(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Tamburlaine the Great cover image

When Tamburlaine the Great burst upon the Elizabethan stage in 1587, it took audiences by storm. The most popular tragedy of the time had been Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (pr. c. 1585-1589, pb. 1594?), which featured a strong dramatic sense but unmemorable verse. Tamburlaine the Great, in contrast, was written in poetry of the scope and magnificence that moved Shakespeare to write of “the proud full sail of [Marlowe’s] great verse” (Sonnet 86).

Vital to the play’s success was the figure of Tamburlaine. The prologue introduces him in lines that were to become famous: “Threatening the world with high astounding terms,/ And scourging kingdoms with his conquering sword.” Tamburlaine’s power comes from his limitless self-concept, not from his birth, which was that of a humble shepherd. In Marlowe’s world, a person’s worth is measured by his or her actions. Thus Tamburlaine declares, “I am a lord, for so my deeds shall prove—/ And yet a shepherd by my parentage.” His thoughts, he says, are coequal with the clouds, and his aspiration is immortality such as the gods enjoy. Indeed, he claims to gain his authority to terrorize the world from Jove himself, whose scourge he is.

As for the traditional enemies of the aspirant—Death and Fortune—the plays contain frequent references to Tamburlaine’s mastery over them, as in the passage in Part I, act 1, where he claims that he has bound the Fates in iron chains and turns Fortune’s wheel with his own hand. He appears to have assumed the role of Fate in condemning the virgins of Damascus to death for their failure to surrender before he symbolically decked his tents in black: His Customs, he says, are “as peremptory/ As wrathful planets, death, or destiny.”

Such assertions are hubristic in the extreme and, in a Christian context, would merit a downfall such as Faustus’s. Tamburlaine, however, moves freely in a non-Christian setting. His death, when it comes, occurs through illness. He is never punished for his past exploits; rather, he is lionized by all save his enemies. “Nature,” he says, “ . . . doth teach us...

(The entire section is 881 words.)