ and its alien heat. This burning is enmeshed, moreover, in an anti-theatrical fantasy. In The Tempest, Prospero fantasises the destruction of the ‘great globe itself’ – a reference simultaneously to the world and to Shakespeare’s playhouse – as a fitting end to his dark arts-assisted theatrics. In 1613 the Globe Theatre burned down during a performance of Shakespeare’s last play, Henry VIII, on which he collaborated with Fletcher. The fire scene in The Island Princess may well have been shaped by Fletcher’s memory of the Globe’s destruction, which he converts into a scene of European triumph.
Later in the play Armusia fantasises about torching the island’s temples:
Let it but spit fire finely
And play their turrets and their painted palaces
A frisking round or two, that they may trip it
And caper in the air.
This vision of ‘capering in the air’ imagines the embers of the flaming Indian temples as if they were theatrical performers. Both are frauds that must be destroyed. Yet even if setting fire to ‘The Scene India’ guards against its triple threat of climatic, religious and theatrical contagion, in performance The Island Princess’s burning town couldn’t help but produce the effect it sought to exorcise. The gunpowder used to burn the town evidently smelled strongly, as one character complains, and would have infiltrated playgoers’ bodies – just the kind of contamination the anti-theatricalists abhorred. Yet, as Pepys’s delighted response suggests, such contamination is not only unavoidable, but integral to the pleasures afforded by theatre and travel alike.
This is why, in the end, The Island Princess recalls another play of the Orient, Antony and Cleopatra, more than the early English plays in which Islam is explicitly represented. Shakespeare’s tragedy is also about transformed bodies – especially Antony’s – in a highly theatrical culture and a hot climate. Both plays are less concerned with a supposedly timeless stand-off between civilisations and more with a specific problem posed by globalisation: in a world where everything moves across borders, bodies cannot, in Antony’s words, keep their ‘visible shape’. This might horrify Prynne or Roe, but for an actor, such transformation is an opportunity. All the world becomes a stage – a ‘Scene India’.