Turkish Mahomet and Hiren the Fair Greek, The
In Merrie Conceited Iests of George Peele Gentleman (1607), one jest is entitled "How George Read a Play-book to a Gentleman" (EEBO, D3v-D4). It recounts that the playwright entertained a dull-witted dandy at his lodgings of an evening with a reading of his latest play, which is named as The Turkish Mahamet and Hyrin the fair Greek. In the jest, Peele finishes the reading at a late hour. He therefore persuades the listener to bed down where he is. But when the man falls asleep, Peele dresses him in clothes of his own and slips away, leaving the hapless gentleman—now mistaken for Peele—to pay the four nobles owed on the rent of the room. luminarium.org
The date of the original run and the company owners are unknown. The link with Peele is the only clue about the debut of the play, and it is not much help. Peele's plays appear in the holdings of the Children of the Chapel (The Arraignment of Paris, Q1584), the Queen's men (Old Wives Tale, Q1595), and Admiral's men (The Battle of Alcazar, Q1594; Plot, 1598-1601?). The debuts of these plays, too, are uncertain.
However, if "The Turkish Mahomet and Hiren the Fair Greek" is the "Mahomet" in Henslowe's Diary introduced without "ne" on 14 August 1594, running through 5 February 1595, it can be located in 1594 with the Admiral's men (see Critical Commentary, below). On 22 August 1601, the Admiral's men bought the text of "Mahomet" from Edward Alleyn for 40s. At that time, they evidently mounted a revival based on purchases of a crown, apparel, and various other things. There is a property in Henslowe's Diary for "owld Mahemetes head," which scholarly tradition associates with the play of "Mahomet."
Heroical Romance (Harbage); Romantic tragedy
Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues
In The Palace of Pleasure (1566), William Painter appropriates the story of "Hyrenee the faier Greke" from Matteo Bandello's Novelle, Book I, #10. Painter prefaces the narration with this blurb: "Mahomet one of the Turkishe Emperours executeth curssed crueltie vpon a Greke maiden whom he toke prisoner, at the winning of Constantinople" (Story #40, EEBO, Project Gutenberg). Richard Knolles published The Generall History of the Turkes in 1603, too late to be literally a source for Peele, but the story is obviously not new with Knolles; some details of his telling might have been "in the air," so to speak, for Peele's use. William Barksted's poem, "Hiren: or, the Fair Greek," 1611, is even later, but Barksted's history as a player locates him in the theatrical community and thereby lends his account special interest in regard to the lost play (Project Gutenberg).
The basic narrative consists of the following episodes, summarized here from Painter, EEBO:
Mahomet acquires Hiren: During the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 in which Mahomet defeated Constantine, one of Mahomet's captains took prisoner a beautiful young Greek woman of sixteen or seventeen; the captain, "to gratifie his Lorde," presented this "Iewell" to Mahomet, who put her aside until the battle was concluded (107v). Then at leisure, Mahomet, who was "young and wanton beyonde measure," sent for her (f. 107v). He was soon so enamoured that he wanted only "to plaie and dallie with her, in suche sorte, that his spirities beyng in Loues full possession, Loue dealt with hym so cruellie, that he could take no rest daie nor night" (f. 108). This state of affairs continued for three years (f. 108).
Mustapha confronts Mahomet: After a time, the Janissaries, "a warlike people," complained among themselves about the neglect of the kingdom; they charged that Mahomet was behaving "like an effeminate persone" (f. 108). Yet they hesitated to confront him because they knew from his "nature terrible, cruell, and rigorous" that he would not hesitate to put to death whoever "went about to withdrawe him from his desire" (f. 108v). They knew Mahomet was "so dronke with the beautie of the Greeke" and "so bewitched" that their only remedy was to pledge allegiance to a more martial leader (f. 208v). Mustapha, who was brought up with Mahomet, and who was "a gentle personage franke of talke, and so nere to his maiestie, that he might goe into his chamber, although the Greke was present," assumed the task of addressing Mahomet (f. 208v). Mustapha, walking with Mahomet in his garden, laid out the argument that Mahomet should no longer "bee a spoile and praie to a simple woman" (f. 209). He spoke of the military unrest, and challenged Mahomet to honor the conquests of his predecessors by continuing as a warrior. He appealed to Mahomet's previously stated ambition "to make Italie tribatarie vnto [him], and to cause [him] selfe to be crouned at Rome, Emperour aswel of Thorient, as of the Occident" (f. 209v). Raising explicitly the issue of manhood, Mustapha challenged Mahomet to consider the result had any one of his predecessors been "idle in his pallaice, emonges the ladies" as Mahomet has been (f. 110). In his peroration, Mustapha summoned Mahomet to "gather [his] wits then together ..., call again Reason, ..., awake out of the deep slepe ... [and] follow the trade of [his] auncestors" who loved "one day of honour" over one hundred of "shame and reproch" (f. 110v). Mustapha offered one sop: if Mahomet could not "cutte of & remoue all that amourous heate" at once, he could moderate it "little by little," perhaps even taking Hiren on his military expeditions (f. 110v). He suggested that the pleasure would be all the greater to come to her from the heat of the battlefield.
Mahomet was moved by Mustapha's plea. Though the thought of leaving Hiren was "as though his harte had been torne out of his bellie" (f. 111v), he ordered Mustapha to assemble his officers and men of war in the great hall of his palace the next day. He then returned to Hiren, requesting that she dress herself after dinner in her finest clothes and "most precious Iewelles" (f. 111v). Painter adds: "the poore wench obeied, not knowyng that it was her funerall apparell" (f. 111v).
Mahomet resolves the conflict: On the next day, with "all the nobilitie … assembled in the hall" (f. 111v), Mahomet entered "leadying the Greke by the hande" (f. 111v). To the audience, she seemed more a "heauenlie Goddesse, then a humaine creature" (f. 112). Mahomet stood in the middle of the hall, still holding Hiren's hand, and invited the assembled crowd to speak their minds on whether they themselves might have acted as he did if they had had a reason such as Hiren. Entranced themselves with Hiren’s beauty, all agreed. Mahomet then said that, despite his obsession with Hiren, he would follow the martial path of his ancestors. "Those wordes finished, incontinently with one of his handes, he catched the Greke by the heare of the heade, and with his other hande, he drewe out his falchion from his side, and foldyng his handes aboute the golden lockes of her heare, at one blowe he strake of her hedde, to the great terrour of them all" (f. 112). He then declared, "Now ye knowe, whether your Emperor is able to represse, and bridle his affections, or not" f. 112-112v). Within a few days, his anger subsiding, he returned to the battlefield, laying siege to Belgrade, a fight that went poorly and he had to withdraw.
Richard Knolles, in The Generall Historie of the Turks (1603, tells essentially Painter's version except in a few details. Hiren is put in the care of Mahomet's eunuch (Chew points to a variant strain of the Hiren narrative that puts her in a seraglio, which is also the site of her murder ). Knolles embellishes the motif of Love vs. War; Mahomet's "fierce nature was now by her well tamed, and his wonted care of armes quiete neglected: Mars slept in Venus lap, and now the soldiors might go play" (350).
"Hiren: or, the Fair Greek (1611) by William Barksted is an epyllion of 114 stanzas rhyming ababacbc (Project Gutenberg). Heavily dependent upon Petrarchism, the sentiments and metaphors in the poem are flamboyant and familiar. The changes to the narrative are consistent with the teasing sexuality of Barksted’s literary formulas. See For What It's Worth for an example of descriptive details with theatrical potential.
Mahomet acquires Hiren: Mahomet himself discovers Hiren in the battle-ravaged city of Constantinople. She has taken refuge in an ancient chapel, along with others as yet unravished. She is kneeling by an altar, weeping, when he first sees her (st. 15). She resists capture for herself and the other women, but Mahomet claims her, assuring her that she will have her “owne free choice” in submitting to him (st. 17). There ensues a lengthy debate over Christianity vs. Islam, which he suspends to pursue the battle (sts. 19-22). He hands her to Mustapha for safe keeping. Extending imagery from the fall of Troy, Hiren tears “her golden haire,” Cassandra-like, when the eunuchs take her off to Mahomet’s tent (st. 24).
The argument over Hiren’s maidenhead: Constantinople having been taken, Mahomet turns his thoughts to Hiren. He is unable to sleep and sends for her. A lengthy debate develops as he woos and she defends her virtue (sts. 33-78). She yields (st. 79), and Mahomet devotes himself entirely to her (sts. 80-7).
Mustapha confronts Mahomet: Mustapha tells Mahomet that the gods are angry with him (st. 92); he calls Mahomet “the shadow of an Emperour” but otherwise wastes little breath enumerating the feats of Mahomet’s predecessors (st.93). Nonetheless, Mahomet is moved; he instructs Mustapha to summon the nobles and warlords to “a royall dinner” (st. 98).
Mahomet resolves the conflict: Barksted changes the ending in several interesting ways. Having struck off Hiren’s head with his scimitar, Mahomet holds the head aloft. Blood pours out, tears fall across the face, and the head appears to reproach Mahomet in a four-line speech (st. 108). There are echoes of Othello in the ending: Mahomet, accusing Mustapha of being a devil that has transformed his soul, stabs him (st. 109); he contrasts the fate of his soul and Hiren’s, then tries to kill himself (st. 110); his men stop him and deliver a bracing speech to reorient him toward war (sts. 111-12). There is a hint of Tamburlaine in Mahomet’s response, as he vows to take out his grief on “A thousand Citties” and keep her ashes “as a relicke to posterity” (st. 113).
References to the Play
Is this play by Peele in Henslowe's Diary as Mahomet, 1594-5?
The old scholarly tradition on "The Turkish Mahomet and Hiren the Fair Greek" was inclined to answer "yes." That tradition includes J. P. Collier(39), More recent scholarship has been conflicted. A. H. Bullen (I.xxxvii), and F. G. Fleay (II.153). W. W. Greg (II, 167) hesitated, suggesting it "equally possible" that "Mahomet" was the play behind the reference to "Mahomet's Pow" in Peele's poem, "A Farewell" (1589), which had previously been linked to Robert Greene's Alphonsus King of Aragon. E. K. Chambers (III.462) condensed vague suggestions by Greg and added two other lost plays in the Admiral's repertory—"The Grecian Comedy" and "The Love of a Grecian Lady" (1594-5)—as possible evidence of Peele's lost play. Samuel Chew considered and rejected the identification of "The Turkish Mahomet and Hiren the Fair Greek" with Greene's Alphonsus and the two lost Grecian comedies. He opined that Peele's lost play was the best match with Henslowe's "Mahomet" (484-5).
The competitor with Peele's lost play as the identity of "Mahomet" is Peele's extant play, The Battle of Alcazar. W. W. Greg offered the identification of "Mahomet" as The Battle of Alcazar in 1923 (12), and in so doing, he cast doubt on the long-standing identification of "Muly Molocco" (Strange's men, 1592) with The Battle of Alcazar. John Yoklavich considers but does not choose Greg's suggestion of "Mahomet" for The Battle of Alcazar (II.223). Andrew Gurr revives the identification by interjecting The Battle of Alcazar into the repertorial list of the Admiral's men and noting that "just possibly it is the same play as the one revived in August 1594 under the name of Mahomet" (252, n.111). However, he treats "Mahomet" in its own entry "rather reluctantly ... as a separate play" from The Battle of Alcazar (206, n.16). See "Mahomet" and "Muly Molocco" for further discussion of scholarly opinion on the identification of these lost plays and Peele's dramatic works.
Wiggins (serial number 803 rejects identification of the play with "The Grecian Comedy" and gives a faint nod toward its being Mahomet. His preferred lumping, however, is Mahomet with The Battle of Alcazar. This solution leaves "Hiren" as a genuinely lost play, its provenance recoverable only by the authorial ascription in the jest and allusions to it in numerous plays from 1597 and later.
Does "owld Mahemetes head" in the inventory lists in Henslowe's Diary belong to "The Turkish Mahomet and Hiren the Fair Greek"?
The identification of the head with "Mahomet" is based on the coincidence of the word, "Mahomet." There is nothing in the story of Mahomet and Hiren that is a neat fit with such a property as long as it is interpreted literally as a head. However, there is another option. Collins, speaking of "Peele's own play of Mahomet" (i.e., "The Turkish Mahomet and Hiren the Fair Greek"), presumes that "owld Mahemetes head" is a head-dress (I.42, n.2). If that was the case, the property would suit any play with an "owld" Mahomet in battle or banquet dress.
Theatrical Memory in Othello?
Vitkus connects Shakespeare's play with Peele's: "the murder of Desdemona by the Moor would have reminded audiences of the story of the Sultan and the Fair Greek, an exemplary tale of Islamic cruelty that features an Ottoman emperor (usually Amurath I or Mahomet II) who must choose between masculine, military 'honor' and his attachment to a Christian slave, Irene[,] with whom he has fallen in love" (99). Vitkus points out that "Amurath" in Elizabethan pronunciation would sound like "'Amour - wrath'" and "'a-Moor-wrath'" (101).
For What It's Worth
One conflict across the sources is the virtue of Hiren. Painter and Knolles make no comment on Hiren's feelings in the affair with Mahomet. Barksted, in contrast, has Hiren vigorously defend her virtue through lengthy epyllionic foreplay until she at last surrenders her maidenhead (Project Gutenberg). Chew, who finds the style of Barksted’s poem so “unimaginative and pedestrian” that it is “unlikely that he invented anything himself,” is inclined to believe that Barksted copied Peele’s play in making Hiren virtuous (486). By 1611, however, the jest in The Merrie Jests of George Peele has tagged the title of the play with a litany of slang terms for "Greek": “in Italian called a curtezan, in Spain, a margerite, in French, une curtain, in England, among the barbarous, a whore, but among the gentle, their usual associates, a punk … [and] croshabell” (Luminarium). In 2 Henry IV (1597) Shakespeare links Hiren and Doll, making Doll and Pistol into debased versions of Hiren and Mahomet, who are then aligned with other warriors and their female champions (Tamburlaine [and by implication, Zenocrate]; Muly Mahamet and Calipolis). The contexts of allusions in Satiromastix and Eastward Ho! are derisive, though not necessarily of Hiren herself, perhaps only of the lost play. The context of the allusion in Law Tricks seems one of surprise, and good news, as Polymetes reads the false letter and thinks himself now the duke. In An/The Old Law, the Clown's association of his new wench with Hiren is complicated by the slang meaning of the name as well as by the misnomer, "Siren," which brings ironic associations of its own, as do the allusions to Helen and Cressida. In Love's Mistress the Clown also associates his mistress with Hiren, though in a comically debased blazon; this context is nonetheless positive, in that he asserts that she is "Hiren" to him—and therefore a paragon of beauty—whatever she may be to others.
Did Barksted remember details of Peele's play?
Barksted was a boy player as early as 1609, having played Morose in Ben Jonson's Epicoene that year with the Children of the Queen's Revels. By 1611 he had moved to an adult company, Lady Elizabeth's men. He apparently ended his playing career with Prince Charles men in 1616. It would therefore require a long stage life for "The Turkish Mahomet and Hiren the Fair Greek" for Barksted to have seen it on stage. However, the number of allusions to the play do imply that it had longevity in theatrical memory. Several of Barksted's descriptions seem particularly stage worthy, for example, Mahomet's battle dress when he first sees Hiren (Project Gutenberg):
- In armour clad, of watchet steele, full grim,
- Fring’d roud about the sides, with twisted gold,
- Spotted with shining stars ...”
He carries a “bright sword,” and on his shield is painted “A full moone in a sable night” with the motto “Neuer glorious more” (11.5, 6, 8).
Extant English plays on the story of Hiren
- The Courageous Turke, or Amurath the First by Thomas Goffe, 1632 (first two acts are Hiren's story)
- Osmond the Great Turk, Lodowick Carlell, 1637
- Unhappy Fair Irene, Gilbert Swinhoe, 1658
Mustapha's version of the outcome of Tamburlaine's confrontation with Bajazeth, Mahomet's predecessor
As part of his motivational speech, Mustapha in Bandello's and Painter's versions says to Mahomet, "And Baiazet ... did not he cut of the head of the greate Tamburlain, which called himself the scourge of God...?" (Painter f.110). Knolles gets the history right: Mustapha commends Bajazeth even though he lost his kingdom because he lost it on the battlefield, whereas Mahomet is losing his in the bedroom.
Anon. Merrie Conceited Iests, of George Peele Gentleman, sometimes a student in Oxford. 1607. Luminarium
Barksted, William. "Hiren, or The Fair Greek." 1611 Project Gutenberg
Bowers, Fredson, ed. The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker, 4 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962.
Bullen, A. H. ed. The Works of George Peele. 2 vols. London: John C. Nimmo, 1888.
Chew, Samuel. The Crescent and the Rose. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1937.
Collier, John Payne, ed. The Diary of Philip Henslowe, From 1591 to 1609. London, 1845. Internet Archive
Collins, J. Churton, ed. The Plays & Poems of Robert Greene. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1905.Internet Archive
Fleay, Frederick Gard. A Biographical Chronicle of the English Drama 1559-1642. 2 vols. London: 1891. Internet Archive, Vol II only
Greg, W. W. Two Elizabethan Stage Abridgements: The Battle of Alcazar & Orlando Furioso. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923.
Gurr, Andrew. Shakespeare's Opposites:The Admiral's Company 1594-1625. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Knolles, Richard. A Generall Historie of the Turkes. London 1603. EEBO
Law Tricks. Malone Society Reprints. 1949 (1950).
Painter, William. The Palace of Pleasure. 1566. (vol. 1, #40, fols. 107v-112). EEBO
Petter, C. G., ed. Eastward Ho! New York: W. W. Norton, 1973.
Shady, Raymond C., ed. Love's Mistress, or the Queen's Masque, Thomas Heywood. Salzburg: Institut fur Englische Sprache und Literatur, 1977.
Taylor, Gary and John Lavagnino, gen. eds. Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007.
Vitkus, Daniel. Turning Turk: English Theater and the Multicultural Mediterranean, 1570-1630. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
Williams, Gordon. A Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature. 3 vols. London: Athlone Press. 1994.
Yoklavich, John, ed. The Dramatic Works of George Peele, vol. 2. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961.
Site created and maintained by Roslyn L. Knutson, Professor Emerita, The University of Arkansas at Little Rock; 2 March 2011.