Among most successful plays of the Elizabethan era, the two parts of Tamburlaine the Great captivated audiences with their eloquent rhetoric and powerful verse. Although they remained popular as pieces of literature, they were not frequently performed in later periods and are infrequently performed in the early 2000s in comparison with Marlowe’s other works. The grandiose wars and conquests of the plays may not translate well to the modern stage, but the work is now, and has been for centuries, a prominent subject for stylistic and thematic literary criticism.
Marlowe’s reputation suffered because of the numerous scandals surrounding his private life, including the circumstances of his death. Claims that he was an immoral atheist and blasphemer initially affected the critical evaluation of his plays. The dramatist’s critical reception recovered, however, and Tamburlaine the Great became one of the principle subjects for critics interested in the development of blank verse and the style of Renaissance drama. Most critics consider it extremely important, if not the most important work, in developing the style that came to a height around the turn of the sixteenth century.
Regarding the principle thematic meaning of the work, two analytical views eventually emerged to explain Tamburlaine’s ambivalent character. The first view stresses that Tamburlaine is a brutal and un-Christian tyrant whose power and ambition is reprehensible. As Roger Sales points out in his 1991 study Christopher Marlowe: ‘‘Tamburlaine’s rise to power is usually at the expense of a series of legitimate rulers. Might is shown to triumph over right.’’ The second main analytical view stresses, instead, that Tamburlaine’s glory and majesty inspire the audience to recognize the highest limits of human achievement—a view that J. W. Harper calls ‘‘romantic’’ in his 1971 introduction to the plays: ‘‘the view that he is a perfect symbol of the Renaissance spirit and the spokesman for Marlowe’s own aspirations and energies.’’ Harper stresses that the first view—that Tamburlaine is a ‘‘stock figure of evil’’—is more accurate than the ‘‘romantic’’ view. But, like most critics, he acknowledges that there is some truth to both interpretations.