Volkswagen Fellowship Symposium: “Turkish Torture: Staging Atrocity and Fortitude in English Renaissance Drama”

Daniel Vitkus, San Diego:

The paper will focus on the representation of torture and execution in English Renaissance drama.  It will explore the ways in which political tyranny could be figured in the image of the Turk, and will show how the “cruel Turk” came to be an emblem of tyranny that could be associated with English tyrants.  When English rulers committed cruel acts of punishment and torture, those acts might be considered “Turkish” in their excess and brutality.  Those who suffered such punishments could be seen as martyrs and victims of tyranny.  At the same time, for many English and European writers, Islamic rulers like the Ottoman sultan were said to embody the most extreme forms of cruelty and political injustice.  Examples will be drawn from The Travels of the Three English Brothers (by Day, Rowley and Wilkins), Robert Greene’s Selimus, Emperor of the Turks, Shakespeare’s English history drama, and other plays.  The paper will argue that theatrical and visual representations of “Turkish” tyranny and atrocity exposed playgoers to a spectacle of revolt and punishment that in some ways may have radicalized playgoers, encouraging them to consider resistance to tyrannical power.  Thus, images of rebellion, torture and martyrdom could work to encourage rebellion against tyrants, even as English authorities attempted to discourage rebellion by disseminating visual and theatrical images of the violent punishment and painful torture suffered by rebels.  One step short of active rebellion is the posture of stoic fortitude, a kind of resistance to torture or death that will also be explored in the paper.

Daniel Vitkus earned his Master’s Degree in English Language and Literature at Oxford University (Hertford College) and his Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.  He currently holds the Rebeca Hickel Chair in Early Modern Literature at the University of California at San Diego. He is the author of Turning Turk: English Theater and the Multicultural Mediterranean, 1570-1630 and the editor of Three Turk Plays from Early Modern England and Piracy, Slavery, and Redemption: Barbary Captivity Narratives from Early Modern England.  Vitkus is also co-editor of The Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies.  He has published widely on Shakespeare, Renaissance literature, travel writing, Islamic culture and its representation in the West, on global theory, and on the origins of capitalism.



Monika Barget

Monika Barget studied history, history of art and theology in Augsburg (Germany) and Galway (Ireland). In 2013, she joined the international research group 'Early Modern Revolts' at Konstanz University as a doctoral student. Since October 2017, she has been project manager in the Letters 1916-1923 project at Maynooth University (Ireland). Her research interests include early modern constitutional history and political iconography.

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