Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1456
Fatima and Zaïre are slaves of Orosmane, sultan of Jerusalem, but their lot is not an unpleasant one. Although Orosmane has the power to treat them as mere chattel and to use them for his pleasure, he treats them with respect and consideration. Nevertheless, Fatima is disturbed to find that Zaïre not only is resigned to her fate but also appears actually to enjoy it. When she asks Zaïre to explain why she no longer weeps or looks forward to the return of Nerestan, who has gone to France to seek ransom for them, Zaïre replies that she finds it difficult to yearn for a mode of life she has never known. Since childhood she has been confined to the sultan’s seraglio under the care of Orosmane, and she has grown fond of her life and even of her master.
Fatima then reminds Zaïre that Nerestan, who conducted himself nobly in the battle of Damas as part of the Christian army fighting against the Turks, had been captured by Orosmane but, because of his courage, was later released on his word to return with ransom for the Christian prisoners, including Fatima and Zaïre. Zaïre replies that two years have passed since Nerestan’s departure and that perhaps Nerestan made the promise to return with ransom for ten slaves only because there was no other way for him to escape a similar servitude. She admits that she admired Nerestan at the time of his promise, but she has decided to think of the matter no longer. Zaïre then confesses to Fatima that Orosmane is her slave—that he loves her and she loves him. She quickly adds that this love does not mean that she has consented to become his mistress. The truth is that Orosmane’s love for her is so strong and pure that he plans to wed her.
Fatima, delighted to hear that Zaïre will be elevated from the place of a slave to that of sultana, has but one misgiving—Zaïre is forgetting that she is a Christian. Zaïre replies that she does not even know who her parents were; she has only Nerestan’s surmise, because of the cross she has worn since childhood, that she is a Christian. Since she has been a slave from her childhood, it is only natural that her faith reflects the customs of the place where she was reared. With Fatima, Zaïre admits, the situation is different; Fatima was captured in adulthood, and she had deliberately embraced Christianity before becoming a slave. Although Zaïre regards herself as Muslim, she admits that she is impressed by the Christian faith, but she assures Fatima that her love for Orosmane is so strong that she no longer considers becoming a Christian.
Orosmane then enters and expresses his love for Zaïre and his intention to marry her. As he professes his love, a servant comes in and announces the arrival of Nerestan, who enters and tells the sultan that he has come with ransom for the prisoners and that he is willing to remain as Orosmane’s slave. The sultan, impressed by Nerestan’s honor, replies that he will release not ten but one hundred prisoners. The only ones who will have to remain are Lusignan, a French nobleman who claims the hereditary right to rule in Jerusalem, and Zaïre.
Nerestan protests that Orosmane had promised to release the prisoners, and Zaïre in particular, if the ransom money were brought from France. Orosmane, however, permits no discussion of his decision. He dismisses Nerestan and orders Zaïre to prepare to assume her place as his sultana.
After the others have gone, Orosmane remarks to Corasmin, one of his officers, that Nerestan had sighed and fixed his eyes on Zaïre. When Corasmin warns his master against jealousy, the sultan replies that he cannot be jealous on Zaïre’s account because she is truth itself.
Chatillon, a French gentleman released at Orosmane’s command, praises Nerestan for having arranged to free the prisoners, but Nerestan is not gratified by Chatillon’s praise because of Orosmane’s refusal to release Zaïre and Lusignan. Chatillon agrees that without Lusignan, the great Christian leader and soldier who fought so valiantly in defense of Caesarea, there is no joy in his own freedom.
Nerestan then relates how, as an infant, he had been carried from the smoking ruins of the city of Caesarea to the sultan’s seraglio. Zaïre had been a fellow captive. Chatillon tries to encourage Nerestan by suggesting that Zaïre might charm Orosmane into releasing Lusignan, but Nerestan knows that Lusignan will not accept liberty under such circumstances.
Zaïre then enters and tells Nerestan that she regrets not being able to return to France with him, but her love for Orosmane makes that impossible. She assures him that she will use her new status to protect the Christians and to relieve the wretched. As evidence of her intentions, she offers Lusignan’s freedom, granted at her request by the sultan.
After Lusignan is released, Nerestan tells him how he had been a slave in Solyma almost from his birth and how he had been able to escape to fight with Louis against the Turks. Lusignan, greeting Chatillon, an old friend who was captured with him at Caesarea, reminds the Christian knight that he, Lusignan, had seen his own wife and two sons die there, and that another son and a daughter had been taken from him. Chatillon remembers that he had baptized the daughter just before the Saracens swept her and her brother away.
When Nerestan remarks that he was captured at the age of four, the age of Lusignan’s son when he was taken, and when Lusignan notices that Zaïre wears a cross that he had given to his wife as a present, it is revealed that Nerestan and Zaïre are Lusignan’s long-lost children. Zaïre, deeply moved by the discovery, vows to be a Christian from this moment onward.
Believing them to be friends from the time they were slaves together, Orosmane permits Zaïre to meet with Nerestan. Unknown to the sultan, however, Zaïre’s declaration as a Christian has inspired Nerestan to urge her to give up Orosmane altogether, even after Nerestan learns that Zaïre had hoped to wed the Turk. Zaïre is torn by emotional conflict; she knows Orosmane’s virtues and loves him as a person, but she cannot tolerate disappointing the hopes and faith of her brother and father, particularly after learning from Nerestan that their father is near death.
When Zaïre asks Orosmane to defer their nuptials, the sultan is amazed; her excuse, that Lusignan is dying, seems to him insufficient. After Zaïre leaves him in tears, Orosmane rages to Corasmin and reveals his fear that he has cause to be jealous of Nerestan. He resolves not to allow himself to be governed and deceived by Zaïre.
Orosmane confronts Zaïre again and tells her that he no longer loves her, but when she weeps and protests her love, he repents. When she leaves him, however, he wonders again about her virtue. When guards intercept a letter sent to Zaïre by Nerestan, Orosmane interprets the references to secrecy and to faithfulness as signs of a lover’s passion, and he accepts Corasmin’s suggestion to send the letter on to Zaïre in order that they might observe her behavior. In suppressed fury and jealousy he once more confronts Zaïre and asks her for the name of his rival. Although she insists that she has no other master, he can no longer believe her.
Orosmane has one last faint hope that the romance he suspects is one-sided, instigated by Nerestan, but his slave’s report that Zaïre received the letter with trembling and weeping and that she promised to meet Nerestan that night confirms his fear that she loves another. Zaïre, trying desperately, in the meantime, to reconcile her duty to her family and Christianity with her love for Orosmane, hopes that he will understand and pity her.
Orosmane intercepts Zaïre at the place of her meeting with Nerestan and, calling out that she has betrayed him, stabs her to death. When Nerestan arrives and reveals that Zaïre was his sister, the Turk is overcome with grief and remorse. After ordering Corasmin to free all the Christians, he kills himself with his dagger. Nerestan, understanding the depth of Orosmane’s remorse and sensing that his love had become perverted by jealousy, laments the sultan’s death.