A study of driving ambition, Tamburlaine the Great is also notable for the dignity and beauty of Christopher Marlowe’s lines. The poetry of the play is all the more remarkable for being among the first written in English blank verse. Marlowe wrote with so much original invention, that for a time many scholars believed him the author of some plays now attributed to William Shakespeare. It is safe to say that Marlowe is the best of the pre-Shakespearean playwrights.
Marlowe’s turbulent life ended tragically, and perhaps characteristically, in a barroom brawl with a man named Ingram Frizer. Even though he was only twenty-nine when he died, Marlowe managed to set a precedent for the development of English drama by leaving behind a model of Senecan dramatic form. His first production, Tamburlaine the Great, more a dramatic masque than a play, was a milestone of early Elizabethan drama. Certainly Shakespeare must have been influenced, especially in Julius Caesar (pr. c. 1599-1600, pb. 1623), by the conjunction of “Nature,” “Fortune,” and “stars” in the construction of Tamburlaine’s character. Above all, Marlowe made blank verse the accepted mode of Elizabethan theatrical expression, both to reflect delicate grace and to pronounce such mighty lines as, “Even as when windy exhalations/ Fighting for passage, tilt within the earth.” The character Tamburlaine is shown capable of a certain tenderness because of Marlowe’s poetic versatility. As the hero says to Zenocrate, “With milk-white harts upon an ivory sled/ Thou shalt be drawn amidst the frozen pools,/ And scale the icy mountains’ lofty tops,/ Which with thy beauty will be soon resolv’d.”
Basing his drama on the history of Timur the Lane (1336-1406), a Mongol conqueror and descendant of Genghis Khan, Marlowe constructed his first Herculean hero as a bloodthirsty personification of the Renaissance spirit of boldness, defiance, and determination who tests the limitations of human ability. Invulnerable to all attacks but that of death, Tamburlaine moves toward his goals undaunted by considerations of destiny or accidental circumstances. He is the master of his own destiny simply because he decides to be and finds no one strong enough to deny him his ambitions. He says to Theridamas, “Forsake thy king, and do but join with me/ And we will triumph over all the world:/ I hold the Fates bound fast in iron chains,/ And with my hand turn Fortune’s wheel about.” Here is the hubris of classical Athenian tragedy, but with a difference: Tamburlaine is not struck down because of it; instead, he succeeds in everything he has time to undertake. One of the most effective moments of part 2, which is overall less compelling than part 1, is the passage in act 5 when Tamburlaine says, “Give me a map; then let me see how much/ Is left for me to conquer all the world.” Only physical inevitabilities bring Marlowe’s hero low, although it is clear that he becomes somewhat vulnerable once he gains love and possessions and sons.
He succeeds in attaining his goals because he regards the world and every thing and every person in it as an object. It is not surprising that his mighty, rhetorical speeches are filled with references to crimson robes, meteors, jewels, vermilion tents, and gold crowns. There is, in fact, a close connection between Tamburlaine’s rhetoric and his achievements. He is godlike in the sense that what he says he does; his words become deeds. It is not surprising that he regards even Zenocrate’s dead body as an object “Embalm’d with cassia, ambergris, and myrrh/ Not lapp’d in lead, but in a sheet of gold.” It is but another splendid, colorful object under his control to preserve or to destroy. In the same vein, he uses his victims as horses to pull his chariots. Tamburlaine is the egotistic dream of the Renaissance epitomized: “Of stature tall, and straightly fashioned/ Like his desire, lift upwards and divine.” In the correspondence between his...
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