From Chapter 3: Hidden Hospitality: Visiting Shakespeare's Strangers
When Othello defends his amicable relationship with Desdemona and Brabantio before the Duke, he describes a Brabantio we never encounter—the welcoming, hospitable European who opened his door to a stranger and not the startled, hostile father waking to the infectious alarms of Iago’s dehumanizing rhetoric. Following the Duke’s invitation to speak in the opening scene before the senate—“Say it, Othello”—Othello begins with a reference to this earlier invitation: “Her father loved me, oft invited me,/Still questioned me the story of my life/From year to year.” Ironically, like the irreverent image of the “beast with two backs” (1.1.116), such a vision of edifying intercultural hospitality is too unseemly to stage or of little dramaturgical interest; nevertheless, the narration of a hospitable golden age not only competes with Iago’s dramatized hostility but also signals toward a cultural and literary reserve of cosmopolitan co-existence and interfaith rapprochement that is pivotal for the new worlds Shakespeare engenders.
Moments of hidden hospitality in both Othello and Merchant are primers in deciphering the extent of Shakespeare’s global visions and the interdependence of such vistas within his society, offering us thereby a means to measure the range of cosmopolitan impulses in the period. A key text that reveals Shakespearean potentialities of interreligious and intercultural exchange is the 1607 topical travel play The Travels of the Three English Brothers by John Day, George Wilkins, and William Rowley (henceforth Travels). In staging a fictional rendition of the international adventures of the historic Sherley brothers and their attempts to forge an Anglo-Persian alliance with Shah Abbas I of Persia, Travels shares Shakespeare’s concern with the questionable nature of English hospitality in a time of burgeoning global consciousness. Scholars have written on the “allusive mode” that exemplifies Travels as a text that calls upon various dramas of the period, including Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine and The Jew of Malta. I would add, however, that a coherent thread underlying the play’s intertexuality hinges on the possibility of offering or rescinding hospitality toward strangers found particularly in Shakespeare’s two Venetian plays. In analyzing the dynamics of hospitality in early modern drama, I draw upon philosopher Richard Kearney’s discussion of the anatheist wager—the foundational moment in Abrahamic religions when the divine stranger manifests as an unheralded guest and the host is faced with a choice to respond with hospitality or hostility—and Bonnie Honig’s analysis of foreign-founder scripts alongside early modern and contemporary theories of cosmopolitanism. Through this combined framework, I examine the dramatic portrayal of an improbably hospitable Persia in Travels in dialogue with seemingly hostile Venetian terrain found in Merchant and Othello. In doing so, Persia, an Islamic country with a pre-Islamic, biblical and classical heritage, unexpectedly parallels Venice, a contemporary city known in the period for its pluralism. By reading Shakespeare’s narrations of hidden hospitality through corresponding scenes of manifest hospitality between English Christians and Persian Muslims in Travels, a more nuanced vision of early modern religious pluralism emerges.