chapter
Excursus I: Voltaire’s Mahomet as despot
Pages 12

This is the plot of Voltaire’s controversial play of 1741, Mahomet. The setting is a city under siege, Mecca 630 AD. The military force of Mahomet is at the gates. The leader of the defending Meccans is Zopir. Both sides are ready to fight and the terms of the war are being discussed under a ceasefire. In the first act we meet Zopir talking to one of his senators, telling him that

he will never ‘bend the knee’ to Mahomet. He cannot worship, he says, a ‘proud hypocrite’ whom he himself banished from Mecca. Here Zopir is presented as a friend of ‘freedom’ and Mahomet as an ‘impostor’ and a ‘conqueror’ before whom nations bend and masses turn into fanatics, ‘a band of wild enthusiasts, drunk with furious zeal’. Mahomet is a ‘tyrant’ who can bring nothing but slavery, a false prophet who can promise nothing but a false religion. His ‘fancied miracles’ only amount to superstition. How could Zopir, a defender of liberty, make peace with a traitor, even if he threatens to lay the city waste? Kingdoms, after all, ‘are lost with cowardice alone’. Of course obstinate resistance might bring with it devastation, too: ‘Then let us perish, if it be our fate’. Next it transpires that one of Mahomet’s demands is to marry Palmira, a

former citizen of Mecca, enslaved and brought up by Mahomet, but now a prisoner of war in Zopir’s Mecca. In her beautiful sight Zopir is saddened: ‘Shall beauty’s charms be sacrificed to bribe a madman’s frenzy?’ Throughout her stay in Mecca, Palmira has scarcely felt the yoke of slavery and she feels indebted to Zopir for that. However, she also wants to return to Mahomet’s camp. Mahomet has been a ‘father’ to her and her soul ‘looks up to Mahomet with holy fear, as to a god’. Thus she refuses Zopir’s proposal. ‘I am not mistress of myself, and how can I be thine?’ To this Zopir replies:

Deluded mortals! How blind ye are, to follow this proud madman, This happy robber, whom my justice spared, And raise him from the scaffold to a throne!