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

Tamburlaine the Great

by Christopher Marlowe

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Highlight the Elizabethan tragic characteristics in Tamburlaine the Great.

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Protagonists of the Elizabethan drama, exclusive of Shakespeare’s positive characters, are all individualistic. Their individualism is both a historical necessity and a source of their tragic fate. The most vivid and characteristic feature of these tragedies is the presence of an independent protagonist who rejects limitations, morality, and prejudices of the medieval world.

Tamburlaine the Great (1587) portrays the heroic feats of Timur (Tamerlane), the famed Turco-Mongol conqueror of the fourteenth century. Although Marlowe drew on historical sources as he composed his drama, his Tamburlaine has but a slight resemblance to his historical prototype. However, Marlowe’s Tamburlaine is a true product of his time. He breaks with all moral and ideological traditions of the previous era and fights for his Fortune.

The drama’s main idea is the assertion of man’s boundless dominance in the new world of the Renaissance epoch. In his victorious procession, this conqueror destroys all age-long establishments and unmasks the inadequacy of religious, social, and moral ideas of the past. Says he,

I hold the Fates bound fast in iron chains,

And with my hand turn Fortune's wheel about... (act 1, scene 2)

However, the protagonist evolves throughout the plot. In the first part of the drama, we see his rich inner world: his sublime passion for Zenocrate and his friendship with Theridamas. His cruel acts are always logically explained, because he is bound to fight his enemies.

In the second part, he becomes atrocious. He does not hesitate to kill his own son, punishing him for his lack of belligerence and ambition. As he mourns Zenocrate’s death, he razes a whole city to the ground.

In depicting his protagonist, Marlowe is trying to establish his faith in the new man and in his claim over the world. But being a great artist as he is, Marlowe cannot help capturing the traits that were characteristic of the actual conquerors of the world in history. As he leads his hero along his victorious path, the brutal nature of the real new masters of the world becomes more conspicuous in him.

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