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

Tamburlaine the Great

by Christopher Marlowe

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Places Discussed

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 389


*Asia. Largest continent on Earth, stretching from the Black Sea in the west to the China Sea in the east, and from the Arctic Circle in the north to the Indian Ocean in the south. Tamburlaine the Great dramatizes the rise and fall of the historical conqueror Timur, who reclaimed much of Asia from the Mongols in the late fourteenth century. The location of some of the world’s most powerful dynasties, Asia represents the ultimate achievement for Tamburlaine, who is driven to conquer the world.

Royal courts

Royal courts Marlowe sets most of the action in Tamburlaine the Great in the imperial court of Persia, and in the courts of the king of Arabia, the king of Jerusalem, the governor of Damascus, the king of Hungary, and the governor of Babylon, among others. The courts are the scenes of political duplicity, at which characters boast about their strength and plot the overthrow of their enemies. They are also places where the specter of Tamburlaine continually gains substance, as his military conquests bring him closer to controlling all of Asia. Throughout the play, Marlowe uses court settings to reveal the human and political dimensions of his characters. He does not stage the many battle scenes in the play. Rather, he emphasizes the forces that shape his character’s decisions and the consequences of those decisions.

Tamburlaine’s camps

Tamburlaine’s camps. As he moves through Asia, conquering Persia, Damascus, Turkey, and North Africa, Tamburlaine is generally depicted throughout the play in his camps near the sites of his many military victories. Marlowe portrays Tamburlaine’s valor as a soldier and his vicious cruelty as a tyrant, not on battlefields, but rather in the personal settings of his military camps. There, Tamburlaine gives way to the mitigating influence of Zenocrate, the daughter of the Soldan of Egypt, with whom he is in love.

In the second part of Marlowe’s play, the death of Zenocrate removes the last restraints on Tamburlaine’s lust for blood and power. He then demonstrates his brutality by humiliating and murdering his enemies, who include his own son Calyphas, whom he kills. As with the imperial courts of the kings of Asia, Tamburlaine’s camp provides an intimate portrait of the forces that contribute to his rise and fall as the king of Persia.

Historical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 728

Elizabethan England
When Queen Elizabeth I succeeded to the throne of England in 1558, the nation was poorer and less powerful than the continental powers France and Spain. England had been torn by internal religious strife between Protestants and Catholics, and was quite unstable. Elizabeth, an adept and shrewd monarch who surrounded herself with pragmatic advisors, presided over a period of increasing power and prosperity, making peace with France in 1560, defeating the Spanish Armada in 1588, and garnering relative peace with Catholics and Puritans. England was not without its problems, however. England enjoyed a sometimes precarious political stability. Elizabeth narrowly survived a number of assassination attempts that would have resulted in a fierce battle of succession since, despite pressure from Parliament, she never married or produced an heir.

In this environment of relative tolerance and stability, the flourishing of the arts in continental Europe spread to England, and the late sixteenth century became famous for an extraordinary flowering in literature known as the English ‘‘Renaissance.’’ Writer and statesman Sir Thomas More, and poets Edmund Spenser and Philip Sidney, were among the key figures in developing ‘‘humanism’’ in English literature; this involved the revival of classical literature and an emphasis on individual humanity instead of strictly religious themes. Marlowe was perhaps the first major innovator in humanistic English drama, however, along with his friend Thomas Kyd. Marlowe was also very influential over Jonson and Shakespeare, whose writing came at what is generally considered the height of the English Renaissance.

The conqueror Tamerlane, known in Europe by this corrupt version of the Persian ‘‘Timur-i Leng,’’ or ‘‘Timur the lame,’’ was a fearsome military leader, famous for his brutality and his devotion to Mongol-Islamic religious practices. Born in Ulus Chaghatay, an area in present-day Uzbekistan, in 1336, Tamerlane was a member of a Mongol tribe that had converted to Islam during his father’s rule. He was a thief and brigand during his youth, attracting allies and preparing for his bid for leadership, which was at first unsuccessful. After he built an alliance with the neighboring prince Amir Husayn (marrying his sister to fortify their relationship), Tamerlane was able to drive all other serious threats to his control from Ulus Chaghatay. Husayn and Tamerlane then became involved in a leadership struggle, and Tamerlane laid siege to Husayn’s city, allowed a local warlord to kill him, and took four of his wives as concubines.

By 1379, Tamerlane had suppressed a series of rebellions and established sole control over Ulus Chaghatay. Partly to keep other warlords in his control, since they would be under his eye as a subservient army, he then began a series of extremely successful conquests into neighboring lands. From 1386 to 1388, Tamerlane invaded Persia and Anatolia but afterwards was forced to return to defend his homeland against a former protégé called Tokhtamish. Tamerlane finally defeated Tokhtamish in 1390. After two more years spent defending against enemies from the north, Tamerlane invaded Iran in 1392, where he installed his sons as governors. In 1398, he set off for India, where he sacked Delhi and murdered 100,000 Hindu prisoners. In 1399, he campaigned into Syria and Anatolia, defeating the Ottoman Sultan Bayazid I and taking him captive in 1402. In 1405, Tamerlane was preparing for an ambitious conquest into China when he fell ill and died. He had established no sustainable infrastructure, and his vast empire rapidly decayed after his death, despite the fact that he nominated a grandson as his successor.

Tamburlaine the Great, particularly in part 2, contains a great number of historical inaccuracies and alternative representations, partly because there was a limited amount of historical information available at the time and partly because Marlowe did not always interpret that information correctly, but mainly because Marlowe’s dramatic goals differed from the historical reality. For example, since Marlowe likely did not conceive of the work in two parts, it was necessary to use events prior to Bajazeth’s demise, and, in the case of Orcanes’s defeat of Sigismund, nearly fifty years after it, in order to form a coherent drama in part 2. Also, the play’s depiction of Bajazeth and his wife’s enslavement inside an iron cage stems from an alternative reading of the historian Arabshah. Other examples, such as Tamburlaine’s love for Zenocrate, are entirely fictional, and reflect Marlowe’s desire to cast the play in the manner most effective for developing his major themes.

Literary Style

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 529

Blank Verse
In his prefatory tribute to the first folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays, Ben Jonson cited (though in deference to Shakespeare) ‘‘Marlowe’s mighty line,’’ and critics tend to agree that Marlowe’s innovation in verse was the first and most influential predecessor to the stylistic achievements of the era. It was Tamburlaine the Great that made this powerful verse style famous. Marlowe stresses in the prologue to part 1 that it is his intention to depart from the ‘‘jigging veins of rhyming mother wits,’’ or unsophisticated rhymes like those of a mother giving silly advice in the form of a jig, of his predecessors. Instead, Marlowe wanted to create a work of high philosophical ambitions and powerful, ‘‘astounding’’ verse.

The poetic tool Marlowe uses for his ‘‘mighty line’’ is blank verse, or unrhymed iambic pentameter, which is a meter with five beats of two-syllable units called iambs. This style, adapted from Greek and Latin heroic verse, was developed in Italy before Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, introduced it in England. Marlowe was perhaps the chief innovator to instill blank verse with emotional force and rhythmic eloquence, and he was also influential in skillfully suiting his characters’ temperaments to the nature of their lines. Tamburlaine’s lines, for example, are not just musical and eloquent but extremely powerful and majestic, with hard consonant sounds and decisive, accented peaks and flourishes, while those of Calyphas and Mycetes rhyme ineffectually and repeat sounds frequently, to no purpose.

Although Tamburlaine’s speeches may sometimes sound overwrought, in Elizabethan England they were fine examples of rhetoric, or the art of speaking and writing effectively. Marlowe does not follow the strict logical rules of classical rhetoric, which was used in ancient Greek philosophy but, like the ancient Greeks, he does use language as a powerful tool to convey the truth and to be persuasive. Marlowe’s compelling and insightful use of comparisons, his evocative diction, or word choice, his startling imagery, and his ability to incorporate his words into a compelling and musical rhythm of speech combine to create some of the most powerful examples of rhetoric in Elizabethan drama. Elizabethan audiences might sometimes find Tamburlaine pompous, but his rhetoric is the dramatist’s chief tool in portraying Tamburlaine as such a captivating figure.

In addition to their usefulness in winning over the audience, Tamburlaine’s powers of rhetoric are critical to his military triumphs. Tamburlaine’s rhetoric compels Theridamas to join him and allows him to inspire his soldiers to victory. Also, Tamburlaine relies on rhetoric to win over Zenocrate and instruct his sons in the arts of war. Of course, he supports his rhetoric with his majestic looks and forceful actions, but this style of speech is the key means by which he is able to communicate his power. Marlowe saw rhetoric as one of the most important keys to power and truth. He disdained the low comedy and clichéd rhetoric of previous dramatists. In fact, he wrote such grand and forceful speeches that writers began to parody Marlowe’s style after Tamburlaine the Great became famous, seeing Marlowe as the prime example of powerful, and sometimes ostentatious, rhetoric.

Compare and Contrast

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1400s: Tamerlane rules his vast territories by allowing his soldiers to keep the booty from the conquests and filling his treasury with ransom money extracted from conquered cities.

1580s: The Ottoman Empire, at the height of its power, controls most of Tamerlane’s former territories and arouses fear and misunderstanding from Christian nations.

Today: The Middle East, which is the primary location of the events in Tamburlaine the Great, contains a number of prosperous nations with rich natural resources, but it is one of the most politically unstable regions in the world.

1400s: England is in the midst of the Middle Ages. Henry IV has just come to power, having deposed his cousin Richard II, and he will deal forcibly with the insurrections and other problems resulting in part from the devastation of the Black Plague in the mid-1300s.

1580s: Elizabeth rules England with shrewd pragmatism and, although her treasury has been overstretched by military expenses, she creates a stable environment for trade.

Today: Tony Blair is prime minister of England, and his tenure has been characterized by centerleft economic and social policies, as well as his alliance with the United States in a pre-emptive war with Iraq.

1400s: The Americas have yet to be discovered by Europeans, and Native Americans live a traditional way of life that varies by region and civilization.

1580s: The most brutal Spanish conquests of native populations in South and Central America have largely come to an end, but English and French colonialists have yet to establish the firm hold that will lead to the widespread displacement and massacre of Native North Americans.

Today: In the United States, Native Americans struggle with poverty and a lack of appropriate resources on reservations, but the Native American population is not becoming fully integrated into mainstream culture and does not necessarily desire to do so.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Jonson, Ben, ‘‘To the Memory of My Beloved, the Author Master William Shakespeare, and What He Hath Left Us,’’ in William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, by William Shakespeare, edited by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, Oxford University Press, 1988, pp. xiv–xvi.

Marlowe, Christopher, Tamburlaine the Great: Parts I and II, edited by J. W. Harper, Ernest Benn, 1971. Sales, Roger, Christopher Marlowe, St. Martin’s Press, 1991, pp. 51–83.

Further Reading
Battenhouse, Roy W., Marlowe’s ‘‘Tamburlaine’’: A Study in Renaissance Moral Philosophy, Vanderbilt University Press, 1964. This book provides an analysis of the play as a didactic and conventionally religious moral statement, in which Tamburlaine is meant to be a figure of evil.

Eliot, T. S., ‘‘Christopher Marlowe,’’ in Selected Essays, 1917–1932, Harcourt, Brace, 1932, pp. 100–07. Eliot’s discussion of Marlowe’s style is one of the most influential modern critical evaluations of the dramatist, and it includes an analysis of the verse in Tamburlaine the Great.

Manz, Beatrice Forbes, The Rise and Rule of Tamerlane, Cambridge University Press, 1989. Manz offers a useful historical account of the Mongol conqueror.

Ribner, Irving, ‘‘The Idea of History in Marlowe’s Tamburlaine,’’ in ELH, Vol. 20, 1954, pp. 251–66. Ribner discusses Marlowe’s classical sources in Tamburlaine the Great and argues that the play denies the role of providence in human history.

Rowse, A. L., Christopher Marlowe, A Biography, Macmillan, 1964. Rowse’s book is a colorful and controversial biography addressed to a wide audience.


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Battenhouse, Roy W. Marlowe’s Tamburlaine: A Study in Renaissance Moral Philosophy. 1941. Reprint. Nashville, Tenn.: Vanderbilt University Press, 1964. Battenhouse contends that the play upholds traditional morality and the Christian worldview.

Friedenreich, Kenneth. Christopher Marlowe: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism Since 1950. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1979. Eighty-three annotated citations to Tamburlaine point the reader to interpretive articles and books.

Knoll, Robert E. “Caesarism.” In Christopher Marlowe. New York: Twayne, 1969. A good starting place for the general reader. Knoll considers the hero appealing in his diabolic aspirations.

Kocher, Paul H. Christopher Marlowe: A Study of His Thought, Learning, and Character. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1946. Argues that Marlowe’s view in Tamburlaine the Great is highly iconoclastic and unconventional.

Levin, Harry. “The Progress of Pomp.” In The Overreacher: A Study of Christopher Marlowe. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1952. One of the most influential books on Marlowe. Presents the Marlovian hero as a rebel and explores the use of language and irony in Tamburlaine the Great.

Ribner, Irving, ed. Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine Part One and Part Two: Text and Major Criticism. New York: Odyssey Press, 1974. The most comprehensive book on the plays. Features an authoritative text edited and glossed by Ribner. Also reprints eleven influential essays (one from Ellis-Fermor’s milestone 1927 book on Marlowe), and concludes with a useful bibliography. The final essay by Kenneth Friedenreich surveys the critical history of the plays.

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Critical Essays