Christopher Marlowe
Tamburlaine Part 1 - Act V

1 Tamburlaine: Act V Scene i

The final Act is usually the place to find resolution and wrap-up. That is hardly the case here. Instead, an entirely unexpected situation is presented at the siege of the doomed city of Damascus. Marlowe gives us several poetic speeches, beginning with those of the Governor and the First and Second Virgins that takes up the opening of the Scene. I will pick out a few lines from these but you will surely find reading all of this to be an emotional experience. To start with, the First Virgin says,

If humble suits or imprecations ...
Might have entreated your obdurate breasts
To entertain some care of our securities
Whiles only danger beat on our walls,
These more than dangerous warrants of our death
Had never been erected as they be ...

How many times in how many wars, large and small, has this been said? Notice in particular the use of the word "obdurate." This word (also used by Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice) had been, and continued to be, thrown back and forth between the two warring branches of Christianity, Protestantism and Catholicism, as they burnt at the stake whoever was out of power. Now it is the innocents calling the rulers obdurate, stubbornly persistent in wrongdoing. The Governor, scared of losing his life, responds

Well, lovely virgins, think our country's care,
Our love of honour, loath to be enthralled
To foreign powers and rough imperious yokes,
Would not with too much cowardice or fear,
Before all hope of rescue were denied,
Submit yourselves and us to servitude.
Therefore, in that your safeties and our own,
Your honours, liberties, and lives were weighed
In equal care and balance with our own,
Endure as we the malice of our stars,
The wrath of Tamburlaine and power of wars,
Or be the means the overweighing heavens
Have kept to qualify these hot extremes,
And bring us pardon in your cheerful looks.

This Elizabethan syntax is complicated, but it comes down to saying that the Governor's "love of honour," etc., led him away from accepting Tamburlaine's offer of peace (the white color) in exchange for subservience. That is understandable. England followed that path in the Second World War (the outcome being in doubt for quite a while) and thank heaven it did. How does the case of Damascus distinguish itself?

1 Tamburlaine: Act V Scene ii

The virgins meet with Tamburlaine and plead for the safety of their city. They say that on the first day "our ruthless governor" refused Tamburlaine's offer of mercy. Ruthless means pityless. Tamburlaine tells them,

Virgins, in vain you labour to prevent
That which mine honour swears shall be performed.
Behold my sword; what see you at the point?

Honor is once more the driving force. Tamburlaine goes much further than just a rejection. He tortures them with the sight of the instrument of their deaths. He goes on to say,

Away with them, I say, and show them Death.
I will not spare these proud Egyptians,
Nor change my martial observations
For all the wealth of Gihon's golden waves.
Or for the love of Venus, would she leave
The angry god of arms and lie with me.
They have refused the offer of their lives
And know my customs are as peremptory
As wrathful planets, death, or destiny.

Marlowe is not through just yet. After ordering the butchering of the virgins, and hanging their bodies on the city walls, Tamburlaine orders "put the rest to the sword." (The historical Tamburlaine stayed in control of his troops and the destruction of towns was an infrequent act.) This indeed is tragedy and it is repeated in Part 2 in the story of Olympia. Tamburlaine is left alone on stage to offer us a long soliloquy, too long to include at length in these notes. Look though at how this amazing speech develops:

Ah, fair, Zenocrate. Divine Zenocrate!
Fair is too foul an epithet for thee,
[Zenocrate's] sorrows lay more siege unto my soul
Than all my army to Damascus' walls;
But how unseemly is it for my sex,
My discipline of arms and chivalry,
My nature and the terror of my name,
To harbor thoughts effiminate and faint.
... virtue solely is the sum of glory,
And fashions men with true nobility.

Having ordered the destruction of thousands of innocents, he switches within a heartbeat to love poetry. He struggles with "thoughts effeminate and faint" that seem to be drawn from that time between sleep and waking, ending with "... virtue solely is the sum of glory,/ And fashions men with true nobility." Yes, this does sound just like what we already saw in Act IV Scene iv. It also sounds like what appears in Shakespeare's history plays. Marlowe promised that his audience would "View but his picture in this tragic glass,/ And then applaud his fortunes as you please." He seems to have carried out his promise.

This Act has trouble ending. Marlowe now detours into a visual spectacle wherein Bajazeth and his wife die most extravagantly. Zenocrate enters, mourning for her city, Damascus, most eloquently. Starting at line 256 she has a beautiful speech, another of Marlowe's compelling and graphic word pictures of the horror of war:

Wretched Zenocrate! that liv'st to see
Damascus' walls dy'd with Egyptians' blood,
Thy father's subjects and thy countrymen;
The streets strow'd with dissever'd joints of men,
And wounded bodies gasping yet for life;
But most accurs'd, to see the sun-bright troop
Of heavenly virgins and unspotted maids
(Whose looks might make the angry god of arms
To break his sword and mildly treat of love)
On horsemen's lances to be hoisted up,
And guiltlessly endure a cruel death;
For every fell and stout Tartarian steed,
That stamp'd on others with their thundering hoofs,
When all their riders charg'd their quivering spears,
Began to check the ground and rein themselves,
Gazing upon the beauty of their looks.
Ah, Tamburlaine, wert thou the cause of this,
That term'st Zenocrate thy dearest love?
Whose lives were dearer to Zenocrate
Than her own life, or aught save thine own love.

Zenocrate then encounters the bodies of Bajazeth and Zarina and has yet another poetic speech that soars with verbal effects. It is worth including it here:

Earth, cast up fountains from thy entrails,
And wet thy cheeks for their untimely deaths.
Shake with their weight in sign of fear and grief.
Blush, heaven, that gave them honour at their birth
And let them die a death so barbarous.
Those that are proud of fickle empery
And place their chiefest good in earthly pomp,
Behold the Turk and his great emperess!
Ah, Tamburlaine my love, sweet Tamburlaine,
That fights for sceptres and for slippery crowns,
Behold the Turk and his great emperess!
Thou, that in conduct of thy happy stars,
Sleep'st every night with conquest on thy brows,
And yet wouldst shun the wavering turns of war,
In fear and feeling of the like distress,
Behold the Turk and his great empress!
Ah, mighty Jove and holy Mahomet,
Pardon my love! O, pardon his contempt
Of earthly fortune and respect of pity,
And let not conquest, ruthlessly pursued,
Be equally against his life incensed
In this great Turk and hapless emperess!
And pardon me that was not moved with ruth [pity]
To see them live so long in misery!
Ah, what may chance to thee, Zenocrate?

Even though Bajazeth and Zarina were hardly heroic figures and would likely not have extended pity if the results of the battles had been otherwise, Zenocrate's expression of funerary remorse has shown her in a most human light. While until this Scene she was more or less a stick figure, we now know her much better and see her bowed by the consequences of Tamburlaine's actions. Damascus would have been enough, but the two bodies lying in front of her enlarge her poetic figure. In this speech and her lines shortly before, Marlowe, I suggest, has revealed even more of himself, moving from irony to stretch the bounds of tragedy. As a note on poetic technique, we will see in Part 2 Act II Scene iv, another instance of using a songlike refrain ("Behold the Turk and his mighty empress!")

The repeated buffetings of Fate against Zenocrate appear, well, ponderous. Her maid lets us know that Tamburlaine does not have to worry about such things. Is Marlowe concerned that anyone in the audience has missed the point about Tamburlaine not being subject to the turnings of Fortune? Is the playwright hammering home this point because it is so important to him? Is this just the playwright's option to create a theatrical effect? How would you stage this speech that dares Fate?

Madam, content yourself, and be resolved,
Your love hath Fortune so at his command,
That she shall stay, and turn her wheel no more,
As long as life maintains his mighty arm
That fights for honour to adorn your head.

The play continues with a hard-to-believe King of Arabia, to whom Zenocrate was betrothed, nobly saying, "Then shall I die with full contented heart,/ Having beheld divine Zenocrate..." However, there is historical foundation for Tamburlaine creating a strong alliance with Zenocrate's father. Tamburlaine has a rousing speech beginning with "The god of war resigns his room to me,/ Meaning to make me general of the world." He takes pride on being responsible for "Millions of souls [who] sit on the banks of Styx." In case there was anyone who had missed one of the key issues in this play, Tamburlaine recaps some of his deeds. What are your feelings about Tamburlaine now? What modern figures does he bring to mind?

All sights of power to grace my victory.
And such are objects fit for Tamburlaine,
Wherein, as in a mirror, may be seen
His honour, that consists in shedding blood
When men presume to manage arms with him.

Appropriately, Tamburlaine gets the last speech of the play. He ends this with,

For Tamburlaine takes truce with all the world.
Thy first-betrothed love, Arabia,
Shall we with honour, as beseems, entomb
With this great Turk and his fair emperess.
Then, after all these solemn exequies,
We will our rites of marriage solemnize.

These last sentences do not contain the rhyme one might expect to find, but they are steeped in sibilants which might give them a sense of finality. This last speech leaves us with several things to think about. For one, Tamburlaine is being magnanimous; you might say he's a good winner although he sure doesn't leave anything on the table. He is also very much alive. He has not been struck down by the gods nor made to suffer for his transgressions (if that is what they were) nor for his challenges to Fortune. For another, this last speech is redolent with irony. He can relax now (but Part 2 will show that he remains an unsettled nomad until his last days) and enjoy the legitimated company of his love, although it is over the graves of those he has killed. Marlowe has until the end continued his challenge to his audience and to us over a distance of four centuries: to applaud Tamburlaine's fortunes as we please.


updated 2014-03-20