When Tamburlaine the Great burst upon the Elizabethan stage in 1587, it took audiences by storm. The most popular tragedy of the time had been Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (pr. c. 1585-1589, pb. 1594?), which featured a strong dramatic sense but unmemorable verse. Tamburlaine the Great, in contrast, was written in poetry of the scope and magnificence that moved Shakespeare to write of “the proud full sail of [Marlowe’s] great verse” (Sonnet 86).
Vital to the play’s success was the figure of Tamburlaine. The prologue introduces him in lines that were to become famous: “Threatening the world with high astounding terms,/ And scourging kingdoms with his conquering sword.” Tamburlaine’s power comes from his limitless self-concept, not from his birth, which was that of a humble shepherd. In Marlowe’s world, a person’s worth is measured by his or her actions. Thus Tamburlaine declares, “I am a lord, for so my deeds shall prove—/ And yet a shepherd by my parentage.” His thoughts, he says, are coequal with the clouds, and his aspiration is immortality such as the gods enjoy. Indeed, he claims to gain his authority to terrorize the world from Jove himself, whose scourge he is.
As for the traditional enemies of the aspirant—Death and Fortune—the plays contain frequent references to Tamburlaine’s mastery over them, as in the passage in Part I, act 1, where he claims that he has bound the Fates in iron chains and turns Fortune’s wheel with his own hand. He appears to have assumed the role of Fate in condemning the virgins of Damascus to death for their failure to surrender before he symbolically decked his tents in black: His Customs, he says, are “as peremptory/ As wrathful planets, death, or destiny.”
Such assertions are hubristic in the extreme and, in a Christian context, would merit a downfall such as Faustus’s. Tamburlaine, however, moves freely in a non-Christian setting. His death, when it comes, occurs through illness. He is never punished for his past exploits; rather, he is lionized by all save his enemies. “Nature,” he says, “ . . . doth teach us all to have aspiring minds”; our souls are ever “climbing after knowledge infinite.” Compare this blithe celebration of the illimitable mind with the Chorus’s fearful and bitter epilogue to Doctor Faustus lamenting the tragic fate of inquiring minds who are tempted to explore forbidden knowledge.
Christianity makes a brief appearance in Part II in the unsympathetic character of Sigismund, a Christian king. Sigismund makes a treaty with the Muslim king Orcanes only to be persuaded to break it on the grounds that oaths made with heathens are not binding. When Orcanes defeats the treacherous force of Sigismund, he wonders whether his victory was attributable to his invocation of Christ’s wrath on the enemy or to Mahomet’s favor. The skeptical Gazellus pointedly suggests that the cause lies in neither prophet, but in the fortunes of war. Marlowe’s casual dismissal of Christ and Mahomet as a couple of rival prophets is indicative of his skeptical attitude toward all religions and their claims to a monopoly on truth.
The taste of the theatergoing public has changed since the Elizabethan Age, and modern audiences may view the bloody acts of ruthless tyrants with less enthusiasm. The negative sides of Tamburlaine’s character—his cruelty, vengefulness, and extraordinary amount of machismo—may put him in danger of losing the audience’s sympathy altogether. Scenes that spring to mind are, in part 1, his slaughter of the virgins of Damascus after the town’s surrender and his inhuman treatment of Bajazeth. Part II depicts his self-indulgent act of burning the town where Zenocrate dies; his deliberately cutting his arm to show his sons that a wound is nothing, and his insistence that they wash their hands in the blood; his slaying of his son for cowardice; and his harnessing of the captured kings in his chariot.
Yet evidence exists that the Elizabethan...
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