This book, The Generall Historie of the Turkes (1603), is a study of Turkish civilization written by an English writer. It gives dramatic details of the Battle of Lepanto (1571), the largest ever sea battle in the Mediterranean, in which Christian forces under the command of Don John regained control of Cyprus from the Turks.
These descriptions seem to have influenced Shakespeare when he set parts of Othello in war-torn Cyprus, giving the play a strong political resonance for its first audiences. They would probably have been keenly aware of the notorious Battle of Lepanto since their King, James I and VI, had written an epic poem in 1585, celebrating the Christian victory. The poem was republished in 1603 when James came to the English throne, and when Othello was probably written. In that same year, Richard Knolles dedicated this Generall Historie to King James, knowing of his interest in the subject.
Who was Richard Knolles?
Richard Knolles (1540s–1610) was an Oxford-educated historian and translator. He may have taken on the subject of the Ottoman empire because it corresponded with the interests of his patron, Sir Peter Manwood. But there was certainly a more general interest in the subject because of the growth of commercial and diplomatic relations between Europe and the Ottoman state. In 1581, Queen Elizabeth had granted the Levant Company, also known as the Turkey Company, the sole right to trade with the Ottoman empire. In 1592 a new charter increased the number of traders and gave it the right to trading with Venice: the site of the action for Act 1 of Othello.
Knolles’ Generall Historie was the first English book on the subject. It brought together a range of historical texts from different languages and cultures, with travellers’ reports and letters, into a narrative history which demonized the Ottoman empire as barbaric and cruel, while admiring its military success and bureaucratic structure. The skill of the book’s construction was respected from the time of its publication to the 19th century; Lord Byron was among its admirers.
In 1610, a second edition appeared which continued the history to 1609 and added a 15-page analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the state.
Which parts of the text are highlighted here?
The success of the Ottoman empire (sig. A4r–A5r)
Here Knolles accounts for the success of the Ottoman empire in expanding its territory. He sees this as a product of discord among Christians and neglect by Christian ‘Princes’, for whom the ‘Turke’ is lying in wait ‘like a greedie lyon’. This description not only dehumanizes the Turkish forces, allowing them to be made the ‘other’, but associates them with the animal to which the first Christians were famously thrown by the Romans.
Engraving of ‘Selymus Secundus’ (p. 826)
‘Selymus Secundus’ – the Latin name for the Ottoman Sultan Selim II (r. 1566–1574) – was the son of Süleyman I the Magnificent (r. 1520–1566). Selim was known as ‘the sot’ in the West because, the story goes, he captured the Island of Cyprus because he enjoyed its wine. In Knolles’ opening poem, he describes Selim as, unlike his father, ‘wholy given to venerie, unto excesse and play’.
The Battle of Lepanto (pp. 883–85)
This section describes the battle fought in 1571 between the Ottoman Turks and the Holy League of Venice, the Habsburg dominions, Malta, Genoa, and other Italian states led by the Pope.
It was a right horrible spectacle to see, how in the battell the sea stained with blood, and couered with dead bodies, weapons, and the fragments of the broken gallies : besides the great number of them that were slaine, and beaten into the sea; many of the Turks blinded with feare, casting away their weapons , to escape the furie of the enemy threw themselues headlong into the sea […] (p. 883)
Given that Othello was a mercenary who had fought on behalf of the Venetian state against the Turks, this gives a sense of the kind of stories he would be able to tell. Though there were respectively 275 and 210 ships on each side, the Christian forces prevailed. Knolles describes the celebrations reaching England (p. 885), so we can assume the events would have been known in Shakespeare’s London. Turkish domination nevertheless continued in the Mediterranean.