Description: To illuminate the creative uses Shakespeare made of the East, Shakespeare, Persia, and the East first looks at the life of the playwright himself, then at the dynasties that did so much to shape England and Persia in that tumultuous age.
Author: Cyrus Ghani, is a lawyer and scholar specializing in Iranian studies. He is the author of Iran and the Rise of Reza Shah and Iran and the West: A Critical Bibliography. He was born in Iran and has lived in Tehran, Los Angeles, London, and New York City, where he now resides. Mage has published his books Iran and the West, Man of Many Worlds: The Diaries and Memoirs of Dr. Ghasem Ghani, and My Favorite Films.
The Sherleys were originally a Warwickshire family that moved to Wiston in Sussex. Their ancestor Hugh Sherley valiantly fought and died for England in 1403. Shakespeare mentions Hugh Sherley in Henry IV, Part I:
Prince Henry: Hold up thy head, vile Scot, or thou art like
Never to hold it up again! The spirits
Of valiant Sherley, Stafford, and Blount are in
Thomas Sherley (or Shirley), a man of means, was born circa 1542. He and his three sons – Thomas, Anthony, and Robert – lived in the England of Elizabeth I and James I. Unlike their ancestor, “They were gentlemen on the make; chicanery, larceny, adultery, heroism, and treachery figured in their story,” as related in several books.(2)
Anthony was restless and it was time to try something new. Sir Francis Drake had returned from one of his voyages with a large hold of Spanish “treasure.” Everyone was eager to make a fortune in a short time. Sir Anthony financed by his father had purchased or rented several ships and sailed in May 1596 hoping to raid Spanish vessels and seize their cargo. Nothing worthwhile was gained by these attempts. Anthony was dejected. Also the unhappy marriage to Essex’s cousin led Anthony to seek his fortunes in faraway lands.
The voyage to Persia was the brainchild of the Earl of Essex who probably financed most if not the entire venture. It appears that what Essex had in mind was to unite Shah Abbas with the Christian kings and princes of Europe to halt further advances of the
Ottoman Turks in Europe. The plan was for Shah Abbas to launch campaigns in Eastern Anatolia while European princes would move to capture Cypress, thus dividing the Turkish forces. Essex’s further objective was for Sherley to ascertain the strength of the Spanish and Portuguese in the Persian Gulf and the volume of their trade. Probably equally important to Essex was to explore commercial opportunities and establish trading links with the Persian court whose tale of riches had reached Europe. This was not the first attempt to engage Persia in Turco-European affairs. In 1592 some seven years before the arrival of the Sherleys, Pope Clement VIII had sent a proposal to Shah Abbas that he and the Christian princes of Europe should combine in a league against the Turks, but Shah Abbas was still occupied with the Uzbeks in the east and was not yet ready to face the enemy to the west.(3)
Sir Anthony and Robert departed England on New Year’s Day 1598. Robert was about seventeen at the time. At the beginning of his journey Anthony met a merchant in Venice, Angelo Corrai, who told great tales of Shah Abbas who was “bountiful and liberal to strangers.” Corrai offered that he would be glad to be his guide for the trip to Persia. Anthony now hoped for something more lucrative than a mere diplomatic victory for his patron, Essex. Anthony was already in debt for his previous ventures and he was hoping to be liberally compensated.
They started from Venice: Anthony, Robert, and Angelo Corrai, the volunteer guide and interpreter; Abel Pinçon, a Frenchman who had studied in England; two Englishmen, William Parry and George Manwaring; altogether a party of twenty-six or twenty-seven persons. They embarked at Malmoco, a small port near Venice, on 24 May 1598,(4) taking a boat across the Mediterranean headed for Tripoli and then to Aleppo. There was some hardship as they ran out of food. Anthony spent an unexpectedly large sum of money and “charged Lord Essex for his bills.”(5) After a few days of rest they traveled to Mesopotamia then east to Qazvin, which had been the Persian capital during the reign of Shah Tahmasp and had served as the base of operation in the wars with the Ottomans.
When the Sherleys arrived in Qazvin, Shah Abbas had not yet returned from his punitive expedition against the Uzbeks in Khorasan. When the shah arrived the guests were furnished with expensive garments and a magnificent banquet was held in Anthony’s honor. The shah invited the Sherleys and their companions to accompany him to Isfahan, the new capital. They were bestowed with substantial gifts. Shah Abbas issued a farman (court order) granting all Christian merchants in perpetuity the right to trade in all parts of the shah’s dominions and freedom to practice their religion.
Anthony stayed less than six months in Persia, from 1 December 1599 to early May 1600. In his accounts he exaggerates what he did for the shah’s army, which is mostly fabricated. The time available for any reforms to be effected by a man who never knew a word of Persian or the Turkish dialect of the Safavid court was negligible. Sir Anthony says he was given the cavalry to train and was also commanded to reform and retrain the shah’s artillery. It has been said that Anthony introduced canons to the shah’s army, but this cannot be true. Since he claimed to have had a commission to retrain the artillery, it must therefore have existed earlier. It is known that prior to Sherley’s arrival Uruq Beq (Don Juan of Persia) took part in the siege of Tabriz at which Iranians employed canons.(6)
It has been mentioned by several writers that the Sherleys also taught Persians the use of muskets, but this too is untrue, since Persian infantry carried firearms in Uruq Beq’s day.(7) George Manwaring who accompanied Anthony to Iran says, “Persians were very good in the use of muskets.”(8) Thomas Herbert confirms this.(9) There is no doubt that “Anthony was a rogue.”(10)
The Sherleys clearly neither trained nor equipped the Persian army; however, having decided to send an embassy to Europe, the shah selected Sir Anthony as his ambassador or at least as one of the ambassadors. Before leaving Persia on his mission, Sir Anthony corresponded with friends in England. In April he wrote to the Earl of Essex informing him that he was to receive a pension of 30,000 crowns per year from the shah.(11) Shakespeare appears to have closely followed the travels of the Sherleys. Twelfth Night has reference to the pension given by the shah.(12)
Uruq Beq became one of the secretaries sent by Shah Abbas to accompany Sir Anthony Sherley in 1599 to European capitals to secure alliances against the Turks. The first embassy was to Boris Godunov in Russia. After some six months in Moscow Anthony embarked from Archangel early in 1600 and sailed to Emden in the Netherlands then on to Prague. He had to take the circuitous route as the Ottomans controlled the customary route between Persia and Europe. William Parry had transferred at the coast of Holland to a passing ship going to England and delivered Sir Anthony’s letters to Sir Robert Cecil, King James VI of Scotland, and the Earl of Essex. In his letter to King James VI he took credit for having succeeded in separating the Shi’a Persians from the main body of Moslems, something Shah Isma’il had done some ninety years earlier. He also took credit for having persuaded Shah Abbas to unite with the Christians of Europe against the “great enemy of God,” the Sultan of Turkey.(13)
In October 1600 Anthony reached Prague where he was received by Emperor Rudolph II. The shah had sent too many people to Europe and each claimed to be the spokesman or ambassador. To the Safavids an ambassador was a person carrying messages from the shah; to the Europeans only one person could be the spokesman for the ruler. The Persians had accused Sherley, probably with some justification, of having sold or given away the gifts Shah Abbas intended for European princes. As disenchantment with Anthony grew most of the Persians accompanying him as secretaries left. Uruq Beq traveled to Spain and converted to Christianity.(14)
Financial troubles began to hound Anthony. In mid- 1603 he was arrested in Venice and imprisoned either as an insolvent debtor or for sedition. It is not clear what the exact charges were. He was subsequently released and after the accession of James I he was granted a “license” by the English government to “remain beyond the sea somewhat longer.”(15) In the spring of 1605 he was sent by Emperor Rudolph to Morocco to report on the state of that country. About the same time he was again granted the status of ambassador as the joint representative of James I and Philip IV of Spain. Anthony lived on a pension of 3,000 ducats a year from the king of Spain, most of which went to defray his debts. He remained in Madrid in a state of semi-poverty until his death circa 1635.
Anthony and Robert were dissimilar in character. Robert impressed people as a person of integrity. During his long years at the court of Shah Abbas, waiting for news of Anthony, Robert appears to have been useful. He helped in drilling and training new regiments. Later Shah Abbas appointed Robert as Master General and there is some evidence that he commanded a contingent of troops in battle against the Ottomans in 1604 and 1605. Later Robert served in some capacity as an overseer of customs. In February 1608 Robert married Sampsonia, the daughter of a Circassian chieftain. She was nineteen and he was some ten years older. She was baptized by the Carmelites and given the name Teresia.(16)
Anthony’s failure to return to Persia or to report on the progress of his mission could have imperiled Robert’s status in Isfahan and it says much for Shah Abbas’s fairness that he did not let Anthony’s behavior influence his esteem for Robert. After a temporary loss of favor, Robert was sent to Europe on a mission nearly ten years after Anthony’s departure. Robert’s mission was similar to that of his brother. Robert was also asked to find Anthony and report on whether Anthony had accomplished anything. Commentators differ as to the purpose for which Robert was sent abroad.
Robert caught up with his brother in Madrid in 1611 living in near poverty. After fruitless recriminations, Robert left Spain. He went to the Low Countries and took a ship to England. He went to Wiston to see his aged father. In London he had a brief audience with King James I. In the following month he had a formal audience and was received as the shah’s ambassador. Shortly thereafter Robert returned to Persia.
During Robert’s absence Shah Abbas had greatly improved the military position of Persia. Kandahar had been recovered from the Moghuls and a peace treaty had been signed with the Ottomans in 1611. Abbas had recovered the port of Gambaroun from the Portuguese on the mainland and renamed it Bandar Abbas. Robert persuaded the shah to return the Portuguese soldiers who had been taken prisoners at Gambaroun as a peace offering to the Portuguese who still held Hormuz. He set off again for Spain less than a year after his return. The new mission was basically the same as the previous one of 1609–11. Robert left Isfahan on 10 October with a Carmelite father.
The news of Robert’s arrival in Spain brought his brother from Granada. On leaving Spain Robert went to Florence and then Rome and was well received by the Duke of Tuscany and the pope. Robert again brought up the issue of a concerted offensive against Ottoman-held territories. As always no one wanted to make the first move. Robert then traveled east to Poland. In December 1623 some twenty months after leaving Spain he unexpectedly appeared in London with his wife.
King James died in March 1625 succeeded by Charles I. There is record of Robert having been received by the new monarch. In 1626 King Charles decided to send a gentleman of the court, Sir Dodmore Cotton, as ambassador to Persia. Cotton was also asked to determine the status of Robert and whether he truly represented the shah of Persia. The East India Company was instructed to transport both Cotton and Sherley to Persia. Cotton, Robert, and retinue reached Isfahan, but the shah was at Ashraf. After a long journey to the shores of the Caspian they reached Ashraf.(17) They received a cold welcome from the shah. Sir Dodmore put forward proposals for trade that Robert had previously raised in England on behalf of Persia. The shah declared that he had known Robert Sherley for many years and had granted him as many favors as he had to any Persian. Abbas had allied himself with the English to expel the Portuguese from Hormuz and break their power in the Persian Gulf. Although he had assiduously sought their help, he strove to avoid allowing them to get a firm commercial foothold in the country. The shah soon thereafter departed for Qazvin and the Englishmen followed. On the way both Dodmore Cotton and Robert suffered from severe dysentery. Robert died on 13 July 1628. Cotton died ten days after. Shah Abbas lamented Robert’s death.
The story of the Sherleys’ experiences embodies no inspiration. Neither the books by Anthony Sherley nor his companions touch on Persian, Ottoman, or English social history. Anthony and Robert were typical of a multitude of English and other European travelers to distant lands for commerce or adventure. The Sherleys’ travels, however, have been romanticized and exaggerated by succeeding generations of writers, including Iranians. It is undeniable that they played a large part in reintroducing the Elizabethans to Persia.
Shakespeare was interested in the travels of his countrymen. He dealt with or touched upon foreign trade and commerce in several of his plays.(18) He must have read some books and pamphlets on the travels of the Sherleys in particular. In the autumn of 1601 a little book by William Parry was published in London. Parry had accompanied Sir Anthony from the beginning of his journey. On his return to England he wrote his book that was the first on the travels of the Sherleys to Persia. It is “an account of Sir Anthony’s journey from England to Italy and then to Antioch, Aleppo down the Euphrates to Babylon, across the Tigris River into Persian territory to Qazvin, the former capital thence to Isfahan the new capital, the seat of Shah Abbas, the Sophy, then being appointed the special ambassador of the Sophy, he traveled by way of the Caspian Sea to Moscow then up to Archangel through the Baltic he returned to Italy.”(19)
G. B. Harrison, (20) a Shakespearean scholar of note, obliquely suggests that the book by Parry includes passages of sufficient similarity to a Hamlet soliloquy to indicate that Shakespeare possibly had read the book. Harrison says, “Parry had something to say of travel and the lofty conceptions it breeds.” …
Persian and Other Eastern References in Shakespeare’s Plays
Twelfth Night, or What You Will (1601–2)
The only play of Shakespeare with an alternate title. “Will” for Elizabethans was wish or inclination. Twelfth Night is the Feast of Epiphany, which is twelve days after Christmas, originally a major Christian feast commemorating the coming of the Magi to Bethlehem. Over the centuries, the pious feast turned into a hedonistic celebration. All attempts by the church to suppress this practice failed. In Shakespeare’s lifetime it continued to be a bawdy affair.
Twelfth Night takes place in Illyria, a country on the east coast of the Adriatic Sea. It is one of Shakespeare’s great plays and hosts more than the usual number of odd characters. There is Orsino, the sentimental Duke of Illyria who is in love with love. He marries Viola, who had been masquerading as a man, Cesario. There is Olivia, a wealthy beautiful countess who marries Sebastian, the twin brother of Viola, whom she has just encountered and has fallen in love with him at first sight. Sir Toby Belch, Olivia’s uncle, is drunk in every scene and sponges off the generosity of his niece. The wealthy Sir Andrew Aguecheek, probably the most stupid character in all of Shakespeare, lives in the castle as the guest of Sir Toby. Feste the Fool composes and sings some of the most beautiful songs in Shakespeare.
Finally there is the self-satisfied, narcissistic, humorless Malvolio, Olivia’s steward. Malvolio is a Puritan but also a social climber who wants to improve his status and marry his employer Olivia. He is easy prey for a prank Viola and Sir Toby devise. Shakespeare is especially hard on him. Sir Toby tells Malvolio, “Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?” (II, 3, 122–25). Shakespeare obviously dislikes religious fundamentalists.
Act I, Scene 2, Lines 62–63
Sea Captain (to Viola): Be you his eunuch, and your mute I’ll be,
When my tongue blabs, then let mine eyes not see.
Note: Both mutes and eunuchs were servants in the Turkish court and harem for obvious reasons.
Act II, Scene 3, Lines 75–79
Sir Toby Belch: My Lady’s a Cataian, we are politicians, Malvolio’s a Peg-a-Ramsey, and [sings] “Three merry men be we.” Am not I consanguineous? Am I not of her blood? Tilly-vally! Lady! [sings] “There dwells a man in Babylon, lady, lady.”
Note: Cataian, a native of Cathay (China), at that time had the meaning of one whose word cannot be trusted.
“There dwells a man in Babylon” is the first line of a popular ballad of the period.
Act II, Scene 3, Line 177
Sir Toby (to Maria): Good night, Penthesilea.
Note: Penthesilea was queen of the Amazons, mythical female warriors of Scythia. This is an allusion to Maria’s size. Scythians were an ancient nomadic people of southwestern Asia north of Persia. Their language was of Persian origin.
Act II, Scene 5, Lines 13–14
Sir Toby: …How now,
My metal of India?
Note: Indians used gold decoration extensively in their attire and furnishings.
Act II, Scene 5, Lines 80–81
Sir Toby: I will not give my part of this sport for a pension of thousands to be paid from the Sophy.
Note: This is a reference to Sir Anthony Sherley (or Shirley) who in 1599 returned to Europe from a visit to the shah of Persia (Shah Abbas I) boasting of gifts and a pension that he said the shah had given him. (See the section titled The Sherleys).
Act III, Scene 4, Lines 273–79
Sir Toby: …I had a pass with him, rapier, scabbard, and all…They say he has been fencer to the Sophy.
Note: Fencer is one who guards or defends by use of a sword. The Sophy is the Persian shah (see note on The Merchant of Venice II, 1, 24–28).
Act IV, Scene 2, Lines 42–44
Clown: Madman, thou errest. I say there is no darkness but ignorance, in which thou art more puzzled than the Egyptians in their fog.
Note: In Exodus 10:22 Moses brought a three-day fog on the Egyptians.
Act V, Scene 1, Lines 117–20
Duke: Why should I not, had I the heart to do it,
Like to th’ Egyptian thief at point of death,
Kill what I love? – a savage jealousy
That sometimes savors nobly…
Note: This comparison refers to an episode of the Ethiopica of Heliodorus in which Thyamis, an Egyptian robber captain, who when in great danger attempts to kill his mistress rather than let her fall into the hands of his enemies.
(1) Henry IV, Part I, V, 4, 39–43.
(2) Most notably D. W. Davies, Elizabethans Errant: The Strange Fortune of Sir Thomas Sherley and His Three Sons (United States, 1967), 1–9.
(3)Davies, Elizabethans Errant: The Strange Fortune of Sir Thomas Sherley and His Three Sons, 103–4.
(4) Ibid., 65–66.
(5) Ibid., 89.
(6) Savory, “The Sherley Myth”; and Uruch Beg (or Uruq Beq), Don Juan of Persia: A Shia Catholic, 1560–1640; translated by O. G. Le Strange (Great Britain, 1926). Translated from original Persian, first published in 1604 and republished in Great Britain, 1926. Uruq Beq was the son of a nobleman who was the commander of a regiment and had been killed in battle in 1585 at the Siege of Tabriz. Uruq Beq became the commander of the same regiment after his father’s death.
(7) Ibid., 110–11.
(8) George Manwaring in True Discourse on Sir Anthony’s Travels quoted by Sir E. Denison Ross in his Anthony Sherley and His Persian Adventures, 201.
(9) Thomas Herbert, Some Years Travels into Diverse Parts of Africa and Asia – Particularly the Empires of Persia and Hindustan (London, 1677).
(10) Savory, “The Sherley Myth.”
(11) Davies, Elizabethans Errant: The Strange Fortune of Sir Thomas Sherley and His Three Sons, 113–14.
(12) Twelfth Night, II, 5, 80–81.
(13) Davies, Elizabethans Errant: The Strange Fortune of Sir Thomas Sherley and His Three Sons,126–27.
(14) Uruq Beq, Don Juan of Persia. Some sources, including Uruq Beq himself, maintain that the king and queen of Spain selected the name Don Juan for him. Don Juan died without ever returning to Persia.
(15) Davies, Elizabethans Errant: The Strange Fortune of Sir Thomas Sherley and His Three Sons.
(16) Ibid., 226.
(17) Ibid., 274, based on India office documents; Public Record Office.
(18) The Comedy of Errors; Love’s Labour’s Lost; The Merchant of Venice; Othello; and TheTempest.
(19) William Parry, A New and Larger Discourse on the Travels of Sir Anthony Sherley (London, 1801).
(20) G. B. Harrison, Shakespeare under Elizabeth (New York, 1933).
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