illustration of main character Tamburlaine standing in armor with sword and shield

Tamburlaine the Great

by Christopher Marlowe

Start Free Trial

Consider the character of Tamburlaine in Marlowe's play Tamburlaine the Great as a Renaissance man and in terms of Renaissance humanism.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In most respects, in my view, Marlowe's depiction of Tamburlaine has very little to do with humanism or the Renaissance in general.

One of the striking things in the play is the degree of cruelty depicted—cruelty engaged in by Tamburlaine himself, in accordance with the European view of the historical Tamerlane (or Timur). The most personally sadistic act is the placing of his adversary Bajazeth in a cage and displaying him—feeding him like a dog—with the result being Bajazeth, in his humiliation, "brain[ing] himself" (committing suicide by smashing his head against the bars).

Something that we can perhaps perceive as positive from Tamburlaine is his relentless striving for an empire, for a transformation of the existing world under his power. He does this through continued cruelty and sadism, but one interpretation is that, in his remaking of the world, he is trying to accomplish a similar overturning of the dark past that Renaissance humanism did by peaceful means.

Tamburlaine finally seems human in the end when he describes to his son (in the extravagant and ultra-poetic language Marlowe gives him) his grandiose and sweeping plans, which he does not live to carry out. There is a kind of irony in Marlowe's depictions throughout, in which the most horrifyingly cruel actions are narrated matter-of-factly but in the most beautiful words. The approach enhances the power and realism of the scenario, in which a wild career of conquest is enacted by a man who began as a "Scythian shepherd."

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In some ways, the association of Tamburlaine with the Renaissance and humanism seems daring. The Renaissance emphasized moderation and harmony, while Tamburlaine is ambitious and excessive. Yet, on a deeper level, there are some important connections. Tamburlaine is a truly Renaissance humanist in that he stresses man's central position in the world as well as human freedom from oppressive moral systems. Tamburlaine often compares himself to Gods in terms of his power and his actions: what better precendent, he famously asks, than mighty Jove for his thirst for power? In another passage he claims that

Though Mars himself, the angry god of arms,
And all the earthly potentates conspire
To dispossess me of this diadem,
Yet will I wear it in despite of them

This attitude fits in well with the Renaissance idea that humans do not have to feel subdued to religious or theological dogmas. In his willingness to use extreme measures to keep power, Tamburlaine resembles the prince idealized by Florentine Renaissance political thinker Niccolò Machiavelli.

In addition, Renaissance humanism stressed the importance of studying rhetoric to improve one's eloquence in contrast to the Middle Ages preference for concrete and practical occupations often taught from approved textbooks. Tamburlaine is certainly a skilful rhetorician who is able to make the audience share his own ideas and persuade them to adopt his point of view.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial Team