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

Tamburlaine the Great

by Christopher Marlowe

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Critical Essay on Tamburlaine the Great

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1491

On the surface, Tamburlaine the Great is a play about war and conquest, that is concerned with ambition, domination, and power in the public sphere, while private conflicts and domestic life are neither glorious nor important. Actions in the play take on epic proportions, and Tamburlaine places his life on the scale of the gods, whom he frequently challenges and to whom he often compares himself. Although Marlowe is concerned with ambition, power, and violence, his principle interest is in the origin of these themes in Tamburlaine’s internal psychology. In fact, Tamburlaine is actually much less interested in conquest and political rule than he is in winning over his idealized wife, extending his sense of self to the next generation, and satisfying his egotistical desires to feel majestic and triumphant.

One of the most important pieces of evidence that Tamburlaine the Great is a psychological drama lies in its treatment of Tamburlaine’s relationship with Zenocrate. Zenocrate is entirely Marlowe’s own addition to the narrative; she does not appear in any historical documents about Tamerlane the conqueror and there is no evidence that Tamerlane fell passionately in love with anyone. The historical Tamerlane had a number of wives and concubines, including the warlord Amir Husayn’s sister, whom he married to fortify their alliance, and also a former wife of Husayn, after Tamerlane had him killed. Unlike these women, Zenocrate does not help forward Tamburlaine’s practical political goals in the play; if anything, she does him harm since she arouses the attempted vengeance of the king of Arabia and her father, the soldan of Egypt.

In fact, Tamburlaine seems almost to adjust his political ambitions, conquering Zenocrate’s people, her betrothed husband, and her father, in order to win his wife entirely and become the king of their relationship. Of course, Tamburlaine states that he will not alter his military aims for his wife, and he does not accommodate her request for mercy on her people, but he does spare the soldan’s life and give him back more than his former territory. This is an action suitable not for a warrior with purely political and military ambitions, but for a son-in-law who wishes to be the magnanimous ruler of his marriage. Tamburlaine views his domestic life as a battle to be won, and his wife a treasure to be pillaged, by conquering her territory and subduing the other males who lay claim to her.

Likewise, the conquests of part 2 do not originate in Tamburlaine’s grand plan for military expansion as much as they signify the destruction and violence he feels are necessary to grieve for and honor his late wife. Marlowe stresses that this is the case in the prologue to part 2: ‘‘But what became of fair Zenocrate, / And with how many cities’ sacri- fice / He celebrated her sad funeral.’’ As before, Tamburlaine forces the conditions of his personal life on the outer world; he burns the city where Zenocrate died, pillages many others, and drowns the entire population of Babylon in order to express the devastation of his marriage. Whereas, before his marriage, he killed the four virgins of Damascus after showing them the ‘‘imperious Death’’ that sits on his sword, representing the penetration of Zenocrate’s virginity, now he drowns the women and children of Babylon in order to cease their fertility and ensure that, like his wife’s dead body, they are barren.

Marlowe is careful to highlight that there is often something strange and shocking about Tamburlaine’s transference of his psychological state onto the state of the world. The paradox that Tamburlaine ‘‘celebrated’’ a ‘‘sad funeral’’ with the sacrifice of numerous conquered cities highlights the theme, which is also common in part 1, that Tamburlaine’s militaristic displays of brutality and power are often inappropriate and perverse in the context of his personal life. Marlowe chooses two moments in Tamburlaine the Great to portray this theme most acutely, the first of which comes at the confluence of the slaughter of the virgins of Damascus and the suicides of Bajazeth and Zabina. When Zenocrate discovers their bodies, having just witnessed Tamburlaine’s slaughter of her people, she is torn between repulsion and devotion towards her husband, and the audience feels the same way. Tamburlaine’s defeat and imprisonment of Bajazeth and his wife seem appropriate at first, given Bajazeth’s threat to bind Tamburlaine in chains and make him a eunuch, but when the Turks are tortured inside a cage and humiliated as an ornament to Tamburlaine’s domestic scene, events rapidly begin to take on a cruel and barbarous significance. By the time Zabina sees her husband’s gory remains and goes mad, the audience feels appalled that Tamburlaine could cause such a thing to happen.

Similarly, when Tamburlaine ignores the protestations of his sons and comrades in part 2, and murders his son Calyphas for failing to fight against the Turkish armies, the audience is repulsed by Tamburlaine employing brutal, military force on his defenseless child. Calling him, ‘‘not my son, / But traitor to my name and majesty,’’ Tamburlaine kills Calyphas because he fails to satisfy Tamburlaine’s sense of psychological self-preservation. In his address to Jove immediately before he stabs his son, Tamburlaine tells the God to take back his son’s soul because it is, ‘‘A form not meet to give that subject essence, / Whose matter is the flesh of Tamburlaine.’’

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of this moment is the idea that Tamburlaine could be so self obsessed as to murder his son, without regret, simply because his son does not fulfill his function as an extension of Tamburlaine’s ego. Audiences alternate between finding Tamburlaine’s violence and cruelty evil and finding it somewhat titillating; they feel ashamed and disturbed when they encounter extreme moments of cruelty—which they had previously admired—invading Tamburlaine’s personal and domestic life. However, the recurring aspect of Tamburlaine’s character, with which audiences find it perhaps most difficult to sympathize, is his incredible egotism. Tamburlaine has absolutely no inhibitions in acting out his most basic psychological desires. He has no boundary between his internal sense of self and his desire to impose his sense of self upon the world around him.

Marlowe uses this psychological drama to arouse suspicion about the desirability of Tamburlaine’s enormous egotism and emphasize that his presumptuousness is unnatural and un-Christian. Like the orthodox moralists of his age, Marlowe is concerned about excessive pride, and he is careful to highlight its dangers and temptations, which lurk inside everyone’s mind but, unlike Tamburlaine’s, are not always externalized. Marlowe also demonstrates through Tamburlaine’s outwardly-directed psychology that human beings are passionate, romantic creatures with glorious and limitless aspirations. However much it seems to highlight the dangers of great ambition, Tamburlaine the Great also suggests that the human psyche, if blown to the proportion of Tamburlaine’s, and allowed to escape the bounds of humility and internalization, is capable of rising to the scale of a god.

Tamburlaine is not a model for human psychology or an everyman figure; he is entirely unique, even unrealistic at times, and none of the other characters approach his eloquence or power in the play. Theridamas, although he is a majestic conqueror, cannot conquer Olympia in the domestic sphere as Tamburlaine has conquered Zenocrate; Theridamas succumbs to a simple trick and, in his attempt to bring his military might down upon his desired wife, accidentally kills her. As Amyras points out to his father when they learn of his impending death: ‘‘Your soul gives essence to our wretched subjects, / Whose matter is incorporate in your flesh.’’ Tamburlaine’s allies are merely part of his majestic flesh, which eclipses all other glory and allows little else to coexist with its majesty.

Nevertheless, Marlowe sees Tamburlaine as a signal of the potential inherent in every human psyche, which has such shockingly powerful and violent desires that it is capable of almost anything. Nearly everyone, from the audience to the other characters in the play, reveals his/her taste for power and majesty by becoming so enthralled by Tamburlaine. This is a natural reaction, the reaction Marlowe intends by stressing that one can capture almost any passion and conquer almost any impediment to one’s deepest desire if one is willing to disregard convention and carry out acts of ruthless violence. Marlowe is pointing out the fact that the world is not, as was commonly believed, a series of strictly orthodox moral hoops through which a person must jump in order to lead a happy existence, but a brutal arena in which the most violent, ambitious, and unappeasable desires and egos will rule. Tamburlaine shows that a basic aspect of the human psyche—its appetite for power—has a limitless potential and allows for the greatest of human achievements.

Source: Scott Trudell, Critical Essay on Tamburlaine the Great, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

Divine Zenocrate

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4093

In the Renaissance period, hierarchies of power hinged on the construction of masculinity in opposition to, and through suppression of, the other. The dramatic text, ‘‘a compendium of small dynamics of power,’’ brings into play both power hierarchies and gender relations with immediacy. Perhaps no Renaissance drama embodies the construction of the masculine and the suppression of the feminine more than Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine I. The rise and triumph of Tamburlaine Is paralleled by the fall and failure of Zenocrate, providing an interpersonal exposé of power relations in which masculine authority and victory is predicated on the destruction of the feminine other’s voice and volition.

Although Christopher Marlowe is noted for his lack of interest in the female point of view, Tamburlaine I is an exception: the play includes a comparatively extensive portrayal of female characters. Zenocrate is Marlowe’s most famous female character and arguably his most fully developed, ‘‘yet we know little about her aside from the effect she has on Tamburlaine.’’ Thus readers have traditionally viewed Zenocrate through that lens. There is, however, a second perspective: from the angle of Tamburlaine’s effect on her. During the course of five acts in Tamburlaine I, the Scythian shepherd manipulates Zenocrate’s emotions, which run the gamut from hatred to love to despair to resignation. Her longest and most pivotal statements, in fact, focus on the emotional turmoil caused by her love for Tamburlaine and his (limited) affection for her.

Tamburlaine, whose sins go unpunished in Part I, apparently holds the strings to Zenocrate, as he seemingly does for all the characters. The warrior’s ‘‘physical prowess and singular ambitions captivate all whom he encounters,’’ both male and female. Significantly, every attack upon Tamburlaine Is unsuccessful or rebounds on his enemies. Kings, queens and sultans’ daughters have no antidote to the shepherd’s ambition; he robs them of agency. If they act, they do so in futility. Despite Zenocrate’s eloquence and virtue, she is ultimately a Marlovian woman, helpless and ineffectual. Despite her proximity to and influence over Tamburlaine, Zenocrate is unable to prevent the destruction and bloodshed her lover seems bent on unleashing. Tamburlaine’s primary effect on Zenocrate is one of immobilization; she is unable to act. Tamburlaine allows her recourse only to rhetorical agency: she speaks. In a male world of cruelty and violence, such as that created by Tamburlaine, women’s most valuable and useful power may indeed be that of speech, to moralize, reason, and persuade. Yet words bounce off the ‘‘scourge of God’’; although Zenocrate curses Tamburlaine’s presumptuous pride, her warnings are seen as ‘‘mere words’’ by both her lover and the audience.

Eloquent but ineffectual in the face of the Scythian’s consuming ambition, Zenocrate’s speech serves a different purpose: it provides a contrasting point of view. The princess may not save Damascus (or its virgins or even herself), but her ideas and values, as voiced through her language, suggest an alternative to Tamburlaine’s unholy world. This alternative, however, can never be realized in Marlowe’s play. Zenocrate is doomed to be subservient to Tamburlaine’s will—an absolute will that leaves no room for another’s volition. By forcing his will upon her and making her love him, Tamburlaine permanently alters Zenocrate’s life: his love for the princess becomes her demise. Tamburlaine’s relationship with Zenocrate is ultimately an act of reduction, as he reduces her to a voice, an impotent but plaintive voice, and finally to a silence.

Yet Zenocrate is not simply the voice of the other, the disempowered, a dissenter irrevocably tied to and manipulated by the force that will destroy her. Her role becomes complicated by irony: that of the other doomed to speak against herself. In Tamburlaine I, Zenocrate’s speech acts betray her. She gives voice to morality, compassion, and concern for the eternal in a world that devalues and denies both. In Tamburlaine’s world, as Zenocrate demonstrates, voice can disempower. The shepherd builds his authority through speech; in contrast, Zenocrate’s words serve to ultimately undermine and destroy her identity. Her struggle to voice the conflict between her loyalty to Tamburlaine and her adherence to her own values provides Tamburlaine (and Marlowe) with a necessary source of opposition, but the threat is never a serious one. Although Tamburlaine effects a drastic change in her, turning a saucy princess into a shell-shocked survivor, she can never alter his character or ambition.

In reality, Zenocrate is made impotent before she even speaks: the reader first meets her as a captive of Tamburlaine and his soldiers, who are laden with Egyptian treasure from her procession. As a prisoner, albeit a royal one, Zenocrate lacks agency; only her voice might serve her. She employs it to plead with Tamburlaine for the release of herself and her retinue. But Tamburlaine responds by asking if she is betrothed, then asserting, ‘‘But lady, this fair face and heavenly hue / Must grace his bed that conquers Asia / And means to be a terror of the world’’ (1.2.36–8). Marlowe thus underscores the fact that Zenocrate, for all her eloquence and rationality, will be first and foremost a jewel in Tamburlaine’s crown.

The ‘‘terror of the world’’ views Zenocrate as an icon and a possession. Yet because her voice is plaintive and her plight pitiable, her power must be removed and diffused—she must be placed on a pedestal. Tamburlaine answers her disdain with a speech of seductive flattery, promising Zenocrate:

With milk-white harts upon an ivory sled
Thou shalt be drawn amidst the frozen pools
And scale the icy mountains’ lofty tops (1.2.98–100).

His seduction speech rebounds with metaphors of frigidity and inaccessibility. Thus he elevates her above both action and audience, too frosty and pure and immobile to act—he attempts to confine her power to beauty and chastity. Through the seduction speech, the shepherd defines Zenocrate; in doing so, he defines his territory. She is a land to be conquered, a height to be scaled, a walled city in need of protection. Her spoils will be his alone. He speaks for her, describing her desire and fate in his own terms of appropriation and control. He also negates her sexual power:

This aestheticizing of Zenocrate is also, of course, robbing her of any sexual threat; Tamburlaine is controlling her by situating her in an environment of frosty inaccessibility. It is, then, an act of appropriation or colonization: Tamburlaine iss marking out the extent of his empire.

Zenocrate becomes, in an ironic twist of the Scythian’s mind, both the spoils and the receiver of booty: he takes her as his prize, yet will later offer himself to her. The sinister promise—that Tamburlaine will make himself a gift to his beautiful captive—smacks of captivity narrative; the conqueror colonizes the other to diffuse and absorb her power.

But male desire will not be consummated in this play: part of Tamburlaine’s empowerment (and Zenocrate’s impotence) lies in the negation of sexual desire. Tamburlaine I is a remarkably asexual text; its protagonist does not bend to bodily impulses, lest he lose momentum. Stephen Greenblatt has compared Tamburlaine to a machine: ‘‘Once set in motion, this thing cannot slow down or change course.’’ In the play, the protagonist has little need for sexual gratification through women because ‘‘blood lust replaces sexual desire in a sublimation achieved through violence.’’ Even as the warrior shuns physical distractions, he gathers psychic power from the source of those distractions: Zenocrate’s body. Medieval and Renaissance belief endowed virginity with unique powers, including the ability to mediate between the earthly and the divine— chastity embodied power to transcend the corporeal.

Tamburlaine respects the princess’s virginity and endeavors to maintain her bodily integrity, hedging his bets for immortality. By doing so, he robs Zenocrate of one traditionally female power: influence in the bedroom. The noblewoman is in the unique position of being the prisoner of a man who won’t touch her; all she has left is her voice. Tamburlaine’s flattery and manipulative speech have the desired effect: between Acts 1 and 3, Zenocrate inexplicably falls in love with the opportunist, professing to find ‘‘His talk much sweeter than the Muses’ song’’ (3.2.50). The warrior understands that ‘‘women must be flattered’’ (1.2.107).

As Emily Bartels has noted, ‘‘Tamburlaine tailors his image to the needs and expectations of his contenders, answering their desires and outdoing their resistance.’’ For the warrior, womanhood in the shape of Zenocrate contends with his manly ambitions; romance and sex threaten his imperialist plans. By tempting her with lordliness and love, he brings the other into the fold where she can be manipulated and controlled. He woos her with visions of empire and riches, the dream that motivates him. Zenocrate, all too human, cannot deny the appeal of glory and power:

And higher would I rear my estimate
Than Juno, sister to the highest god,
If I were matched with mighty Tamburlaine (3.2.53–5).

She now sees her own worth and reputation as tied to her master’s. The same woman who has boldly denounced Tamburlaine’s pretensions is now fatefully smitten and speaks of ‘‘Fearing his love through my unworthiness’’ (3.2.65). Her friend Agydas has attempted to point out her new lover’s faults, but Zenocrate rebuts his arguments. Yet her new passivity is palpable: when Tamburlaine, who has overheard the discussion, appears, the lovers do not greet each passionately. He claims her without a word and she is led away in silence.

Zenocrate’s silent moments may be seen as acts of submission or resignation in the face of Tamburlaine’s power, but never as indications of contentment. During her discussion with Agydas, she speaks as a woman in love, but fretfully so, as if trying to convince herself as well. Her words of praise ring hollow, as if she were reciting a script prepared for her, indeed as if Tamburlaine himself were putting words into her mouth. As Tamburlaine leads her offstage, his scowl foreboding death for Agydas, the audience must imagine what battle rages in her heart. Zenocrate’s speeches in the play similarly eschew contentment: happiness is absent from her words. Her two major spoken acts, the mock-battle scene and the Zabina-death scene, involve two very different types of speech: the first martial and bickering, the second passionate and regretful.

In the battle scene (3.2), Zenocrate’s selfconfidence wanes as her lover’s political power increases. She voices doubt in Tamburlaine’s love for her because of her ‘‘unworthiness.’’ Tamburlaine, the master strategist, recognizes her reluctance and creates an occasion that requires her to rise to it. He suggests she match words against Zabina, his rival’s wife, as he matches swords with Bajazeth. He instructs her to ‘‘take thou my crown, vaunt of my worth, / And manage words with her as we will arms’’ (3.2.130–31). Zenocrate, like the other characters ‘‘follow[s] his example and take[s] his instructions to heart.’’ The new king gives her a taste of royalty even as he invites her to join the man’s world of sparring and battle. In this case she and Zabina engage in a battle of word and wit, an elevated and eloquent bickering that mimics, in empty words, the men’s roles on the battlefield. By arranging such a performance, Tamburlaine tricks Zenocrate into changing sides; she is placed in opposition to Zabina and defends him. Thus she acts against herself, favoring bloodshed over peace, abusing the character of another noblewoman in hopes of pleasing a cruel and insatiable warrior. As Zabina and Zenocrate exchange jibes, threatening each other with slavery and prostitution if one should fall under the other’s power, they pitifully foreshadow their own roles as pawns of Tamburlaine. Zenocrate is particularly prophetic, telling Zabina that soon she and Bajazeth must plead for mercy and ‘‘sue to me to be your advocates’’ (3.2.174). In adopting the martial and threatening speech of men, Zenocrate’s words betray her: soon Zabina and Bajazeth will indeed want for mercy, which Zenocrate will withhold, to her later regret.

The verbal antagonism continues during the first cage scene (4.2), as the conquered Turkish king is imprisoned and humiliated. Tamburlaine’s egotistical defense of his inhumane treatment of Bajazeth, ‘‘This is my mind, and I will have it so’’ (4.2.91), serves as a refrain for the entire play. The king’s will is absolute; he makes no promises to Zenocrate, or any other individual, that might undermine his imperialism. Techelles requests that he ‘‘make these captives rein their lavish tongues’’ (4.2.67), an ironic comment in that Tamburlaine’s tongue is certainly the most lavish of all. The cogent comments of Bajazeth and Zabina make the dinner guests uncomfortable with their bloody victory, perhaps; the revelry and jesting of Tamburlaine’s followers seem intended to drown out any twinges of conscience. Although Zenocrate initially plays against the Turks’ words to gain favor with Tamburlaine and to shore up a little power, she soon wearies of the verbal gaming and falls silent.

Bajazeth and Zabina provide an entertaining spectacle at mealtime, but Zenocrate has larger worries during the victory banquet. Her silence prompts the king to ask, ‘‘Pray thee tell, why art thou so sad?’’ (4.4.66). Zenocrate’s emotional withdrawal allows her to contemplate the fate of her father, town, and countrymen and to formulate an appropriate plea for their deliverance by Tamburlaine. John Gillies has suggested that Zenocrate makes a connection between the ‘‘cannibal banquet’’ (with the red-attired Tamburlaine suggesting that the Turks eat their own flesh) and the fate of Damascus. Her plea for the king to spare her hometown is plaintive and simple:

My lord, to see my father’s town besieged,
The country wasted where myself was born—
How can it but afflict my very soul?’’ (4.469–71).

But Zenocrate has forgotten that the values of kin and community hold little power over Tamburlaine, ‘‘a man without family ties, seemingly not sprung of the human race.’’ Zenocrate is, however, beginning to see that Tamburlaine’s single-minded appetite for power exists to the exclusion of all else. She doubts his love even as she reaffirms her own, saying:

If any love remain in you, my lord,
Or if my love unto Your Majesty
May merit favor at Your Highness’ hands,
Then raise your siege from fair Damascus walls
And with my father take a friendly truce’’ (4.4.73–6).

Instinctively she realizes that in a union with a power-hungry man, loyalty is more useful than love. Zenocrate states her loyalty to her lord and shows him deference through repeating verbal emblems of his title and power. She interposes a tribute, ‘‘Honour still wait on happy Tamburlaine!’’ (4.4.89) before begging leave to speak with her father in hopes of effecting a truce.

Tamburlaine continues to reduce the princess’s ideals to mere words, to deny her any opportunity to act. Zenocrate requests the chance to intervene on her father’s behalf, she asks to avert bloodshed and death, and in so doing, potentially undermines Tamburlaine’s ambition. The king does not take her request seriously; his woman is the priceless trophy earned by a mighty warrior, not a diplomat active in his majesty’s service. The king has no use for Zenocrate’s veneration of family: ‘‘In Marlowe it [family] is something to be neglected, despised, or violated.’’ In denying Zenocrate’s request to see her father, Tamburlaine denies peace, family and community, all values which his lover represents. Once again, Zenocrate’s speech has betrayed her: Tamburlaine brushes off her attempts to use power and makes her look helpless and subjugated instead.

When Zenocrate arrives on stage after Bajazeth and Zabina have brained themselves against the cage bars, she misses Zabina’s impassioned presuicide speech, but she intuitively guesses its point: chaos, the denial of natural order, can only bring disaster. Zabina has a power to move Zenocrate to moral consideration because Zabina achieves agency: she ‘‘is not simply being rhetorical; she also acts.’’ Significantly, Zabina has acted, profoundly and ultimately, in a way that Tamburlaine’s rhetorical Zenocrate is unable to: she has put an end to senseless suffering. Zabina’s words, ‘‘I, even I, speak to her’’ (5.1.314) are a warning addressed to Zenocrate, one which the latter answers with ‘‘what may chance to thee, Zenocrate?’’ (5.1.372).

Zenocrate begins to realize the absolute nature of Tamburlaine’s control over her and over events. She grieves the death of a worthy rival and proclaims Tamburlaine to be ‘‘the cause of this.’’ The man ‘‘That term’st Zenocrate thy dearest love’’ is responsible for the deaths of two admirable and devoted lovers (5.1.336–37). Her loyalty to her lord is supremely tested because it negates all else in which she believes. The absolute nature of her loyalty also mocks her value system even as Tamburlaine reduces it, and her, to mere words. Her conscience resurfaces with its humanitarian values, and she gives voice to the wrongs perpetuated against the divine order, begging the gods to ‘‘Pardon my love, Oh, pardon his contempt / Of earthly fortune and respect of pity’’ (5.1.365–66). In this soliloquy Zenocrate not only takes shared responsibility for Tamburlaine’s destructive forces, she admits to herself that her fate is tied to his, irrevocably. Her many protestations of respect for and loyalty to Tamburlaine now haunt her. Zenocrate realizes that her words of fealty and devotion may ultimately be her undoing: by loving Tamburlaine, she has given herself over to ruthless cruelty.

Zenocrate’s choices, debated in heart-rending speech, are not easy ones. Tamburlaine’s martial actions force her to redefine her sense of duty, as she laments:

Whom should I wish the fatal victory,
When my poor pleasures are divided thus
And racked by duty from my cursed heart?
My father and my first betrothed love
Must fight against my life and present love;
Wherein the change I use condemns my faith
And makes my deeds infamous through the world

Tamburlaine’s empire, indeed his body count, is growing at the expense of his lover’s sanity. Thus does Zenocrate move from despair to resignation in the play’s final scene, hoping to preserve her sense of selfhood by bowing to fate. As Richmond has noted, ‘‘In the last sequence of the play Zenocrate is notably silent. Her joy and greeting are for her father who has been spared—not for Tamburlaine.’’ Even as Zenocrate and her father are reunited, Tamburlaine establishes permanent possession of Zenocrate, expecting the Sultan’s gratitude to permit him Zenocrate’s hand in marriage. Thus the actual union of man and woman is subsumed by larger issues: the wedding becomes a political agreement, a truce. This is a deal between two rulers; Zenocrate remains silent. Doubtless, she has many pertinent things to say, if only as emotional release; Zenocrate has, after all, just held her dying fiancé, Arabia, in her arms. But the princess’s speech has betrayed her in the past: to give voice to emotions and values is to make herself vulnerable to their abuse at the hands of Tamburlaine. Even her father sees her as an icon of purity, embodied worth, saying that he does not mind his overthrow ‘‘If, as beseems a person of thy state, / Thou hast with honor used Zenocrate’’ (5.1.484–85). Thus ‘‘Part I ends not in an act of revolt but in the supreme gesture of legitimacy, a proper marriage, with the Scourge of God earnestly assuring his father-in-law of Zenocrate’s unblemished chastity.’’ This is, perhaps, Tamburlaine’s one concession to the forces warring within him: he wishes to remain single and unfettered, yet a king needs progeny.

In the betrothal scene, Marlowe’s twin themes of love and war are joined in the person of Zenocrate, now silenced by Tamburlaine’s will and reduced to a breeder of heirs by his wish. Zenocrate becomes a pact between two warring kings, a potential peacekeeper but at the expense of herself. Upon obtaining her father’s approval, Tamburlaine speaks for Zenocrate even as he asks for her consent, stating, ‘‘doubt I not but fair Zenocrate / Will soon consent to satisfy us both’’ (5.1.499–500). Her terse response, ‘‘Else I should much forget myself, my lord’’ (5.1.501), summarizes her acquiescence to her fate as the brightest jewel in a king’s crown, the tie that binds two warring nations. She ascends the throne wordlessly as Tamburlaine pronounces her ‘‘divine Zenocrate’’ in recognition of her union to a man-god. Tamburlaine has the last word, declaring three solemn and stately burials before the marriage ceremony is performed. He promises peace: ‘‘Tamburlaine takes truce with all the world’’ (5.1.530). But one doubts that mere marriage, even to one fairer than Juno, can quell the warring spirit of a human Jupiter.

One might conclude that Zenocrate is safest when she is silent. The closed mouth, after all, was seen as a sign of chastity and thus integrity and submission. Although Tamburlaine concedes her rhetorical agency, he consistently thwarts her speech acts. Throughout Part 1 she seeks to move him to mercy, but he ultimately rejects love as effeminate, proclaiming that even beauty should be conquered because ‘‘virtue solely is the sum of glory’’ (5.1.189). Though one hopes that her most eloquent plea (5.1.349–77) for her lord’s pardon might cause some stirring in the hero’s conscience, or cause a greater force to halt Tamburlaine’s assaults, Zenocrate is instead rebuked by Annipe for her lack of faith in her master: ‘‘Madame, content yourself, and be resolved,’’ her maid tells her (5.1.373). Thus Marlowe suggests the possibility of Tamburlaine’s redemption through Zenocrate’s eloquence merely to dismiss it, and ‘‘Zenocrate’s lines are spoken only to be refuted—as happens to all opposition to Tamburlaine.’’

Tamburlaine manipulates, undermines, and annuls the one form of agency Zenocrate has: rhetorical agency. Opposition is silenced, pleas for justice rendered ineffectual, and moral statements ignored. A master strategist, ‘‘he meets Zenocrate’s aversion to violence with diversions.’’ He distracts her from the rape of Damascus and its virgins with a speech on beauty, using ceremony to cover violence. He overturns Zenocrate’s value system as easily as he overturns her words, in fact using words to mask actions. Zenocrate’s words must be subverted so that she can be subsumed. Tamburlaine sees the whole world as consumable. The fulfillment of the Scythian shepherd’s nature, through his acts of self-definition and self-authorization, require the consumption of Zenocrate as opposition, but Tamburlaine escapes virtually blame-free. He has cleverly manipulated Zenocrate into speaking and acting against herself, so that his success requires the self-consumption of his beloved, ‘‘who is offered abundance at the price of home, family, city, and the female principle she represents.’’ In eating her own words, Zenocrate devours her moral code, her belief in love, and her devotion to Tamburlaine. At the shepherd’s feet, Zenocrate has painfully learned that in a world in which imperialism bests sentiment, the other—the woman—is designated an enemy and must be conquered. By marrying Tamburlaine she has betrayed herself and has denied life. Tamburlaine, the powermonger, has succeeded in reducing Zenocrate to nothing except, perhaps, a living metaphor of resignation and regret. It is as a voiceless and defeated shell of a woman that she ascends the throne to take her venerated seat alongside the terror of the world.

Tamburlaine’s act of reducing Zenocrate ironically parallels his own expansion, both political and psychological. The audience feels a palpable sense of misgiving as Tamburlaine’s cruel and destructive acts succeed again and again. It is not so much that the gods smile upon the warrior, as that he seems to have banished and conquered even them. If women are words and men are deeds, as the famous Renaissance poem goes, then Marlowe’s play follows convention. Playing within their prescribed gender roles, Tamburlaine Is symbolized by the arm, and Zenocrate by the tongue. Yet these roles, so common as to be not worth mentioning, are foregrounded in Tamburlaine I as the Scythian enacts his systematic reduction and silencing of Zenocrate. His symbolic destruction of woman as embodied in his shattering of Zenocrate’s will and voice becomes, like all his other extreme and egotistical acts, a moral wrong. Through his (mis)-treatment of his lover, the audience is encouraged to examine the dangers inherent in prescribed gender roles and sexbased power issues. Marlowe may have created Zenocrate as a victim, perhaps even Tamburlaine’s ultimate victim, but it is her fate, pitiable, unjust, and disturbing, that condemns Tamburlaine for his ambition, amorality and inhumanity.

Source: Pam Whitfield, ‘‘‘Divine Zenocrate,’ ‘Wretched Zenocrate’: Female Speech and Disempowerment in Tamburlaine I,’’ in Renaissance Papers, 2000, pp. 87–97.

Fissured Families: A Motif in Marlowe’s Plays

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Christopher Marlowe’s plays are littered with family groups shattered and destroyed, either through their own actions or those of others. Sometimes the disharmony is limited to family disagreements or ideological disunity within the family group; at other points it becomes more extreme, leading to internecine betrayal and even murder. As Frank Ardolino suggests, ‘‘the composite roles family members play as both fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters provide Marlowe with rich sources of complex interactions and the opportunity to portray the tensions created by the shifting roles, to limn, in short, the dynamics of power as established within the microcosm of the family.’’ I want to argue, though, that Marlowe does more than simply ‘‘limn’’ these: I am going to suggest that he provides a sharply focused and detailed critique of the problematics of familial interaction, and that, contrary to modern, psychoanalytically driven theorizing of the family, he sees these as arising fundamentally not from inherent inter-generational struggle, nor from the kinds of mythic model proposed by Ardolino—who sees the plays as radically informed by the Uranus- Jupiter-Saturn model—but as an aberration caused by particular aspects of social injustice and malaise.

In what seems likely to have been Marlowe’s earliest play, Dido, Queen of Carthage, the issue of family features very strongly. The play opens with what looks like a traditional scene of family life: a man with a boy on his lap. But we rapidly discover that this is not a scene of a father and a son, but instead of what the British government has termed ‘‘a pretended family,’’ two homosexual lovers (homosexuality is something to which I will return in due course). Moreover, Jupiter promises to subordinate the interests of his real family to those of his lover Ganymede: he gives the boy the jewels which his wife Juno wore on her wedding day, and plucks a feather from the wing of his son Hermes. The family conflict presaged here is actualized when Jupiter’s daughter, Venus, enters—not in her traditional role as goddess of love, but, very pointedly, in her capacity as a mother, and, by implication, in the even less likely role, for a sex symbol, as grandmother. (This point is also stressed again later in the characters’ repeated references to the kinship ties between herself, Aeneas, Ascanius, and her other son Cupid.) Jupiter’s infatuation with Ganymede, she claims, has had repercussions throughout the family in that it has prevented him from paying proper attention to the welfare of her son Aeneas. Thus an initial lack of proper conjugal relations between husband and wife has apparently escalated into a situation which also affects both Jupiter’s daughter and his grandson, and which will have serious implications too for his great-grandson Aeneas. We may, after all, remember as David Farley-Hills reminds us in relation to Tamburlaine, that Jupiter usurped and killed his own father.

The speech which Jupiter then makes to Venus assures her that she is wrong, and that he still has Aeneas’s interests at heart:

Content thee, Cytherea, in thy care,

Since thy Aeneas’ wandering fate is firm,
Whose weary limbs shall shortly make repose
In those fair walls I promis’d him of yore. (I.i.82–5)

In fact, however, the play itself proves Venus to be very accurate in her diagnosis of strains within the family. She has less insight into the cause, though, for she is herself complicit in it. When she visits the son for whom she has professed so much affection, she appears in disguise to him; only after she has left does he detect her identity, and he then proceeds to lament the lack of a closer relationship between them. Here we seem to be invited to discern that Jupiter’s own poor parenting skills have, in one of the classic patterns of child abuse, been transmitted in turn to his daughter, who fails to mother her son as he would wish. This is made very clear in Aeneas’s moving comments as he realizes the identity of the disguised figure with whom he has been talking:

Achates, ’tis my mother that is fled;
I know her by the movings of her feet.
Stay, gentle Venus, fly not from thy son!
Too cruel, why wilt thou forsake me thus,
Or in these shades deceiv’st mine eye so oft?
Why talk we not together hand in hand,
And tell our griefs in more familiar terms?
But thou art gone, and leav’st me here alone
To dull the air with my discoursive moan. (I.ii.240–8)

Here the familiar relationship between Aeneas and his mother, indicated in the fact that he can recognize her from so minor a detail as ‘‘the movings of her feet,’’ forms a sad counterbalance to her unexplained unwillingness voluntarily to reveal her identity to him—apparently, from his use of the term ‘‘so oft,’’ a familiar feature of her behavior to him.

Despite—or perhaps because of—Aeneas’s sensitivity to his mother’s lack of trust in him, he too is revealed as a poor parent. Ascanius early demonstrates a strong sense of kinship: when Aeneas imagines that a rock he sees is Priam, Ascanius assures him that it cannot be, ‘‘For were it Priam, he would smile on me’’ (II.i.36). Perhaps it is this sense of a lost family—Aeneas has, after all, literally mislaid his wife, Creusa—which makes the child at once accost Dido with ‘‘Madam, you shall be my mother’’ (II.i.98). (Richard Proudfoot points out that ‘‘Marlowe’s Dido, unlike Chaucer’s, doesn’t count pregnancy among her claims on Aeneas’’; instead she is presented throughout the play as poignantly childless, anxious to mother.) But like Jupiter and Venus before him, Aeneas in turn proves so indifferent to the fate of his offspring that he actually, proposes at one point to leave Ascanius behind with Dido—his protestation that he couldn’t have been about to depart because he would have had to leave his son behind is savagely undercut by the audience’s awareness that that was in fact precisely what he was planning. Even Aeneas’s denial is couched in worrying terms: ‘‘Hath not the Carthage queen mine only son?’’ (IV.iv.29) suggests that Ascanius’s importance to his father may be at least as much dynastic as personal—as the only son of a widower, he forms a unique and temporarily irreplaceable link in the chain of succession; the implication, however, is that had he brothers, he might prove expendable, as Tamburlaine’s son Calyphas is later to be. The inclusion of four generations in Dido allows us to see very clearly how the cycle of flawed parent-child relationships renews and perpetuates itself.

Even when fewer generations are considered, however, the pattern is still discernible. Tamburlaine Part One both opens and closes with families: the sharp differences between Cosroe and Mycetes open up questions of heredity, family resemblances and the nature / nurture debate, which is of course raised again in even more radical form by the victories won over kings by the mere son of a Scythian shepherd; and the end of the play sees both a marriage—providing an unusually comic form of closure to so violent a story—and also the reunion between Zenocrate and her father. Family is thus signaled as an issue of some importance, and it becomes even more so in Part Two where we observe closely Tamburlaine’s three boys. We see the rivalry between them, brought about primarily by the very fact that they, unlike Ascanus, are members of a family instead of isolated heirs; we witness the effect on them of their mother’s early death—indeed Calyphas’s effeminacy, although clearly present from the beginning, could be interpreted as perhaps becoming exacerbated by a subconscious attempt to take over the role within the family of a lost mother; and, as with Cosroe and Mycetes in Part One, we see also the radical differences amongst brothers which result eventually in the ultimate example of family fragmentation, Tamburlaine’s infanticide.

Tamburlaine’s killing of Calyphas is difficult to decode. It has often been seen as in some sense exemplary, in the light of Renaissance educational theory. T. M. Pearce argues that it is indeed precisely a response to such theory:

Here is portrayed a father who is at once a man of arms and a lover of poetry and worshipper of beauty, now faced with the problem of bringing up boys, his sons. The entire passage might have been written by Marlowe after reading Sir Thomas Elyot’s Boke Named the Governour (1531), which appeared some fifty years earlier.

Pearce sees in Marlowe’s portrayal of Tamburlaine’s immovability a response to twin stimuli: the attack by Gosson (like Marlowe, a former pupil of the King’s School, Canterbury) on lack of proper moral fiber in the theater, and the attack by Sir Humphrey Gilbert on modern educational methods and their failure to prepare for military service. Tamburlaine, Pearce suggests, embodies the very virtues which both Gosson and Gilbert were, in their different ways, advocating, and in nothing is this more apparent than his stoic sacrifice of his own son. Paul Kocher similarly sees in Tamburlaine’s stabbing ‘‘an act of military discipline . . . from the Elizabethan point of view Tamburlaine is merely heroic in this,’’ and suggests, moreover, that Tamburlaine’s action is also rendered glorious by its association with the story of the Roman consul Manlius Torquatius, who similarly slew his son for disobeying orders. But such readings are, as Carolyn Williams recognizes, counter-intuitive; and, more importantly, they are notably not shared by the on-stage audience of dignitaries.

Infanticide also occurs elsewhere in the play, in Olympia’s very differently motivated decision to kill her son, and crops up again in two more of the plays, The Massacre at Paris—where it is threatened rather than actual, since Catherine never needs to carry out her resolve to kill one or both of her sons—and The Jew of Malta. Here Barabas’s initial affection for the daughter whose name means, ironically, ‘‘the father’s joy’’ is violently transmuted by her conversion to Christianity—her adoption, it could perhaps be argued, of a different father- figure—into a murderous hate whose momentum not only wipes out Abigail and her entire convent of nuns but is also echoed in the kind of mock infanticide in which Barabas kills Ithamore, who, he so often stresses, has assumed the position of his heir. Family fragmentation is, of course, further emphasized in the play by the recurring presence of the two bereaved parents, Ferneze and Katherine, both of whom are apparently partnerless as well as childless. Moreover, Jeremy Tambling points to further elements in the play of fury directed at literal and symbolic members of its families when he comments on Barabas’s stress on the nuns’ frequent pregnancies, his identification of Abigail with the original exemplar of sibling rivalry, Cain, and the ways in which his celebrated image of ‘‘infinite riches in a little room’’ (I.i.37), ‘‘parodying the idea of Christ in the womb, suggest[s] a pre-Oedipal desire for identification with the mother.’’

In others of the plays matters never reach the pitch of family self-destruction seen in The Jew of Malta and Tamburlaine; but very often this is because, in them, families are never formed in the first place. It is notable that one of the few things Mephostophilis denies Faustus is a wife: thus the scholar, whom we assume to have long since drifted apart from the ‘‘base stock’’ from which he was sprung, is afforded no opportunity to recreate a family unit, something for which he perhaps compensates in his marked affection for his friends and for Wagner, and, arguably, even in his desire to please the pregnant Duchess of Vanholt. Marlowe, however, pointedly withholds from his hero personal participation in such a family unit, even though, as Emily Bartels points out, ‘‘in the sources . . . he and Helen get married and have a son.’’ In a brilliant analysis of the play, Kay Stockholder demonstrates Faustus’s unease with his own sexuality and the ways in which his approaches to heterosexuality are thwarted by powerful patriarchal figures which, together with the presence of the strongly developed cuckoldry theme she shows to be present in the play, indicates a deeply unresolved Oedipus complex. Ironically, the woman he is offered instead of a wife is Helen—the legendary marriage-breaker of mythology, the woman who abandoned her husband Menelaus and her daughter Hermione for the seducer Paris.

Family even becomes an issue in the pageant of the Seven Deadly Sins. Pride ‘‘disdain[s] to have any parents’’ (II.i.116), Wrath ‘‘had neither father nor mother’’ (II.i.141), Gluttony’s ‘‘parents are all dead’’ (II.i.148), while all the rest cite ill-matched couplings as their source of origin. Once again it is possible to discern a suggestion that fractured or non-existent family structures lie behind the darkest events of the play. Similarly in Dido, Queen of Carthage there is a strong sense of the fact that in coming together these two, widow and widower respectively, would be able to restore the family structure that each has lost—something that seems strongly signaled in Dido’s desire effectively to reconstitute her former marriage by rechristening Aeneas Sichaeus, and by her enthusiastic response to Ascanius’s request that she should function as a replacement mother for him. It is one of the most savage ironies of the play that it is family strife amongst the gods, specifically between Juno and Venus, which prevents this dream of a new family from reaching fulfillment, just as it has previously devastated the family of Priam and Hecuba.

Family breakdown is, then repeatedly stressed as a recurring motif in Marlowe’s plays, and its impact is heightened by the use of vignettes of happy families which provide both contrast and pathos. Obvious examples are Zabina and Bajazeth in Tamburlaine Part One, whose mutual affection, undiminished by the brutal circumstances of their captivity, could be seen as strongly reminiscent of the marriage of affection and mutual support proposed by Protestant ideology, and Olympia and her Family in Part Two, where again conjugal and filial devotion triumphantly survives external disasters.

Source: Lisa Hopkins, ‘‘Fissured Families: A Motif in Marlowe’s Plays,’’ in Papers on Language & Literature, Vol. 33, No. 2, Spring 1997, pp. 198–212.

Irony and Objectivity in the Plot of Tamburlaine, Part I

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Christopher Marlowe has been characterized by various critics as a markedly subjective playwright, one whose passions are reflected in the passions of his characters. Michel Poirier, for example, holds that Marlowe’s mind ‘‘is spurred on by a passion similar to the one he has ascribed to some of the characters in his dramas.’’ Poirier concludes that there is a definite connection between Marlowe’s temperament and ideas. His desires govern his thoughts; his passions are the basis for his philosophy; and egotism is at the center of his life and works. John Bakeless suggests that Marlowe’s art did not conceal the artist, nor did his characterization possess the depth or subtlety required to veil the mind that produced them. A. L. Rowse speaks of writers who are intensely obsessed with themselves and derive much of their power from their own egos. He concludes that Marlowe belongs to this class: ‘‘No writer was ever more autobiographical than he was. . . . He was an obsessed egoist. . . . His creations are very much projections of himself.’’

Paul Kocher goes so far as to say that Marlowe’s degree of subjectivity as a dramatist is the crucial problem of all interpretation of his work. Kocher further notes that any theory of subjectivity must depend on the whole broad body of evidence, and that this evidence includes the following: (1) the dramatist’s choice and treatment of sources, (2) the background of the thought and custom of the period, (3) the practice of other dramatists, (4) the dramatist’s own practice in his other works, (5) the dramatist’s own personally held ideas, as supplied by background information, and (6) his manipulation of emphasis within the play by the placement, length, frequency, and eloquence of the speeches and by the good or bad standing of those who speak them. Kocher concludes, taking all these factors into consideration, that Marlowe is one of the most highly subjective playwrights of his time. Admitting that, to some degree, every dramatist exhibits in his work the major processes of his mind and emotions, Kocher goes on to say that Marlowe’s plays are his not only in this general sense, but also as projections of strong personal passions. Poirier, Bakeless, Rowse, and Kocher, however, represent but one side of what in recent years has become an on-going debate—a debate which Kenneth Friedenreich characterizes as between those who consider Marlowe essentially a Romantic and subjective artist, and those who regard him as a more conservative, objective artist whose plays focus on Renaissance drives for power, wealth, and knowledge. Representing this latter group, for example, is Gerald Pincess, who admits that Marlowe’s plays are extensions and representations of his own mind, but who also admits that irony was Marlowe’s most popular mode, and that this irony reflects a skepticism and detachment on the playwright’s part. Judith Weil agrees that Marlowe mocks his heroes in a remarkably subtle fashion and that it is faulty logic to assume that Marlowe shares the attitudes of his heroes. Weil goes on to say that ‘‘[b]ecause Marlowe’s ironic relationship to his audience varies from play to play, we probably cannot expect to infer his personal attitude from any one work.’’ Writing in 1984, Johannes H. Birringer observed that ‘‘[t]he Marlowe who emerged during the last decade is certainly more exciting, even more challenging; a wide range of tones has been found in his generically unstable plays, and he even begins to look . . . like a sardonic, maliciously enigmatic ironist.’’

In these latter evaluations of Marlowe, all crediting him with more objectivity than the former critics were willing to admit to, the common denominator seems to be irony; that is, it is through irony that Marlowe in his plays distances himself from his characters and their actions, and thus achieves objectivity. R. B. Sharpe defines irony as ‘‘an attitude, a temper, a spirit in which one looks at life and art. It brings to light and emphasizes by art the contradictions of living.’’ G. G. Sedgewick gives us the following definition of dramatic irony: ‘‘Dramatic irony, in brief, is the sense of contradiction felt by spectators of a drama who see a character acting in ignorance of his condition. This is dramatic irony in its concentrated and specific form: it grows . . . out of that pervasive and controlling knowledge which we have called general irony and which is the property peculiar and essential to the illusion of the theatre.’’

Sharpe’s and Sedgewick’s definitions of irony and dramatic irony are especially meaningful when one considers Marlowe’s plays. These works abound in the contradictions of life—contradictions between what appears to be truth and what is truth, between aspiration and achievement, between speech and action. And Marlowe’s characters consistently act in ignorance of their conditions. In Tamburlaine, Faustus, Edward, Mortimer, Barabas, Guise, Dido, and other lesser characters, Marlowe has created characters in whom virtually every speech and action involve ironic undertones springing from this ignorance. This irony establishes an objective position of the part of the playwright; thus through irony Marlowe maintains a detachment from what he has created.

A careful, though admittedly not exhaustive, study of the five stages of dramatic development of Tamburlaine, Part I will, I believe, illustrate the degree to which irony permeates Marlowe’s plots. The five stages—exposition, complication of plot action, turning point, climax, and denouement—are all steeped in irony, and the irony verifies Marlowe’s objective position in that it helps to create the distance between playwright and character that is objectivity.

The first stage in dramatic development—exposition— introduces themes, characters, and con- flicts. In Tamburlaine, Part I, Marlowe introduces these elements with an irony that shows him to be the objective observer of the forces he puts into motion. One theme is the invincible warrior—the super hero—and one method which Marlowe uses to attest ironically to the capabilities of his hero Tamburlaine is ‘‘looks’’ imagery. In scene i of Act I, Mycetes, king of Persia, sends Theridamas to halt Tamburlaine’s invading army: ‘‘Go, stout Theridamas; thy words are swords, / And with thy looks conquerest all thy foes’’ (I.i.74–75). Mycetes’ reliance on the looks of Theridamas is ironic because Tamburlaine also is known for fierce looks. In scene ii, Techelles, a lieutenant to Tamburlaine, declares:

As princely lions when they rouse themselves,
Stretching their paws and threatening herds of beasts,
So in his armor looketh Tamburlaine.
Methinks I see kings kneeling at his feet,
And he with frowning brows and fiery looks
Spurning their crowns from off their captive heads.

Later in the same scene, Theridamas is forced to admit of Tamburlaine that ‘‘His looks do menace Heaven and dare the gods’’ (I.ii.156). In the confrontation between Theridamas and Tamburlaine, Theridamas yields without a struggle and states,

Won with thy words and conquered with thy looks,
I yield myself, my men, and horse to thee,
To be partaker of thy good or ill,
As long as life maintains Theridamas.

Thus, the wellspring of Mycetes’ hope, the ominous appearance of Theridamas, is overcome by a similar, but stronger force in Tamburlaine; and Theridamas becomes a lieutenant to the man he was sent to defeat. Besides attesting to the superiority of Tamburlaine, this ironic treatment of ‘‘looks’’ foreshadows the fate of all those who feel confident that they can defeat Tamburlaine. As the play unfolds, many do challenge Tamburlaine, and their efforts fail, just as Mycetes’ efforts failed.

While the ultimate purposes of Tamburlaine’s enemies are doomed to failure, so is the goal of Tamburlaine unattainable; and this truth points up another of the themes treated in the play—that of natural order. The shepherd Tamburlaine wants to become as a god; he says as much in scene ii of Act I:

Jove sometimes masked in a shepherd’s weed,
And by those steps that he hath scaled the heavens,
May we become immortal like the gods.

Such hopes are in vain and serve only to heighten the irony of mortal Tamburlaine’s death in Part Two. Cosroe, Mycetes’s brother, also challenges natural order when he plots the overthrow of his brother:

Well, since I see the state of Persia droop
And languish in my brother’s government,
I willingly receive th’imperial crown
And vow to wear it for my country’s good,
In spite of them shall malice my estate.

In Act II Cosroe joins with Tamburlaine to defeat Mycetes but is in turn defeated almost immediately by Tamburlaine; thus, after deciding to usurp the kingship and ‘‘receive th’imperial crown,’’ Cosroe wears the crown for only a short time before he too goes down in defeat. In Tamburlaine’s mortality and in Cosroe’s defeat, Marlowe underscores the futility of man in challenging natural order.

Marlowe also uses irony in character presentation, especially the character of Mycetes, to present an ironic spin-off on the character of Tamburlaine as an invincible superhero, for Mycetes is a weakminded king whose conquest does not at all enhance the glory of his conqueror. That the character of Mycetes presents no problem to Tamburlaine is made conclusively manifest in Act II as Tamburlaine toys with the defeated king:

Tamburlaine. What, fearful coward! Straggling from the camp,
When the kings themselves are present in the field.
Mycetes. Thou liest.
Tamburlaine. Base villain, dar’st thou give the lie?
Mycetes. Away! I am the king. Go! Touch me not!
Thou break’st the law of arms unless thou kneel
And cry me, ‘Mercy, noble king!’
Tamburlaine. Are you the witty king of Persia?
Mycetes. Ay, marry, am I. Have you any to suit me?
Tamburlaine. I would entreat you to speak but three wise words.
Mycetes. So I can, when I see my time.
Tamburlaine. Is this your crown?
Mycetes. Ay. Did’st thou ever see a fairer?
[He hands him the crown.]
Tamburlaine. You will not sell it, will ye?
Mycetes. Such another word, and I will have thee executed.
Come, give it to me.
Tamburlaine. No; I took it prisoner.
Mycetes. You lie; I gave it you.
Tamburlaine. Then ’tis mine.
Mycetes. No; I mean I let you keep it.
Tamburlaine. Well, I mean you shall have it again.
Here, take it for awhile; I lend it thee
Till I may see thee hemmed with armed men.
Then shalt thou see me pull it from thy head;
Thou art no match for mighty Tamburlaine.
Mycetes. O gods, is this Tamburlaine the thief?
I marvel much he stole it not away.

Tamburlaine belabors the obvious when he surmises that Mycetes is no match for him; Mycetes is hardly a match for anyone. Thus the character of Mycetes poses a question as to the omnipotence of Tamburlaine. Is Tamburlaine successful because of his strength, or because of the weakness of his enemies?

The various conflicts presented in the exposition of this play are also fraught with irony. One conflict is the two drastically opposed attitudes that the other characters exhibit toward Tamburlaine, and this divergence of opinion is illustrated by names applied to the warrior. Mycetes speaks of a Tamburlaine ‘‘That, like a fox in midst of harvest time, / Doth prey upon my flocks of passengers’’ (I.i.31–32). In calling Tamburlaine a fox, Mycetes is invoking all the pejorative connotations of the word; yet Techelles compares Tamburlaine to ‘‘princely lions’’ (I.ii.52), utilizing all the majestic connotations associated with lions. In having his characters carry out this sort of name-calling, Marlowe assumes an objective posture, because Mycetes has every reasons to hold a low opinion of the tyrant who threatens his kingdom. Likewise, Techelles has every reason to admire the qualities in Tamburlaine that make him a successful military leader. Any one character’s opinion of Tamburlaine depends on that character’s position in relation to Tamburlaine’s position, not on any bias of the playwright; thus, the irony of the two distinctly different attitudes toward Tamburlaine emphasizes Marlowe’s objectivity.

A second conflict concerns the attitudes of the characters toward the gods. Both the forces of Tamburlaine and the forces of his enemies claim their favor. In Act I, Zenocrate, then an enemy of Tamburlaine, declares,

The gods, defenders of the innocent,
Will never prosper your intended drifts,
That thus oppress your poor friendless passengers.

Though she is later won over by the love of Tamburlaine, she has sounded the opinion of his enemies who are not won over. Tamburlaine, on the other hand, also claims the blessings of Jove:

Draw forth thy sword, though mighty man-at-arms,
Intending but to raze my charmed skin,
And Jove himself will stretch his hand from heaven
To ward the blow and shield me safe from harm.
See how he rains down heaps of gold in showers,
As if he meant to give my soldiers pay;
And as a sure and rounded argument
That I shall be the monarch of the East,
He sends this Soldan’s daughter, rich and brave,
To be my queen and portly empress.

This claiming of God’s favor recurs on both sides as the play develops.

Marlowe’s exposition in this play includes theme, character, and conflict; and irony is a pervasive element. The irony helps to underscore Marlowe’s objectivity. Through his presentation of a military hero who defeats all comers, yet who is himself subject to ultimate defeat because of his mortality, through his presentation of two challenges to natural order and his intimation of their futility, through his presentation of a foe that Tamburlaine conquers but whose character is questionable as a worthy opponent, and through his presentation of opposing points of view regarding names applied to Tamburlaine and attitudes exhibited toward God, Marlowe achieves distance from his characters and thus achieves objectivity.

Complication of the plot action in Tamburlaine, Part I is also fraught with irony. The outcome of one of these complications, Mycetes’ challenge to Tamburlaine, has already been discussed; thus, the folly of the following words of Mycetes is evident:

Would it not grieve a king to be so abused
And have a thousand horsemen ta’en away?
And—which is worse—to have his diadem
Sought for by such scald knaves as love him not?
I think it would. Well then, by heavens I swear,
Aurora shall not peep out of her doors,
But I will have Cosroe by the head
And kill proud Tamburlaine with point of sword.

The irony of the foolish king’s thundering declaration is so obvious as to render him almost a subject for laughter. A similar complication arises out of Cosroe’s league with Tamburlaine. After their united forces have defeated Mycetes, Tamburlaine issues a challenge to Cosroe. The newly crowned king of Persia responds:

What means this devilish shepherd to aspire
With such a giantly presumption,
To cast up hills against the face of heaven,
And dare the force of angry Jupiter?
But as he thrust them underneath the hills,
And pressed out fire from their burning jaws,
So will I send this monstrous slave to hell,
Where flames shall ever feed upon his soul.

However, Cosroe is defeated by Tamburlaine, just as Mycetes was. Ironically, one of the reasons why Cosroe has wanted to dethrone his brother is the weak-mindedness of Mycetes; yet Cosroe is no more clever than his brother, at least in regard to judging the chances for success that his forces have against the forces of Tamburlaine.

A further plot complication is introduced in Bajazeth, Emperor of the Turks. Feeling threatened by the conquests of Tamburlaine, Bajazeth offers a truce, which is of course rejected by the shepherd. Bajazeth then blusters in a manner similar to Mycetes and Cosroe:

By Mahomet my kinsman’s sepulcher,
And by the holy Alcoran I swear,
He shall be made a chaste and lustless eunuch,
And in my sarell tend my concubines;
And all his captains, that thus stoutly stand,
Shall draw the chariot of my empress,
Whom I have brought to see their overthrow.

To Tamburlaine the emperor expresses his supreme confidence:

Now shalt thou feel the force of Turkish arms, Which lately have made all Europe quake for fear. I have of Turks, Arabians, Moors, and Jews, Enough to cover all Bithynia. Let thousands die! Their slaughtered carcasses Shall serve for walls and bulwarks to the rest; If they should yield their necks unto the sword, Thy soldiers’ arms could not endure to strike So many blows as I have heads for thee. Thou know’st not, foolish hardy Tamburlaine, What ’tis to meet me in the open field, That leave no ground for thee to march upon. (III.iii.134–47)

Bajazeth’s proclamations are indeed ironic, for the battle results in total defeat for him.

Thus, the irony of the various plot complications in Tamburlaine, Part I becomes apparent. Though opponents are confident of victory in their challenges to Tamburlaine, the shepherd will ultimately be victorious over all the challengers, regardless of their confidence. However, overriding this irony is that all-important irony which sustains Marlowe’s objective posture. Though victorious now, Tamburlaine will ultimately meet that force which he cannot conquer; and, like Mycetes, Cosroe, and Bajazeth, he too will succumb to a force greater than himself.

The turning point of Tamburlaine, Part I is in like manner permeated with irony. It occurs in Act II when Tamburlaine and his lieutenants, after observing the pomp and majesty surrounding Cosroe, the new king of Persia, become enamored of kingship and its accompanying regality. Tamburlaine asks his lieutenants,

Is it not brave to be a king, Techelles?
Usumcasane and Theridamas,
Is it not passing brave to be a king,
And ride in triumph through Persepolis?

Theridamas answers,

A god is not so glorious as a king.
I think the pleasure they enjoy in heaven
Can not compare with kingly joys in earth:
To wear a crown enchased with pearl and gold,
Whose virtues carry with it life and death;
To ask and have, command and be obeyed;
When looks breed love, with looks to gain the prize,
Such power attractive shines in princes’ eyes.

Tamburlaine decides that he wants the kingship of Persia for himself and sends word to Cosroe that he wants to battle Cosroe for his crown. They do fight, and Tamburlaine is victorious. When Cosroe berates Tamburlaine for taking his crown, Tamburlaine answers,

The thrust of reign and sweetness of a crown,
That caused the eldest son of heavenly Ops
To thrust his doting father from his chair
And place himself in the imperial heaven
Moved me to manage arms against thy state.
What better precedent than mighty Jove?
Nature, that framed us of four elements
Warring within our breasts for regiment,
Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds.
Our souls, whose faculties can comprehend
The wondrous architecture of the world
And measure every wandering planet’s course,
Still climbing after infinite knowledge,
And always moving as the restless spheres.
Wills us to wear ourselves and never rest,
Until we reach the ripest fruit of all,
That perfect bliss and sole felicity,
The sweet fruition of an earthly crown.

Tamburlaine has decided that crowns are the ‘‘ripest fruit of all,’’ and thus the course is set for the rest of his career. He will attempt to gather all the fruit that the world has to offer. The irony of Tamburlaine’s quest for kingship is that he has only recently witnessed the demise of two kings, Mycetes and Cosroe, whose royalty did not prevent disaster, and he will later observe the destruction of Bajazeth. Zenocrate, in Act V, indicates an awareness of a truth that Tamburlaine here has not perceived. She laments, ‘‘Ah, Tamburlaine my love, sweet Tamburlaine, / That fights for scepters and for slippery crowns’’ (V.ii.292–93). It is to the attaining of these slippery crowns that Tamburlaine dedicates his life.

The next stage of dramatic development is the climax. The climax of Tamburlaine, Part I occurs in scene iii of Act III when Tamburlaine, who has dedicated himself to collecting crowns, defeats Bajazeth and assumes all of this conquered ruler’s titles. Bajazeth has earlier described himself as

. . . the Turkish emperor, Dread lord of Africa, Europe, and Asia,
Great king and conqueror of Graecia,
The ocean, Terrene, and the coal-black-sea,
The high and highest monarch of the world. . . .

With all of his titles and positions, Bajazeth thus represents the high point in Tamburlaine’s conquests. Later, as Tamburlaine mounts up into his chair by using Bajazeth as a footstool, Tamburlaine says,

Now clear the triple region of the air,
And let the majesty of heaven behold
Their scourge and terror tread on emperors.
Smile stars that reigned at my nativity,
And dim the brightness of their neighbor lamps;
Disdain to borrow light of Cynthia,
For I, the chiefest lamp of all the earth,
First rising in the east with the mild aspect,
But fixed now in the meridian line,
Will send up fire to your turning spheres
And cause the sun to borrow light of you.

The irony of Tamburlaine’s position lies in his refusal to recognize that he is a lamp that will not burn eternally—that all of his titles and crowns will not protect him from his mortality—that he too one day will be the victim of a force greater than himself. The titles have not protected Bajazeth; they will not protect Tamburlaine.

The last stage in Marlowe’s dramatic development is the denouement, or resolution. In Tamburlaine, Part I, Tamburlaine’s working out of domestic problems constitutes the denouement. After defeating Bajazeth and assuming all his titles, Tamburlaine seeks to resolve those problems created when he kidnapped the beautiful Zenocrate. The king of Arabia must be dealt with, because Zenocrate had been betrothed to him. Tamburlaine must also reconcile himself with her father, the Soldan of Egypt. In Act V, Tamburlaine lays siege to the city of Damascus, and in the ensuing battle, the king of Arabia is killed; thus, his threat to Tamburlaine is ended. Tamburlaine ultimately takes the city; and the Soldan, upon learning that Tamburlaine has used his daughter chastely, extends his blessing: ‘‘I yield with thanks and protestations / Of endless honor to thee for her love’’ (V.ii.433–34). Now Tamburlaine has everything under control, and the play closes with his preparations to marry Zenocrate.

The irony in this resolution lies in a speech which Tamburlaine makes near the conclusion of the play. As Tamburlaine is solving his domestic problems, Bajazeth and his empress Zabina, both of whom he had kept in captivity, commit suicide. When Tamburlaine learns of their deaths, he says,

The Turk and his great empress, as it seems,
Left to themselves while we were at the fight,
Have desperately despatched their slavish lives;
With them Arabia too hath left his life;
All sights of power to grace my victory.
And such are objects fit for Tamburlaine,
Wherein, as in a mirror, may be seen
His honor, that consists in shedding blood
When men presume to manage arms with him.

Tamburlaine says that the deaths of Zabina and Bajazeth are mirrors that reflect his honor, and he is pleased. Just what is it that his honor ‘‘consists in’’? Zabina and Bajazeth are human beings that have been caged like animals, and, in choosing honor over life, they dash their brains out against the bars of their cage. Their deaths reflect more honor on themselves than on Tamburlaine. Earlier in Act V, Tamburlaine has ordered the deaths of four virgins sent to him to plead for Damascus. It is his custom to give a besieged city two days to decide to yield; on the third day, if no surrender is forthcoming, he utterly destroys the city. On the third day of the siege of Damascus, the four virgins are sent out in hopes that their innocence can persuade Tamburlaine to spare the city. He asks them what they see on the point of his sword; and when they answer that they see fear and steel, Tamburlaine says,

Your fearful minds are thick and misty then,
For there sit Death; there sits imperious Death,
Keeping his circuit by the slicing edge.
But I am pleased you shall not see him there.
He now is seated on my horsemen’s spears,
And on their points his fleshless body feeds.
Techelles, straight go charge a few of them
To charge these dames and show my servant, Death,
Sitting in scarlet on their armed spears.

The virgins are taken away and killed, and later their bodies are hung on the city’s walls. This ‘‘mirror’’ reflects Tamburlaine’s tenacity, but there is little honor in the slaughter of virgins. Tamburlaine’s exultation at the end of the play is, then, ironic, especially when the results of his accomplishments are considered: two caged human beings commit suicide, and virgins are slaughtered. These are indeed mirrors to reflect Tamburlaine’s honor, but the reflection is not what he thinks it to be. This irony illustrates the truth that Tamburlaine is not what he fancies himself to be, and in mistaking his own worth, he is no different from all the overconfident foes he has previously conquered.

Every stage of dramatic development in Tamburlaine, Part I has ironic undertones, as Marlowe illuminates flaws and weaknesses in his characters, and thus distances himself from them. The plot structure reveals Marlowe to be a devastatingly objective playwright. However, what value is there in determining that Marlowe’s use of irony renders the playwright an objective one? As an ironist, Marlowe depicts life as it is, and he illuminates the differences between what appears to be and what is. Thus Tamburlaine, Part I becomes more than just a mirror reflecting the passions of his own mind; it can be read as his attempt to comment on the realities of the human condition. Marlowe’s play becomes a comment not on just one man but on the follies of mankind.

Source: Terry Box, ‘‘Irony and Objectivity in the Plot of Tamburlaine, Part I,’’ in CLA Journal, Vol. 36, No. 2, December 1992, pp. 191–205.

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Critical Overview