The initial “action-flick” feel of John Fletcher’s The Island Princess, might mislead casual observers. While the original English Protestant viewers would have appreciated this action of the play’s second act, the play’s deeper ideas, those of religious conversion, do not arise until the play’s fourth act. What follows in an exploration of the play to define the religions presented in it and the idea of conversion, as it is presented for the English Protestant viewer. Once the Christians and the Islanders have been defined in such a context, the desires of the Governor of Ternata will be explored, since his actions drive the plot of the play. The Governor also provides a perplexing presentation of a convert. His portrayal of a Moorish priest as a means to achieve his desires adds complexity to the ideas of conversion within the play.
The Islanders and their Pagan Religion
The religion of the Island people is an enigma, never explicitly stated, but by hints throughout the play, most likely a polytheistic religion, similar to Islam prior to the teachings of the prophet Muhammad. Because it is never identified, the religion can be any that contradicts the three primary monotheistic religions: Protestant, Christian Catholic, and Islamic. The technique also allows Fletcher to place all pagan religions in one stereotyped basket.
In his opening lines, Pyniero, a Christian captain, provides the initial exposure to the Christian’s perception of the islanders when he states, “They are false and desperate people” with “cruel and crafty souls” (I.p2). Pedro accounts for the kidnapping of the King of Tidore as the result of a lack of “faith” (I.p3). Later on in the second act, Armusia when planning his attack to free the King, states that “all the island shall stand wondering at it, / As if they had been stricken with a comet” (II.9). Such natural occurrences where often seen by primitive races as signs of their pagan gods. The effect of the language belittles the island people and their religion, especially if the viewer sees Christianity as an advancement upon polytheistic religions.
The complexity concerning the religion of the island surfaces in the description of the King of Tidore. Especially when the Moors discuss him during his captivity, the King is assigned Christian, and to a greater extent, Trinity-like qualities. The Keeper remarks of the King: “his voice so affects me, so delights me, / That when I find his hour, I have music ready, / And it stirs me infinitely” (II.p2). The same affects have been used to describe the influence of the Holy Spirit. When the Keeper laments that he is not allowed to give the imprisoned King more, the King commands him, “Do not transgress thy charge” (II.p3). The comment is reminiscent of Christ and his conversation with the soldiers who come to arrest him prior to his crucifixion. In spite of the lack of nourishment provided by the Governor and the pleas of the Governor to call the King’s sister a whore, the King “holds his constancy” (II.p4). The scene serves as a reminder of Christ’s time in the desert where he faced temptation from Satan. Then finally, when the Governor has left the King will seldom enough to survive on, the First Moor states of the King: “when he is dead, he is free” (II.6). The statement can be used to describe all Christian martyrs, from Stephen to Christ himself. But since Armusia rescues him, the King then is not Christ, but instead a steadfast servant to his faith, and Armusia, as the King’s savior, becomes the Christ figure of the play. When the King is saved by Armusia, the Soldier says that he has been “redeemed” (II.p18). The King states that Armusia “has new-begot my name” (II.p26), a reference to Christian baptism. Has the King now become a Christian? Since his specific religion is never defined prior to this point and the language used to describe him and his situation predominantly Christian, has the King been Christian all along, even though his subjects are not? The Christian
The play opens with the gossip of the Christians, Pyniero, Chistophero, and Pedro. Like servants at the market, from them we receive the Christian perspective on the Islanders, the Christians perspective of themselves, and also the exposition of the play.
The primary concern of the Christians is that of war. At least that is what their words and posturing would have us believe. Their nobility is based upon “managing a great-horse” (I.p2) and the appreciation that they have for Armusia comes from the fact that he “dares fight anywhere” (I.p7). But the admiration becomes rather homoerotic, when discussing Armusia, Pyniero states, “I love him, / And by my troth would fain be inward with him. / Pray let’s go seek him” (I.p7). As Jerry Seinfeld would say, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” but the anxiousness of Pyniero would likely strike the English Protestant viewer as humorous and present the Catholic soldier as unmanly.
The superiority that the Christians feel over the Islanders is demonstrated by Pyniero when he refers to the King of Tidore’s boating as a “base pleasure” and refers to it as “slavish” (I.p3). The separation the Christian feels is expanded upon when again Pyniero states, “Things of these natures have strange outsides, Pedro, / And cunning shadows, set ’em far from us” (I.p4). Armusia also echoes the idea of the island’s subservience to the Christians, when in his first speech he states that “the very rivers, as we float along, / Throw up their pearls, and curl their heads to court us” (I.p13).
There are in fact two presentations of the Christian in The Island Princess. The first is that of the “herb of grace,” (I.p6) Ruy Dias, the other is the “brave” (I.p7) Armusia. Ruy Dias is also described earlier in the play as being brave, but there are few other similarities between the two Christians. Ruy Dias
The Christian captain, Ruy Dias, seems rather small when placed face-to-face with Quisara, the Island Princess. He calls her his “royal mistress” (I.p9) and “the saint of my devotions” (I.p10). Ruy Dias might only be using such phrases to court Quisara, but even so, they belittle his commitment to his Christian faith, since Quisara is a worshiper of pagan gods. Yet, in professing his desire for the Princess, he does not consider the idea of converting himself to her gods, but instead wishes her “a sweet souled Christian” (I.p10).
Ruy Dias continues his role as ineffectual character when challenged by Quisara to “do some brave thing that may entice me that way [towards conversion and marriage]” (I.p11). Her desire is for his demonstration of courage to prove that of “a power beyond ours [the gods of the islands]” (I.p11). The Princess sees Ruy Dias as virtuous soldier. Perhaps this is why she offers up the challenge to her suitors to recover her kidnapped brother. Her idealized view of the soldier does not allow her to think that Ruy Dias will not be the one to accomplish the task. The problem for both the Princess and Ruy Dias is that while he talks a good game, “let the danger be as deep as hell” (I.p11), Ruy Dias does not follow through on such statements and ends up a disappointment to Quisara.
Unlike Ruy Dias, who states that “great acts require great counsels” (I.p21) when Quisara makes her challenge, Armusia is a man of action whose “soul is strangely raised” (I.p24) by the prospect of wealth and adventure that the challenge holds. He and his band of men, attired like merchants, sneak onto the Governor’s island to rescue the King. [It is interesting how, in both The Island Princess and The Renegado, capitalism and free trade spread Christianity while undermining Islam and the polytheistic religion of the islands.]
The mission to free the King also serves as a demonstration of Armusia’s bravery and intellect. Armusia is both intelligent and strong. He gathers knowledge of the island and the whereabouts of the King, and then urges his men on “with manly force” (II.8) to set the King free. The King himself states that Armusia has “redeemed” (II.p26) him and calls him a “pious” (II.p26) man. The rescue of the King serves to emphasize the Christ-like qualities of Armusia. The soldiers that follow him can be seen as disciples, following Armusia without questioning his word. Yet instead of passive preaching use force to achieve their desired ends.
The relationship between Armusia and Quisara blatantly explores the idea of conversion. Quisara, as she falls in love with Armusia, states, “yet I must have ye, / Have ye of my faith, too” (IV.p22). To Armusia the idea of conversion is no less than a “trap” and no better than “death itself” (IV.p22). As Armusia denounces and challenges the idea of conversion and the island’s gods, the King seizes him, placing Armusia in the same state of affairs that the King was in at the play’s opening. The ironic twist of the plot, and the King’s flip-flop nature, serve to belittle the island’s religion while Armusia’s steadfast nature hints that, like the King, he will be saved by his resolution to stand by his Christian beliefs.
The Governor of Ternata
The Governor of Ternata’s actions, whether done overtly or disguised, drive the action of the play. Like with the islanders, the first voice in describing the Governor of Ternata is that of a Christian. Christophero states, “that Governor’s a fierce knave / Unfaithful as he’s fierce too” (I.p3). Later on, Pyniero calls the Governor “a perilous thief” (I.p15). The King of Bakam compares the Governor to a dog that needs to be chained (I.p15). It is when the Governor and the Kings who compete for Quisara’s love are introduced, that the play begins to move in a grand way. When the stage direction has the Kings “fly” at each other, the tension and action that will dominate the next two acts of the play begins. But hidden within this action we find valuable insight into the pagans and Christians. It is the pagans who fight amongst each other for the love of Quisara, while the Christians try to win her hand with words and valiant actions.
Just as Armusia and his men dress like merchants to infiltrate the Governor’s island, the Governor dresses like a Moorish priest to infiltrate the mind of the King. As a priest, the Governor uses long speeches and invokes tales of his trials and his “mystic vision” (IV.p1) to persuade the King against the Christians. The King though, uses his experience with Armusia to counterbalance the fanatical doom saying of the Governor is disguise, but is eventually swayed by the religious propaganda put forth by the Governor/priest.
In the end, it is not the false, pagan worshiping princes who redeem the King. Nor is it the passive Christian, Ruy Dias, (although Ruy Dias is inspired by Armusia’s mercy to finally do something in the play, thus solidifying the Christ-role for Armusia). Instead, it is the Christian Armusia, man of action, soldier and missionary who frees the King and converts the princess, Quisara. Like the King, Armusia is rescued because of his faith and the infighting between the islanders and the Portuguese vanishes, once the “devils” and “villains” (V.p2) of the island come to their senses and accept Christianity. By Quisara accepting Armusia’s love and faith: “I do embrace your faith” (V.p10), the destiny of the island is that of the Christian who will become its King and Queen.
The English Protestant might see The Island Princess as a call to arms on two fronts. The first front being a call to increase the efforts at colonization, and the second a demand for the necessity to increase their attempts at conversion. The race for land and for souls that dominate the religious and political doctrines of both Christian Catholic and Protestant, create a competition that might cause the English Protestants to use The Island Princess as propaganda for “keeping up with the Jones’s,” in their attempts to colonize and convert the savage world.