The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Performing Diplomacy and Selling Spectacle

a guest post by Nat Cutter

In this post, following on from a previous one on Shakespeare and Beyond that introduced my ASECS-Folger Shakespeare Library Fellowship project, I’ll share some of the (still ongoing) findings of my research into North African diplomats, public performance, and newspaper advertising in London, 1681-1734. During this period, more than a dozen embassies from the Moroccan Empire and the Ottoman Regencies of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripolitania visited London and the surrounding regions. They were treated to a wide range of public performances and state visits, many of which were reported in newspapers for the vicarious enjoyment of distant readers, and soon advertisements began to appear that included the ambassadors, with their exotic habits and clothing, as part of the spectacle for viewers of theatre. The Maghrebis did not only see light entertainment, suitable to showcase the splendor and skills of British performance, but also productions now recognised to include substantial racial, colonial, and religious messaging.

So how was it that this intricate system worked—for British diplomatic functionaries, for theatre promoters, and for newspaper publishers? My initial research, which has involved tracking down the activities of these ambassadors through government archives, newspapers and online databases, and comparing the public performances they attended with others presented in the same period that were advertised as for the ‘entertainment’ of a particular person or group, has led me to three points which I think help us understand this process better.

First, I think that most, if not all, of the fifty-eight theatrical titles Maghrebi ambassadors attended were deliberately selected, and that their English diplomatic attendants and the theatrical promoters who advertised them were aware of their connotations. This is sometimes explicit, and sometimes a little harder to make out. For example, in 1682, an anonymous manuscript newswriter noted, ‘This evening the Morocco ambassador with all his attendants will be treated at the King’s playhouse with a play that has relation to that country, viz., Caius Martius with dancing and volting.’1

We can observe how ambassadors were taken to certain available plays during their stays but not others, perhaps as they conveyed more subtle messages. For example, Elkanah Settle’s Heir of Morocco, a play lionising a Moroccan rebel leader later defeated by ben Haddou’s master, premiered during his visit in 1682, but we have no record of ben Haddou seeing it; instead, he was taken to Coriolanus.2 And there are hints of this deliberate action in repeated plays, which evidently built an association with the Maghreb. Moroccan ambassadors were taken to see Shakespeare’s Henry IV in 1710 and again in 1724: the play’s themes of civil war and royal legitimacy, courage and betrayal perhaps rang familiar to Moroccans whose country had been wracked by a century of internecine warfare.3

A portrait of a bearded man with a turban and a flowing red cloak. He is holding a sword and is looking directly at the viewer.
Hajj Abdelkader Pérez, who saw Henry IV in 1724. Michael Dahl and studio, ‘Portrait of Admiral Abdelkader Perez with a naval engagement beyond‘, c.1724, oil on canvas.

The Tempest, with the Algerian witch Sycorax and her monstrous son Caliban, was presented to Muhammad ben Haddou in 1682, the Algerian ambassador in 1731, and in between, during a third embassy, the play became a benefit performance for the redemption of British captives held in Morocco and Algiers.4 Some plays also apparently had broader associations with foreign visitors: of the fifty-eight titles Maghrebi ambassadors saw, at least twenty-one were also presented ‘for the entertainment of’ important people, including Aphra Behn’s 1687 farce The Emperor of the Moon, which appeared like this eight times, and Shakespeare’s Henry IV, which was also presented to ‘Adomo, Oronoco Tomo Caboshirre of the Great Country of Dawhomay, under the Mighty Trudo Audato Povesaw Danjer Enjow Suveveto, Emperor of Pawpaw in Africa, who lately conquer’d the great Kingdoms of Ardah and Whidah’ in 1731 and visiting Amerindian Prince ‘Tomo Chachi . . . Senauki his Queen, Prince John Tooanahowi, and the rest of the Indians.’5

We can also see how closely government officials worked to curate the Maghrebi diplomats’ activities. In 1682, Charles II wrote personally to Oxford academics to organise a visit for the Muhammad ben Haddou, including organising a special graduation ceremony, and carefully planned out ben Haddou’s initial itinerary from Deal to Canterbury to Rochester to Greenwich to London; and in 1700, the staging of The Prophetess was ‘Commanded to be Acted, for the Entertainment of the two Alcaids, the Envoys from the Emperor of Morocco’.6

A picture of the title page of a play
Frontispiece to Aphra Behn, The Emperor of the Moon: A Farce (London: R. Holt for Joseph Knight and Francis Saunders, 1687).

Second, I think that taking Maghrebi diplomats to public performances worked for British political leaders because they believed it helped them achieve their diplomatic goals. When Moroccan ambassador Muhammad ben Haddou arrived in England in 1681, the king was anxious to make sure all his needs were taken care of, the Secretary of State noting, ‘His Majesty, as soon as he was told of his being landed, gave orders to the Lord Chamberlain, the Master of the Ceremonies and other proper officers to take order forthwith that his Excellency and his train be accommodated with coaches and all other necessaries to bring them to this place with all speed that can consist with conveniency to persons tried with so long a sea voyage. There will be officers to wait on his Excellency to defray and order his diet and that of his retinue.’ The Secretary of State added to his colleague, ‘Pray speak my most humble service to him and tell him I long to let him see my respect for his respect and merit’.7

When ben Haddou departed England, he not only ‘declared, that he thought there were not such Divertisements in the whole world, much less in England; so that he is very earnest in concluding a Peace with his Majesty’, but also on his return home successfully persuaded his master, as the London Gazette reported: ‘We have likewise an account that the Emperor having some days before received Letters from his said Ambassador, containing a Relation of his Reception, Entertainment, and Proceedings in England, he had thereupon called together his Alcaids and principal Governors, and had declared to them the high Satisfaction and Honour he had received from His Majesty of Great Britain, and commended them to be Witnesses for him, That as long as he lived he would study to improve the Friendship that was begun between them.’8

Taken together, these intentions and results suggest that deliberately curated and deliberately lavish entertainments were integral in British-Maghrebi diplomacy. It remains to be seen how Maghrebi diplomats actually reacted to individual performances. There are specific English news reports that Muhammad ben Haddou was very ‘pleased’ or ‘satisfied’ with a range of his entertainments: a display of Horse Guards in Hyde Park, a bear-baiting ‘where several Dogs were killed’, and a horse race and hunting display in Newmarket; a church service at the King’s Chapel in Whitehall; visits to Westminster-Abbey, Westminster School, the Houses of Parliament, the Courts of Justice, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Charter-House school and gardens, and ‘the Globes, Astrolabes, and several other Mathematical devices’ at Christ’s Hospital Mathematical School.9




A view of Whitehall Palace, soon after ben Haddou’s visit. John Stow and John Strype, A survey of the cities of London and Westminster: containing the original, antiquity, increase, modern estate and government of those cities (London: A. Churchill and others, 1720). Folger Shakespeare Library.

Visiting a memorial bust of Charles I, ben Haddou ‘expressed his abhorrence of the unheard-of Barbarity of those Rebels who Murdered their Royal Sovereign all the time he stayed there, which was above half an hour’; and after a music concert put on by his former slave Adam Elliot, who escaped home to become a key opponent of Titus Oates in the spurious Popish Plot, ben Haddou was reported to say, ‘That he was glad the Providence of God Almighty had brought him into this Country to disprove and convince the Lying Testimony against him, (meaning Oates’s Deposition at Doctors-Commons).’10

Thirteen years later, both the Moroccan and Tripolitan ambassadors were treated to a display of new handguns, shooting through iron bars and hitting targets a thousand feet away, ‘to the admiration and satisfaction of all the Spectators, who judged it to be the finest Invention in Gun-work yet made, and to be of great Use as well as Pleasure.’ Despite all this, I have been able to find only one instance where an ambassador’s reaction to theatre is documented, again for Muhammad ben Haddou in January 1682: ‘The Morocco Ambassador, on Thursday last, went to the Dukes Theatre, where was Acted Psyche, a Play of extraordinary splendour, with which his Excellency was extremely pleased’.11 Nevertheless, it seems likely that the performances they saw were at least not offensive enough to turn down their overall enthusiasm.

A photograph of a handwritten titlepage with a book snake laid over it
Frontispiece to Jezreel Jones, ‘A Iournal of the Reception of the Morocco Ambassador Cardenas’, Bodleian Library MS Rawl. D. 1069. Photograph by the author.

Thirdly, I think the plan worked for theatrical promoters and newspaper advertisers because of the sheer public interest in Maghrebi ambassadors. For example, in 1706 Jezreel Jones reported how Moroccan Ahmed ben Ahmed Qardanash attracted such a crowd in coastal Portsmouth that he was unable to get into his coach, and ‘both gentry and others flocked of both sexes to see the strange sight and many gave me thanks for suffering them to satisfy their curiosity’; in the same way, in the market town of Petersfield, ‘the people of the town flocked to see the ambassador in great numbers and [he] gave his hand to kiss to a great many women’.12

This public interest can be specifically contextualised to theatre and advertising by considering it among all performances that advertised distinguished guests of honour. Out of 193 such events between 1660-1735, three patterns contributing to advertised guests’ attractiveness emerge: a) the grandeur of wealth and power, often supplied by British or European royalty, b) the exotic appeal of foreign visitors, including at various times Amerindian, Chinese, African and Syrian dignitaries, and c) the particular enjoyment of spectacular clothes and costumes, such as those worn by the Grand Porpoise of the Ancient and Honourable Society of Porponians in 1735.13 Maghrebi diplomats could provide all three.

This likely accounts for their prominent place in this group: of 193 performances, 41 (21%) are for Maghrebis, more than all other non-Europeans put together (32, 16.6%), for European and British royalty (28, 14.5%), and for European diplomats (24, 12.4%). Since Maghrebi individuals are always identified by their name and/or office (Ambassador, Envoy, etc.), if we filter out the generic groups of distinguished guests (‘Several Persons of Quality’, ‘Several Foreign Ministers’, etc.), then the share of Maghrebis is even higher (41 of 140, 29%). We can also, on occasion, see the financial impacts of inviting an ambassador. The theatre operating Lincoln’s Inn Fields kept extensive financial records in the early eighteenth century, allowing us to see the average nightly take and compare it with that of performances featuring a Maghrebi ambassador. On 31 March 1726, for example, Muhammad Ali Abghali was hosted to see Aphra Behn’s The Rover, and that night the theatre brought in £187 8s (£187.67 in decimal currency) in ticket sales, where the last ten performances had averaged just £115 12s 7d (£115.63).14




Map of west-central London, showing Lincoln’s Inn Fields in the top-right. Wenceslaus Hollar, Birds-Eye Plan of the West-Central Discrict of London, c.1660. Folger Shakespeare Library.

So to me it seems likely that the entertainment provided for Maghrebi diplomats in London, including plays, were coordinated, deliberate and apparently successful attempts to secure diplomacy. I’m looking forward now to doing some deeper analysis of actual content of these plays, and how the ambassadors might have received them. The system also seems to have worked for playhouse managers and their audiences, providing welcome profits and entertaining diversion respectively, but it remains to be seen whether theatre promoters made specific decisions or invitations, selected plays for the Ambassador’s entertainment, or even cooperated with diplomatic functionaries; and further, the extent and manner in which audiences perceived what they saw. Stay tuned for more!

Nat Cutter is an early career historian based at the University of Melbourne, Australia. He researches diplomatic, economic, cultural and social histories of relations between Britain and the early modern Maghreb, and is interested in cross-cultural engagement, social networking, media representations, religion, digital humanities and piracy.

  1. This was a Jacobite-influenced adaptation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus by Nahum Tate; it is unclear precisely the relation to Morocco, but evident that observers understood a link was intended. Newsletter to Sir Francis Radcliffe, Dilston, 14 January 1682, Calendar of State Papers Domestic 1682: 26. Available through the Folger Shakespeare Library (FSL) on State Papers Online.
  2. Emmett L. Avery and Arthur H. Scouten, eds, The London Stage, 1660-1800 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1960-68), 5 volumes, 1:307, FSL PN2596.L6 L6 Copy1 R.R. or online at https://londonstagedatabase.uoregon.edu/; Elkanah Settle, Heir of Morocco: with the death of Gayland (London: for William Cademan, 1682), FSL S2689.
  3. Post Boy, 29 April-2 May 1710, available through FSL on Burney Collection Newspapers; Avery and Scouten, London Stage, 2:759.
  4. Avery and Scouten, London Stage, 1:305, 530; 3:108.
  5. Avery and Scouten, London Stage, 3:141, 419; Aphra Behn, The Emperor of the Moon: A Farce (London: R. Holt for Joseph Knight and Francis Saunders, 1687), FSL B1727.
  6. Avery and Scouten, London Stage, 1:529; Francis Beamont, John Fletcher and Thomas Betterton, The Prophetess: or, The History of Dioclesian (London: for Jacob Tonson, 1690), FSL B1605.
  7. Secretary Jenkins to Sir James Leslie, 29 December 1681, Calendar of State Papers Domestic 1680-81: 650, available through FSL on State Papers Online.
  8. Loyal Protestant and True Domestic Intelligence, 5 February 1682, available through FSL on Burney Collection Newspapers; London Gazette, 9-13 November 1682, available at https://www.thegazette.co.uk.
  9. True Protestant Mercury, 25-28 January 1682, 18-22 March 1682; Impartial Protestant Mercury, 9 March 1682, 7-11 April 1682, Loyal Protestant and True Domestic Intelligence, 7 February 1682, 11 April 1682; Domestic Intelligence, or News both from City and Country Impartially related, 6-10 April 1682. All available through FSL on Burney Collection Newspapers.
  10. Loyal Protestant, and True Domestic Intelligence, 7 February 1682, 18 February 1682; Flying Post, 18-20 February 1701. All available through FSL on Burney Collection Newspapers.
  11. Impartial Protestant Mercury, 20-24 January 1682, available through FSL on Burney Collection Newspapers.
  12. Jezreel Jones, ‘A Iournal of the Reception of the Morocco Ambassador Cardenas’, Bodleian Library MS Rawl. D. 1069, pp. 2-3. See my other post for more on the crowds.
  13. Avery and Scouten, London Stage, 2:34, 220, 560, 678, 861; 3:132, 499, 512.
  14. Avery and Scouten, London Stage, 2:858-61.

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