Scenes of Conversion: Piracy, Apostasy, and the Sultan’s Seraglio

  • Daniel Vitkus
Part of the Early Modern Cultural Studies book series (EMCSS)


Already we have seen in Shakespeare’s Othello and Marlowe’s Tamburlaine a pattern of conversion or transformation that can lead to tragedy (Othello’s case) or to worldly wealth and conquest (Tamburlaine’s). In both of these plays, religious affiliation is unstable, and both texts play upon and respond to English anxieties about violent cross-cultural encounters in the Mediterranean. In this chapter, I will trace this anxiety and the trope of conversion it produces in a group of five English plays set in the Mediterranean. Each of these texts represents a confrontation with religious difference, and each play highlights the conversion or potential conversion of Christians who encounter Islamic culture. The plays that I will analyze here use “turning” as a trope that refers to a variety of transformations, including the shifting of political, religious, sexual, and moral identities. In addition to staging figurative and sometimes overdetermined versions of conversion, these texts also represent religious turning in ways that refer specifically to Christian-Muslim relations in the Mediterranean. In Thomas Kyd’s The Tragedye of Soliman and Perseda (1592), Thomas Heywood’s The Fair Maid of the West, or A Girl Worth Gold, Part I (1602) and Part II (1630), Robert Daborne’s A Christian Turned Turk (1610), and Philip Massinger’s The Renegado (1624), religious conversion is dramatized in the multicultural Mediterranean context where characters of various faiths encounter one another in scenes of war, piracy, and commerce—on the high seas, in prison cells, in the public marketplace, on the field of battle, and in intimate, eroticized spaces.


Muslim Woman Religious Conversion Islamic Culture English Subject Christian Woman 
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© Daniel Vitkus 2003

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  • Daniel Vitkus

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