At the end of the first part of Christopher Marlowe'sTamburlaine The Great, the score sheet reads three kings killed in battle, three more enslaved, one princess kidnapped and seduced, three suicides (one lord by self inflicted stab wound, one emperor and one empress brained against the bars of their cage), a bevy
of virgins speared by horsemen, and one whole city massacred. The audience has witnessed fratricide, genocide, regicide, high treason, blasphemy, rebellion, sedition, social anarchy, murder, war, and general rampage. When it premiered in London in 1587, it was an instant hit.
The play that made Marlowe's name as a playwright, and established him at the very top of the profession, Tamburlaine is a dramatisation of the life and career of Timur-i-Leng (or "Timur the Lame"), the fourteenth century ruler of Samarkand
History records that Timur conquered Persians, Turks, Syrians and Tartars, and died (from natural causes) on the eve of launching a campaign to conquer the Chinese too. Marlowe's Tamburlaine is no less ambitious, and the first part sees him rise from lowly shepherd to becoming the Emperor of Asia, crushing all opposition with ruthless and unstoppable determination.
The First Part of Tamburlaine the Great was so successful, it soon (in time honoured tradition) spawned a sequel - within months, Marlowe had produced Tamburlaine the Great, Part Two. Having found a winning formula, Marlowe chose to continue the story in a similar vein, and Part Two features three executions, two deaths in battle, one son stabbed by his mother, another stabbed by his father, a gaggle of concubines abducted and enslaved, several cities pillaged and destroyed, one death from illness and one more by - possibly - divine retribution.
This Devilish Shepherd
Everyone knows the story of the shepherd-king, a humble boy raised in poverty yet destined for a throne. A universal fairy tale, the shepherd-king is Old-Testament David, slayer of Goliath; he is King Arthur, he is Christ. The shepherd is a man of wisdom, a natural leader who cares for and guides his people.
Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great, is a member of this literary fraternity. But where other kings demonstrate wisdom, justice and love in their dominion, Tamburlaine shows ruthless and bloody ambition. Marlowe's Tamburlaine is an unstoppable, unswayable machine of war; in his play the tale of the shepherd king has become the tale of a Renaissance Terminator.
What's it All About, Then?
The plot of both plays is deceptively simple - Tamburlaine, a former shepherd turned outlaw, gathers an army of followers and begins a triumphant campaign of war that garners him crowns and kingdoms in seemingly endless quantities. It is the story of his rise and rise, and when the end of the second play comes, he dies an old man unbeaten by human forces, supreme ruler of an immense empire, with a strong and loyal son to carry on after him. Marlowe, who is known to have studied and translated the Classics, would have been familiar with the basic (and often quoted) Aristotelian tenant, that to have drama, a story must have conflict. But the simple plot of Tamburlaine would seem to contravene this ancient rule - there is no real conflict, no catastrophe, to bring about tension and provide momentum since the central character is always, without exception, victorious.
So where is the conflict in Tamburlaine? The answer lies not in the developments of the story-line, but rather in the characterisation and thematic interpretation of the central figures. Tamburlaine himself personifies conflict in the play. A low-born shepherd, repeatedly described by various kings and emperors as a ‘thievish villain’ and a ‘paltry Scythian’, Tamburlaine represents the outsider in society. He is an alien intruder, a foreigner who challenges the rightful rulers and, even worse, wins. Declaring himself the ‘scourge of god’
he none-the-less triumphs over kings and emperors that the audience is given no reason to doubt are not also ‘divinely ordained’. In the context of Elizabethan England, where to question the Queen’s God-given authority was high treason, Tamburlaine was a usurper and a rebel - the worst and most dangerous kind of scum.
The Scythian Scourge
As self proclaimed ‘scourge of god’, Tamburlaine therefore presents a paradox. Just like his creator, Marlowe, he is a self-made man, risen above humble origins by dint of his own achievements:
I am a lord, for so my deeds shall prove,
And yet a shepherd by my parentage.
This simple statement contradicts everything the Elizabethan state was based on - the belief that a man’s position in life was proved by his birth, not by his deeds; and yet here was Tamburlaine, a foreigner, a shepherd and a thief, crowning himself a king. Not only that, but he was prepared to dress the part. A moment later, he declares:
Lie here, ye weeds that I disdain to wear!
This complete armour and this curtle-axe
Are adjuncts more beseeming Tamburlaine.
as he casts aside his rags to put on instead the armour of a king - a shocking, but also surely thrilling, moment for an audience who’s own dress was proscribed, along with their station, by the State.
Yet Tamburlaine, for all his grandiose language and triumphant victories, is too absolute a figure to win the audience’s sympathies. Unlike Marlowe’s later creations, who almost all share an almost conspiratorial relationship with their audience, Tamburlaine is neither self consciously theatrical or ever quite human enough for that. He has no asides that allow the audience to share in his thoughts, and never steps outside his role as mighty, divinely ordained warrior to acknowledge the audience or the possibility that he is playing a part of his own creation. Like a playwright trapped within his own play, he is constantly re-shaping the world around him to reflect this vision of himself, appropriating or colonising the visual spectacles presented to the audience so that they become a display of his own glory. So, when Tamburlaine leads his future father-in-law, the Soldan of Egypt, into his state room to discover the bodies of three enemies (two having brained themselves against the bars of their cages, the other mortally wounded in battle), what at first is ‘a sight of strange import’ becomes in the course of a few lines ‘sights of power to grace my victory’4.
Neither is Tamburlaine presented necessarily as a noble or even admirable figure, since the audience is not allowed to ignore the fact that he is the tyrant his enemies call him. The ruthlessness of his military campaigns shocks even his beloved wife, Zenocrate, who pleads in vain for him to show mercy when it is her own father’s city under siege. But Tamburlaine cannot be swayed, and his campaigns all follow the same course as though guided by irresistible forces of nature. On the first day of every siege, Tamburlaine decks his army and himself in white - even his horse and his tents are white, to ‘signify the mildness of his mind’ . If the city is surrendered to him on that first day, then he will spare every life. But on the second day the white is replace by red; if any city resists him longer than a day, ‘then must his kindled wrath be quench’d with blood, Not sparing any that can manage arms’. On the third day the colours are changed for a final time:
…if these threats move not submission,
Black are his colours, black pavilion;
His spear, his shield, his horse, his armour, plumes,
And jetty feathers, menace death and hell;
Without respect of sex, degree or age,
He razeth all his foes with fire and sword.
Tamburlaine; Part One, Act IV, Scene ii, lines 48-64
Once the third day has dawned, the city’s fate is sealed, and the audience is made to watch the utter ruthlessness of his intent when the Governor of Damascus sends a group of virgins to beg to Tamburlaine for mercy. Unmoved by their tears, their helplessness or their words, a black-robed Tamburlaine orders his horsemen to charge them down and spear them to death. Their carcasses are then hoisted on the city walls as yet another display of Tamburlaine’s irresistible will, that he declares (with a total lack of modesty or proportion) is ’as peremptory as wrathful planets, death, or destiny’5.
A Family Man?
Though the historical Timur is remembered today almost as much for his contributions to culture as for his military prowess, Marlowe’s Tamburlaine is a creature only of war. Even the courtship of his wife, Zenocrate, is a kind of battle, beginning as it does with her kidnapping as she is en route to her betrothed. Telling her that ‘this fair face and heavenly hue must grace his bed that conquers Asia, and means to be a terror to the world’6,
he woes her with a beautiful speech that is slightly undermined by his reply to the mocking surprise of his friends, telling them that ‘women must be flattered’. For all his pretty words, Zenocrate has no choice but to accompany him, and exits the scene unambiguously wretched. Though living with Tamburlaine eventually wins her over to return his love, the audience is never shown a softer side that might have helped him achieve this. Indeed one of Zenocrate’s own men declares in disbelief
How can you fancy one that looks so fierce,
Only dispos’d to martial stratagems?
Who, when he shall embrace you in his arms,
Will tell how many thousand me he slew;
And, when you look for amorous discourse,
Will rattle forth his facts of war and blood...
Tamburlaine; Part One, Act III, Scene ii, lines 40-45
Zenocrate might protest in return that his talk is ‘much sweeter than the Muses’ song’, but those are words of Tamburlaine’s that the audience is not permitted to hear.
At the close of Part one, Tamburlaine crowns Zenocrate his queen and declares that he and his followers have made ‘a truce with all the world’. The audience has witnessed the triumph of bloody and brutal ambition that the gods (both his and theirs) have utterly failed to punish. But at the start of Part Two, the downfall that they had anticipated and been denied seems finally to be looming on the horizon. Muslims and Christians are uniting their armies against him; Callapine, the rightful heir to the Emperor of the Turks, has escaped from Tamburlaine’s prison by charming his jailer in much the same way that Tamburlaine had seduced the generals of the armies raised against him in Part One. And, worst of all, Zenocrate is dying. Death, whom Tamburlaine calls his servant, has dared to ‘scourge the Scourge of the immortal God’ . On her death-bed, Zenocrate pleads once more with Tamburlaine that he should ‘with love and patience let your true love die’ , as his ‘grief and fury hurts my second life’ . Yet her powerlessness over her lord’s actions is demonstrated once again by his inability to restrain that fury. His reaction to her death is to once more let out ‘Death and tyrannising War’ . As in Part One, his brutal wrath breaks upon the world around him, re-shaping the very landscape to reflect his grief:
This cursed town will I consume with fire,
Because this place bereft me of my love.
Tamburlaine; Part Two, Act III, Scene i, lines 137-138
In death as in life, Zenocrate is forced to be a symbol of power and war that is the antithesis of her own desire.
With the death of Zenocrate, Tamburlaine’s attentions focus on their three sons, Calyphas, Amyras and Celebinus. To be worthy sons of Tamburlaine the Great, they must first become soldiers, and to this end he proposes to teach them the ‘rudiments of war’ . However, Calyphas, his eldest son, is not impressed with the list of hardships he must endure, and protests ‘but this is dangerous to be done; we may be slain or wounded ere we learn’7.
To Tamburlaine and his brothers’ disgust, Calyphas remains resolutely unimpressed by war and chooses instead a life of luxury and indolence
Calyphas is one of the few characters in the play to openly express anti-war sentiments, and responds to his brothers’ taunts with lines such as
I know, sir, what it is to kill a man;
It works remorse of conscience in me.
I take no pleasure to be murderous,
Nor care for blood when wine will quench my thirst.
Tamburlaine; Part Two, Act IV, Scene i, lines 27-30
Yet it is difficult to see him as a convincing counter-argument to the overwhelming glorification of war expressed everywhere else in the play, for Calyphas is a lazy coward who lounges around playing cards and making idle bets. Refusing to accompany his war-like brothers onto the battle field, Calyphas is disowned by Tamburlaine who calls him a ‘coward villain’ and a traitor to his name and majesty. Once again, Tamburlaine defies the heavens by declaring war on the gods who ‘sent my issue such a soul’ , and stabs Calyphas, this ‘effeminate brat’ , to death before his entire court and his other sons. Tamburlaine has triumphantly recreated himself as ‘The Scourge of God and terror of the world’ , but in doing so has lost any ability he may have had to play another role, be it husband or father, nearly so successfully.
This Tragic Glass
The success of this play, and its inclusion into the canon of English classics, is not just down to the amount of gore Marlowe heaped on, or the quantity of controversy he courted
This was the Elizabethan Era, and, as the saying goes, they did things better in those days. With this play, Marlowe had created a whole new style of writing - a rhythm in the language itself that is at once natural and yet poetic. Marlowe had discovered blank verse. For the first time, English audiences could see an original play written and performed in the language of their everyday lives. But in Marlowe’s hands this language was transformed into high art - as the prologue warns the audience, they will hear his Tamburlaine ‘threatening the world with high astounding terms’ . It is his language that they are led to anticipate, before even the spectacle of his ‘conquering sword’ .
A Play of Two Halves
In the short prologue to Part One, the audience is told that they are to be shown the conquests of the mighty Tamburlaine, but they are not told how they should interpret these events. Tamburlaine is undoubtedly the hero of the play, yet he is portrayed as something close to a ‘noble savage’; he is both barbarian and king and he is driven by very ignoble ambition. Challenging and flouting every authority that confronts him, he should be at most a tragic hero, struck down by the gods and his fellow man in punishment for his brutal, unrestrained aspirations. But this fails to happen. What are the audience to make of this spectacle that presents the failure of heaven to contain a human force so (to quote from Macbeth) ‘bloody, bold and resolute’ ? The prologue asks that the audience:
View but his picture in this tragic glass,
And then applaud his fortunes as you please.
In other words, the choice of whether to applaud Tamburlaine’s success, or condemn it, is entirely left up to the audience.
Part two also has a prologue; nine short lines that outline the events about to be unfolded - Marlowe obviously didn’t like to keep his audiences in suspense. Indeed this prologue makes it clear that the purpose of the sequel is to answer all the ‘but what happened to…’ questions that must have greeted the close of Part One. The audience is told that they are to be shown the overdue ruin of Tamburlaine, when ‘murderous Fates throw all his triumphs down’ , just as was expected throughout the whole of preceding play. As Part One displayed the rise, then so Part Two prepared to show the fall, thus preserving the balance and harmony of Renaissance beliefs. But what follows yet again thwarts the audiences’ dramatic expectations, and many may well have been hard pressed to see in it the divine retribution they had been promised.
Part Two does not show Tamburlaine defeated by a human foe, for he dies with his unbeaten record unbroken, and his empire larger than ever. If ‘murderous fates’ meant to throw all his triumphs down, then they missed a few. But Tamburlaine is defeated in other ways - he is forced to acknowledge the limits of his power when he cannot save Zenocrate from death, and he is faced with the failure of his ‘mettle’ when one of his sons proves to be a coward. His final defeat is his own death, from an illness that follows suspiciously close to his last blasphemy - the burning of the Koran. Has he been struck down at last in punishment for his sins? If so, it is by the Muslim god, not the Christian or Roman gods he has also scorned. Part Two, then, poses as much of a problem of interpretation as part one; for though Tamburlaine cannot defeat death, his spirit and his reputation remain unconquered. The plays close finally with a glorious eulogy:
Meet heaven and earth, and here let all things end,
For earth hath spent the pride of all her fruit,
And heaven consum’d his choicest living fire!
Let earth and heaven his timeless death deplore,
For both their worths will equal him no more!
Tamburlaine; Part Two, Act V, Scene iii
Man, or Monster? Rebel or Royal? Tyrant or King? This is the question at the heart of Tamburlaine the Great. The answer is ultimately left for the audience to decide.
Tamburlaine, Timur-i-Leng, Tamerlane
For more on the man behind the myth, read about the historical Tamburlaine
Edgar Allen Poe wrote his own version of the story as a poem, Tamerlane.
Christopher Marlowe: Life and Death, Poetry and Plays
Have a look at other pages on Marlowe and his work:
- Dido, Queen of Carthage
- Edward II
- The Jew of Malta
- Tamburlaine the Great
- A Biography of Christopher Marlowe
- Conspiracy Theories and Christopher Marlowe
- What is Blank Verse?
or go to
Marlowe: The Complete Texts
for online editions of Marlowe's plays and poems.