Christopher Marlowe
Tamburlaine - Concluding Observations

What Have We Seen?

Perhaps it is better to ask, "what may we have seen?" Marlowe is hard to pin down. He just doesn't hold still long enough for us to comprehend some single message or point he wants to make. We have so far only read "Tamburlaine" and there is a lot more to Marlowe. His poetry was ground-breaking. While only The Passionate Shepherd still appeals to modern tastes, "Hero and Leander" is a tour de force of the poet's art, and his translation of Ovid's Amores (Marlowe's Elegies) was banned in 1599 as being not fit for the public. It helps to have read the poems I mentioned, because it is easier to see Marlowe's preoccupations.

Concentrating on Tamburlaine, what can we say? Part 1 can be read in many ways, and one of those ways is as a seduction. Love at first sight, love quite out of the control of the lover and not a matter of choice. There are other ways: the always frustrating need for artists to pander to the wealthy; the sacrifice of lives to the rapaciousness of rulers; the expression of God's will in bad as well as good things that happen. There are others, but I'll pursue just two: seduction and ...

First, seduction; I don't mean only sexual conquest, but also the ways in which we come to like or dislike people. In this modern age of instant mass communication we are accustomed and sometimes willingly blind to the dance that goes on between us and politicians, actors, corporations, governments, causes, etc. It helps to have read "Hero and Leander," but I'll try to go ahead without requiring that. Suppose you consider Part 1 as several seductions. In one, Tamburlaine is seducing Zenocrate. In another, Tamburlaine's companions are taking (I hope you'll let me use an old-fashioned term) a feminine role, acting like love-sick teenagers. Third, we, the audience, are being seduced by Marlowe. Was this a passing swipe at the sycophantism so much a part of Elizabeth's court as well as required of the "starving artists" of the day?

Marlowe was not at all shy about bending sex roles. In Hero and Leander he explicitly describes the handsome boy, Leander, in feminine terms even as Leander pursues the beautiful Hero. Tamburlaine's companions, war lords who would as well sack a city as take part in a banquet, trip over themselves to compliment their leader and agree to whatever he wants. In a broader sense, at least at more length, Tamburlaine plays the courtier with us as he brags about his strength and then slips into expressions that would have been apt if they were dedicated to Queen Elizabeth. This was the 1580s in the time of the virgin queen, a time when effusive expressions of loyalty and admiration were common and quite acceptable. These flowery expressions appeared on dedications of written works to patrons, or would be patrons. It was clearly distasteful to Marlowe to have to prostrate himself to find some financial support. He says so in the Prologue to Part 1, and at more length, and complexity, in "Hero and Leander" (around I.480). Indeed, it is "Hero and Leander" that he constructs inside it another poem, as mercury pursues a country maid, and where Marlowe complains of the poverty of scholars and that "few great lords in virtuous deeds shall joy,/ But be surprised with every garish toy,"

How did your feelings about, or towards, Tamburlaine form and change during Part 1? He was consistent towards Zenocrate - were you towards him? Why, or why not? Try to see what Marlowe did to move you. What did you think about Theridamas? Was his treatment of Olympia in Part 2 a surprise? Did that change your feelings towards him? Why, or why not? And Zenocrate, what about Zenocrate? Where was she most three-dimensional? What were the range of feelings you felt towards her?

Second, consider that the English were quite convinced that they were superior to any of the other Europeans and certainly to those they loosely termed Turks and the other peoples from beyond and below Europe. Marlowe, hardly one to be reticent when the opportunity for irony arose - and it is probably fair to call him a cynic - thrusts some contradictory evidence in front of his audience. The various potentates and rulers in the play are careful to enumerate the origins of their allies, who come from all over the mid-East and Africa. Their cosmopolitan societies must have impressed the English. These same rulers are also portrayed as commited to their Mahomettan religion (albeit their speech is replete with deities from classical Rome and Greece). The episode of Sigismund's perfidy, followed by his defeat by a small force, puts the Mahomettan ruler in the ethical driver's seat. Yet, their cynicism is clear, too. Recall that in 2 Tamburlaine Act II Scene iii, one of the kings says, 

'Tis but the fortunes of the wars, my lord,
Whose power is often proved [taken for] a miracle.

This is not the story of European or English superiority, not a tale of divine blessings bestowed on Christians, or for that matter, bestowed upon anyone.

English society was soundly grounded in a hierarchy that made social mobility nearly impossible, and propagated itself via primogeniture and marriage ties. That was much the same for the eastern rulers - except for Tamburlaine himself. He rose from nothing, although once having established his place, he entirely embraced his sons as his deputies and, ultimately, the continuation of his empire.


Updated 2014-03-20