This essay explores the imperial designs depicted in Fletcher, Field, and Massinger's The Knight of Malta, through the discourses of gender and race, arguing that the play locates its anxieties about traffic, travel, and trade in the Mediterranean in racialized female bodies. Moreover, by examining the play's treatment of its black, Muslim, female character, Abdella, we can see how whiteness becomes a means through which social, political, and cultural belonging can be articulated.
Keywords: Gender, Travel, Race, Religion, Malta, Islam, Ottoman Empire
THE MEDITERRANEAN SEA connects the continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa, and as such it binds and cleaves distinct lands, peoples, cultures, and religions. In fact, as a geography that facilitated traffic and exchange, in goods, ideas, and people, the Mediterranean was perhaps the most important contact zone in the early modern period. Its fluid and often shifting borders circumscribed religious and imperial geographies, from Christian to Islamic, and Hapsburg to Ottoman. This fickle sea could make or mar the fortunes of all who ventured into its waters. Indeed, the many tales of Mediterranean piracy, captivity, and slavery that circulated in the early modern period expose the profits and dangers of life in this geography.
Moreover, narratives of border crossing and conversion reveal similar allures and fears associated with the Mediterranean, the freedoms and dangers it offered. Like all such zones that simultaneously intermingle and demarcate ideas and identities, the Mediterranean functions in English imaginative literature of the early modern period as a site of interest and anxiety. Even though it was geographically distant from England, the middle sea, situated as it was, seemingly at the centre of the world, certainly at the centre of valuable trade routes, offered English travellers and writers a location through which they could negotiate various forms of cultural, religious, and racial differences. Such projects facilitated England's nascent imperial and growing mercantile ambitions, and created an imaginative geography on which to plot not only their anxieties about being latecomers to the markets of the Mediterranean but also imagined triumphs through which they could overcome those same deficits.