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Tamburlaine by Christopher Marlowe

Tamburlaine (1587)

by Christopher Marlowe

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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The language of hyperbole the relentless cruelty of the central character and a play that features one martial exploit after another as the protagonists march across the stage makes the reading of it an exhausting experience. It was however a great hit on the Elizabethan stage, it was the play that put Christopher Marlowe on the map, in fact part 1 was so popular that the sequel part 2 was soon in production and it proved to be remarkably similar to part one without losing its power to shock its audience. If ever a character strode across the stage like a colossus then it would be Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great, but over 5 hours of this striding is enough for anybody. Modern productions of the play that wish to tell the whole story (i.e. parts 1 and 2) have tended to make substantial cuts to the text.

Marlowe's play comes under the genre of history plays. Timur of Lenk was a conquering chieftain from the previous century (fifteenth) and was seen both as a cruel barbarian as well as a charismatic figure who threatened christian Europe. Marlowe's Tamburlaine mirrors this dichotomy and in part 1 of the play the audience could both admire and be horrified by the central character, in part 2 the audience is more likely to be horrified as the cruelty takes over and Tamburlaine slips into something like madness. Marlowe depicts the charismatic side of Tamburlain not only by continual reference to his physical attributes but by the use of the language of hyperbole set down in strident iambic pentameters. This language is not only used by Tamburlaine himself, but also by other characters when describing Tamburlaine. In Act 2 scene 1 we get a description by Menaphon an adversary:

Of stature tall, and straightly fashionèd,
Like his desire, lift upwards and devine;
So large of limbs, his joints so strongly knit,
Such breadth of shoulders as might mainly bear
Old Atlas' burden. 'Twixt his manly pitch,
A pearl more worth than all the world is placed,
Wherein by curious sovereignty of art
Are fixed his piercing instruments of sight
Whose fiery circles bear encompassèd
A heaven of heavenly bodies in their spheres...........

And this is Tamburlaine chiding Bajazeth whom he takes prisoner to humiliate and torture:

The Chiefest God, first mover of the sphere
Enchased with thousand ever-shining lamps,
Will sooner burn the glorious frame of heaven
Than it should conspire my overthrow.
But, villain, thou that wishest this to me,
fall prostrate on the low, disdainful earth
And be the footstool of the great Tamburlain,
That I may rise into my royal throne.

(Be very suspicious of anybody that refers to themselves in the third person.)

Elizabethan playgoers had never heard this sort of language before and it has since been dubbed Marlowe's mighty line. The soaring magnificence of Marlowe's mighty line in iambic pentameters would have been key to the popularity of the play, but so would the cruelty of the action onstage: King Bajazeth is kept starving in an iron cage which is brought into the food hall where Tamburlaine holds court, he is offered a knife to kill his caged wife so that he can live from her flesh, finally he beats his brains out on the iron bars as does his wife. The Governor of a besieged city sends out a group of virgins to Tamburlaine to plead for mercy, he hardly listens to their pleas before ordering his horse men to run them through with their spears and has their slaughtered carcasses hoisted up on the walls of the city. He stabs to death one of his own sons who refuses to fight................He orders the death of every man, woman and child of towns who do not surrender within three days of his arrival, commenting that they know my custom my pride would not let me do anything else.

The character of a tyrant who sees himself more exalted than a God is exposed in a soliloquy just after he has ordered the killing of the virgins. He starts significantly by declaring his love for Zenocrate (his sort of love) before ruminating on his place in the world, his virtue, his nobility and his glory. Opposite him plays Zenocrate, who is the daughter of the Sultan of Egypt and whose beauty saves her from being a mere slave of Tamburlaine. He professes his love and makes her his queen, but it is a love based on show, she is a trophy which he loves to parade and Zenocrate accepts her role, first to save her skin and then she grows into being wife to Tamburlaine and exalting his greatness. She is brought up short when she sees the bodies of Bajazeth and his wife, but can rationalise the actions of her husband. Her death in part 2 involves a sumptuous funeral and her coffin is carted around by Tamburlaine and put on display wherever he is fighting his next war. Zenocrate like the audience is charmed by the charisma of Tambulaine and becomes blind or chooses not to see his cruelty.

There are other themes in the play apart from the depiction of a tyrant, but they need to be picked out. Wars of religion and the slaughter of christians by their Moslem enemies makes it impossible for them to combine together to defeat Tamburlaine. Loyalty bred by fear rather than love is another theme, but essentially this is a play about Tamburlain the great. Marlowe's magnificent rhetoric makes this a play to be admired rather than loved. Opening it at any point and the reader can enjoy some brilliant blank verse, but to carry on reading page after page of martial exploits is perhaps not for everyone. It is not a play that I would want to re-read in full and I would hesitate to attend a live production, because the success of the play would depend on the acting of the central character, the way the director handles the action scenes and an atmospheric production. The temptation may be to soak everything in buckets of blood which is not my thing. Let Tamburlaine have the last word:

But since I exercise a greater name ,
The scourge of God and terror of the world,
I must apply myself to fit those terms,
In war, in blood, in death, in cruelty,
And plague such peasants as resist in me
The power of heavens eternal majesty,......

4 stars. ( )
1 vote baswood | Jun 4, 2019 |
Like his desire, lift upwards and divine

Tamburlaine is epic and merciless. Kit gave us an orientalist paen, but one woven with gilded verse, an elevating counterpoint to the interminable bloodshed. Marlowe’s canvas is vast, as the dying Tamburlaine commands: Give me a map. The extant world systems are pushed aside and the operating codes are knitted by circumstance. Each is left as ashes by the horde.

Each scene is but chapter of conquest. Diplomacy and fealty no longer mean exactly what they did previously. Nor does Faith.

A god is not so glorious as a king. I think the pleasure they enjoy in heaven
Can not compare with kingly joys in earth.

It is engaging to consider the effect of staging the exploits of the Scourge of God to an Elizabethan audience. ( )
  jonfaith | Feb 22, 2019 |
"The god of war resigns his room to me,
Meaning to make me general of the world."
- Tamburlaine (Part One, Act 5, scene 1)

Tamburlaine, Tamburlaine, Tamburlaine...

It's not hard to see why "Tamburlaine the Great" caused such a stir on its initial performance in the late 16th century. The powerful poetry, the seemingly endless array of battles, the inventive methods of torture and death, the sudden explosions of bilious insults... "Tamburlaine" is an important step in the development of drama, true. However, it's also fair to say that it is by no means a great play, or even a great work of art.

"Part One" is by far the superior work, telling the tale of the rise of an usurper who begins to systematically conquer the known world. The creation of Tamburlaine himself is the creation of a great monster, and he's endlessly speechifying, giving us plenty of insight into his character. The development of his concubine-turned-wife Zenocrate is particularly interesting, even if she remains quite an opaque character. There are also plenty of fascinating moments, as various cities and countries fall before the Conqueror. The most affecting moment is the reveal of Tamburlaine's approach to an invasion: first coming in white, to offer a peaceful takeover; then in red, to offer a merciful takeover, in which only the defiers are killed; then in black, to offer a truly take-no-prisoners approach. It's a heartbreaking speech. At the same time, the play is often filled with bathos, particularly in the melodramatic deaths of secondary characters. It's also ponderously long, and it's not hard to imagine any modern production trimming the whole play down to a manageable seventy-minute act. It's not so much the scenes (although there are still a few too many) but the fact that everyone speaks in expansive, page-long speeches filled with literary and mythical references. Of course, Marlowe was a poet first and foremost and this was, to an extent, the state of drama when he began writing (in the years before Shakespeare gained prominence). I have no inherent problem with this, after all, since anyone who has studied theatregoing of the era will understand the differences. Yet it's fair to argue that this is more poetry than theatre and, even then, it's truthfully too lengthy. Many of the speeches - particularly those of Tamburlaine - cover the same ground with only minor variation. As a rather lofty attempt at theatre of gore and pomp, it would've been amazing back in the day. Not so much now. It's influential and in fact fascinating, but certainly is an academic exercise in many ways.

That's not to say the power of the language fails; by all accounts, it's wondrous. The opening lines -
"From jigging veins of rhyming mother-wits
and such conceits as clownage keeps in pay,
we'll lead you to the stately tent of war,
where you shall hear the Scythian Tamburlaine
threat'ning the world with high astounding terms,
and scourging kingdoms with his conquering sword."
- who can beat that?

"Part Two" is much the lesser, clearly a sequel demanded by the original play's popularity. With little left of his historical subject's life, Marlowe is reduced to basically telling four acts of the same thing - people gather together in increasingly-large groups to repel Tamburlaine, and he cuts them down - followed by a final act of Tamburlaine making speeches as he succumbs to illness.

The first two acts are probably the most fascinating. Seeing this band of such distinct personages - Christians, Jews and Muslims - banding against Tamburlaine is quite impressive. The very idea of this man literally conquering the world is given its full weight in the pained reactions of this men and women, and it's just a pity that each subsequent act does the same without even variation. The second act is probably the height, centering on Zenocrate's final days. I often wonder why Zenocrate was so popular in the era - as is seen by her prominence in "Part Two"'s prologue - but whatever it was, she clearly affected Marlowe the most, or at least the idea of something much more emotionally immediate than war did. Tamburlaine's elegy is the most powerful passage, and every moment that reflects upon Zenocrate is filled with weight. Indeed, the couple are the only two characters of note in the play. Tamburlaine's sons are not individual characters, but still there is an interesting nascent psychological study there, of the power that this great men has had over these boys and their differing responses to him as leader.

Not much can be said of Acts III and IV, which really just repeat the play's premise several times over. Again, it's a great populist display of gore and pomp, and I don't take issue with that: people rise up together and are then cut down by Tamburlaine with his speeches and his armies. It's beautifully poetic, but is largely set up, and at times becomes very silly with an almost comical amount of self-sacrifices. Again, as anyone who has studied the theatre of the era will know, it's perfectly reasonable, but it veers too close to parody too often (although it's harder for us now to get a grasp on the complex mixture of comedy and tragedy that made up the tastes of the day). The height of silliness comes in Act IV, when Olympia - a rather unnecessary side-figure (existing, as my edition's notes suggests, to provide a thematic rather than dramatic unity) - convinces her captor that she is wearing a charm that will make her immortal to wounds, and he should stab her to test it out. It's a charmingly inventive method of suicide, but I'm not buying it.

The final act is not really redemptive, sadly. Tamburlaine succumbs to an illness and dies. This does allow him some great musings on the irony of being struck down by a foe he cannot battle (very "War of the Worlds" and a nice ironic touch by Marlowe) but there is no dramatic integrity whatsoever. All other characters and plots are basically forgotten in favour of some final speeches. Even the sons return only to praise. As a play, this would certainly be a trying affair (although, I'm sure, energising at points) but even as literature it is too much for an epic poem and doesn't have the smoothness of most of Shakespeare's plays, which I maintain can be as enjoyably read as watched.

All in all, then, this is of course an important moment in drama, and a vital play in Marlowe's small canon. There's considerable development here from "Dido Queen of Carthage", and I'm sure I'm not alone in suggesting that Marlowe's investigation into Tamburlaine and Zenocrate's relationship compelled him to make the more fascinating characters of Barabas and Faustus. Marlowe certainly helped the popular theatre "break free of the pan and do its own thing" as Elaine Benes would say, and he'd reach new heights in his remaining four plays, but he was always a poet first, and that's evident here. ( )
  therebelprince | Oct 30, 2018 |

This is usually discussed as a single play in two parts, and I guess I agree with that, though it is notable that the two parts are set at least twenty years apart - the first ends with Tamburlaine marrying Zenocrate, by the start of the second they have three grown-up sons. I felt it had a tremendous energy; lots of violence and horrible death, a portrait of a monstrous leader who in the end is defeated not by battle but by illness. It's deliberately over the top, I think, and Shakespeare makes fun of the line "Holla ye pampered jades of Asia!" addressed by Tamburlaine to two captive kings harnessed to his chariot (in Henry IV part 2 II.iv).

A lot of commentators try to read Marlowe's own views into Tamburlaine, in particular extrapolating his supposed atheism from the scene in Part Two where Tamburlaine burns the Koran. It seemed pretty clear to me that this scene is about Tamburlaine breaking faith with his own former religion, just as he has broken faith with the Christian rulers in the first act and with his insufficiently violent son Calyphas, and we should not mistake the views and actions of the character for those of the author. That's not to say that Marlowe was not an atheist, just that I don't find this scene convincing evidence that he was (whereas I do find the opening scene of Dido convincing evidence that he was very comfortable with man-boy love).

I'm perfectly satisfied with Tamburlaine as a new form of entertainment rather than a political statement. This was apparently the first attempt to do an epic in blank verse; there's also vast amounts of conflict and spectacle - defeated opponents killed in various gory ways, Tamburlaine himself as a dominant character and aspirant force of nature, attempting to shape the world to his own liking and ultimately defeated not by Man but by entropy. It made Edward Alleyn's reputation when first produced. (It didn't make William Shatner's reputation, though he appeared in a Broadway production in 1956 as Tamburlaine's hanger-on Usumcasane.)

I've long been fascinated by the real Timur, and hope that some day I will be able to visit his tomb in Samarkand. Needless to say, Marlowe's narrative bears only the vaguest resemblance to the real history of his subject. Unlike Dido, where I think there's a didactic point about taking the Æneid and adding to it rather than varying, the point here is invention rather than history. ( )
1 vote nwhyte | Dec 11, 2016 |
3,5 stars ( )
  pyromorphite | Mar 31, 2013 |
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» Add other authors (16 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Christopher Marloweprimary authorall editionscalculated
Dawson, Anthony B.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ellis-Fermor, Una MaryEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Jump, John D.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Martin, Mathew R.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ribner, IrvingEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0486421252, Paperback)

From one of England's greatest playwrights, a remarkably inventive and poetically expressive work that set the form for later Elizabethan dramas. The 2-part romantic tragedy focuses on Tamburlaine — a Mongol warrior whose relentless rise to greatness and power, together with his enormous greed and vanity, culminates in his eventual downfall.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:15 -0400)

(see all 6 descriptions)

Nearly 200 beautiful examples of wrought iron gates, screens, balustrades, and other architectural adornments.

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