Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

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