The Sultan and the Queen: The Untold Story of Elizabeth and Islam by Jerry Brotton
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
If you hadn't heard, America and the Islamic world haven't been getting along too well lately. Whenever something like that happens it makes me want to learn more about "the other side," whatever that may entail. So, with that in mind, I recently read The Sultan and the Queen.
I was quite unaware of the connection between Elizabethan England and Islam. I suppose if I were English, reading Jerry Brotton's book would feel like opening a door to a backyard you didn't know existed.
The setting is this: Queen Elizabeth has followed in her father, King Henry VIII's footsteps, pushing on with the Protestant thing, much to the chagrin of Catholic Europe. This means that round about the mid to late 16th century England didn't have many European friends. In an effort to increase trade and stockpile allies, QE1 sent off envoys to the Mediterranean from Turkey to Morocco in search of new pals. Well, honestly, she just wanted a someone with a bit of money and power to stick a thumb in Spain's eye, so that the impending Spanish invasion of England might fail.
Fail it did, but mostly for other reasons. The Ottoman Empire was reluctant to enter into any agreements with a small, weak nation essentially on the other side of the world. Morocco was generally down with it though, and that might've hampered Spain's domination somewhat.
Anywho, you get plenty of this sort of thing and many other "fun" facts in The Sultan and the Queen. My sarcastic quotes there are because this is a texty history book about trade relations. That's only going to appeal to a certain kind of reader. I mean, I enjoyed it...at least to a certain extent. It did drag on at times and so I found myself putting it down and moving on to other things all too readily.
I also found Brotton's tendency to linger on Shakespeare and Marlow's plays with Moors as the subject to be distracting and unnecessary. Yes, I'm sure historians are a bit pressed for examples of English/Ottoman relations and interactions, so relying on fiction of the period must be tempting, but it goes on too long, well beyond its usefulness. Time and again Brotton dives into the dissection of plays to the point where you wonder if that wasn't the book he really wanted to write.
It's all good reading, mind you. The writing is solid. It's just that the topic, and/or manipulation of the topic, is occasionally tedious. In the end, any boredom I felt in that regards is my own damn fault. I knew what I was getting myself in for. Hell, it's all right there in the title! So read that title and if it sounds good to you, then I highly recommend this!
Side Note: This book clears up that whole fallacy about Shakespeare and whether he wrote Othello among other things, because "how would an Englishman who never visited the Middle East know all those details about them?!" Well, he didn't need to visit such foreign lands. The foreigners came to him. Diplomats, especially from Morocco, were in London in the years prior to him (and Marlowe) writing such works.
I received this from Viking, but I don't accept freebie books from anyone unless they're aware that I'll give it an unbiased, honest review.
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