Early Modern History, England, Portugal, Propaganda, Spain, Theatre

Portuguese and Spanish history on the early modern stage: ‘The Battle of Alcazar’ (Part 2)

A detail from the only known representation of  the Battle of Alcazar, which accompanies Miguel Leitão de Andrade's eyewitness account in his Miscelânea (1629). It depicts the outnumbered Portuguese army, surrounded by Islamic forces.
A detail from the only known representation of  the Battle of Alcazar, which accompanies Miguel Leitão de Andrade’s eyewitness account in his Miscelânea (1629). It depicts the outnumbered Portuguese army, surrounded by Islamic forces.

Part 2

My earlier post (26/06/15) examined the historical context and content of George Peele’s play, The Battle of Alcazar.  In this post I will explore these Anglo-Muslim and Anglo-Portuguese alliances further, in terms of how they were presented on stage and to what purpose. [Part 3 will consider the reasons why English audiences became so fascinated by the fate of the Portuguese king (and with the demise of Thomas Stukeley).]

Staging Anglo-Muslim Relations and the Portuguese Alliance

In The Sultan Speaks: Dialogue in English Plays and Histories about the Ottoman Turks (2006), Linda McJannet notes how favourably the Ottoman Sultan described. He is ‘invoked as a great and just ruler; his name echoes no fewer than eleven times in the first scene alone, always accompanied by positive epithets (“Great” and “good” and “happy”). [Linda McJannet, The Sultan Speaks: Dialogue in English Plays and Histories about the Ottoman Turks (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), p. 84.]

Although he is not Christian, the play legitimises the Sultan’s right to rule by presenting him as ‘a virtuous counterbalance’ (McJannet, 2006, p. 84) to the evils of Catholicism and, more specifically, Catholic Spain. The Portuguese, like Abdelmelec, are presented favourably, as good, true men, supporting an individual’s legitimate claim for the Moroccan throne. Friends with one another, they are also the natural allies and trade partners of honest Englishmen.

Written at a crucial juncture in the history of Anglo-Spanish relations (around the time of the first Armada), Peele ‘remodels the conflict as pivotally epoch defining in order to question the validity – and very nature – of crusade in the wake of the relativity triggered by the magnifying consequences of the Reformation.’ [Matthew Dimmock, New Turkes: Dramatizing Islam and the Ottomans in Early Modern England (Aldershot: Ashagte, 2005), pp.17-18.] The action is positioned – and staged – at a key moment in Anglo-Ottoman relations, one which, for the English, became crucial in their campaign to thwart ‘Spanish ambitions in northern Europe’ (Dimmock, 2005, p. 18.)

The play enables “a re-evaluation and legitimization of the place of the Ottomans in this contested European space and the development of a strategy of conflation that allows the realities of England’s shifting position to be represented”. [Dimmock, 2005, p.18.]

The Battle of Alcazar resulted not only in the death of three kings but also in a significant increase in Spanish power and England’s decision to provide ‘refuge’ to the rival claimant to the Portuguese throne, Don António. Certainly, the succession crisis brought about by Sebastian’s death reverberated across English politics and foreign policy. Lord Burghley hastily prepared a genealogical table of the kings of Portugal shortly after Sebastian was killed, and he even acquired a detailed map of the battle, which provides valuable insights into how the English viewed both the events and the ramifications of their outcome. Since the closest contender for the throne – Sebastian’s ‘great uncle’, Henry – was an old man and childless, it is perhaps not surprising that the English were keeping a close watch on how events would unfold, while remaining sympathetic to the Portuguese as they were thrown into dynastic crisis. Don Antonio’s presence in the capital did much to create sympathy among the English for their ally, as did the many pamphlets produced at the time. [See Dimmock, 2005, pp.115-116.]

Pamphlet literature and drama came together to persuade audiences to support Portugal and repulse any opportunity to increase Spanish dominions. W.W. Greg’s pioneering work on the surviving prompt book for Peele’s play reveals the techniques employed to ensure that the audience’s sympathy lay with the Portuguese. [W.W. Greg, Two Elizabethan Stage Abridgements: The Battle of Alcazar & Orlando Furioso: An Essay in Critical Bibliography (Oxford: Clarendon, 1923.) The play opens with a ‘presenter’, who is dressed in the fashion of ‘a Portingale’, rather than the more traditional garb of a ‘chorus’. (Greg, 1923, p.51.) He guides the audience through the Portuguese perspective on the events depicted in the play. Standing at the front of the stage, he also stands at the vanguard of English attempts to construct a stronger, anti-Spanish coalition.

Lord Burghley, inevitably, kept close watch on how events unfolded and where lines of allegiance were drawn. In 1578 he received an extensive list of ‘advices’ from one Roger Bodenham, in which he laid out the benefits of forming strategic alliances against Spain. A well-travelled voyager, familiar with the negotiating table, Bodenham offered to aid negotiations with the King of Barbary. Accepting the friendship of ‘pagans’ (see Dimmock, 2005, p. 115) Bodenham (like others) warned, was preferable to conceding yet more power to the Spanish.

“The King of Spain, fearing nothing so much as intelligence between England and Barbary, has drawn the present King of Barbary to a covenant with him against the Turks.”

Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Addenda, no. 133 [undated, 1578?], ‘A discourse of Mr. Bodenham touching the designs of the King of Spain against England, and how they might be prevented’; cited in Dimmock, 2005, p. 115.

The English recognised the importance of using Portugal to thwart any attempts by the Spanish to increase their dominions via the seaboard or to use its ports to facilitate attacks upon their enemies. In the event, Lisbon was, of course, the point of departure for the failed Armada of 1588. The King of Barbary, Abd-al-Malik, similarly ruled in a ‘buffer state’, one seeking to balance Hapsburg and Ottoman power, while protecting its own interests first. [Andrew C. Hess, The Forgotten Frontier: A History of the Sixteenth-Century Ibero-African Frontier (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1978), p. 96.]

The representation of the Moorish characters in The Battle of Alcazar inevitably has to deal with presenting some Moors as good, some a bad. The succession debacle between ‘the Negro Muly Hamet’ (I.Prol.7) and his uncle, the ‘brave Barbarian Lord, Muly Mullocco’ (I.Prol.12) (or ‘Abdelmelec’), uses both their physical descriptions in the prologue and discussion of their parentage to establish their character traits. Hamet, for example, is the ‘Blacke king’ and the son of a ‘bondswoman, that was a Blacke Negro’ – his ‘blackness’ is clearly emphasised to signify his spiritual state; this is in direct opposition to the good and spiritually superior Abdelmelec. Abdelmelec’s right to rule is paralleled with Sebastian’s rights – and those of England’s preferred candidate for the Portuguese throne after the young king’s death. The message is clear: if you oppose legitimate succession – or, more accurately, England and Portugal’s preferred candidates in contested successions – then you are the enemy of both states, both on and off the stage. How Thomas Stukeley fitted into this complex web of shifting national stereotypes on an international stage will be the topic of Part 3.

Further reading / viewing

Charles Edelman (ed.), The Stukeley Plays: ‘The Battle of Alcazar’ by George Peele and ‘The Famous History of the Life and Death of Captain Thomas Stukeley’ (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005)

Jesús M. Garcia and Cinta Zunino Garrido, ‘”As we are Englishmen, so are we Men:” Patterns of Otherness in George Peele’s The Battle of Alcazar’ in Jesús López-Peláez (ed.), Strangers in Early Modern English Texts (Berlin: Peter Lang, 2011), pp.75-108

W.W. Greg, Two Elizabethan Stage Abridgements: The Battle of Alcazar & Orlando Furioso: An Essay in Critical Bibliography (Oxford: Clarendon, 1923)

Eric Griffin, ‘”SPAIN IS PORTUGAL / AND PORTUGAL IS SPAIN”: Transnational Attraction in The Stukeley Plays and “The Spanish Tragedy”‘ in Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, 10:1 [2010], pp.96-116

Andrew C. Hess, The Forgotten Frontier: A History of the Sixteenth-Century Ibero-African Frontier (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1978)

Hammood Khalid Obaid, Topicality and Representation: Islam and Muslims in Two Renaissance Plays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), chapter 1

David Trim, ‘Early-Modern Colonial Warfare and the Campaign of Alcazarquivir, 1578’ in Small Wars and Insurgencies 8:1 (1997), pp.1-34

Full text:

http://elizabethandrama.tripod.com/battle_of_alcazar.htmhttp://purl.pt/14193

Spoken word (extract in English):

The King of Portugal Describes His State (From The Battle of Alcazar)

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