Remarks on Christopher Marlowe and Elizabethan Theater

1564 ... A Very Good Year

Good, at least from the standpoint of English literature. Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare were both born that year. Neither had any particular advantages due them at their birth, although both did receive a sound elementary education, and Marlowe went on to Cambridge. They lived during the reign of Elizabeth I, who had become ruler in 1558. Marlowe died in 1593, murdered; Shakespeare, financially successful, retired around 1613 and died not much later, in 1616. Historians call that time Early Modern, before that construct so essential to our lives, the nation state, and well before industrial revolution or the Enlightenment. As a reminder, there was another remarkable person born that year albeit in Italy, Galileo Galilei.

Marlowe and Shakespeare shared at least one characteristic besides that of being so good at writing plays. They were both incapable of ignoring the foibles of their fellow men and women. Marlowe seems to have personalized things more than Shakespeare. You can see in his plays that Marlowe did not at all like having to fawn over some patron who, through accident of birth, had the funds to support a poor playwright. With Shakespeare, who was not at all confrontational, we still see in-your-face characters like Falstaff, just about everyone in The Merchant of Venice, and others in plays like "Measure for Measure."

There were limits, explicit and implicit, on what could be said on the stage. At the very beginning of Elizabeth's reign a royal proclamation [included below] stated that all plays put on for the public would be censored in the subjects of politics and religion. On the more subtle side, Elizabethan England was a monarchy and, to say the least, class counted for a lot. Any playwright of the sixteenth-century had to be careful that some noble didn't get bent out of shape and complain to the Queen. One fairly safe way to deal with restrictions was to place plays elsewhere than in England, for instance, in Italy. A play about Tamburlaine gave Marlowe the distance in time and place that allowed him to say what might have been very dangerous in contemporary England.

While London was the largest city in Europe it was still small by modern standards and the community of poets, playwrights and actors was pretty chummy. Borrowing from one another's poetry and plays, whether lines or plots, was hardly rare. Perhaps the most piquant of these instances appears in Shakespeare's As You Like It, probably written in 1599. In this, Phoebe has fallen in love with Ganymede (who is really Rosalind in disguise). She says, “Dead shepherd, now I find thy saw [a saying] of might:/ 'Who ever loved that loved not at first sight?'” Marlowe had died in 1593. His poem Hero and Leander, printed in 1598, included the memorable line, “Who ever loved, that loved not at first sight?” A few years later, and in a more exuberant way, Shakespeare gave one of the barely coherent characters in The Merry Wives of Windsor two lines right out of Marlowe's unforgettable A Passionate Shepherd to His Love. Here is what you will find at III.i.15, "There will we make our peds [beds] of roses;/ And a thousand fragrant posies." And with that, indeed, we are back to the dead shepherd.

A Well-Ordered Society

The study of history during the Renaissance was different in spirit than it is in modern times. History was considered to be for instruction, to teach lessons in behavior and to help people see what had led to good or bad consequences. Accordingly it was sometimes, well, quite creative. Yes, we see that today in historical fiction (a species of creative writing), which in print and on the screen goes far to confuse and confound. We see it as well in the different political or religious views that shape the writing of history. But in the Renaissance the world of the Europeans was expanding; it was being opened to exploration and discovery. There was a market for information about people in far-off lands, and for travellers to report their discoveries and observations. Some of this reporting was reliable; some borrowed, restated or just plain made up things. As a counter-balance to that, the Elizabethan public, and especially the political and religious interests, expected a well-ordered society. The Queen prided herself on bringing a feeling of safety and surety to her people. Plays were censored. Playwrights knew that they could not cross the lines drawn around politics and religion.

There was some reliable and extensive English history. Books by Hall and by Holinshed, the latter actually a syndicate of amateur historians, were available to Marlowe and Shakespeare. World history, though, was influenced by the earlier and poorly informed geography that persisted even after the publication of the first modern atlas by Ortelius in 1570.

Marlowe had access to reasonably reliable, if sometimes creative, accounts of the historical Tamburlaine. One such was printed in England in 1586 but there were others. [George Whetstone, English Myrror, ref T.C. Izard, The Principal Source of Marlowe's Tamburlaine, Modern Language Notes, Vol. 58, No. 6 (Jun. 1943), 411-17] We will see that Tamburlaine relied on a small number of friends. This was not at all an invention of Marlowe, although their characterization was. The stiching together of histories and stories from writers from other countries, such as Italy and Germany, was a frequent event in play writing. Shakespeare did it in Romeo and JulietThe Merchant of Venice and other plays.

Marlowe's audience for Tamburlaine would have expected several things: to be entertained, to have their Protestant world view confirmed, and not to be presented with ambiguity. Plays were expected to make it easy - to make it painfully obvious - to see who the good guys were, who the bad guys were, and by gosh the bad 'uns had to get their just desserts. Pretty much like the cowboy movies of my youth, back in the forties, and for that matter, of the cowboy TV shows of later years.

We will see that Marlowe did his best to make sure that people were entertained; he needed good press to get the pennies coming in. Whether he attended as well to the other expectations has been argued by critics since the nineteenth century. Two things are clear: he was well read in the world histories of his day and he was not at all averse to making up things as he went along. Tamburlaine is historical fiction. It had to avoid offending powerful political and religious interests, and it could not confuse or confound his audience. That still left a lot of creative space.

The European Imagination and the Sources of Tamburlaine

The fifteeenth and sixteenth centuries saw an expansion of the European world. Voyages of discovery, trade, and settlement transformed the European imagination. There had long been interactions, including trade and war, with the peoples of the land to the east, and of course there had been conflict over the Holy Land for hundreds of years. But the reality of travel to places like North America and countries in Asia brought about an immediacy of interest, and what we would call travelogues were in great demand. Evidently, Marlowe saw an opportunity to combine the popularity of Senecan drama, vis., The Spanish Tragedy, and the intrigue of a warrior in the mold of the feared Mongols from eastern lands.  You should recall that as late as 1526, Europe had been threatened by the armies of the Ottoman Empire. About a century earlier, the threat of Tamburlaine's army had caused the Ottomans to lift their attack on Europe's frontier. This event appears in Marlowe's play, although in a somewhat peripheral way.

There were several travelogues that recounted not only the fortunes of the man Marlowe would call Tamburlaine (his name appears in quite a few variations in the literatureof the time), but actual meetings with him. Marlowe may have used a 1576 translation into English of book published by Pedro exia in Spain in 1543.  There was also a still-accessible recounting of a Spanish embassy to Tamburlaine, made in 1403-06, led by Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo (available via the Internet Archive,

Not to be outdone, the irrepressible John Foxe, in his Actes and Monuments, next to the Bible the most widely held book in English households, presented a somewhat mangled and entirely borrowed capsule biography of Tamburlaine (see I. 875-6). Foxe's book, being so widely read, would have prepared many theater-goers for Marlowe's play.

Current Affairs

We are all settled in our culture, seeing with implicit veracity the odds and ends, the current events, that are always somewhat mysterious and to a large extent unknown to those in future times. Historians necessarily pick and choose what they will study, and carry those studies out through fashions that come and go. Playwrights exercise their creative liberty by presenting thoroughly mixed times and places which may appear to the unaided eye to be plausible, and sometimes are but not always or with any warnings or warrantees. The writing of Tamburlaine, and its intended audiences, were in the thirty-five year reign of a queen who wanted to be loved, and as we have noted, wanted a well-ordered society. Tamburlaine is to some extent an expression of that time and of Elizabeth I's desire for societal stability. On the other hand, times were changing. Societal change is often hard to see from close quarters, but that change was rubbing abrasively against Elizabeth's desires. For instance, the source of wealth was shifting from land to trade. Merchants could become very wealthy and some of them acquired land (some purchased and some through the collection of debts) that had formerly belonged to noble families, as well as titles through marriage. Henry VIII had looted the monasteries and appropriated the lands of the Catholic Church and redistributed it to friends, to secure loyalty, and to make money. Not so many years later much of the wealth of England, while in English hands, was out of the hands of the nobility. The Merchant of Venice is about an unmarried woman contending with the male-centered world of finance and maritime trade. While it takes place in a somewhat imaginary Italy, its audiences were comfortable with the society that it depicts. Somewhat oddly as far as a modern view of societal change is concerned, with all the turmoil of Reformation and Counter-Reformation and of the rapidly growing importance of trade, England (and western Europe) remained a class-based society. Significant changes in social structure would not come for some time.

The time of Elizabeth was also a period of continuous contention between Protestants and Catholics. Shortly before Tamburlaine the Northern Rebellion of Catholic nobles had been put down. Lords who had traditionally controlled northern England felt that their control was being pushed aside and thus their honor was being abused. They began a hopeless attempt to challenge the queen's rule, re-establish Catholicism as the state religion, free the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots,and place her on England's throne. The rebellion began in 1569 and was soon over; several of its leaders were executed and others forced into exile. There were two other plots to free Mary, in 1583 and 1586, but to no avail. Tamburlaine Part 2 features a successful attempt to free an imprisoned king. Quite the contrary to what happened in England.

In this rapidly expanding world the English were a bit laggard in making their move towards other continents. There was, though, great interest in travelogues and news from strange, far-away places. On a more philosophical level, there was interest in the origins of things, in particular about whether something could come from nothing. The real Tamburlaine, a Scythian bandit of no particular parentage, came from nothing and overtook some of the world's most powerful rulers. In an indirect way, at the end of the fourteenth century he was responsible for diverting the Turks away from any further seriously disruptive warfare in the east of Europe. Marlowe uses imagery and references, direct and indirect, to all these things that were a part of sixteenth-century England's cultural fabric. Being aware of at least some of this can make "Tamburlaine" more enjoyable.

Current Affairs Upside Down

The Spanish Armada was disastrously defeated in 1588 but there is no direct reference in Tamburlaine to this astounding event. Perhaps, Marlowe had finished writing prior to the sinking of the Spanish invasion fleet. Or we could look at that quite upside down and say that Tamburlaine is about England's victory! Here we are in London soon after the Armada's defeat. Elizabeth has ruled for thirty years (longer than many of the audience has been alive) and established a period of peace (more or less; at least with no invasion or civil war) and confidence. Britain is on its way to empire as part of the expansion of all the successful Europen states into the Americas and the Orient. What would an English audience have thought of the continually triumphant Scythian who, like the Elizabeth that was part and parcel of her official myth, could mount a campaign and at the next breath, voice the most beautiful poetry?

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Updated 2014-04-08