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Sophy and the Persian prince
Shakespeare and Persia

October 22, 2002
The Iranian

Persia has always been a rich source of inspiration for poets and writers of different periods in history. From the late sixteenth-century, oral transmission of stories and the publication of travel books on the Orient enabled dramatists such as Shakespeare to make references to the court of the Grand Sophy in Persia.

At the beginning of the seventeenth-century the adventures of the Sherley brothers and the publication of Sir Anthony Sherley's Relations of Travels into Persia (1613) and Thomas Herbert's A Relation of Some Years Travaile (1634) inspired several plays, including Sir John Denham's The Sophy (1642), Robert Baron's Mirza, A Tragedy (1647), William Cartwright's The Royall Slave (1639). The lives of the Sherleys were also dramatised, as in Nixon's The Three English Brothers... (1607) and John Day's The Travailes of the three English Brothers (1607).

One can find several allusions to Persia in the work of the renowned English poet and dramatist, William Shakespeare (1564-1616). Shakespeare probably became acquainted with Persia through the accounts of travellers such as Ralph Fitch (Account of the Voyage of Ralph Fitch, Merchant of London) and he had probably read or heard about the journal, "The long, dangerous, and memorable voyage of M. Ralph Fitch ...," in Richard Hakluyt's The Principal Navigations Voyages Traffiques & Discoveries of the English Nation (1589-1590).

There are also echoes of the British merchant, Anthony Jenkinson's account of his visit to Kazvin (Qazvin) and to Shah Tahmasp's court which might have attracted the attention of Shakespeare and made him write about the Persian outfit. (Jenkinson had a meeting with Shah Tahmasp, and presented him with gifts, but upon finding that Jenkinson was a European and a Christian, the Shah was not interested in further contacts.

Jenkinson's timing was also unlucky in this respect. The Shah had just signed a treaty of friendship with the Turks, who regarded almost all Europeans as enemies. Still, on request of his son, who warned him that doing evil unto strangers coming to his country might scare away other visitors, the Shah eventually let Jenkinson go without doing him any harm, and even sent him a rich garment.)

In his A Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare alludes to Persia when the Second Merchant (Angelo's creditor), demanding the repayment of his money, says to Angelo: "I am bound for Persia, and want guilders for my voyage." (IV. i).

In King Lear, Lear says to Edgar:

You, sir, I entertain for one of my hundred;

only I do not like the fashion of your garment;

you will say they are Persian attire, but let

them be changed. (III. vi).

The accounts of the travels of Robert Sherley, and other travellers, interested European kings greatly and sometimes prompted them to wear Persian costumes on special occasions. In one occasion, Louis XIV, and Charles II went so far as to compete with one another in richness of costume, as recorded by diarists as Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn.

In Merchant of Venice, the Prince of Morocco, addressing Portia, says:

I pray thee, lead me to the caskets

To try my fortune. By this scimitar,

That slew the Sophy and the Persian prince,

That won three fields for Sultan Solyman,

I would o'erstars the sternest eyes that look. (II. i.)

Here Shakespeare probably refers to Jenkinson's account of his travels to Persia but has got the facts wrong. No Sophy / Shah or a prince was slain in the wars between Persia and Turkey in the sixteenth-century, only Shah Ismail was badly wounded and escaped capture in the battle of Chaldiran in 1514.

In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare, once more alludes to Sophy. He probably refers to the pension which Shah Abbas had granted to the British mercenaries, Anthony and Robert Sherley. Sir Anthony was in Persia from Dec 1, 1599 to May 1600. He was given 5,000 horses to train the Persian army according to the rules and customs of the English militia. He was also commanded to reform and retrain the artillery. When he left Persia, he left his brother, Robert Sherley, behind with 14 Englishmen who lived in Persia for years.

In 1609 Robert Sherley was employed, as his brother had been, by the Persian monarch, as ambassador to several princes of Christendom, for the purpose of uniting them in a confederacy against the Turks. He first went into Poland, where he was honorably entertained by Sigismond the Third. In June of this same year he was in Germany, and received from the Emperor Rudolph II the title of Earl.

From Germany Sir Robert went to Florence and from there to Rome. He next visited Milan, and then proceeded to Genoa, from where he embarked to Spain, arriving in Barcelona in December 1609. He sent for his Persian wife and they remained in Spain, principally at Madrid until the summer of 1611. With the aid of these British mercenaries Shah Abbas developed the use of artillery and succesfuly regained much of the Persian land that had been taken by the Ottomans.

In Twelfth Night, Fabian addresses Sir Toby saying,

I will not give my part of this sport

for a pension of thousands to be paid from

the Sophy. (II. v.)

In another instance, when Sir Toby is praising a knight's bravery and skill, he says to Viola: "They say he has been fencer to the Sophy." (III. Iv.)

In King Henry VI, When Charles praises Joan of Arc's endeavors to save France, he alludes to the coffer of Darius:

In memory of her, when she is dead,

Her sashes, in an urn more precious

Than the rich jewelled coffer of Darius

Transported shall be at high festivals

Before the kings and queens of France. (I. Vi.)

In another instance in the same play, Countess of Auvergne says,

The plot is laid; if all things fall

Out right,

I shall as famous be by this exploit

As Soythian Tomyris by Cyrus' death. (II. ii.)

This comes from the belief that Cyrus was killed in 529 B.C. in a war against Tomyris, the Queen of Scythians. Herodotus believed that Cyrus had asked Tomyris to marry him but she rejected his offer which made him attack her country and defeat her forces as a result of which he was killed. This, we know, is not accurate because Cyrus was actually killed in a battle with a tribe called Dahae.

In King Henry IV, in order to show the serious intentions of Falstaff in pursuing his aims, Shakespeare alludes to King Cambyses and writes:

Give me a cup of sack to make my eyes

look red, that it may be thought I

have wept; for I must speak in passion,

and I will do it in King Cambyses' vein. (II. iv.)

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By Sami Gorgan Roodi



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