(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.)

Tamburlaine the Great Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

When Mycetes becomes king of Persia, his brother, Cosroe, tells him openly that he is not fit for the office. Among Mycetes’ greatest concerns are the raids of Tamburlaine, the Scythian shepherd who became a bandit. Because it is rumored that this robber chief aspires to rule the East, Mycetes sends Theridamas with a thousand troops to capture Tamburlaine, and he orders another lord named Menaphon to follow Theridamas. Cosroe sarcastically points out to the king that Menaphon is needed in Babylon, where the province is about to revolt against a sovereign as inferior as Mycetes. At this insult, Mycetes threatens he will be revenged against his brother.

Menaphon asks Cosroe if he is afraid of the king’s threat, but Cosroe assures the Persian lord that there is a plot afoot to make Cosroe himself emperor of Asia. He claims that it hurts him to witness the scorn now heaped on Persia, which formerly awed the entire world. Soon afterward, the revolt Cosroe predicts takes place. The rebellious lords offer Cosroe the crown, and he sets out to annex the thousand troops of Theridamas and conquer his brother Mycetes.

On a Scythian hill, Tamburlaine is holding Zenocrate, the daughter of the sultan of Egypt. He speaks grandly of kingdoms he will conquer, and Techelles and Usumcasane echo his boasts, vowing to follow Tamburlaine to the death. The ambitious leader is in love with Zenocrate, and he promises her all the wealth and power in his kingdom. Suddenly, Mycetes’ thousand horse troops attack Tamburlaine’s five hundred foot soldiers. When Theridamas accosts the Scythian, he is so impressed with his appearance and with Tamburlaine’s visions of mighty kingdoms and power that the outlaw is able to persuade Theridamas to become an ally.

Cosroe prepares to send troops to join Tamburlaine and Theridamas by the river Araris and there to engage the forces of Mycetes, who is fuming with rage at the revolt. Meander, a follower of Mycetes, conceives the proposal that he who conquers Tamburlaine will be offered the province of Albania, and he who takes Theridamas can have Media. Mycetes stipulates, however, that Cosroe be captured alive. Mycetes is convinced that the followers of the bandit Tamburlaine can be bribed to desert their leader, since he purchased their loyalty by bribes in the first place.

When Cosroe meets Tamburlaine, the Scythian boasts of his great future; Theridamas indicates to Cosroe that he believes in Tamburlaine’s ability. Certain of victory, Cosroe promises Techelles and Usumcasane rewards for their deeds, and, indeed, Mycetes is defeated. After the victory, Tamburlaine then bribes Theridamas, Techelles, and Usumcasane with a promise of kingdoms of their own if they will attack Cosroe. Marveling at Tamburlaine’s arrogance and daring, Cosroe prepares for battle. Cosroe is wounded in battle, and...

(The entire section is 1168 words.)

Tamburlaine the Great Extended Summary

Part 1, Acts 1–2
Tamburlaine the Great begins with a prologue declaring that, unlike the silly wordplay of previous literature, this play will feature the ‘‘high astounding’’ words and actions of a conqueror. Act 1 then opens with the king of Persia, Mycetes, complaining to his brother Cosroe of a band of outlaws led by a ‘‘Scythian’’ shepherd named Tamburlaine. Scythians would technically have lived north and northeast of the Black Sea, but Marlowe uses the term interchangeably with ‘‘Tartar,’’ which signi- fies the area of East Asia controlled by Mongol tribes. Cosroe criticizes his brother for being a weak and foolish king, and Mycetes instructs his chief captain Theridamas to kill Tamburlaine and his band before they enter Persia. Then, two Persian lords inform Cosroe of widespread unrest and offer him the crown, which Cosroe accepts.

Act 1, scene 2 introduces Tamburlaine, who has captured the Egyptian princess Zenocrate and is declaring his love for her. Theridamas arrives with one thousand soldiers, compared to Tamburlaine’s five hundred, but Tamburlaine convinces Theridamas in a parlay to join his side. In act 2, Cosroe joins with Tamburlaine to overthrow his brother. When Mycetes hears of this, his lord Meander forms a plan to throw gold on the field in order to distract soldiers, whom he considers to be greedy thieves. Tamburlaine encounters Mycetes attempting to hide his crown in a hole; Tamburlaine tells Mycetes that he will not steal his crown yet, but take it when he wins the battle. After Tamburlaine and Cosroe conquer Mycetes’s army, Cosroe departs for Persepolis, the capitol. Tamburlaine decides to challenge Cosroe to a battle for the Persian crown. Tamburlaine triumphs and Cosroe dies, cursing Tamburlaine and Theridamas.

Part 1, Acts 3–5
In act 3, scene 1, the Turkish Emperor Bajazeth discusses with his subsidiary kings their siege of Constantinople, which was then held by Christians. He warns Tamburlaine not to enter Africa or ‘‘Graecia,’’ which included much of the Balkan peninsula, then under Turkish control. In the next scene, Tamburlaine overhears the Median, or Iranian, Lord Agydas urge Zenocrate to disdain Tamburlaine’s suit, but Zenocrate stresses that she wants to be his wife. Tamburlaine surprises them, and Agydas stabs himself to avoid torture. Act 3 concludes with Tamburlaine’s victory over the Turks and Tamburlaine making slaves of Bajazeth and his wife Zabina.

Zenocrate’s father, the...

(The entire section is 1032 words.)