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

Tamburlaine the Great

by Christopher Marlowe

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 811

The New Human
Tamburlaine, with his cruelty, his ambition, his tremendous capacity for violence, and his intense passion for his wife, represented a new and shocking type of hero for late sixteenth-century audiences. He was the equivalent of what audiences today might consider a Romantic hero—a passionate male obsessed with war who defies convention and whose fervency goes far beyond what is even conceivable for most people. Audiences were not even necessarily intended to understand Tamburlaine, such was his shock value and his capacity to break through the very fabric of society with his ceaseless conquests and unquenchable thirst for power.

Because Tamburlaine was a new type of hero, conquering the traditions of restraint and mercy with his passion, eloquence, and power, he challenged the traditional morality system that pervaded London theaters in the early Elizabethan period. Unlike the conventional plays that preceded Tamburlaine the Great, Marlowe’s work does not consist of a simplistic didactic, or morally instructive, lesson emphasizing that humans must adhere to a strict and traditional moral code. Instead, the play attacks the philosophical problem of humanity’s relationship to the universe and provides an example of a new and extreme worldview that seems to ignore traditional morality. It is Tamburlaine’s conviction that he is as powerful as a god, and he refuses to see himself as an impotent human in a massive, oppressive universe. He believes that he can control the world and is tremendously optimistic about the possibilities of human achievement.

Marlowe does not straightforwardly advocate this worldview; Tamburlaine’s relationship with the audience is complex, and he often inspires repugnance and alienation. However, Tamburlaine is not simply an anti-hero whose worldview the audience finds persuasive solely because he is a devilish figure of temptation. Tamburlaine is likely an exhilarating figure, in part, because he represents a passion that the audience is meant to admire. The play challenges the idea that humans are locked into an oppressive moral system and suggests that a new type of humanity is possible, which will break through these boundaries. The Renaissance movement in continental Europe stressed the emergence of a new model for humanity, open to diverse types of knowledge and entirely new ideas, and Tamburlaine was a vital contribution to the development of this ethos in England. Although Marlowe raises the possibility that he has gone too far, Tamburlaine provides a compelling case for a new type of human.

Power and Ambition
One of the play’s principle themes is conveyed in its depiction of excessive cruelty and ambition, the characteristics that define its main character and make him controversial. In fact, the theme of power pervades nearly every aspect of the play, from Tamburlaine’s conquests, to his role as a father, to his relationship with Zenocrate. Tamburlaine’s military brilliance and his ability to carry out such horrendous acts—such as slaughtering the virgins of Damascus and drowning the population of Babylon—are the results of these character traits, as are his eloquence and rhetorical power that convince Theridamas and others to join him. Marlowe’s audience could be expected to find such excessive displays of power un-Christian and even repulsive, as well as to find themselves somewhat captivated by it.

Ambivalent reactions to these themes extend to the other aspects of Tamburlaine’s life; the audience is asked to ponder whether the hero’s extraordinary passion for his wife is actually romantic love or a form of perverted possession and desire. They must judge whether Tamburlaine is justified in murdering his own son because that son is weak and lazy. Tamburlaine is generally unwilling to place his love above his military ambitions (although he does spare Zenocrate’s father). He often seems to perceive Zenocrate as a treasure to be won, such as in his initial declaration of love for her, when he describes her in terms of great wealth and power. Similarly, he views his sons solely in terms of their courage and fortitude, and he has no regrets about stabbing Calyphas because he was too slothful to enter a battle.

It is possible that Marlowe implies, according to the conventions of a tragedy, that Tamburlaine’s downfall occurs because of the excessive appetite for power that is his tragic flaw. If this is the case, Tamburlaine’s and Zenocrate’s illnesses and deaths could be seen as a punishment from the heavens for Tamburlaine’s presumptuousness. This is not necessarily clear, however, since there is no great evidence that the illness involves any divine intervention; in fact, God does not seem to interfere with human affairs in the play. In any case, Marlowe poses provocative questions about the place of power and ambition in society, the desirability of these characteristics in an age of tremendous artistic and scientific advances and the evils that can result from an excessive display of power.

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