BMCR 2021.09.43

Alexander the Great from Britain to Southeast Asia: peripheral empires in the global renaissance

, Alexander the Great from Britain to Southeast Asia: peripheral empires in the global renaissance. Classical presences. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. Pp. 432. ISBN 9780198777687 $125.00.

The present book examines the reception of the Alexander Romance in British and Southeast Asian (mostly Malay) texts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Imperial expansion and trade networks in the Indian Ocean reconnected Western and Islamic Alexander traditions during the Renaissance; these traditions are found to be heirs of a connected literary culture inflected by medieval Arabic sources. Part I pursues an intertextual analysis of Alexander stories in British and Southeast Asian texts, arguing that their shared use of crusade rhetoric arose from competition over the spice trade. Part II shifts to an intercultural examination of Alexander’s influence on canonical literatures from these regions; in these texts he functions as a blueprint for representations of imperial sovereignty and mercantile heroism.[1]

Ng identifies the Ottoman Empire as the classicizing center from which stories about Alexander made their way to the British Isles and to Southeast Asia (Chapter 1). While several European dynasties claimed to be the true heirs of classical antiquity, the author reminds us that Ottomans, too, positioned themselves as the inheritors of Alexander’s universal empire. European classicism, it emerges, was part of a Eurasian rivalry over translatio imperii and it was in this context that British and Southeast Asian texts used Alexander to negotiate their place on the periphery of that center. Ng then juxtaposes the Islamic Alexander, as found in the fifteenth-century Malay Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnain and the sixteenth century Sajarah Melayu (Chapter 2), with the Christian Alexander, as exemplified by the fifteenth-century Scottish Buik of Alexander the Conqueror (Chapter 3). This warrior figure is then complemented by the philosophical Alexander, whom Ng traces from medieval Arabic mirrors for princes to English and Malay translations (Chapter 4), culminating in her study of Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Chapter 5).

Having shown the entangled literary networks from which these various Alexanders emerged, Ng changes tack to consider less overt receptions of the Macedonian. After a theoretical introduction to this second half (Chapter 6), Ng turns to canonical texts, alternating British and Southeast Asian examples: Marlowe’s Tamburlaine and Shakespeare’s Henry V (Chapter 7);  a biography of the Acehnese Sultan Iskandar Muda (Chapter 8); Milton’s Paradise Lost (Chapter 9); and the late seventeenth-century popular epic Hikayat Hang Tuah (Chapter 10). British texts use elements from the Alexander Romance –insulting gifts from Darius’ ambassadors, Alexander’s meeting with a pirate – to negotiate encounters with Asia, while Southeast Asian texts employ different motifs – the taming of Bucephalus, imperial claims over East and West – principally in their representation of confrontations with Europeans.

The book is a tour de force, working across several linguistic and national traditions to chart the breadth and depth of these literary connections. Ng draws upon well-known works like Hamlet with as much ease as she does the diplomatic letters exchanged between Eurasians. Consequently, her book makes important interventions in the fields of Renaissance Studies, English literature, and classical reception. First, Ng pushes the current concept of the Global Renaissance – the relation of the European Renaissance to the wider world – beyond the study of Others in European literature or the identification of European texts abroad; instead, she demonstrates convincingly that interactions between European and Islamicate cultures shaped their respective literatures.[2] Second, while the encounter with Southeast Asia has long been recognized as integral to the study of early modern British texts, Ng argues that a “committed historicism” (p. 30) reads English literature alongside literature produced in the languages of Southeast Asia. And finally, Ng reminds us of the intellectual imperative of the global turn in Classics. The preponderance of monographs and articles devoted to European classical receptions belies the true extent of the circulation and transmission of ancient texts and cultures. As this book so ably shows, non-European receptions or reinventions not only exist, but are important for writing a truly global history of classical presences.

Alexander the Great from Britain to Southeast Asia is engaging, well-written and thoroughly researched.[3] Readers will find Ng an able guide to various historical and literary contexts, as well as a clear articulator of the theoretical underpinnings of her approach. No book is perfect; Ng does not always balance the weight of works like Hamlet over texts like Hikayat Hang Tuah, nor does her study completely elude the centripetal pull of European history. But the shortcomings of an otherwise outstanding book will surely be productive for future research. Above all, Ng provides a model for how to trace the connected literary histories of the early modern world through the study of one central figure; her book is a welcome addition to the dynamic literature on the Alexander Romance.


[1] Ng follows Amer’s formulation of intertextual and intercultural analysis in Amer (2008) Crossing Borders: Love Between Women in Medieval French and Arabic Literatures.

[2] See Peter Burke, Luke Clossey and Felipe Fernández-Armesto (2017) “The Global Renaissance,” Journal of World History 28.1: 1-30.

[3] I found only one typo: fn. 83 on page 237, “The use of English by English V marks the turning point in establishing English as the national language of England.”