Portrait of the Moorish Ambassador to Queen Elizabeth I


This imposing oil painting shows the Moroccan Ambassador who visited London in late 1600. Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun (seen here aged 42) was part of a delegation of 17 men sent by the King of Barbary, a huge expanse of North Africa which includes modern-day Morocco. The group came to negotiate with Queen Elizabeth I about the possibility of a military alliance, combining English and African forces to conquer Spain.

As a conspicuous party of high-profile Muslims (viewed at the time as ‘infidels’), they prompted some suspicion. At the same time, however, they allowed people to see the spectacle of respected noble Moors, who were well-treated by the English when it served their political ends.

Did the Moroccan Ambassador influence Shakespeare’s Othello?

The Africans stayed in England for six months, giving them the opportunity to attend the festivities that marked the anniversary of the Queen’s coronation in November 1600. They were even honoured with a specially-built viewing enclosure.

The group probably remained in England over Christmas, which has led some critics to speculate that they may have witnessed a performance by Shakespeare’s company of players – the Lord Chamberlain’s Men – as part of the season’s celebrations. If so, Shakespeare would have had the chance to see the impressive North African party. The Moroccan Ambassador might have influenced the playwright’s complex portrayal of Othello the noble Moor – who encounters deep prejudice as an outsider in Venice, but is highly valued for his military expertise when it serves Venetian interests.

The Prince of Morocco in The Merchant of Venice

Interestingly, some years before the ambassadorial visit, Shakespeare had already depicted a noble Prince of Morocco as a suitor to Portia in The Merchant of Venice (c. 1596–97). The Prince, described as ‘a tawny [or light-skinned] Moor’, enters with great dignity but fears the prejudice of the Venetians. He asks them not to dislike him ‘for [his] complexion (2.1.1)’. But when he fails the casket test, Portia expresses her relief in terms of his skin colour, ‘Let all of his complexion choose me so’ (2.7.79).

Full title:
Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun, Moorish Ambassador to Queen Elizabeth I (1600).
c. 1600
Painting / Image
© Morocco: Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun, Moorish Ambassador to Queen Elizabeth I (1600). / Pictures from History / Bridgeman Images
Held by
Shakespeare Institute in Stratford Upon Avon, part of the University of Birmingham
Bridgeman: PFH1166942

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