Late nineteenth-century Istanbul witnessed an efflorescence of urban culture in Pera, the historical locus of foreign life in the Ottoman capital of Istanbul. As this emerging center grew with the ascendant Ottoman middle class and influx of migrants from within the empire and without, the modern-day region of Beyoğlu took on its famed cosmopolitan character. From dress and architecture to music and theater, imports from Europe and elsewhere became a critical aspect of late Ottoman high culture. The long reign of Abdul Hamid II (1876-1909) to a great extent witnessed a continuation of this phenomenon. However, certain forms of censorship that emerged throughout the empire were at odds with the cultural blending that prevailed in Pera. This document, which comes from the secretary of Abdul Hamid's Yıldız Palace, highlights this tension.
The controversy centers on a number of "harmful" or "provocative" (muzır) pieces of theater that foreign companies sought to perform in Beyoğlu in Spring of 1889. In particular, the document refers to repeated attempts by an Italian company to perform King Lear, Shakespeare's meditation on a tottering, impotent king who relinquishes power to his daughters. The document also makes reference to a play entitled Louis XI, which is harder to track down. While there is no sign of these plays being particularly controversial in Europe at the time (although King Lear was not performed during George III's madness in the 1810s), it is easy to see how the theme of vulnerable monarchy could be sensitive for a Sultan who had not many years before emerged from the constitutional moment of the mid-1870s.
With conflicting outcomes regarding prior and standing requests for performance permits, the palace moved to adopt a procedure (usul) for dealing with potentially damaging literature. According to the response of the education ministry, whose purview clearly went beyond the realm of schools and curriculum, because these plays were forbidden even in the world's "most free (en ziyade serbest olan)" countries like the United States and England, there was absolutely no way that such plays could ever be performed in Istanbul.
An accompanying document contains brief synopses indicating why the plays might be damaging:
King Lear: "Although Lear, one of the kings of England, due to old age divides his government between two of his daughters and withdraws into solitude with the allowances and title of kingship, his daughters ungratefully imprison their father along with another of his daughters."
Louis XI: "In the time of Louis XI's reign, he commits many wrongs and injustices and in the end dies of a troubled conscience."
The palace's concern about theater reveals several interesting points about state power during the Hamidian period. The involvement of the Ministry of Education (Maarif Nezareti) outside of the classroom functioning as a sort of ministry of culture or conduct as in the case of the foul-mouthed carnies of Bayram, suggests it is not only possible to speak of an imperial classroom but indeed empire as classroom. Abdul Hamid II would go on to craftily credit this paternalism with fostering the Second Constitutional era, saying that the First Constitution had been suspended until the awareness of the people could be sufficiently improved by his own education policies. Even more compelling perhaps, however, is the reference to banned plays among the "most free" countries of the West. This logic relies on the limitations of Western liberalism or tolerance, implicitly understood to be a model, to justify Ottoman censorship.
Source: BOA, İ-DH 1127/88078