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

Tamburlaine the Great

by Christopher Marlowe

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 755

Tamburlaine

Tamburlaine (TAM-bur-layn), the magniloquent Scythian shepherd who, becoming the ruler of vast lands in Africa and the Middle East, calls himself “the Scourge of God.” Absolutely ruthless, he kills the defenseless women and children in conquered cities and stabs his own son when he finds him gambling during an important battle. He is pre-eminently theatrical, delighting in triumphal pageants and in such spectacular effects as changing the color of his tents from white to red to black while he waits outside a city for its surrender or its challenge. This dramatic instinct inspires the imprisonment of Emperor Bajazeth in a cage and the harnessing of four defeated rulers to Tamburlaine’s chariot. Invulnerable to injury from men, Tamburlaine wages a strong battle against death and meets it in characteristic theatrical fashion when he has himself carried by his servants and friends to the head of his army.

Zenocrate

Zenocrate (zeh-NO-kruh-tee), his wife and the daughter of the soldan of Egypt. Although she is enraged when Tamburlaine captures her, she is quickly enthralled by his grand ambition and proudly wears her crown. She attempts on occasion to assuage her husband’s cruelty by pleading for the life of her father and urging tolerance for the weakness of their son, Calyphas.

Bajazeth

Bajazeth (BA-ja-zehth), the proud emperor of the Turks. Defeated by Tamburlaine in spite of his confidence in his own power, he is drawn about in a cage, like a beast, until he submits to his despair and dashes his brains out against the bars of his cage.

Zabina

Zabina (za-BI-na), the arrogant wife of Bajazeth. She scorns Zenocrate and Tamburlaine even after her capture. She strengthens Bajazeth’s resistance as long as possible, but she also recognizes the hopelessness of their state and kills herself as soon as she discovers her husband’s body.

Mycetes

Mycetes (mi-SEE-teez), the king of Persia, an incompetent ruler. He resents the insults offered by his brother Cosroe, but he is incapable of defending his realm against him.

Cosroe

Cosroe (kos-ROH-ee), Mycetes’ ambitious brother, who criticizes the king’s folly and plots the usurpation of his throne to restore the former glory of his nation. He enlists Tamburlaine’s help to win Mycetes’ crown, but he immediately finds himself deprived of the kingdom by his ally.

Techelles

Techelles (teh-KEH-leez) and

Usumcasane

Usumcasane (ew-suhm-kuh-SA-nee), Asian potentates and Tamburlaine’s generals, who are rewarded with large realms.

Theridamas

Theridamas (theh-rih-DA-muhs), a great Persian warrior who becomes one of Tamburlaine’s most valued advisers. He falls in love with Olympia, the virtuous widow of one of Tamburlaine’s conquered enemies, and asks her to marry him. He does not suspect her motives when she pretends to have a magic ointment that will save her from wounds, and he cuts her throat to test its efficacy.

Olympia

Olympia (oh-LIHM-pee-uh), the widow of the captain of Balsera. Faithful to her husband’s memory, she rejects Theridamas and tricks him into killing her.

Agydas

Agydas (A-gih-duhs), one of Zenocrate’s attendants. He foresees his mistress’ love for the Scythian shepherd and the inevitability of his own death as punishment for trying to change her mind, and he forestalls his murderers by committing suicide.

Magnetes

Magnetes (mag-NEE-teez), his companion, another Median lord.

Anippe

Anippe (a-NIH-pee), Zenocrate’s servant, as proud as her master and mistress.

Celebinus

Celebinus (seh-leh-BI-nuhs) and

Amyras

Amyras (a-MI-ruhs), the bold, self-confident heirs of Tamburlaine and Zenocrate.

Calyphas

Calyphas (KA-lih-fuhs), their brother, a luxury-loving youth, slain by his father, who despises his cowardice.

Callepine

Callepine (KA-leh-pin), Bajazeth’s son, imprisoned by Tamburlaine. He escapes with the help of his jailer and becomes the leader of the forces opposing Tamburlaine.

Orcanes

Orcanes (ohr-KAY-neez),

Gazellus

Gazellus (gah-ZEH-luhs), and

Uribassa

Uribassa (ew-rih-BA-suh), Muslim rulers who attempt to make an alliance with their Christian enemies to halt the power of Tamburlaine.

Sigismund

Sigismund (SIH-gihs-muhnd), the king of Hungary,

Frederick

Frederick, the lord of Buda, and

Baldwin

Baldwin, the lord of Bohemia, the Christian leaders who break their solemn vows of allegiance to the Muslims, attack them, and lose the battle to those they have betrayed.

The soldan of Egypt

The soldan of Egypt, Zenocrate’s father, who is enraged at the kidnapping of his daughter.

Meander

Meander (mee-AN-dur),

Ortygius

Ortygius (ohr-TIH-jee-uhs),

Ceneus

Ceneus (SEE-nee-uhs), and

Menaphon

Menaphon (MEH-nuh-fon), Persian supporters of Mycetes and Cosroe.

Capolin

Capolin (KA-poh-lihn), an Egyptian captain.

Philemus

Philemus (fih-LEE-muhs), the soldan’s messenger.

Almeda

Almeda (al-MEE-duh), Callepine’s jailer, who aids him to escape and joins his party.

Perdicas

Perdicas (PUR-dih-kuhs), Calyphas’ servant.

Characters

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2468

Agydas
Agydas is the Median, or Iranian, lord traveling to Egypt with Zenocrate when Tamburlaine captures them. Tamburlaine overhears Agydas advising Zenocrate to resist the ‘‘vile and barbarous’’ Tamburlaine’s advances. Agydas stabs himself to avoid torture.

Alcidamus
See King of Arabia

Almeda
Almeda is Callapine’s jailer, whom Callapine convinces to release him by promising Almeda a kingdom in Turkey. Callapine does in fact give him a kingdom before battling with Tamburlaine, although Almeda will never rule it because Tamburlaine wins the battle.

Amyras
Tamburlaine’s son and successor, who reluctantly accepts the crown while his father is dying, Amyras is a militaristic young man who idealizes his father. He revels in war, asking his father after they subdue the Turks whether they can release them and fight them again so that none may say it was a chance victory. However, as Amyras laments in the final lines of the play, he is no equal to Tamburlaine and will not be able to continue the glory of his reign.

Anippe
Anippe is Zenocrate’s maid, whose right it is to treat the Turkish Empress Zabina as a servant after Tamburlaine subdues the Turkish armies.

Bajazeth
The emperor of Turkey in part 1, until Tamburlaine conquers his armies and makes him a slave, Bajazeth is a proud Islamic leader who ultimately beats his brains out on his cage rather than be subject to more humiliation and starvation. Bajazeth swears before his last battle to remove Tamburlaine’s testicles and force him to draw his wife’s chariot. While captive, Bajazeth frequently curses Tamburlaine, highlighting his most barbarous moments. Bajazeth’s son Callapine extends the recurring theme of a bitter and vengeful enemy to Tamburlaine into part 2.

Bassoes
Now spelled ‘‘Bashaws’’ or ‘‘Pashas,’’ a bassoe was the title given to Turkish officials. In the play, bassoes are servants of Bajazeth.

Callapine
Bajazeth’s son and heir to the Turkish Empire, Callapine has dedicated his life to avenging his father’s cruel treatment and to destroying Tamburlaine. Callapine is a cunning leader who manages to win over his jailer and escape from Tamburlaine’s prison. Callapine also escapes from the battle that he loses to Tamburlaine, returning to attack Tamburlaine’s army at the end of the play. Although Callapine is no match for Tamburlaine, he does manage to stay alive and unconquered throughout the play, completely committed to, as he puts it, ‘‘conquering the tyrant of the world.’’ The implication is that he will return to haunt Amyras after Tamburlaine dies.

Calyphas
Calyphas is Tamburlaine’s son, whom Tamburlaine murders after he refuses to fight in the battle against the Turks. Calyphas is somewhat weak and slothful, which Tamburlaine despises. But Calyphas is also simply uninterested in war; he is content to play cards and fantasize about women.

Captain of Balsera
Olympia’s husband, the captain refuses to yield his hold to Techelles and Theridamas, and he is killed in the subsequent invasion.

Casane
See Usumcasane

Celebinus
Tamburlaine’s son, Celebinus, is a forceful young man who emulates his father.

Cosroe
Brother to the Mycetes, king of Persia, Cosroe usurps his brother’s title with Tamburlaine’s help. Cosroe worries about the state of the empire under his brother’s ineffectual rule, and he determines at the bequest of several Persian lords to take the crown and rule more wisely. Although Cosroe is not as weak as his brother, he is naive enough to leave Tamburlaine and his companions with all of their soldiers after they win the battle for the Persian crown, and Tamburlaine quickly challenges him to battle and triumphs.

Frederick
A peer of Hungary, Frederick persuades Sigismund to break his vow of peace with Orcanes.

Gazellus
The viceroy, or ruler with the mandate of a king, of the Turkish territory of Byron, Gazellus is an ally and advisor to Orcanes.

Governor of Babylon
Stubborn and unyielding, the governor of Babylon refuses to allow Tamburlaine inside his city. When he is conquered and under threat of death, however, he attempts to bribe Tamburlaine by telling him where a stockpile of gold is hidden. Tamburlaine has him hanged nevertheless.

Governor of Damascus
The governor of Damascus fears that Tamburlaine will slaughter everyone in his city, but his attempt to plead for mercy, sending four virgins to Tamburlaine’s camp, fails.

King of Arabia
The king of Arabia, also known as Alcidamus, is betrothed to Zenocrate before she is captured by Tamburlaine. Zenocrate prays for his life to be spared but Alcidamus is killed during Tamburlaine’s battle with the soldan of Egypt, and, as he dies, Alcidamus declares his love for Zenocrate.

King of Jerusalem
The king of Jerusalem is an ally of Callapine’s, and after defeating him Tamburlaine forces him to pull his chariot.

King of Soria
The king of ‘‘Soria,’’ or Syria, is one of Callapine’s subsidiary kings. After conquering him, Tamburlaine forces him to pull his chariot until he loses strength, at which point Tamburlaine has him hanged.

King of Trebizon
Like Soria, the king of Trebizon is an ally of Callapine’s who is forced to pull Tamburlaine’s chariot after he is conquered. The king of Trebizon is hanged when he becomes too tired to pull the chariot.

Meander
The Persian lord closest to Mycetes, Meander councils the king on defending himself from the uprising, but he changes his allegiance to Cosroe after the battle.

Menaphon
Menaphon is the Persian lord closest to Cosroe. He is key in the conspiracy to overthrow Mycetes.

Mycetes
Mycetes is the king of Persia from the opening of part 1 until Tamburlaine and Cosroe overthrow him. He is a weak king whose speech is characterized by repeated sounds and clichés. Although he complains that his brother abuses him, he does nothing about it. When Tamburlaine discovers Mycetes attempting to hide his crown on the battle field, an absurd attempt to ensure that no one will steal it, Tamburlaine lets the king keep it until he wins the battle.

Olympia
Wife to the Captain of Balsera, Olympia is a resigned but shrewd woman who watches her husband die, stabs her son, and then attempts to burn herself on their funeral pyre before Theridamas prevents her. Then, rather than submit to Theridamas’s romantic advances, she tricks him into stabbing her in the neck.

Orcanes
The king of Natolia, or Anatolia, a region slightly larger than the Anatolia of present-day Turkey, Orcanes is a fierce enemy to Tamburlaine. He has more vocal power than most of Tamburlaine’s other enemies, and he is a somewhat more complex figure as well, actually paying tribute to Christ because he believes that Christ was responsible for his victory over the king of Hungary, who broke his Christian vow of peace with Orcanes. After Tamburlaine enslaves him, Orcanes curses Tamburlaine with insights such as, ‘‘Thou showest the difference ‘twixt ourselves and thee / In this thy barbarous damned tyranny.’’

Perdicas
Perdicas is Calyphas’s idle companion, with whom Calyphas is playing cards before his father stabs him.

Sigismund
The Christian king of Hungary, Sigismund makes a vow by Christ to maintain peace with Orcanes, but his advisors persuade him to break the vow and attack Orcanes while they have the opportunity. When Sigismund has lost the battle and lies dying, he repents of this perjury and begs for Christian forgiveness.

Soldan of Egypt
The soldan of Egypt is Zenocrate’s father. He despises Tamburlaine for stealing his daughter and invading his land. After Tamburlaine conquers his armies, spares his life, and gives him back more than his former territory, however, the soldan praises Tamburlaine and consecrates his daughter’s marriage.

Son
The son of the captain of Balsera is a brave young man who allows his mother to stab him in order to avoid torture at the hands of Tamburlaine’s army.

Tamburlaine
Majestic and eloquent, with the ability to conquer not just kings and emperors but the audience of the play, Tamburlaine is one of the most important characters in Elizabethan drama. He is the source of the poetry that made Marlowe famous, and he can be both captivating and repellant because of his brutality. The key to his character is power and ambition, of which Tamburlaine has a superhuman amount, as well as the willingness to use any extreme in order to be triumphant. Unconcerned with social norms or everyday life, Tamburlaine views himself in relation to the gods, and Marlowe uses him as a tool to ask philosophical questions such as what is the furthest extent of human power and accomplishment, and whether this is significant in comparison with heaven.

Tamburlaine begins his life in what Marlowe calls Scythia, a region north and northeast of the Black Sea, and rises to power first in Persia, subsequently conquering much of North Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and India. Marlowe’s work concentrates on his battles with Turkish emperors and their subsidiary kings, whose territory at that time included much of the Middle East and North Africa. Tamburlaine’s personal life is closely related to his outward conquests; he wins his wife by conquering her father’s kingdom and then devastates much of the Middle East in his fury over her death. He sees his sons entirely as military leaders and murders his idle and slothful son Calyphas after he refuses to fight against the Turkish armies. At the end of his life, Tamburlaine is unsatisfied with the extent of his conquests. His thirst for power is unquenchable and, as his son and heir Amyras emphasizes, none can match Tamburlaine’s power.

Like most of Marlowe’s protagonists, Tamburlaine has a complex relationship with the audience of the play. He inspires a mixed reaction because he is brutal without bounds yet simultaneously passionate and glorious. Elizabethan audiences would be particularly offended, as well as somewhat titillated, by the presumptuousness of what they would consider a heathen—although the historical Tamburlaine was a Moslem, Marlowe shows him burning sacred Islamic texts and generally speaking as though he thinks of the gods in ancient Greek and Roman terms. This emphasis on mythology is also significant because Scythia is the area traditionally believed to hold the mountain to which Zeus chained Prometheus, a Titan who is famous for stealing fire from the gods and who, like Tamburlaine, dares to challenge Jupiter and the other classical gods.

Techelles
Tamburlaine’s close companion, Techelles is an ambitious military leader entirely loyal to Tamburlaine. He came with Tamburlaine from Scythia and continues to be a skillful general after Tamburlaine makes him king of Fez, North Africa. Techelles’s devotion to Tamburlaine, including his willingness to slaughter the virgins of Damascus and drown the population of Babylon, reveals Tamburlaine’s power as a leader.

Theridamas
The chief captain in the Persian army, Theridamas is sent to kill Tamburlaine but instead becomes his loyal and lifelong companion. Telling Tamburlaine he has been, ‘‘Won with thy words, and conquered with thy looks,’’ Theridamas quickly becomes one of Tamburlaine’s three closest advisors and most able generals. Tamburlaine makes him king of Argier, in North Africa, and Theridamas is critical to the sieges of Balsera and Babylon in part 2. At Balsera, Theridamas falls in love with Olympia, the wife of Balsera’s captain, and stops her from throwing herself on her husband and son’s funeral pyre.

Tamburlaine calls Theridamas majestic when he first meets him, and it is clear from part 1 that he is a valiant and powerful Persian lord, although he is perhaps not as power hungry as Techelles and Usumcasane, since he says in Act 2, Scene 3 that he could live without being a king. It is when he threatens to rape Olympia and gullibly accepts her magic war ointment over her ‘‘honour,’’ however, accidentally stabbing her, that Theridamas is revealed to be a warrior at heart and not a lover.

Uribassa
Uribassa is Orcanes’s ally and a viceroy of an unspecified Turkish territory. He and Gazellus are viceroys for Callapine while the emperor is Tamburlaine’s prisoner in Egypt.

Usumcasane
Usumcasane is Tamburlaine’s close companion who, like Techelles, comes from Scythia and is so devoted to Tamburlaine that he is unable to comprehend Tamburlaine’s death from illness.

Virgins of Damascus
After hearing their pleas for mercy on their city, Tamburlaine has the four virgins of Damascus slaughtered and hoisted on the city walls.

Zabina
Zabina is the proud Turkish empress of Bajazeth. She tells Zenocrate before their husbands go to battle that she would make her a slave, so at first the audience feels little sympathy for her when she is made the servant of Zenocrate’s maid. However, after Tamburlaine tortures her and her husband, keeping them inside a cage, and she and Bajazeth kill themselves, Zenocrate and the audience pity them and feel astonished at Tamburlaine’s cruelty. Before she goes mad and kills herself, Zabina reveals herself to be a practical person by urging her husband to eat and stay alive, hoping that at some point they will be freed.

Zenocrate
Daughter to the soldan of Egypt, Zenocrate is captured by Tamburlaine at the beginning of part 1, and she remains with him as his concubine, and then his wife, until her death in part 2, act 2. Initially, she resists Tamburlaine’s romantic suit and calls herself ‘‘wretched’’ because she is forced to remain with him, but by act 3 she has fallen in love with him and is swept up in the glory of conquest. Zenocrate is dismayed by the prospect of Tamburlaine making war with her father and her people, however. Her most difficult moment comes in part 1, act 5, scene 2, after Tamburlaine’s brutal siege of Damascus. Distraught after seeing Tamburlaine slaughter four innocent virgins, she then comes upon the bodies of Bajazeth and Zabina, who have killed themselves because of Tamburlaine’s cruelty. Nevertheless, she wishes Tamburlaine victory over her father and her former betrothed, Arabia, praying that their lives may be spared.

Tamburlaine’s frequent superlative descriptions of Zenocrate’s beauty and divine nature reveal Zenocrate’s critical influence on the actions of the play. Tamburlaine’s conquests in part 1 are closely related to winning Zenocrate, and in part 2 are largely a result of lamenting her death. These eloquent speeches, however, do not necessarily shed light on Zenocrate’s true character or her struggle, particularly in part 1, of allegiance between her lover and her people, which is also a struggle between brutality and peace. This struggle resolves after the Soldan agrees to Zenocrate’s marriage with Tamburlaine, although in part 2, act 1, Zenocrate wonders when her husband will finally cease his bloody conquests. Also, Tamburlaine’s struggle with his son Calyphas, who is completely uninterested in war, is an extension of the conflict between peace and war in his mother’s character.

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