Christopher Marlowe
Tamburlaine Part 1 - Prologue and Act I

Words and Themes to Watch For:

  • ambition
  • beauty
  • crowns
  • death and dying
  • friends and friendship
  • honor
  • humble birth
  • king
  • loyalty
  • masculine/feminine
  • oaths
  • pity
  • swords

Questions to Keep in Mind:

  • Can you tell the characters apart? Who, and how?
  • Is this play a tragedy?
  • How are women portrayed?
  • What do you think Marlowe “added to” the history of Tamburlaine?
  • Adjectives are many and frequent. Do they get in the way?
  • There are many classical allusions. What roles might they play?
  • How deliberate was Marlowe in his prose and poetry constructions?
  • What does “cosmography” mean and why is it important?
  • How might a modern audience see this play differently from a sixteenth-century audience?

Other Heads-Ups:

  • Watch how characters are introduced; pay careful attention to their first speeches.
  • The parts of women were played by boys or men. In the case of boys, their voices were not capable of long (and loud) speeches.
  • Some actors played multiple parts. Which parts do you think could be handled that way? (Look at Agydas.)
  • Marlowe was young, smart, brash, well-educated, and poor. He was born to a family of modest means and of no connections. As a poet and playwright he might always need a patron to avoid poverty.
  • What Marlowe expresses as characterizations or opinions, for instance, of the nature of women, are part of the play. We can imagine that he is showing us some of his personal thoughts, but we have to remember that he is a playwright seeking to achieve financial success.
  • Parts of some speeches can be lifted out of the play since they stand on their own as beautiful or powerful poems. Which might these be?
  • What, if any, justification is there to think of Marlowe as what we would now call anti-war?

1 Tamburlaine: Prologue

Prologues were a common feature in plays, setting the scene for what would soon be on stage and giving the audience ample warning (and advice) about who to cheer and who to scorn. Marlowe, though, took an entirely different tack. In eight lines of rapidly flowing iambic pentameter he said what he wouldn't do, what he might do, and how it was up to the audience to do with the play what they might. There are no indications of who speaks the Prologue, or whether it was a chorus. It seems most likely that there was a single speaker, costumed according to your imagination.

Let's look at the prologue carefully. Marlowe makes it clear what he will avoid:

From jigging veins of rhyming mother wits,
And such conceits as clownage keeps in pay.

This refers to the old-fashioned but still common long rhyming lines that sounded like a show at a country fair. "Conceits of clownage" are the gross humor and earthy language that appeared even in plays with religious themes that were still enjoyed by commoners as well as by people with money, that is, those who could be patrons. “Alas,” one historian said, “poets outnumbered patrons.” Marlowe knew well how hard it was to make a living at writing plays or poetry, but he was willing to take a risk with the startling innovations that would appear in Tamburlaine.

The prologue continues,

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.

Marlowe begins with that conventional line terminated with a comma (breathe here it says), but then delivers three lines with no punctuation (breaths) except at the end. Those three lines push ahead with their forward motion, their repeated sibilants, and in each ending with two emphatic, picture-conjuring words. The "tents" will be the stage, dressed with sufficient scenery to make the show more enjoyable. We can expect that the play's “astounding terms” will match Tamburlaine's persona; they are the words that match his "conquering sword." Marlowe concludes with a challenge to his audience.

View but his picture in this tragic glass,
And then applaud his fortunes as you please.

Those are two conventional lines releasing the tension that had been built up. But while their structure is simple, their content is not. This will be a tragedy (or will it?) and, in modern terms, there will be ambiguity. Twentieth century audiences are accustomed to ambiguity but that wasn't so in Elizabethan times. The audience will have to make up their minds about what will be presented in “high astounding terms” in this play. I will try to show you that Marlowe's challenge to his audience holds just as well for modern auditors.

1 Tamburlaine: Act I Scene i

Having told us that this would not be comedy, the opening of the play, featuring the addled Mycetes, proves just the opposite. Farcical as he is, he does have some good lines. He seems to have been listening to the Prologue for he says that "a great and thund'ring speech" would do well, but he knows he isn't the person to provide it. His younger brother, Cosroe, is fed up with the old codger and makes no effort to hide his feelings. Mycetes' attention wanders away from his family problems and we are quickly introduced to the reported threat of "that sturdy Scythian thief, Tamburlaine." Mycetes sends off a cavalry force under his "chiefest captain," Theridamas, with the intent of capturing or killing Tamburlaine. The old man thinks highly of Theridamas, even likening him to Paris.

At this point Marlowe sends a signal that there will be darkness in this play. The story of Paris started with his rape and kidnapping of Helen and it led to epic tragedy. Marlowe will return to this legend in his play, "Doctor Faustus." The Troy legend, via Ovid's "Metamorphoses," Virgil's "Aeneid," and other sources was well-known in the Elizabethan period. There was, in addition, the belief (or the fantasy) that some of the people driven out of Troy had made their way to England. On a broader level mythological references were standard fare for poetry and plays.

Mycetes continues to make a fool of himself, even describing a bloody scene of battle as "dainty." It is here that we see a hint of Shakespeare's "First Part of King Henry IV", in particular the speech of Hotspur beginning at I.iii.28. There are quite a few instances of striking similarities between "Tamburlaine" and that play of Shakespeare, written some eight or ten years later. We will reference this play by using the form 1HIV I.iii.28, etc.

We are left in Scene i with Cosroe in open revolt, being brought a crown by his loyalists. Keep an eye on the crowns in this play; they signify more than you might expect. Watch how Cosroe is being characterized by his speech and how people speak to him. Ceneus no doubt drew some nods from Marlowe's audience as he says,

The warlike soldiers and the gentlemen,
Now living idle in the walled towns,
Wanting both pay and martial discipline,
Begin in troops to threaten civil war
And openly exclaim against the king.

The end of the sixteenth century saw England in on-and-off conflict with Spain with a consequent population of unemployed soldiers and sailors who were the source of significant trouble-making. Keeping those people busy far away would have seemed quite a good idea.

Ortygius makes a speech as Cosroe is being offered the kingship:

... We here do crown thee monarch of the East;
Emperor of Asia and Persia;
Great lord of Media and Armenia;
Duke of Africa and Albania,
Mesopotamia and of Parthia,
East India and the late-discover'd isles;
Chief lord of all the wide vast Euxine Sea,
And of the ever-raging Caspian Lake.

This is a take off on the canonical preambles to princely pronouncements where titles were swept together whether or not they had contemporary currency. Here, Marlowe gives another hint, this one that language will play a role in and of itself. We'll see more about this as we go along.

1 Tamburlaine: Act I Scene ii

We meet Tamburlaine dressed as a shepherd. Zenocrate, having been taken by force during her transit to meet her betrothed, responds to him formally, guardedly referring to her virginity. Tamburlaine's response is surely in astounding terms, and he declares that he loves to “live at liberty.” We will see that he is a nomad and no matter the degree of his power, he will always be in motion.

Tamburlaine immediately declares his desire, his insistence, which Zenocrate's beauty has awakened at flood stage. His words, combined with shedding his shepherd's clothes to display his fully armed figure, would be a grand opportunity for an actor. How would you stage this? Would you dare to confront its erotic content? His speech is a proclamation. Tamburlaine is good at making proclamations:

I am a lord, for so my deeds shall prove;
And yet a shepherd by my parentage.
But, lady, this fair face and heavenly hue
Must grace his bed that conquers Asia,
And means to be a terror to the world,
Measuring the limits of his empery
By east and west, as Phoebus doth his course.--
Lie here, ye weeds, that I disdain to wear! ...

This suddenly falling in love was on Marlowe's mind. Whether his poem "Hero and Leander" came before or after the play, we don't know, but here is what he said in the poem: "Who ever loved, that loved not at first sight?"

Techelles and Usumcasane (and later, Casane) quickly establish their roles as friends who see their glorious future derived from their commitment to complete loyalty. What part will they play in the rest of this adventure?

Zenocrate has a short speech that Marlowe will return to in an intense emotional setting. This subtle forewarning of something that becomes most important is a technique found often in plays and novels. It can be corney but Marlowe carries it off well.

The gods, defenders of the innocents,
Will never prosper your intended drifts,
That thus oppress poor friendless passengers.

Tamburlaine then launches into a long speech that might be called martial love poetry. It is as though with one hand he wields a sword while with the other he caresses Zenocrate. He begins by saying, "Disdains Zenocrate to live with me?" Some of Marlowe's audience must have been familiar with his poem, "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love," which begins, "Come live with me and be my love." Was Marlowe sharing an inside joke? Was this a recurrent theme that he just could not avoid? There is something special to notice in Tamburlaine's encomium of Zenocrate: the sound, particularly, in this extract, of the O's:

Zenocrate, lovelier than the love of Jove,
Brighter than is the silver Rhodope,
Fairer than whitest snow on Scythian hills,
Thy person is more worth to Tamburlaine
Than the possession of the Persian crown,
Which gracious stars have promised at my birth

Tamburlaine mentions Jove and Rhodope, as well as the signs at his birth (the last of these as does Glendower in 1HIV III.i.12ff). Jove came up earlier in remarks by Cosroe. Rhodope is found in Ovid's Metamorphoses, where she and her husband fatally indulge in comparing themselves to the gods. Surely, the real Tamburlaine and the rulers of central Asia would not have been speechifying about Greek myths – but it's just a play and Elizabethan audiences would have found this enjoyable.

In my humble opinion, Marlowe had two criteria for including classical references, be they people or places. For one, their rhetorical and poetical utility in a very literal sense, that is, their sound, their rhythm, their function as the parts and pieces in the poet's kit. For the other, very deliberately as hints of his meaning. In many instances the adventures of the mythological figures he mentions illustrate the meaning that Marlowe had in mind. Was there tragedy, love, hubris … wherever Marlowe wanted to go, he could use these classical references to give his audiences glimpses and foresights. This has been debated at length by critics, including T.S. Eliot who would disagree with my opinion. He, however, has had his say.

It is time for Theridamas to reenter the stage. Tamburlaine makes a quick and very perceptive evaluation of the situation. He offers his henchmen the choice of fight or parley, and then demonstrates his superior judgment by ignoring them and deciding to meet with Theridamas, who switching sides immediately (another love at first sight?). Marlowe knew from the then-available history of Tamburlaine that alliances came and went quickly, with people changing sides sometimes with no evident hard feelings. Marlowe will revisit this, from a different point of view, in “Tamburlaine Part 2.”

Marlowe uses this event to frame some of the most memorable lines in this play. Tamburlaine says,

I hold the Fates bound fast in iron chains,
And with my hand turn Fortune's wheel about,
And sooner shall the sun fall from his sphere
Than Tamburlaine be slain or overcome.

Whether you stop at the end of the second line or take in all four, this is a man taking on the gods. On a smaller scale, the Renaissance view of human affairs had Fortune's wheel at its center. You could be lifted up and you could be cast down and it was Fortune at work despite any of your self-directed claims. Marlowe's audiences, hearing this, would have been very aware of Tamburlaine's daring.

We also notice that Tamburlaine speaks in most endearing terms to his newest friend, Theridamas, at I.ii.231-34:

... take my hand …
Thus shall my heart be still combined with thine,
Until our bodies turn to elements ...

The theme of intimate male friendship arises many times in this play, both in direct speech and in references to mythic personages. Effusive expressions of friendship and admiration were quite common in Elizabethan times. This was especially so in the dedications of books and plays to potential or current patrons as authors strove to find sources of financial reward. Tamburlaine goes on with this hyperbole, at I.ii.245:

These are my friends in whom I more rejoice
Than doth the king of Persia in his crown;
And by the love of Pylades and Orestes,
Whose statues we adore in Scythia,
Thyself and them shall never part from me
Before I crown you kings in Asia.

Pylades and the famous Orestes (whose tragic fate was yet to come), were dedicated male friends prepared to sacrifice their lives for one another. Of course, Scythians would hardly have worshiped these Greeks. Is it any more odd to hear Tamburlaine being effusive about his brothers in arms (to use a phrase that does not appear in the play) than it is to hear him succumbing to Zenocrate's beauty?

Marlowe makes brief use of rhyme at the very end of this scene, or what editors would assign as scenes. At any rate, the rhyme "merits be" with "slavery," combined with the characters exiting the stage (exeunt), indicates an end of that particular exchange.


updated 2014-03-20