14 – THE LEVANT
The year is 1587, & Stanley & Shakespeare have returned to the Mediterranean waters in order to make the pilgrimage to the Holy Land – & of course look in on the Levant Companies business in places like Aleppo & Constantinople. En route, they would have stopped off at Sicily, for the city-port of Messina appears in Much Ado About Nothing, which opens in front of the Governor’s Palace, today’ s Royal Palace which lies beside the Piazza del Governolo. The play also mentions other topographical details, which were all destroyed in the 1908 earthquake, such as the ancient Temple of Hercules Manticolo. Our very own Paul Roe also shows how Much Ado’s Beatrix uses a typical Sicilian expression – ti manciu ‘u core (I will eat your heart). Elsewhere, the Winter’s Tale describes the Palace of the Normans at Palermo, while the mention of the return of Cleomenes and Dion from Delphi to Sicily as taking 23 days is an uncanny accuracy.
Returning to the Garland, we read;
And then Sir William he would go,
To Bethlehem right speedily,
Likewise to fair Jerusalem,
Where our blessed Saviour Christ did die
He asked them if it was so,
They answered and told him aye.
This is the Tree, the Jews then said,
Whereon the Carpenter’s son did die ;
That was my Saviour, Sir William said,
For sure he died for the sins of me.
For two Catholics, a chance to visit the place where Jesus was born could not be missed. There are no traces of the visit in the plays, but instead I shall return to Fynes Moryson’ own visit to the area, whose Protestantism caused quite a kerfuffle;
These foure comming in company to Jerusalem, had beene received into this Monastery, and when they had seene the monuments within and neere Jerusalem, they went to Bethlehem, where it happened that upon a health drunke by the Flemmings to the King of Spaine, which the English refused to pledge, they fell from words to blowes, so as two of them returned wounded to the Monastery of Jerusalem. Then these Italian Friars, (according to the Papists manner, who first make the sicke confesse their sinnes, and receive the Lords Supper, before they suffer Physitian or Apothecary to come to them, or any kitchin physicke to be given them): I say the Friars pressed them to confesse their sinnes, and so to receive the Lords Supper, which when they refused to doe, it was apparant to the Friars, that they were of the reformed Religion, (whom they terme heretikes). Whereupon the Friars beganne to neglect them (I will not say to hate them): and while the two which were wounded staied for recovery of their health, and so detained the other two with them, it happened that the third fell sicke.
After their pilgrimage, the two men would have set off toward Constantinople, probably stopping off at Tripoli, Lebanon, for supplies, of which place Moryson writes; ‘The Haven is compassed with a wall, and lies upon the west-side of the City, wherein were many little Barkes, and some Shippes of Marsiles in France. The Haven is fortified with seven Towers, whereof the fourth is called the Tower of Love, because it was built by an Italian Merchant, who was found in bed with a Turkish woman, which offence is capitall as well to the Turke as Christian, if he had not thus redeemed his life. Upon the Haven are built many store-houses for Merchants goods, and shops wherein they are set to sayle. The City of Tripoli is some halfe mile distant from the Haven, to which the way is sandy, having many gardens on both sides. In this way they shew a pillar festned upon a hill of sand, by which they say the sand is inchanted, lest it should grow to over whelme the City.’
From Tripoli, our party would have sailed east, & again would have docked for a while at the ports of Cyprus. It is this visit that may have inspired Shakespeare to place some of his great tragedy, Othello, on the island. The setting is only given as a ‘sea-port‘ of Cyprus, & a ‘A hall in the castle.’ Local tradition says the heavily fortified medieval citadel at Famagusta was ‘Othello’s Castle,’ which best connects with the play’s, ‘The Turk with a most mighty preparation makes for Cyprus. Othello, the fortitude of the place is best known to you. (1. 3)’ It is while staying at the fortress that Shakespeare would have heard the local story of Francesca de Sessa, a dark-skinned Venetian officer serving in Cyprus known as ‘Il Moro.’ The Venetian records tell us that in 1544 he was punished for an unknown crime & sent into exile. The story is given detail by Cinthio in his Gli Hecatommithi (1565) which Shakesepeare may have read in its original Italian. Come Shakespeare’s treatment, our bard changes certain details & has Othello commit suicide on Cyprus.
On leaving Cyprus, our party would have reached the shores of Turkey, where one play in particular contains memories of their visit to the region. The Comedy of Errors sees Egeon, a Sicilian merchant, imprisoned in the ancient Turkish city of Ephesus, & tells a story full of business wheeling & dealing. That Shakespeare visited the city in the bosom of a merchant ship is hinted at by PF Grav, who writes, ‘Shakespeare uses the word money more often in Errors than in any other play… the words gold, mart, ducat & merchant appear at a pace rivalled only by the Merchant of Venice & Timon of Athens, two plays that wear their economic concerns much more openly on their sleeve. The market atmosphere which permeates Errors further contributes to the impression that economics lie at the plays thematic heart.’
In the early days of Christianity, the city of Ephesus played a massive part, being one of the seven churches to which St John of Patmos addressed his Book of Revelations. Fifteen centuries later, & the Christian church had been usurped by the Islamic Ottomans, this once well-populated & sophisticated city locked in a terminal decline. Its river, the Caystros, was steadily silting up into malarial swamps, leaving the once bustling harbours of Ephesus far inland, created Despite this, the Seljuk Turks built & maintained a mighty fortress at Ephesus on the hill of Ayasuluk. A century before Shakespeare, the population was said to be 2,000, had maybe halved by Shakespeare’s visit, for by 1824 both town & citadel were abandoned & Ephesus left deserted except for the wild animals.
What is most interesting for our investigation, is that central to the plot of the Comedy of Errors is the imprisonment of Egeon, the merchant from Syracuse in Sicily. He only appears in first & final acts, framing the traditional story, & the threat of death hangs over him all through the play. With his imprisonment due to a law forbidding merchants from entering Ephesus, I cannot help but notice the tallies between Egeon & William Stanley, who also found himself imprisoned in Turkey. Thomas Aspen writes;
After paying a visit to Palestine, he journeyed to Turkey, and had a narrow escape of becoming a victim to the bigotry of the followers of Mahommed. In a discussion with one of the Paschas he defended Christianity and the Bible, and denounced the religion propounded in the Koran as false and deceptive. He was arrested for “blasphemy against the religion of Mahommed,” and after being kept a long time in a filthy and dismal prison, a date was fixed for his execution, but a lady interceded on his behalf, and three days before the appointed time he was liberated
The Garland tells us that the imprisonment of Stanley actually occurred in Constantinople. A little confusion reigns here, which undoubtedly will one be sorted out to satisfaction. It most likely that he was sent to Constantinople after his arrest. In 1585, Ephesus was part of the ‘Eyalet of the Cezair-i Bahr-i Sefid,’ the province of the islands of the Mediterranean, & to say you were the cousin of the queen of a distant, Christian island would have won little respect in the region. For these reasons, I believe that Stanley was imprisoned in the Ayasuluk fortress, his Catholic temper may have got the better of him after seeing such a sacred Christian site, the city where St Paul performed many miracles & baptisms (Acts 19), so completed dominated by mosques. Jane Hwang Degenhardt writes, ‘the contemporary location of Ephesus in the Ottoman Empire meant that it was a place where English merchants & adventurers were putting their own baptisms to the test by trading with Muslims… the significance of religious conversion in Ephesus was… informed by…. contemporary reports of Christians being captured & converted to Islam in the commercial port cities of the eastern Mediterranean.’
What is fascinating about Stanley & Shakespeare’s encounter with the Turkish lady, who ‘interceded’ on Stanley’s behalf, is that we have now been given the perfect background for the infamous ‘Dark Lady’ of the sonnets, which I shall go into further in my next post…