Tamburlaine the Great by Christopher Marlowe

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Critical Essay on Tamburlaine the Great

(Drama for Students)

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 Zenocrate is entirely Marlowe’s own addition to the narrative; she does not appear in any historical documents about Tamerlane the conqueror and there is no evidence that Tamerlane fell passionately in love with anyone.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...

(The entire section is 12,380 words.)