The Renegado, written by English dramatist Philip Massinger in 1623, is set in Tunis during the reign of the powerful Ottoman Turks. Asembeg, portrayed as a licentious Turkish tyrant, has enslaved Paulina, a virtuous Christian. Paulina was captured from Italy by pirates and sold to Asembeg by Grimaldi, a convert to Islam. Asembeg quickly becomes infatuated with Paulina; he treats her with respect and protects her virtue out of his adoration for her. Vitelli, Paulina’s brother, sets out to find and rescue his missing sister. Along the way, he meets and falls in love with Donusa, a Turkish princess. Vitelli manages to find Paulina, and arrives at Asembeg’s court. Now, though, he is busy sorting out his own affairs. Donusa attempts to convert Vitelli to Islam but ends up converting herself to Christianity instead. Meanwhile, an embittered Grimaldi masterfully engineers Paulina, Vitelli, and Donusa’s escape from Asembeg’s court.
Philip Massinger’s The Renegado is a testament to the religious conflict and confusion that characterised early modern England. At the time, Protestants and Catholics maintained a robust sibling rivalry, while the growing threat of Islamic ascendancy loomed in the distance. Massinger pursues a particularly Catholic perspective, illustrating ways in which Catholics and Muslims might interact with one another. Although The Renegado features only Catholic and Muslim characters, it responds to questions about how all three of these religions viewed one another. In addressing such questions, Massinger pays particular attention to stereotypes regarding idolatry and magic. Protestant discourse attempted to bind Catholicism to Islam, and considered both to be misguided distortions of the truth. Massinger acknowledges only the most superficial and tenuous of linkages between Islam and Catholicism. Through discussion of Paulina’s pendant, Massinger establishes the belief that Catholicism and Islam are wholly incompatible, and that Catholicism is far more powerful and successful than Islam. In doing so, he utterly destabilises popular Protestant opinions.
Popular Protestant opinion tended to be strongly anti-Catholic. England’s religious identity had been inconsistent and unsettled for some time. Anti-Catholic sentiments were probably aggravated by a Protestant desire finally to fortify England’s religious identity as definitively Protestant. As Kim Hall notes, ‘Catholicism became not simply a doctrinal difference, but a possible treason and source of damnation. Protestant rhetoric heatedly linked Catholicism, Islam, and Judaism are powerful threats to true Christianity’ Thus, Catholics were not simply a somewhat deviant branch of Christianity, they were a distinct ‘other’, as separate, different, and condemnable as both Judaism and Islam. William Gravet, in a sermon he delivered in London in 1587, drew logical connections between Islam and Catholicism. He claimed that ‘the pope’s supremacy and Mahumet’s sect began both at one time … Mahumetism may go cheek by jowl with [Catholicism]’. Some even went so far as to suggest that ‘Mohammad was a Roman Catholic cardinal who was thwarted in his ambition to become pope’.
Often, the connection that was drawn between Catholicism and Islam was based on associations with idolatry. Catholics were represented as ritualistic and engrossed in material relics. Muslims were often misconstrued as idol-worshippers of Prophet Muhammad. In 1608, William Bedell wrote, ‘…to see the fooleries of [Catholic] idolatry too the little crucifix that stands at their elbow … is … matter of great patience…’ On the subject of Venice, a Catholic state, he comments, ‘such a multitude of idolatrous statues, pictures, relics in every corner … no sooner do their children almost creep out of their cradles, but they are taught to be idolaters’. William Bedell was confident that idolatry could be applied just as easily to Islam. In The Arabian Trudgman he defines a mosque as ‘a Church … of the Mohammetanes, where they meet and perform all their superstitious service unto their idol’. In addition, John Foxe claims that the Prophet’s mother was a ‘Jew blinded by superstition’.
Some Protestants believed that Catholicism and Islam were working together to destroy true Christianity, while others hoped that the two would obliterate each other, leaving room for the unhindered growth of Protestantism. John Foxe lucidly expressed the former opinion in Acts and Monuments. He maintained that ‘false Christianity such as Catholicism opens the door to Turks; the enemy is enabled by that which we “nourish within or breasts” at home’. According to this view, Christianity’s greatest enemy was also its closest enemy. Catholicism was enabling a Muslim overhaul of Christianity. While many Protestants sought to conflate Catholicism and Islam, a few understood them as potential opponents. Both Islam and Catholicism remained adversaries of true Christianity, but they also had the capacity to act in opposition to one another. As Vitkus states, some Protestants ‘expressed a hope that the rival powers of the pope and sultan would annihilate each other, leaving a power vacuum that might be filled by an expansion of the Protestant Reformation’.
Of course, Catholics were not at all pleased with the typecast that Protestants had projected upon them. Catholics were no more sympathetic towards Islam than the Protestants were: ‘Both sides regarded Muslims as “only the whip” with which the holy and righteous Lord doth beat and scourge us for [their] own vicious living’. Thus, both Protestantism and Catholicism regarded Islam with an equal disdain, and viewed it as a force that had to be overcome. Catholics, then, were eager to invalidate any association with Muslims. However, Catholics believed in the power and sanctity of holy relics – essentially objects. This provided an almost indisputable connection to Muslims, who were commonly cast as idolaters. How could Catholics deny a link to Islam without denying the validity of holy relics? Massinger accomplishes exactly this feat through The Renegado. In order to do so, he first loosely satisfies Protestant beliefs, but then quickly demonstrates that those beliefs are feeble and illegitimate.
In creating a weak union between Catholicism and Islam, Massinger relies on the issues of idolatry and supernatural forces. In The Renegado Vitelli, Francisco, and presumably Paulina, all believe in the powers of a pendant that Paulina wears around her neck. They believe that it ‘will keep the owner free from violence’. Asambeg, too, has a visceral reaction towards the pendant, and infers its power. He says, ‘the magic that she wears about her neck,/I think, defends her’. Thus, Muslims and Catholics are linked in their acknowledgement of some type of magic. They understand that the relic is nothing ordinary. In addition, Islam is conflated with Catholicism when Asambeg chooses to employ somewhat Catholic terminology. Asambeg is a firm Muslim with no prospects of conversion when he talks of ‘saints’, and ‘spirits’, and employs the word ‘alter’, which might be understood as a pun on ‘altar’. By placing Catholic rhetoric in Asambeg’s mouth, Massinger, in some sense, suggests that Muslims and Catholics are one and the same. Muslims and Catholics also both employ the discourse of magic. Vitelli says that he has been ‘charmed’ by Francisco’s explanation of the pendant. Asambeg uses the word ‘charm’ to refer to the sound of Paulina’s name, and ‘enchanting’ to refer to Paulina’s speech. These, however, constitute only a flimsy, insubstantial parallel. Though the pendant is in a small way a source of commonality, it is also the object which serves to separate Asambeg from Paulina, or Muslims from Catholics. It refuses to allow any sort of union between the two.
One of the most critical differences between the Muslims and the Catholics is the subjects of their idolisation. Massinger communicates the belief that Catholic veneration of relics, as conduits to God, is valid, while Muslim idolisation of people is not. Asambeg’s idolisation of Paulina is a key component of Massinger’s less favourable illustration of Muslim idolatry. Although Asambeg acknowledges that the pendant has ‘magic’ in it, he does not idolise the actual relic. It is Paulina whom he truly idolises, venerates, and to whom he submits his will. Asambeg seems literally to worship Paulina, and claims that he pays ‘devotion’ to Paulina whom he considers to be a ‘sweet saint’. Paulina ‘invades[s] and take[s] possession of [his] soul’, much as would some divine force. Asambeg’s idolisation is directed purely at Paulina’s earthly being and her physical person, rather than at some higher goal which is achieved through her. Paulina, herself, is the God and the goal at once. Paulina separates herself from Asambeg, and from pure idolatry, by expressing contempt for the intensity with which Asambeg admires her. She claims to ‘despise [his] flatteries’, rather than appreciate them. Asambeg’s veneration of Paulina, then, comes to nothing, as she continues to express unreserved disapproval of him. Asambeg never benefits from venerating his idol, and his idol does not repay him in any way for his devotion. In fact, in the end, his idol, Paulina, betrays him. Muslim idolatry, then, is painted as irrational and lacking in divine support.
While Asambeg’s idolisation of Paulina proves to be foolish and thoughtless, veneration of the pendant appears to hold true religious significance. Francisco and Vitelli venerate the relic for the divine power that it contains, and for the connection to heaven that it provides. They submit their will to the will of the pendant because the pendant is linked to God, and God’s infinite powers. It serves as a guide to a greater goal. Francisco tells Vitelli, ‘leave your revenge to heaven. I oft have told you/ of a relic that I gave her which has power,/if we may credit holy men’s traditions …I fear no force’. Leaving matters, to some extent, in the hands of the pendant is equivocated with leaving matters up to heaven. Massinger also substantiates the relic by making it contingent upon actual religious practice and dedication. It is not simply a magic stone. Francisco says that Paulina ‘does preserve/the virtue of [the pendant] by her daily prayers, so if she fall not by her own consent … I fear no force’. Thus, the pendant does not work on its own. Paulina must be pious and devout in order for it to work. Additionally, the power of the pendant is not absolute. Paulina can override the power of the pendant by voluntarily agreeing to submit herself to Asambeg. Thus, beliefs about the Catholic relic are tempered, causing them to appear less irrational and more believable. The relic is also coupled with religious practice, so that it is not purely magic or supernatural power, but power sent by a divine source who can distinguish between those who are pious and those who are not, and who can determine one’s will and one’s thoughts. In addition, Massinger ultimately portrays the pendant as deeply worthy of veneration. The pendant is extremely successful in carrying out its intent. It keeps Asambeg from raping Paulina. It does what it is meant to do. This means that Asambeg must work to gain Paulina’s favour and thus the pendant is what subordinates Asambeg, a Muslim man, to Paulina, a Catholic woman.
In this way, Massinger denigrates Muslim idolatry and validates Catholic relics as something greater than mere idolatry. In so doing, he ensures that Islam and Catholicism are not treading on even ground. Massinger also handles Protestant fears about Catholicism opening doors to the destruction of Christianity, but eliminates all hope for a power vacuum by which Protestants can benefit. Massinger depicts Catholicism as a strong and forceful religion to which Islam submits itself. Catholicism gains power and supremacy. This is best seen through the grip with which Paulina and her pendant hold on to Asambeg, and the strong influence that they have on him. Asambeg feels himself to be completely controlled by Paulina, although she is, in fact, his prisoner. Theoretically, Asambeg is in an advantageous position – a position of authority. He is male, he is the viceroy of Tunis, and Paulina is female, alone, and defenceless (except for the relic). As Asambeg puts it, ‘she that is enthralled commands her keeper/and robs me of the fierceness I was born with’. Catholicism, rather than inviting Muslims to destroy Christianity, actually removes the natural military might that Muslims were known to have possessed. In fact, Catholicism makes them ‘tremble’. After speaking to Paulina, Asambeg says ‘Tis fit I take my own rough shape again’, suggesting that he sees himself as a lesser form and a lesser person than Paulina. Again, Catholicism is placed not on the same level as Islam, but undeniably above it, and in control of it.
Paulina not only controls him, she, in some subtle way, transfers her Catholicism onto him, or transforms him into someone new. Massinger almost hints at a type of unspoken conversion. Asambeg says,
‘If these bitter taunts
Ravish me from myself and make me think
My greedy ears receive angelical sounds,
How would this tongue, turned to a loving note,
Invade and take possession of my soul,
Which then I durst not call my own!’
The language of this passage insists upon the possibility of a type of literal, physical possession. Both possession and exorcism are particularly Catholic conceptions, and constitute a complete transformation of self. Asambeg claims that if Paulina were to show some slight favour towards him, he would have a soul that he could no longer ‘call [his] own’. Thus, Asambeg suggests the possibility of becoming alienated from himself, and of his perspective and senses being altered by his devotion to Paulina. The possession he describes, however, is not demonic in nature. It is, instead, an agreeable and divine possession. It would turn Paulina’s ‘bitter taunts’ into ‘angelical sounds’, and ‘a loving note’. Asambeg’s use of Catholic terms later in the same scene may be an additional manifestation of the influence Paulina has over him. Massinger not only invalidates the claim that Catholicism enables Muslim destruction of Christianity; he also suggests that Catholicism has the potential to draw Turks away from Islam and closer to the true religion, and to convert them in some sense. Paulina fails to use this power to its full potential by refusing to offer Asambeg any genuine love. However, the possibilities that the power of Catholicism holds are still described as almost without limit, needing only to be successfully unleashed in order to garner the desired reaction.
Massinger, then, cleverly and elegantly delegitimises Protestant stereotypes of Catholicism’s relation to Islam. He does so without compromising traditional Catholic belief, ritual, or practice, and without giving credence to Islamic belief, ritual, or practice. It is unclear how English Protestants of the early modern era would have chosen to understand this play. It is possible that they chose to ignore the Catholic elements, and view this simply as a story of Christian domination over Islam. It is also possible that they chose to focus on the fragile link that Massinger draws between Islam and Catholicism, rather than on the many ways in which he shakes and severs that link. But whether English Protestants chose to accept it or not, Massinger masterfully arrives at his goal, and provides a strong argument against the prevailing stereotypes.