Tamburlaine the Great

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Tamburlaine the Great




In 1587, Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare's contemporary and one of the star playwrights of the English Renaissance, produced a daring and thrilling play focusing on the triumphs of a Tartar conqueror. Famous for adeptly incorporating the style of blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) into English drama, the play was so popular that Marlowe was compelled to write a sequel including Tamburlaine's and his wife's deaths. Together, the plays became known as Tamburlaine the Great. Poetically captivating, as forceful and powerful as Tamburlaine the character, Marlowe's verse in these works marks a major shift from the conventional, low comic style of other Renaissance works. The plays are not a straightforward glorification of Tamburlaine's violent conquests, since Marlowe frequently highlights his protagonist's excessive brutality and hubris, or excessive pride. However, their directness and eloquence make it difficult not to admire Tamburlaine, both for his rhetorical power and his lifelike animation.

Alongside Tamburlaine's ceaseless conquests and their implications about war and politics run more general themes of desire, ambition, and power. Marlowe uses his portrayal of Tamburlaine's capture, betrothal, marriage, and ultimate loss of his wife Zenocrate, the daughter of the Egyptian "soldan," or sultan, to highlight these themes in another context, questioning the true nature of his hero's romantic passion. The plays also comment on ideas of fatherhood and masculinity by way of Tamburlaine's expectations of his sons, including his cruel treatment and murder of his son Calyphas, whom he considers a coward. Marlowe develops all of these themes through his skillful and unique use of language, which is why he is considered perhaps the most important stylistic innovator of the period. Originally published in 1590, the plays are now available in modern editions with notes and introductory material, such as the New Mermaid edition, Tamburlaine the Great: Parts I and II, published by Ernest Benn Limited in 1971.


Born in Canterbury, England on February 6, 1564, Marlowe was the son of a shoemaker. He attended King's School in Canterbury and was awarded a scholarship to Cambridge University, where he studied dialectics. Because of a number of mysterious absences from college, Marlowe was in danger of not receiving his master of arts degree. But Queen Elizabeth's Privy Council intervened with a letter stating that he had been in the queen's service and not, as was the rumor, part of a Catholic conspiracy in Rheims, France. In fact, many historians believe Marlowe was a spy of the queen's advisor Sir Francis Walsingham, which would explain his powerful connections and the company of spies and politicians with whom he associated.

In any case, Marlowe moved to London in 1587 with his degree and began writing in earnest. Before the year was out, the first part of Tamburlaine the Great had been performed to great success, and Marlowe produced its sequel in the following year. Tamburlaine the Great was the only one of Marlowe's works to be published during his lifetime, but he wrote and produced at least five more plays, including Edward II, a sophisticated play about the downfall of a weak king and his treacherous usurper Mortimer, and Dr. Faustus, in which Faustus sells his soul to the devil in exchange for power and knowledge. Before writing these plays, however, Marlowe translated poetry by the ancient Romans Ovid and Lucan. Later, he translated (with some additions of his own witty innovations) the ancient Greek poem Hero and Leander.

While living in London, Marlowe associated with the dramatist Thomas Kyd and the poet Thomas Watson. In 1589, Marlowe and Watson were briefly imprisoned for their roles in the homicide of a publican. In the subsequent years, Marlowe was involved in several other scuffles and legal disputes. In 1593, Kyd accused him of authoring several heretical papers that had been discovered in Kyd's room. Marlowe appeared before the queen's Privy Council, which was the normal course for a gentlemen; it was afforded to Marlowe, most likely, because of his continued associations with powerful politicians, but there is no evidence that they examined him. Shortly afterwards, on May 30, 1593, Marlowe spent all day with Ingram Frizer, a known operative of the powerful Walsingham family, and two other men at a meeting house in Deptford, near London. Frizer stabbed Marlowe above the right eye and killed him. The reasons for the attack and murder remain a mystery. Frizer was pardoned of the murder within a month.


Part 1, Acts 1–2

Tamburlaine the Great begins with a prologue declaring that, unlike the silly wordplay of previous literature, this play will feature the "high astounding" words and actions of a conqueror. Act 1 then opens with the king of Persia, Mycetes, complaining to his brother Cosroe of a band of outlaws led by a "Scythian" shepherd named Tamburlaine. Scythians would technically have lived north and northeast of the Black Sea, but Marlowe uses the term interchangeably with "Tartar," which signifies the area of East Asia controlled by Mongol tribes. Cosroe criticizes his brother for being a weak and foolish king, and Mycetes instructs his chief captain Theridamas to kill Tamburlaine and his band before they enter Persia. Then, two Persian lords inform Cosroe of widespread unrest and offer him the crown, which Cosroe accepts.

Act 1, scene 2 introduces Tamburlaine, who has captured the Egyptian princess Zenocrate and is declaring his love for her. Theridamas arrives with one thousand soldiers, compared to Tamburlaine's five hundred, but Tamburlaine convinces Theridamas in a parlay to join his side. In act 2, Cosroe joins with Tamburlaine to overthrow his brother. When Mycetes hears of this, his lord Meander forms a plan to throw gold on the field in order to distract soldiers, whom he considers to be greedy thieves. Tamburlaine encounters Mycetes attempting to hide his crown in a hole; Tamburlaine tells Mycetes that he will not steal his crown yet, but take it when he wins the battle. After Tamburlaine and Cosroe conquer Mycetes's army, Cosroe departs for Persepolis, the capitol. Tamburlaine decides to challenge Cosroe to a battle for the Persian crown. Tamburlaine triumphs and Cosroe dies, cursing Tamburlaine and Theridamas.

Part 1, Acts 3–5

In act 3, scene 1, the Turkish Emperor Bajazeth discusses with his subsidiary kings their siege of Constantinople, which was then held by Christians. He warns Tamburlaine not to enter Africa or "Graecia," which included much of the Balkan peninsula, then under Turkish control. In the next scene, Tamburlaine overhears the Median, or Iranian, Lord Agydas urge Zenocrate to disdain Tamburlaine's suit, but Zenocrate stresses that she wants to be his wife. Tamburlaine surprises them, and Agydas stabs himself to avoid torture. Act 3 concludes with Tamburlaine's victory over the Turks and Tamburlaine making slaves of Bajazeth and his wife Zabina.

Zenocrate's father, the "soldan," or sultan of Egypt, opens act 4 by vowing to stop Tamburlaine's advances upon Egypt with the help of the king of Arabia, who was Zenocrate's betrothed before Tamburlaine kidnapped her. Tamburlaine and Zenocrate then humiliate and torture Bajazeth and Zabina. Tamburlaine vows to overtake Egypt despite his wife's plea to pity her father. In act 5, the governor of Damascus, besieged by Tamburlaine's army, sends a group of virgins to plead for mercy, but Tamburlaine has them slaughtered and hoisted on the city walls. When Tamburlaine goes to fight the soldan and the king of Arabia, Bajazeth and Zabina kill themselves by beating out their brains. Zenocrate finds them and is dismayed by their and her people's blood on Tamburlaine's hands. After the king of Arabia dies and Tamburlaine wins the battle, sparing the soldan's life and actually giving him more territory than before, Tamburlaine crowns Zenocrate queen of Persia.

Part 2, Acts 1–3

Orcanes, the king of "Natolia," or Anatolia, the region east of the Bosporus in present-day Turkey, and Sigismond of Hungary begin act 1 by swearing to uphold a truce, while Tamburlaine advances on Anatolia from Egypt. Bajazeth's son Callapine, who is Tamburlaine's prisoner in Egypt, then convinces his jailer Almeda to help him escape, promising him a kingdom. Meanwhile, Tamburlaine instructs his three sons on the arts of war; he harasses Calyphas, the son not inclined to fight, for being a coward. Tamburlaine meets Theridamas, Techelles, and Usumcasane, and they prepare to march on Natolia.

In act 2, Sigismond agrees to break his vow with Orcanes and attack the Natolian army while Orcanes is preparing to engage Tamburlaine. Orcanes wins the battle, however, attributing the victory partly to Christ, since Sigismond broke his vow to the Christian savior. Tamburlaine then discovers that Zenocrate is sick. Her physicians can do nothing to save her, and she dies. Act 3 begins with the crowning of Callapine as the Turkish emperor, and Callapine's vow to avenge his father's wrongs. Tamburlaine then burns down the town in which Zenocrate died, forbidding the world to rebuild it, and gives his sons a lesson in fortitude. Theridamas and Techelles march northward, where they sack Balsera, a town on the Natolian frontier. They capture its captain's wife, Olympia, after she burns her son's and husband's bodies. Tamburlaine and Usumcasane then parlay with Callapine and his subsidiary kings, threatening each other and boasting.

Part 2, Acts 4–5

Act 4, scene 1 reveals Tamburlaine's sons Amyras and Celebinus attempting to convince their brother Calyphas to fight, but Calyphas refuses. After Tamburlaine returns in triumph, he stabs Calyphas, calling him slothful and weak and ordering that the Turkish concubines bury him. In the next scene, Theridamas attempts to court Olympia, but she wishes to die and tricks him into stabbing her. Tamburlaine then rides in his chariot drawn by the former kings of "Soria," or Syria, and "Trebizon," or Trabzon, an area in the northeastern section of present-day Turkey, and tells his soldiers to rape the Turkish concubines.

Tamburlaine's next conquest is of Babylon. Since the governor refuses to yield the city, Tamburlaine has him hung in chains and shot. He then orders the kings of Trebizon and Soria hung, bridles Orcanes and Jerusalem on his coach, orders all Babylonian men, women, and children drowned, and commands that sacred Islamic books be burnt. Afterwards, Tamburlaine feels "distempered," and soon it becomes clear that Tamburlaine is deathly ill. En route to Persia, a messenger arrives to inform Tamburlaine that Callapine, who escaped from the battle in Natolia, has gathered a fresh army and means to attack. Tamburlaine scares them away, but he is too weak to pursue them. He retires to review his conquests and regret that he cannot conquer more. He then crowns his son Amyras, orders Zenocrate's hearse to be brought in, and dies.



Agydas is the Median, or Iranian, lord traveling to Egypt with Zenocrate when Tamburlaine captures them. Tamburlaine overhears Agydas advising Zenocrate to resist the "vile and barbarous" Tamburlaine's advances. Agydas stabs himself to avoid torture.


See King of Arabia


Almeda is Callapine's jailer, whom Callapine convinces to release him by promising Almeda a kingdom in Turkey. Callapine does in fact give him a kingdom before battling with Tamburlaine, although Almeda will never rule it because Tamburlaine wins the battle.


Tamburlaine's son and successor, who reluctantly accepts the crown while his father is dying, Amyras is a militaristic young man who idealizes his father. He revels in war, asking his father after they subdue the Turks whether they can release them and fight them again so that none may say it was a chance victory. However, as Amyras laments in the final lines of the play, he is no equal to Tamburlaine and will not be able to continue the glory of his reign.


Anippe is Zenocrate's maid, whose right it is to treat the Turkish Empress Zabina as a servant after Tamburlaine subdues the Turkish armies.


The emperor of Turkey in part 1, until Tamburlaine conquers his armies and makes him a slave, Bajazeth is a proud Islamic leader who ultimately beats his brains out on his cage rather than be subject to more humiliation and starvation. Bajazeth swears before his last battle to remove Tamburlaine's testicles and force him to draw his wife's chariot. While captive, Bajazeth frequently curses Tamburlaine, highlighting his most barbarous moments. Bajazeth's son Callapine extends the recurring theme of a bitter and vengeful enemy to Tamburlaine into part 2.


Now spelled "Bashaws" or "Pashas," a bassoe was the title given to Turkish officials. In the play, bassoes are servants of Bajazeth.


Bajazeth's son and heir to the Turkish Empire, Callapine has dedicated his life to avenging his father's cruel treatment and to destroying Tamburlaine. Callapine is a cunning leader who manages to win over his jailer and escape from Tamburlaine's prison. Callapine also escapes from the battle that he loses to Tamburlaine, returning to attack Tamburlaine's army at the end of the play. Although Callapine is no match for Tamburlaine, he does manage to stay alive and unconquered throughout the play, completely committed to, as he puts it, "conquering the tyrant of the world." The implication is that he will return to haunt Amyras after Tamburlaine dies.


Calyphas is Tamburlaine's son, whom Tamburlaine murders after he refuses to fight in the battle against the Turks. Calyphas is somewhat weak and slothful, which Tamburlaine despises. But Calyphas is also simply uninterested in war; he is content to play cards and fantasize about women.

Captain of Balsera

Olympia's husband, the captain refuses to yield his hold to Techelles and Theridamas, and he is killed in the subsequent invasion.


See Usumcasane


Tamburlaine's son, Celebinus, is a forceful young man who emulates his father.


Brother to the Mycetes, king of Persia, Cosroe usurps his brother's title with Tamburlaine's help. Cosroe worries about the state of the empire under his brother's ineffectual rule, and he determines at the bequest of several Persian lords to take the crown and rule more wisely. Although Cosroe is not as weak as his brother, he is naive enough to leave Tamburlaine and his companions with all of their soldiers after they win the battle for the Persian crown, and Tamburlaine quickly challenges him to battle and triumphs.


A peer of Hungary, Frederick persuades Sigismund to break his vow of peace with Orcanes.


The viceroy, or ruler with the mandate of a king, of the Turkish territory of Byron, Gazellus is an ally and advisor to Orcanes.

Governor of Babylon

Stubborn and unyielding, the governor of Babylon refuses to allow Tamburlaine inside his city. When he is conquered and under threat of death, however, he attempts to bribe Tamburlaine by telling him where a stockpile of gold is hidden. Tamburlaine has him hanged nevertheless.

Governor of Damascus

The governor of Damascus fears that Tamburlaine will slaughter everyone in his city, but his attempt to plead for mercy, sending four virgins to Tamburlaine's camp, fails.

King of Arabia

The king of Arabia, also known as Alcidamus, is betrothed to Zenocrate before she is captured by Tamburlaine. Zenocrate prays for his life to be spared but Alcidamus is killed during Tamburlaine's battle with the soldan of Egypt, and, as he dies, Alcidamus declares his love for Zenocrate.

King of Jerusalem

The king of Jerusalem is an ally of Callapine's, and after defeating him Tamburlaine forces him to pull his chariot.

King of Soria

The king of "Soria," or Syria, is one of Callapine's subsidiary kings. After conquering him, Tamburlaine forces him to pull his chariot until he loses strength, at which point Tamburlaine has him hanged.

King of Trebizon

Like Soria, the king of Trebizon is an ally of Callapine's who is forced to pull Tamburlaine's chariot after he is conquered. The king of Trebizon is hanged when he becomes too tired to pull the chariot.


The Persian lord closest to Mycetes, Meander councils the king on defending himself from the uprising, but he changes his allegiance to Cosroe after the battle.


Menaphon is the Persian lord closest to Cosroe. He is key in the conspiracy to overthrow Mycetes.


Mycetes is the king of Persia from the opening of part 1 until Tamburlaine and Cosroe overthrow him. He is a weak king whose speech is characterized by repeated sounds and clichés. Although he complains that his brother abuses him, he does nothing about it. When Tamburlaine discovers Mycetes attempting to hide his crown on the battlefield, an absurd attempt to ensure that no one will steal it, Tamburlaine lets the king keep it until he wins the battle.


Wife to the Captain of Balsera, Olympia is a resigned but shrewd woman who watches her husband die, stabs her son, and then attempts to burn herself on their funeral pyre before Theridamas prevents her. Then, rather than submit to Theridamas's romantic advances, she tricks him into stabbing her in the neck.


The king of Natolia, or Anatolia, a region slightly larger than the Anatolia of present-day Turkey, Orcanes is a fierce enemy to Tamburlaine. He has more vocal power than most of Tamburlaine's other enemies, and he is a somewhat more complex figure as well, actually paying tribute to Christ because he believes that Christ was responsible for his victory over the king of Hungary, who broke his Christian vow of peace with Orcanes. After Tamburlaine enslaves him, Orcanes curses Tamburlaine with insights such as, "Thou showest the difference 'twixt ourselves and thee / In this thy barbarous damned tyranny."


Perdicas is Calyphas's idle companion, with whom Calyphas is playing cards before his father stabs him.


The Christian king of Hungary, Sigismund makes a vow by Christ to maintain peace with Orcanes, but his advisors persuade him to break the vow and attack Orcanes while they have the opportunity. When Sigismund has lost the battle and lies dying, he repents of this perjury and begs for Christian forgiveness.

Soldan of Egypt

The soldan of Egypt is Zenocrate's father. He despises Tamburlaine for stealing his daughter and invading his land. After Tamburlaine conquers his armies, spares his life, and gives him back more than his former territory, however, the soldan praises Tamburlaine and consecrates his daughter's marriage.


The son of the captain of Balsera is a brave young man who allows his mother to stab him in order to avoid torture at the hands of Tamburlaine's army.


Majestic and eloquent, with the ability to conquer not just kings and emperors but the audience of the play, Tamburlaine is one of the most important characters in Elizabethan drama. He is the source of the poetry that made Marlowe famous, and he can be both captivating and repellant because of his brutality. The key to his character is power and ambition, of which Tamburlaine has a superhuman amount, as well as the willingness to use any extreme in order to be triumphant. Unconcerned with social norms or everyday life, Tamburlaine views himself in relation to the gods, and Marlowe uses him as a tool to ask philosophical questions such as what is the furthest extent of human power and accomplishment, and whether this is significant in comparison with heaven.

Tamburlaine begins his life in what Marlowe calls Scythia, a region north and northeast of the Black Sea, and rises to power first in Persia, subsequently conquering much of North Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and India. Marlowe's work concentrates on his battles with Turkish emperors and their subsidiary kings, whose territory at that time included much of the Middle East and North Africa. Tamburlaine's personal life is closely related to his outward conquests; he wins his wife by conquering her father's kingdom and then devastates much of the Middle East in his fury over her death. He sees his sons entirely as military leaders and murders his idle and slothful son Calyphas after he refuses to fight against the Turkish armies. At the end of his life, Tamburlaine is unsatisfied with the extent of his conquests. His thirst for power is unquenchable and, as his son and heir Amyras emphasizes, none can match Tamburlaine's power.

Like most of Marlowe's protagonists, Tamburlaine has a complex relationship with the audience of the play. He inspires a mixed reaction because he is brutal without bounds yet simultaneously passionate and glorious. Elizabethan audiences would be particularly offended, as well as somewhat titillated, by the presumptuousness of what they would consider a heathen—although the historical Tamburlaine was a Moslem, Marlowe shows him burning sacred Islamic texts and generally speaking as though he thinks of the gods in ancient Greek and Roman terms. This emphasis on mythology is also significant because Scythia is the area traditionally believed to hold the mountain to which Zeus chained Prometheus, a Titan who is famous for stealing fire from the gods and who, like Tamburlaine, dares to challenge Jupiter and the other classical gods.


Tamburlaine's close companion, Techelles is an ambitious military leader entirely loyal to Tamburlaine. He came with Tamburlaine from Scythia and continues to be a skillful general after Tamburlaine makes him king of Fez, North Africa. Techelles's devotion to Tamburlaine, including his willingness to slaughter the virgins of Damascus and drown the population of Babylon, reveals Tamburlaine's power as a leader.


The chief captain in the Persian army, Theridamas is sent to kill Tamburlaine but instead becomes his loyal and lifelong companion. Telling Tamburlaine he has been, "Won with thy words, and conquered with thy looks," Theridamas quickly becomes one of Tamburlaine's three closest advisors and most able generals. Tamburlaine makes him king of Argier, in North Africa, and Theridamas is critical to the sieges of Balsera and Babylon in part 2. At Balsera, Theridamas falls in love with Olympia, the wife of Balsera's captain, and stops her from throwing herself on her husband and son's funeral pyre.

Tamburlaine calls Theridamas majestic when he first meets him, and it is clear from part 1 that he is a valiant and powerful Persian lord, although he is perhaps not as power hungry as Techelles and Usumcasane, since he says in Act 2, Scene 3 that he could live without being a king. It is when he threatens to rape Olympia and gullibly accepts her magic war ointment over her "honour," however, accidentally stabbing her, that Theridamas is revealed to be a warrior at heart and not a lover.


Uribassa is Orcanes's ally and a viceroy of an unspecified Turkish territory. He and Gazellus are viceroys for Callapine while the emperor is Tamburlaine's prisoner in Egypt.


Usumcasane is Tamburlaine's close companion who, like Techelles, comes from Scythia and is so devoted to Tamburlaine that he is unable to comprehend Tamburlaine's death from illness.

Virgins of Damascus

After hearing their pleas for mercy on their city, Tamburlaine has the four virgins of Damascus slaughtered and hoisted on the city walls.


Zabina is the proud Turkish empress of Bajazeth. She tells Zenocrate before their husbands go to battle that she would make her a slave, so at first the audience feels little sympathy for her when she is made the servant of Zenocrate's maid. However, after Tamburlaine tortures her and her husband, keeping them inside a cage, and she and Bajazeth kill themselves, Zenocrate and the audience pity them and feel astonished at Tamburlaine's cruelty. Before she goes mad and kills herself, Zabina reveals herself to be a practical person by urging her husband to eat and stay alive, hoping that at some point they will be freed.


Daughter to the soldan of Egypt, Zenocrate is captured by Tamburlaine at the beginning of part 1, and she remains with him as his concubine, and then his wife, until her death in part 2, act 2. Initially, she resists Tamburlaine's romantic suit and calls herself "wretched" because she is forced to remain with him, but by act 3 she has fallen in love with him and is swept up in the glory of conquest. Zenocrate is dismayed by the prospect of Tamburlaine making war with her father and her people, however. Her most difficult moment comes in part 1, act 5, scene 2, after Tamburlaine's brutal siege of Damascus. Distraught after seeing Tamburlaine slaughter four innocent virgins, she then comes upon the bodies of Bajazeth and Zabina, who have killed themselves because of Tamburlaine's cruelty. Nevertheless, she wishes Tamburlaine victory over her father and her former betrothed, Arabia, praying that their lives may be spared.

Tamburlaine's frequent superlative descriptions of Zenocrate's beauty and divine nature reveal Zenocrate's critical influence on the actions of the play. Tamburlaine's conquests in part 1 are closely related to winning Zenocrate, and in part 2 are largely a result of lamenting her death. These eloquent speeches, however, do not necessarily shed light on Zenocrate's true character or her struggle, particularly in part 1, of allegiance between her lover and her people, which is also a struggle between brutality and peace. This struggle resolves after the Soldan agrees to Zenocrate's marriage with Tamburlaine, although in part 2, act 1, Zenocrate wonders when her husband will finally cease his bloody conquests. Also, Tamburlaine's struggle with his son Calyphas, who is completely uninterested in war, is an extension of the conflict between peace and war in his mother's character.


The New Human

Tamburlaine, with his cruelty, his ambition, his tremendous capacity for violence, and his intense passion for his wife, represented a new and shocking type of hero for late sixteenth-century audiences. He was the equivalent of what audiences today might consider a Romantic hero—a passionate male obsessed with war who defies convention and whose fervency goes far beyond what is even conceivable for most people. Audiences were not even necessarily intended to understand Tamburlaine, such was his shock value and his capacity to break through the very fabric of society with his ceaseless conquests and unquenchable thirst for power.

Because Tamburlaine was a new type of hero, conquering the traditions of restraint and mercy with his passion, eloquence, and power, he challenged the traditional morality system that pervaded London theaters in the early Elizabethan period. Unlike the conventional plays that preceded Tamburlaine the Great, Marlowe's work does not consist of a simplistic didactic, or morally instructive, lesson emphasizing that humans must adhere to a strict and traditional moral code. Instead, the play attacks the philosophical problem of humanity's relationship to the universe and provides an example of a new and extreme worldview that seems to ignore traditional morality. It is Tamburlaine's conviction that he is as powerful as a god, and he refuses to see himself as an impotent human in a massive, oppressive universe. He believes that he can control the world and is tremendously optimistic about the possibilities of human achievement.

Marlowe does not straightforwardly advocate this worldview; Tamburlaine's relationship with the audience is complex, and he often inspires repugnance and alienation. However, Tamburlaine is not simply an anti-hero whose worldview the audience finds persuasive solely because he is a devilish figure of temptation. Tamburlaine is likely an exhilarating figure, in part, because he represents a passion that the audience is meant to admire. The play challenges the idea that humans are locked into an oppressive moral system and suggests that a new type of humanity is possible, which will break through these boundaries. The Renaissance movement in continental Europe stressed the emergence of a new model for humanity, open to diverse types of knowledge and entirely new ideas, and Tamburlaine was a vital contribution to the development of this ethos in England. Although Marlowe raises the possibility that he has gone too far, Tamburlaine provides a compelling case for a new type of human.

Power and Ambition

One of the play's principle themes is conveyed in its depiction of excessive cruelty and ambition, the characteristics that define its main character and make him controversial. In fact, the theme of power pervades nearly every aspect of the play, from Tamburlaine's conquests, to his role as a father, to his relationship with Zenocrate. Tamburlaine's military brilliance and his ability to carry out such horrendous acts—such as slaughtering the virgins of Damascus and drowning the population of Babylon—are the results of these character traits, as are his eloquence and rhetorical power that convince Theridamas and others to join him. Marlowe's audience could be expected to find such excessive displays of power un-Christian and even repulsive, as well as to find themselves somewhat captivated by it.

Ambivalent reactions to these themes extend to the other aspects of Tamburlaine's life; the audience is asked to ponder whether the hero's extraordinary passion for his wife is actually romantic love or a form of perverted possession and desire. They must judge whether Tamburlaine is justified in murdering his own son because that son is weak and lazy. Tamburlaine is generally unwilling to place his love above his military ambitions (although he does spare Zenocrate's father). He often seems to perceive Zenocrate as a treasure to be won, such as in his initial declaration of love for her, when he describes her in terms of great wealth and power. Similarly, he views his sons solely in terms of their courage and fortitude, and he has no regrets about stabbing Calyphas because he was too slothful to enter a battle.

It is possible that Marlowe implies, according to the conventions of a tragedy, that Tamburlaine's downfall occurs because of the excessive appetite for power that is his tragic flaw. If this is the case, Tamburlaine's and Zenocrate's illnesses and deaths could be seen as a punishment from the heavens for Tamburlaine's presumptuousness. This is not necessarily clear, however, since there is no great evidence that the illness involves any divine intervention; in fact, God does not seem to interfere with human affairs in the play. In any case, Marlowe poses provocative questions about the place of power and ambition in society, the desirability of these characteristics in an age of tremendous artistic and scientific advances and the evils that can result from an excessive display of power.


  • Tamburlaine is famous for arousing a mixed reaction in his audiences. What was your response to his character? Were you, like Theridamas, "Won with [his] words?" To what degree did you find him cruel and barbarous, and at which points did you find him cruelest? Is Tamburlaine a hero and a protagonist? Why or why not? Discuss the reactions you think Tamburlaine is meant to inspire. How are these reactions important to Marlowe's goals in the play?
  • Marlowe's Dr. Faustus (1594) is also about a power-hungry character who inspires ambivalent reactions in the audience. Read this play and compare it with Tamburlaine the Great. How are the moral themes of the plays similar? How do they differ? What does Dr. Faustus imply about one human's relationship to the universe? How does this differ from the implications of Tamburlaine the Great ? How do the plays differ in style and form? Which one sheds more light on today's society, and which one would you rather see performed today? Explain your choices.
  • Identify the key scenes in Tamburlaine the Great, including the most eloquent scene, the most daring scene, the scene with the most important turning point, and the scene most crucial to establishing Marlowe's major themes. Support your choices with examples and quotes, and explain your decisions. Then, perform one of these scenes with your classmates. Think about the best way to portray the scene according to the point it is trying to make, and think about which characters are most important to the scene and how to emphasize their importance. What is the best way to deliver what Ben Jonson called "Marlowe's mighty line?" How can you approach your performance of the play to best express what you consider to be its meaning? Use your answers to improve your performance.
  • Tamburlaine the Great departs substantially from the actual history of the Mongol warlord, Tamerlane. Read a prominent history book about Tamerlane and discuss how this changes your view of the conqueror. How does the contemporary view of Tamerlane differ from Marlow's portrayal? How might Marlowe's play be different if it treated Tamburlaine as he is depicted in modern histories? Support your answer with examples and discuss, more broadly, the goals of history texts and how they differ from those of historical fiction.


Blank Verse

In his prefatory tribute to the first folio edition of Shakespeare's plays, Ben Jonson cited (though in deference to Shakespeare) "Marlowe's mighty line," and critics tend to agree that Marlowe's innovation in verse was the first and most influential predecessor to the stylistic achievements of the era. It was Tamburlaine the Great that made this powerful verse style famous. Marlowe stresses in the prologue to part 1 that it is his intention to depart from the "jigging veins of rhyming mother wits," or unsophisticated rhymes like those of a mother giving silly advice in the form of a jig, of his predecessors. Instead, Marlowe wanted to create a work of high philosophical ambitions and powerful, "astounding" verse.

The poetic tool Marlowe uses for his "mighty line" is blank verse, or unrhymed iambic pentameter, which is a meter with five beats of two-syllable units called iambs. This style, adapted from Greek and Latin heroic verse, was developed in Italy before Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, introduced it in England. Marlowe was perhaps the chief innovator to instill blank verse with emotional force and rhythmic eloquence, and he was also influential in skillfully suiting his characters' temperaments to the nature of their lines. Tamburlaine's lines, for example, are not just musical and eloquent but extremely powerful and majestic, with hard consonant sounds and decisive, accented peaks and flourishes, while those of Calyphas and Mycetes rhyme ineffectually and repeat sounds frequently, to no purpose.


Although Tamburlaine's speeches may sometimes sound overwrought, in Elizabethan England they were fine examples of rhetoric, or the art of speaking and writing effectively. Marlowe does not follow the strict logical rules of classical rhetoric, which was used in ancient Greek philosophy but, like the ancient Greeks, he does use language as a powerful tool to convey the truth and to be persuasive. Marlowe's compelling and insightful use of comparisons, his evocative diction, or word choice, his startling imagery, and his ability to incorporate his words into a compelling and musical rhythm of speech combine to create some of the most powerful examples of rhetoric in Elizabethan drama. Elizabethan audiences might sometimes find Tamburlaine pompous, but his rhetoric is the dramatist's chief tool in portraying Tamburlaine as such a captivating figure.

In addition to their usefulness in winning over the audience, Tamburlaine's powers of rhetoric are critical to his military triumphs. Tamburlaine's rhetoric compels Theridamas to join him and allows him to inspire his soldiers to victory. Also, Tamburlaine relies on rhetoric to win over Zenocrate and instruct his sons in the arts of war. Of course, he supports his rhetoric with his majestic looks and forceful actions, but this style of speech is the key means by which he is able to communicate his power. Marlowe saw rhetoric as one of the most important keys to power and truth. He disdained the low comedy and clichéd rhetoric of previous dramatists. In fact, he wrote such grand and forceful speeches that writers began to parody Marlowe's style after Tamburlaine the Great became famous, seeing Marlowe as the prime example of powerful, and sometimes ostentatious, rhetoric.


Elizabethan England

When Queen Elizabeth I succeeded to the throne of England in 1558, the nation was poorer and less powerful than the continental powers France and Spain. England had been torn by internal religious strife between Protestants and Catholics, and was quite unstable. Elizabeth, an adept and shrewd monarch who surrounded herself with pragmatic advisors, presided over a period of increasing power and prosperity, making peace with France in 1560, defeating the Spanish Armada in 1588, and garnering relative peace with Catholics and Puritans. England was not without its problems, however. England enjoyed a sometimes precarious political stability. Elizabeth narrowly survived a number of assassination attempts that would have resulted in a fierce battle of succession since, despite pressure from Parliament, she never married or produced an heir.

In this environment of relative tolerance and stability, the flourishing of the arts in continental Europe spread to England, and the late sixteenth century became famous for an extraordinary flowering in literature known as the English "Renaissance." Writer and statesman Sir Thomas More, and poets Edmund Spenser and Philip Sidney, were among the key figures in developing "humanism" in English literature; this involved the revival of classical literature and an emphasis on individual humanity instead of strictly religious themes. Marlowe was perhaps the first major innovator in humanistic English drama, however, along with his friend Thomas Kyd. Marlowe was also very influential over Jonson and Shakespeare, whose writing came at what is generally considered the height of the English Renaissance.


The conqueror Tamerlane, known in Europe by this corrupt version of the Persian "Timur-i Leng," or "Timur the lame," was a fearsome military leader, famous for his brutality and his devotion to Mongol-Islamic religious practices. Born in Ulus Chaghatay, an area in present-day Uzbekistan, in 1336, Tamerlane was a member of a Mongol tribe that had converted to Islam during his father's rule. He was a thief and brigand during his youth, attracting allies and preparing for his bid for leadership, which was at first unsuccessful. After he built an alliance with the neighboring prince Amir Husayn (marrying his sister to fortify their relationship), Tamerlane was able to drive all other serious threats to his control from Ulus Chaghatay. Husayn and Tamerlane then became involved in a leadership struggle, and Tamerlane laid siege to Husayn's city, allowed a local warlord to kill him, and took four of his wives as concubines.


  • 1400s: Tamerlane rules his vast territories by allowing his soldiers to keep the booty from the conquests and filling his treasury with ransom money extracted from conquered cities.

    1580s: The Ottoman Empire, at the height of its power, controls most of Tamerlane's former territories and arouses fear and misunderstanding from Christian nations.

    Today: The Middle East, which is the primary location of the events in Tamburlaine the Great, contains a number of prosperous nations with rich natural resources, but it is one of the most politically unstable regions in the world.

  • 1400s: England is in the midst of the Middle Ages. Henry IV has just come to power, having deposed his cousin Richard II, and he will deal forcibly with the insurrections and other problems resulting in part from the devastation of the Black Plague in the mid-1300s.

    1580s: Elizabeth rules England with shrewd pragmatism and, although her treasury has been overstretched by military expenses, she creates a stable environment for trade.

    Today: Tony Blair is prime minister of England, and his tenure has been characterized by center-left economic and social policies, as well as his alliance with the United States in a pre-emptive war with Iraq.

  • 1400s: The Americas have yet to be discovered by Europeans, and Native Americans live a traditional way of life that varies by region and civilization.

    1580s: The most brutal Spanish conquests of native populations in South and Central America have largely come to an end, but English and French colonialists have yet to establish the firm hold that will lead to the widespread displacement and massacre of Native North Americans.

    Today: In the United States, Native Americans struggle with poverty and a lack of appropriate resources on reservations, but the Native American population is not becoming fully integrated into mainstream culture and does not necessarily desire to do so.

By 1379, Tamerlane had suppressed a series of rebellions and established sole control over Ulus Chaghatay. Partly to keep other warlords in his control, since they would be under his eye as a subservient army, he then began a series of extremely successful conquests into neighboring lands. From 1386 to 1388, Tamerlane invaded Persia and Anatolia but afterwards was forced to return to defend his homeland against a former protégé called Tokhtamish. Tamerlane finally defeated Tokhtamish in 1390. After two more years spent defending against enemies from the north, Tamerlane invaded Iran in 1392, where he installed his sons as governors. In 1398, he set off for India, where he sacked Delhi and murdered 100,000 Hindu prisoners. In 1399, he campaigned into Syria and Anatolia, defeating the Ottoman Sultan Bayazid I and taking him captive in 1402. In 1405, Tamerlane was preparing for an ambitious conquest into China when he fell ill and died. He had established no sustainable infrastructure, and his vast empire rapidly decayed after his death, despite the fact that he nominated a grandson as his successor.

Tamburlaine the Great, particularly in part 2, contains a great number of historical inaccuracies and alternative representations, partly because there was a limited amount of historical information available at the time and partly because Marlowe did not always interpret that information correctly, but mainly because Marlowe's dramatic goals differed from the historical reality. For example, since Marlowe likely did not conceive of the work in two parts, it was necessary to use events prior to Bajazeth's demise, and, in the case of Orcanes's defeat of Sigismund, nearly fifty years after it, in order to form a coherent drama in part 2. Also, the play's depiction of Bajazeth and his wife's enslavement inside an iron cage stems from an alternative reading of the historian Arabshah. Other examples, such as Tamburlaine's love for Zenocrate, are entirely fictional, and reflect Marlowe's desire to cast the play in the manner most effective for developing his major themes.


Among most successful plays of the Elizabethan era, the two parts of Tamburlaine the Great captivated audiences with their eloquent rhetoric and powerful verse. Although they remained popular as pieces of literature, they were not frequently performed in later periods and are infrequently performed in the early 2000s in comparison with Marlowe's other works. The grandiose wars and conquests of the plays may not translate well to the modern stage, but the work is now, and has been for centuries, a prominent subject for stylistic and thematic literary criticism.

Marlowe's reputation suffered because of the numerous scandals surrounding his private life, including the circumstances of his death. Claims that he was an immoral atheist and blasphemer initially affected the critical evaluation of his plays. The dramatist's critical reception recovered, however, and Tamburlaine the Great became one of the principle subjects for critics interested in the development of blank verse and the style of Renaissance drama. Most critics consider it extremely important, if not the most important work, in developing the style that came to a height around the turn of the sixteenth century.

Regarding the principle thematic meaning of the work, two analytical views eventually emerged to explain Tamburlaine's ambivalent character. The first view stresses that Tamburlaine is a brutal and un-Christian tyrant whose power and ambition is reprehensible. As Roger Sales points out in his 1991 study Christopher Marlowe: "Tamburlaine's rise to power is usually at the expense of a series of legitimate rulers. Might is shown to triumph over right." The second main analytical view stresses, instead, that Tamburlaine's glory and majesty inspire the audience to recognize the highest limits of human achievement—a view that J. W. Harper calls "romantic" in his 1971 introduction to the plays: "the view that he is a perfect symbol of the Renaissance spirit and the spokesman for Marlowe's own aspirations and energies." Harper stresses that the first view—that Tamburlaine is a "stock figure of evil"—is more accurate than the "romantic" view. But, like most critics, he acknowledges that there is some truth to both interpretations.


Scott Trudell

Trudell is an independent scholar with a bachelor's degree in English literature. In the following essay, Trudell argues that Marlowe's play is a psychological drama in which Tamburlaine represents the awesome potential of basic psychological desires.

On the surface, Tamburlaine the Great is a play about war and conquest, that is concerned with ambition, domination, and power in the public sphere, while private conflicts and domestic life are neither glorious nor important. Actions in the play take on epic proportions, and Tamburlaine places his life on the scale of the gods, whom he frequently challenges and to whom he often compares himself. Although Marlowe is concerned with ambition, power, and violence, his principle interest is in the origin of these themes in Tamburlaine's internal psychology. In fact, Tamburlaine is actually much less interested in conquest and political rule than he is in winning over his idealized wife, extending his sense of self to the next generation, and satisfying his egotistical desires to feel majestic and triumphant.

One of the most important pieces of evidence that Tamburlaine the Great is a psychological drama lies in its treatment of Tamburlaine's relationship with Zenocrate. Zenocrate is entirely Marlowe's own addition to the narrative; she does not appear in any historical documents about Tamerlane the conqueror and there is no evidence that Tamerlane fell passionately in love with anyone. The historical Tamerlane had a number of wives and concubines, including the warlord Amir Husayn's sister, whom he married to fortify their alliance, and also a former wife of Husayn, after Tamerlane had him killed. Unlike these women, Zenocrate does not help forward Tamburlaine's practical political goals in the play; if anything, she does him harm since she arouses the attempted vengeance of the king of Arabia and her father, the soldan of Egypt.

In fact, Tamburlaine seems almost to adjust his political ambitions, conquering Zenocrate's people, her betrothed husband, and her father, in order to win his wife entirely and become the king of their relationship. Of course, Tamburlaine states that he will not alter his military aims for his wife, and he does not accommodate her request for mercy on her people, but he does spare the soldan's life and give him back more than his former territory. This is an action suitable not for a warrior with purely political and military ambitions, but for a son-in-law who wishes to be the magnanimous ruler of his marriage. Tamburlaine views his domestic life as a battle to be won, and his wife a treasure to be pillaged, by conquering her territory and subduing the other males who lay claim to her.

Likewise, the conquests of part 2 do not originate in Tamburlaine's grand plan for military expansion as much as they signify the destruction and violence he feels are necessary to grieve for and honor his late wife. Marlowe stresses that this is the case in the prologue to part 2: "But what became of fair Zenocrate, / And with how many cities' sacrifice / He celebrated her sad funeral." As before, Tamburlaine forces the conditions of his personal life on the outer world; he burns the city where Zenocrate died, pillages many others, and drowns the entire population of Babylon in order to express the devastation of his marriage. Whereas, before his marriage, he killed the four virgins of Damascus after showing them the "imperious Death" that sits on his sword, representing the penetration of Zenocrate's virginity, now he drowns the women and children of Babylon in order to cease their fertility and ensure that, like his wife's dead body, they are barren.

Marlowe is careful to highlight that there is often something strange and shocking about Tamburlaine's transference of his psychological state onto the state of the world. The paradox that Tamburlaine "celebrated" a "sad funeral" with the sacrifice of numerous conquered cities highlights the theme, which is also common in part 1, that Tamburlaine's militaristic displays of brutality and power are often inappropriate and perverse in the context of his personal life. Marlowe chooses two moments in Tamburlaine the Great to portray this theme most acutely, the first of which comes at the confluence of the slaughter of the virgins of Damascus and the suicides of Bajazeth and Zabina. When Zenocrate discovers their bodies, having just witnessed Tamburlaine's slaughter of her people, she is torn between repulsion and devotion towards her husband, and the audience feels the same way. Tamburlaine's defeat and imprisonment of Bajazeth and his wife seem appropriate at first, given Bajazeth's threat to bind Tamburlaine in chains and make him a eunuch, but when the Turks are tortured inside a cage and humiliated as an ornament to Tamburlaine's domestic scene, events rapidly begin to take on a cruel and barbarous significance. By the time Zabina sees her husband's gory remains and goes mad, the audience feels appalled that Tamburlaine could cause such a thing to happen.

Similarly, when Tamburlaine ignores the protestations of his sons and comrades in part 2, and murders his son Calyphas for failing to fight against the Turkish armies, the audience is repulsed by Tamburlaine employing brutal, military force on his defenseless child. Calling him, "not my son, / But traitor to my name and majesty," Tamburlaine kills Calyphas because he fails to satisfy Tamburlaine's sense of psychological self-preservation. In his address to Jove immediately before he stabs his son, Tamburlaine tells the God to take back his son's soul because it is, "A form not meet to give that subject essence, / Whose matter is the flesh of Tamburlaine."


  • Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, first performed in 1594, concentrates on a forceful and eloquent main character who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and power. It is one of Marlowe's most sophisticated achievements.
  • Tamburlaine the Conqueror (1964), by Hilda Hookham, is an eloquent account of the historical Tamerlane and a thorough, definitive treatment of his career.
  • Shakespeare's Henry V, first performed about 1599, deals with an ambitious and charismatic king who penetrates further into France than any other English monarch. It is an example of further accomplishments in elegant rhetoric and blank verse in the years after Marlowe's death.
  • In addition to his plays, Marlowe wrote a number of poems including the delightful Hero and Leander (1598), a treatment of the ancient Greek story of two lovers who can meet only when Leander swims across the Hellespont strait.
  • Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's A Feast in Exile (2001) is a popular historical vampire novel in which Tamerlane the conqueror captures the Count of Saint-Germain, a vampire, during Tamerlane's siege of Dehli. Tamerlane keeps the count in his service as a healer.

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of this moment is the idea that Tamburlaine could be so self-obsessed as to murder his son, without regret, simply because his son does not fulfill his function as an extension of Tamburlaine's ego. Audiences alternate between finding Tamburlaine's violence and cruelty evil and finding it somewhat titillating; they feel ashamed and disturbed when they encounter extreme moments of cruelty—which they had previously admired—invading Tamburlaine's personal and domestic life. However, the recurring aspect of Tamburlaine's character, with which audiences find it perhaps most difficult to sympathize, is his incredible egotism. Tamburlaine has absolutely no inhibitions in acting out his most basic psychological desires. He has no boundary between his internal sense of self and his desire to impose his sense of self upon the world around him.

Marlowe uses this psychological drama to arouse suspicion about the desirability of Tamburlaine's enormous egotism and emphasize that his presumptuousness is unnatural and un-Christian. Like the orthodox moralists of his age, Marlowe is concerned about excessive pride, and he is careful to highlight its dangers and temptations, which lurk inside everyone's mind but, unlike Tamburlaine's, are not always externalized. Marlowe also demonstrates through Tamburlaine's outwardly-directed psychology that human beings are passionate, romantic creatures with glorious and limitless aspirations. However much it seems to highlight the dangers of great ambition, Tamburlaine the Great also suggests that the human psyche, if blown to the proportion of Tamburlaine's, and allowed to escape the bounds of humility and internalization, is capable of rising to the scale of a god.

Tamburlaine is not a model for human psychology or an everyman figure; he is entirely unique, even unrealistic at times, and none of the other characters approach his eloquence or power in the play. Theridamas, although he is a majestic conqueror, cannot conquer Olympia in the domestic sphere as Tamburlaine has conquered Zenocrate; Theridamas succumbs to a simple trick and, in his attempt to bring his military might down upon his desired wife, accidentally kills her. As Amyras points out to his father when they learn of his impending death: "Your soul gives essence to our wretched subjects, / Whose matter is incorporate in your flesh." Tamburlaine's allies are merely part of his majestic flesh, which eclipses all other glory and allows little else to coexist with its majesty.

Nevertheless, Marlowe sees Tamburlaine as a signal of the potential inherent in every human psyche, which has such shockingly powerful and violent desires that it is capable of almost anything. Nearly everyone, from the audience to the other characters in the play, reveals his/her taste for power and majesty by becoming so enthralled by Tamburlaine. This is a natural reaction, the reaction Marlowe intends by stressing that one can capture almost any passion and conquer almost any impediment to one's deepest desire if one is willing to disregard convention and carry out acts of ruthless violence. Marlowe is pointing out the fact that the world is not, as was commonly believed, a series of strictly orthodox moral hoops through which a person must jump in order to lead a happy existence, but a brutal arena in which the most violent, ambitious, and unappeasable desires and egos will rule. Tamburlaine shows that a basic aspect of the human psyche—its appetite for power—has a limitless potential and allows for the greatest of human achievements.


Scott Trudell, Critical Essay on Tamburlaine the Great, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

Pam Whitfield

In the following essay, Whitfield examines Tamburlaine's "systematic reduction and silencing of Zenocrate" as consistent with the theme of masculine domination and oppression present in Marlowe's works and Renaissance society.

In the Renaissance period, hierarchies of power hinged on the construction of masculinity in opposition to, and through suppression of, the other. The dramatic text, "a compendium of small dynamics of power," brings into play both power hierarchies and gender relations with immediacy. Perhaps no Renaissance drama embodies the construction of the masculine and the suppression of the feminine more than Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine I. The rise and triumph of Tamburlaine is paralleled by the fall and failure of Zenocrate, providing an interpersonal exposé of power relations in which masculine authority and victory is predicated on the destruction of the feminine other's voice and volition.

Although Christopher Marlowe is noted for his lack of interest in the female point of view, Tamburlaine I is an exception: the play includes a comparatively extensive portrayal of female characters. Zenocrate is Marlowe's most famous female character and arguably his most fully developed, "yet we know little about her aside from the effect she has on Tamburlaine." Thus readers have traditionally viewed Zenocrate through that lens. There is, however, a second perspective: from the angle of Tamburlaine's effect on her. During the course of five acts in Tamburlaine I, the Scythian shepherd manipulates Zenocrate's emotions, which run the gamut from hatred to love to despair to resignation. Her longest and most pivotal statements, in fact, focus on the emotional turmoil caused by her love for Tamburlaine and his (limited) affection for her.

Tamburlaine, whose sins go unpunished in Part I, apparently holds the strings to Zenocrate, as he seemingly does for all the characters. The warrior's "physical prowess and singular ambitions captivate all whom he encounters," both male and female. Significantly, every attack upon Tamburlaine is unsuccessful or rebounds on his enemies. Kings, queens and sultans' daughters have no antidote to the shepherd's ambition; he robs them of agency. If they act, they do so in futility. Despite Zenocrate's eloquence and virtue, she is ultimately a Marlovian woman, helpless and ineffectual. Despite her proximity to and influence over Tamburlaine, Zenocrate is unable to prevent the destruction and bloodshed her lover seems bent on unleashing. Tamburlaine's primary effect on Zenocrate is one of immobilization; she is unable to act. Tamburlaine allows her recourse only to rhetorical agency: she speaks. In a male world of cruelty and violence, such as that created by Tamburlaine, women's most valuable and useful power may indeed be that of speech, to moralize, reason, and persuade. Yet words bounce off the "scourge of God"; although Zenocrate curses Tamburlaine's presumptuous pride, her warnings are seen as "mere words" by both her lover and the audience.

Eloquent but ineffectual in the face of the Scythian's consuming ambition, Zenocrate's speech serves a different purpose: it provides a contrasting point of view. The princess may not save Damascus (or its virgins or even herself), but her ideas and values, as voiced through her language, suggest an alternative to Tamburlaine's unholy world. This alternative, however, can never be realized in Marlowe's play. Zenocrate is doomed to be subservient to Tamburlaine's will—an absolute will that leaves no room for another's volition. By forcing his will upon her and making her love him, Tamburlaine permanently alters Zenocrate's life: his love for the princess becomes her demise. Tamburlaine's relationship with Zenocrate is ultimately an act of reduction, as he reduces her to a voice, an impotent but plaintive voice, and finally to a silence.

Yet Zenocrate is not simply the voice of the other, the disempowered, a dissenter irrevocably tied to and manipulated by the force that will destroy her. Her role becomes complicated by irony: that of the other doomed to speak against herself. In Tamburlaine I, Zenocrate's speech acts betray her. She gives voice to morality, compassion, and concern for the eternal in a world that devalues and denies both. In Tamburlaine's world, as Zenocrate demonstrates, voice can disempower. The shepherd builds his authority through speech; in contrast, Zenocrate's words serve to ultimately undermine and destroy her identity. Her struggle to voice the conflict between her loyalty to Tamburlaine and her adherence to her own values provides Tamburlaine (and Marlowe) with a necessary source of opposition, but the threat is never a serious one. Although Tamburlaine effects a drastic change in her, turning a saucy princess into a shell-shocked survivor, she can never alter his character or ambition.

In reality, Zenocrate is made impotent before she even speaks: the reader first meets her as a captive of Tamburlaine and his soldiers, who are laden with Egyptian treasure from her procession. As a prisoner, albeit a royal one, Zenocrate lacks agency; only her voice might serve her. She employs it to plead with Tamburlaine for the release of herself and her retinue. But Tamburlaine responds by asking if she is betrothed, then asserting, "But lady, this fair face and heavenly hue / Must grace his bed that conquers Asia / And means to be a terror of the world" (1.2.36–8). Marlowe thus underscores the fact that Zenocrate, for all her eloquence and rationality, will be first and foremost a jewel in Tamburlaine's crown.

The "terror of the world" views Zenocrate as an icon and a possession. Yet because her voice is plaintive and her plight pitiable, her power must be removed and diffused—she must be placed on a pedestal. Tamburlaine answers her disdain with a speech of seductive flattery, promising Zenocrate:

With milk-white harts upon an ivory sled
Thou shalt be drawn amidst the frozen pools
And scale the icy mountains' lofty tops (1.2.98–100).

His seduction speech rebounds with metaphors of frigidity and inaccessibility. Thus he elevates her above both action and audience, too frosty and pure and immobile to act—he attempts to confine her power to beauty and chastity. Through the seduction speech, the shepherd defines Zenocrate; in doing so, he defines his territory. She is a land to be conquered, a height to be scaled, a walled city in need of protection. Her spoils will be his alone. He speaks for her, describing her desire and fate in his own terms of appropriation and control. He also negates her sexual power:

This aestheticizing of Zenocrate is also, of course, robbing her of any sexual threat; Tamburlaine is controlling her by situating her in an environment of frosty inaccessibility. It is, then, an act of appropriation or colonization: Tamburlaine is marking out the extent of his empire.

Zenocrate becomes, in an ironic twist of the Scythian's mind, both the spoils and the receiver of booty: he takes her as his prize, yet will later offer himself to her. The sinister promise—that Tamburlaine will make himself a gift to his beautiful captive—smacks of captivity narrative; the conqueror colonizes the other to diffuse and absorb her power.

But male desire will not be consummated in this play: part of Tamburlaine's empowerment (and Zenocrate's impotence) lies in the negation of sexual desire. Tamburlaine I is a remarkably asexual text; its protagonist does not bend to bodily impulses, lest he lose momentum. Stephen Greenblatt has compared Tamburlaine to a machine: "Once set in motion, this thing cannot slow down or change course." In the play, the protagonist has little need for sexual gratification through women because "blood lust replaces sexual desire in a sublimation achieved through violence." Even as the warrior shuns physical distractions, he gathers psychic power from the source of those distractions: Zenocrate's body. Medieval and Renaissance belief endowed virginity with unique powers, including the ability to mediate between the earthly and the divine—chastity embodied power to transcend the corporeal. Tamburlaine respects the princess's virginity and endeavors to maintain her bodily integrity, hedging his bets for immortality. By doing so, he robs Zenocrate of one traditionally female power: influence in the bedroom. The noblewoman is in the unique position of being the prisoner of a man who won't touch her; all she has left is her voice.

Tamburlaine's flattery and manipulative speech have the desired effect: between Acts 1 and 3, Zenocrate inexplicably falls in love with the opportunist, professing to find "His talk much sweeter than the Muses' song" (3.2.50). The warrior understands that "women must be flattered" (1.2.107). As Emily Bartels has noted, "Tamburlaine tailors his image to the needs and expectations of his contenders, answering their desires and outdoing their resistance." For the warrior, womanhood in the shape of Zenocrate contends with his manly ambitions; romance and sex threaten his imperialist plans. By tempting her with lordliness and love, he brings the other into the fold where she can be manipulated and controlled. He woos her with visions of empire and riches, the dream that motivates him. Zenocrate, all too human, cannot deny the appeal of glory and power:

And higher would I rear my estimate
Than Juno, sister to the highest god,
If I were matched with mighty Tamburlaine (3.2.53–5).

She now sees her own worth and reputation as tied to her master's. The same woman who has boldly denounced Tamburlaine's pretensions is now fatefully smitten and speaks of "Fearing his love through my unworthiness" (3.2.65). Her friend Agydas has attempted to point out her new lover's faults, but Zenocrate rebuts his arguments. Yet her new passivity is palpable: when Tamburlaine, who has overheard the discussion, appears, the lovers do not greet each passionately. He claims her without a word and she is led away in silence.

Zenocrate's silent moments may be seen as acts of submission or resignation in the face of Tamburlaine's power, but never as indications of contentment. During her discussion with Agydas, she speaks as a woman in love, but fretfully so, as if trying to convince herself as well. Her words of praise ring hollow, as if she were reciting a script prepared for her, indeed as if Tamburlaine himself were putting words into her mouth. As Tamburlaine leads her offstage, his scowl foreboding death for Agydas, the audience must imagine what battle rages in her heart. Zenocrate's speeches in the play similarly eschew contentment: happiness is absent from her words. Her two major spoken acts, the mock-battle scene and the Zabina-death scene, involve two very different types of speech: the first martial and bickering, the second passionate and regretful.

In the battle scene (3.2), Zenocrate's self-confidence wanes as her lover's political power increases. She voices doubt in Tamburlaine's love for her because of her "unworthiness." Tamburlaine, the master strategist, recognizes her reluctance and creates an occasion that requires her to rise to it. He suggests she match words against Zabina, his rival's wife, as he matches swords with Bajazeth. He instructs her to "take thou my crown, vaunt of my worth, / And manage words with her as we will arms" (3.2.130–31). Zenocrate, like the other characters "follow[s] his example and take[s] his instructions to heart." The new king gives her a taste of royalty even as he invites her to join the man's world of sparring and battle. In this case she and Zabina engage in a battle of word and wit, an elevated and eloquent bickering that mimics, in empty words, the men's roles on the battlefield. By arranging such a performance, Tamburlaine tricks Zenocrate into changing sides; she is placed in opposition to Zabina and defends him. Thus she acts against herself, favoring bloodshed over peace, abusing the character of another noblewoman in hopes of pleasing a cruel and insatiable warrior. As Zabina and Zenocrate exchange jibes, threatening each other with slavery and prostitution if one should fall under the other's power, they pitifully foreshadow their own roles as pawns of Tamburlaine. Zenocrate is particularly prophetic, telling Zabina that soon she and Bajazeth must plead for mercy and "sue to me to be your advocates" (3.2.174). In adopting the martial and threatening speech of men, Zenocrate's words betray her: soon Zabina and Bajazeth will indeed want for mercy, which Zenocrate will withhold, to her later regret.

The verbal antagonism continues during the first cage scene (4.2), as the conquered Turkish king is imprisoned and humiliated. Tamburlaine's egotistical defense of his inhumane treatment of Bajazeth, "This is my mind, and I will have it so" (4.2.91), serves as a refrain for the entire play. The king's will is absolute; he makes no promises to Zenocrate, or any other individual, that might undermine his imperialism. Techelles requests that he "make these captives rein their lavish tongues" (4.2.67), an ironic comment in that Tamburlaine's tongue is certainly the most lavish of all. The cogent comments of Bajazeth and Zabina make the dinner guests uncomfortable with their bloody victory, perhaps; the revelry and jesting of Tamburlaine's followers seem intended to drown out any twinges of conscience. Although Zenocrate initially plays against the Turks' words to gain favor with Tamburlaine and to shore up a little power, she soon wearies of the verbal gaming and falls silent.

Bajazeth and Zabina provide an entertaining spectacle at mealtime, but Zenocrate has larger worries during the victory banquet. Her silence prompts the king to ask, "Pray thee tell, why art thou so sad?" (4.4.66). Zenocrate's emotional withdrawal allows her to contemplate the fate of her father, town, and countrymen and to formulate an appropriate plea for their deliverance by Tamburlaine. John Gillies has suggested that Zenocrate makes a connection between the "cannibal banquet" (with the red-attired Tamburlaine suggesting that the Turks eat their own flesh) and the fate of Damascus. Her plea for the king to spare her hometown is plaintive and simple:

My lord, to see my father's town besieged,
The country wasted where myself was born—
How can it but afflict my very soul?" (4.469–71).

But Zenocrate has forgotten that the values of kin and community hold little power over Tamburlaine, "a man without family ties, seemingly not sprung of the human race." Zenocrate is, however, beginning to see that Tamburlaine's single-minded appetite for power exists to the exclusion of all else. She doubts his love even as she reaffirms her own, saying:

If any love remain in you, my lord,
Or if my love unto Your Majesty
May merit favor at Your Highness' hands,
Then raise your siege from fair Damascus walls
And with my father take a friendly truce" (4.4.73–6).

Instinctively she realizes that in a union with a power-hungry man, loyalty is more useful than love. Zenocrate states her loyalty to her lord and shows him deference through repeating verbal emblems of his title and power. She interposes a tribute, "Honour still wait on happy Tamburlaine!" (4.4.89) before begging leave to speak with her father in hopes of effecting a truce.

Tamburlaine continues to reduce the princess's ideals to mere words, to deny her any opportunity to act. Zenocrate requests the chance to intervene on her father's behalf, she asks to avert bloodshed and death, and in so doing, potentially undermines Tamburlaine's ambition. The king does not take her request seriously; his woman is the priceless trophy earned by a mighty warrior, not a diplomat active in his majesty's service. The king has no use for Zenocrate's veneration of family: "In Marlowe it [family] is something to be neglected, despised, or violated." In denying Zenocrate's request to see her father, Tamburlaine denies peace, family and community, all values which his lover represents. Once again, Zenocrate's speech has betrayed her: Tamburlaine brushes off her attempts to use power and makes her look helpless and subjugated instead.

When Zenocrate arrives on stage after Bajazeth and Zabina have brained themselves against the cage bars, she misses Zabina's impassioned pre-suicide speech, but she intuitively guesses its point: chaos, the denial of natural order, can only bring disaster. Zabina has a power to move Zenocrate to moral consideration because Zabina achieves agency: she "is not simply being rhetorical; she also acts." Significantly, Zabina has acted, profoundly and ultimately, in a way that Tamburlaine's rhetorical Zenocrate is unable to: she has put an end to senseless suffering. Zabina's words, "I, even I, speak to her" (5.1.314) are a warning addressed to Zenocrate, one which the latter answers with "what may chance to thee, Zenocrate?" (5.1.372).

Zenocrate begins to realize the absolute nature of Tamburlaine's control over her and over events. She grieves the death of a worthy rival and proclaims Tamburlaine to be "the cause of this." The man "That term'st Zenocrate thy dearest love" is responsible for the deaths of two admirable and devoted lovers (5.1.336–37). Her loyalty to her lord is supremely tested because it negates all else in which she believes. The absolute nature of her loyalty also mocks her value system even as Tamburlaine reduces it, and her, to mere words. Her conscience resurfaces with its humanitarian values, and she gives voice to the wrongs perpetuated against the divine order, begging the gods to "Pardon my love, Oh, pardon his contempt / Of earthly fortune and respect of pity" (5.1.365–66). In this soliloquy Zenocrate not only takes shared responsibility for Tamburlaine's destructive forces, she admits to herself that her fate is tied to his, irrevocably. Her many protestations of respect for and loyalty to Tamburlaine now haunt her. Zenocrate realizes that her words of fealty and devotion may ultimately be her undoing: by loving Tamburlaine, she has given herself over to ruthless cruelty.

Zenocrate's choices, debated in heart-rending speech, are not easy ones. Tamburlaine's martial actions force her to redefine her sense of duty, as she laments:

Whom should I wish the fatal victory,
When my poor pleasures are divided thus
And racked by duty from my cursed heart?
My father and my first betrothed love
Must fight against my life and present love;
Wherein the change I use condemns my faith
And makes my deeds infamous through the world

Tamburlaine's empire, indeed his body count, is growing at the expense of his lover's sanity. Thus does Zenocrate move from despair to resignation in the play's final scene, hoping to preserve her sense of selfhood by bowing to fate. As Richmond has noted, "In the last sequence of the play Zenocrate is notably silent. Her joy and greeting are for her father who has been spared—not for Tamburlaine." Even as Zenocrate and her father are reunited, Tamburlaine establishes permanent possession of Zenocrate, expecting the Sultan's gratitude to permit him Zenocrate's hand in marriage. Thus the actual union of man and woman is subsumed by larger issues: the wedding becomes a political agreement, a truce. This is a deal between two rulers; Zenocrate remains silent. Doubtless, she has many pertinent things to say, if only as emotional release; Zenocrate has, after all, just held her dying fiancé, Arabia, in her arms. But the princess's speech has betrayed her in the past: to give voice to emotions and values is to make herself vulnerable to their abuse at the hands of Tamburlaine. Even her father sees her as an icon of purity, embodied worth, saying that he does not mind his overthrow "If, as beseems a person of thy state, / Thou hast with honor used Zenocrate" (5.1.484–85). Thus "Part I ends not in an act of revolt but in the supreme gesture of legitimacy, a proper marriage, with the Scourge of God earnestly assuring his father-in-law of Zenocrate's unblemished chastity." This is, perhaps, Tamburlaine's one concession to the forces warring within him: he wishes to remain single and unfettered, yet a king needs progeny.

In the betrothal scene, Marlowe's twin themes of love and war are joined in the person of Zenocrate, now silenced by Tamburlaine's will and reduced to a breeder of heirs by his wish. Zenocrate becomes a pact between two warring kings, a potential peacekeeper but at the expense of herself. Upon obtaining her father's approval, Tamburlaine speaks for Zenocrate even as he asks for her consent, stating, "doubt I not but fair Zenocrate / Will soon consent to satisfy us both" (5.1.499–500). Her terse response, "Else I should much forget myself, my lord" (5.1.501), summarizes her acquiescence to her fate as the brightest jewel in a king's crown, the tie that binds two warring nations. She ascends the throne wordlessly as Tamburlaine pronounces her "divine Zenocrate" in recognition of her union to a man-god. Tamburlaine has the last word, declaring three solemn and stately burials before the marriage ceremony is performed. He promises peace: "Tamburlaine takes truce with all the world" (5.1.530). But one doubts that mere marriage, even to one fairer than Juno, can quell the warring spirit of a human Jupiter.

One might conclude that Zenocrate is safest when she is silent. The closed mouth, after all, was seen as a sign of chastity and thus integrity and submission. Although Tamburlaine concedes her rhetorical agency, he consistently thwarts her speech acts. Throughout Part 1 she seeks to move him to mercy, but he ultimately rejects love as effeminate, proclaiming that even beauty should be conquered because "virtue solely is the sum of glory" (5.1.189). Though one hopes that her most eloquent plea (5.1.349–77) for her lord's pardon might cause some stirring in the hero's conscience, or cause a greater force to halt Tamburlaine's assaults, Zenocrate is instead rebuked by Annipe for her lack of faith in her master: "Madame, content yourself, and be resolved," her maid tells her (5.1.373). Thus Marlowe suggests the possibility of Tamburlaine's redemption through Zenocrate's eloquence merely to dismiss it, and "Zenocrate's lines are spoken only to be refuted—as happens to all opposition to Tamburlaine."

Tamburlaine manipulates, undermines, and annuls the one form of agency Zenocrate has: rhetorical agency. Opposition is silenced, pleas for justice rendered ineffectual, and moral statements ignored. A master strategist, "he meets Zenocrate's aversion to violence with diversions." He distracts her from the rape of Damascus and its virgins with a speech on beauty, using ceremony to cover violence. He overturns Zenocrate's value system as easily as he overturns her words, in fact using words to mask actions. Zenocrate's words must be subverted so that she can be subsumed. Tamburlaine sees the whole world as consumable. The fulfillment of the Scythian shepherd's nature, through his acts of self-definition and self-authorization, require the consumption of Zenocrate as opposition, but Tamburlaine escapes virtually blame-free. He has cleverly manipulated Zenocrate into speaking and acting against herself, so that his success requires the self-consumption of his beloved, "who is offered abundance at the price of home, family, city, and the female principle she represents." In eating her own words, Zenocrate devours her moral code, her belief in love, and her devotion to Tamburlaine. At the shepherd's feet, Zenocrate has painfully learned that in a world in which imperialism bests sentiment, the other—the woman—is designated an enemy and must be conquered. By marrying Tamburlaine she has betrayed herself and has denied life. Tamburlaine, the powermonger, has succeeded in reducing Zenocrate to nothing except, perhaps, a living metaphor of resignation and regret. It is as a voiceless and defeated shell of a woman that she ascends the throne to take her venerated seat alongside the terror of the world.

Tamburlaine's act of reducing Zenocrate ironically parallels his own expansion, both political and psychological. The audience feels a palpable sense of misgiving as Tamburlaine's cruel and destructive acts succeed again and again. It is not so much that the gods smile upon the warrior, as that he seems to have banished and conquered even them. If women are words and men are deeds, as the famous Renaissance poem goes, then Marlowe's play follows convention. Playing within their prescribed gender roles, Tamburlaine is symbolized by the arm, and Zenocrate by the tongue. Yet these roles, so common as to be not worth mentioning, are foregrounded in Tamburlaine I as the Scythian enacts his systematic reduction and silencing of Zenocrate. His symbolic destruction of woman as embodied in his shattering of Zenocrate's will and voice becomes, like all his other extreme and egotistical acts, a moral wrong. Through his (mis)-treatment of his lover, the audience is encouraged to examine the dangers inherent in prescribed gender roles and sex-based power issues. Marlowe may have created Zenocrate as a victim, perhaps even Tamburlaine's ultimate victim, but it is her fate, pitiable, unjust, and disturbing, that condemns Tamburlaine for his ambition, amorality and inhumanity.


Pam Whitfield, "'Divine Zenocrate,' 'Wretched Zenocrate': Female Speech and Disempowerment in Tamburlaine I," in Renaissance Papers, 2000, pp. 87–97.

Lisa Hopkins

In the following excerpt, Hopkins argues that, in his plays, Marlowe "provides a sharply focused and detailed critique of the problematics of familial interaction … an aberration caused by particular aspects of social injustice and malaise."

Christopher Marlowe's plays are littered with family groups shattered and destroyed, either through their own actions or those of others. Sometimes the disharmony is limited to family disagreements or ideological disunity within the family group; at other points it becomes more extreme, leading to internecine betrayal and even murder. As Frank Ardolino suggests, "the composite roles family members play as both fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters provide Marlowe with rich sources of complex interactions and the opportunity to portray the tensions created by the shifting roles, to limn, in short, the dynamics of power as established within the microcosm of the family." I want to argue, though, that Marlowe does more than simply "limn" these: I am going to suggest that he provides a sharply focused and detailed critique of the problematics of familial interaction, and that, contrary to modern, psychoanalytically driven theorizing of the family, he sees these as arising fundamentally not from inherent inter-generational struggle, nor from the kinds of mythic model proposed by Ardolino—who sees the plays as radically informed by the Uranus-Jupiter-Saturn model—but as an aberration caused by particular aspects of social injustice and malaise.

In what seems likely to have been Marlowe's earliest play, Dido, Queen of Carthage, the issue of family features very strongly. The play opens with what looks like a traditional scene of family life: a man with a boy on his lap. But we rapidly discover that this is not a scene of a father and a son, but instead of what the British government has termed "a pretended family," two homosexual lovers (homosexuality is something to which I will return in due course). Moreover, Jupiter promises to subordinate the interests of his real family to those of his lover Ganymede: he gives the boy the jewels which his wife Juno wore on her wedding day, and plucks a feather from the wing of his son Hermes. The family conflict presaged here is actualized when Jupiter's daughter, Venus, enters—not in her traditional role as goddess of love, but, very pointedly, in her capacity as a mother, and, by implication, in the even less likely role, for a sex symbol, as grandmother. (This point is also stressed again later in the characters' repeated references to the kinship ties between herself, Aeneas, Ascanius, and her other son Cupid.) Jupiter's infatuation with Ganymede, she claims, has had repercussions throughout the family in that it has prevented him from paying proper attention to the welfare of her son Aeneas. Thus an initial lack of proper conjugal relations between husband and wife has apparently escalated into a situation which also affects both Jupiter's daughter and his grandson, and which will have serious implications too for his great-grandson Aeneas. We may, after all, remember as David Farley-Hills reminds us in relation to Tamburlaine, that Jupiter usurped and killed his own father.

The speech which Jupiter then makes to Venus assures her that she is wrong, and that he still has Aeneas's interests at heart:

Content thee, Cytherea, in thy care,
Since thy Aeneas' wandering fate is firm,
Whose weary limbs shall shortly make repose
In those fair walls I promis'd him of yore. (I.i.82–5)

In fact, however, the play itself proves Venus to be very accurate in her diagnosis of strains within the family. She has less insight into the cause, though, for she is herself complicit in it. When she visits the son for whom she has professed so much affection, she appears in disguise to him; only after she has left does he detect her identity, and he then proceeds to lament the lack of a closer relationship between them. Here we seem to be invited to discern that Jupiter's own poor parenting skills have, in one of the classic patterns of child abuse, been transmitted in turn to his daughter, who fails to mother her son as he would wish. This is made very clear in Aeneas's moving comments as he realizes the identity of the disguised figure with whom he has been talking:

Achates, 'tis my mother that is fled;
I know her by the movings of her feet.
Stay, gentle Venus, fly not from thy son!
Too cruel, why wilt thou forsake me thus,
Or in these shades deceiv'st mine eye so oft?
Why talk we not together hand in hand,
And tell our griefs in more familiar terms?
But thou art gone, and leav'st me here alone
To dull the air with my discoursive moan. (I.ii.240–8)

Here the familiar relationship between Aeneas and his mother, indicated in the fact that he can recognize her from so minor a detail as "the movings of her feet," forms a sad counterbalance to her unexplained unwillingness voluntarily to reveal her identity to him—apparently, from his use of the term "so oft," a familiar feature of her behavior to him.

Despite—or perhaps because of—Aeneas's sensitivity to his mother's lack of trust in him, he too is revealed as a poor parent. Ascanius early demonstrates a strong sense of kinship: when Aeneas imagines that a rock he sees is Priam, Ascanius assures him that it cannot be, "For were it Priam, he would smile on me" (II.i.36). Perhaps it is this sense of a lost family—Aeneas has, after all, literally mislaid his wife, Creusa—which makes the child at once accost Dido with "Madam, you shall be my mother" (II.i.98). (Richard Proudfoot points out that "Marlowe's Dido, unlike Chaucer's, doesn't count pregnancy among her claims on Aeneas"; instead she is presented throughout the play as poignantly childless, anxious to mother.) But like Jupiter and Venus before him, Aeneas in turn proves so indifferent to the fate of his offspring that he actually, proposes at one point to leave Ascanius behind with Dido—his protestation that he couldn't have been about to depart because he would have had to leave his son behind is savagely undercut by the audience's awareness that that was in fact precisely what he was planning. Even Aeneas's denial is couched in worrying terms: "Hath not the Carthage queen mine only son?" (IV.iv.29) suggests that Ascanius's importance to his father may be at least as much dynastic as personal—as the only son of a widower, he forms a unique and temporarily irreplaceable link in the chain of succession; the implication, however, is that had he brothers, he might prove expendable, as Tamburlaine's son Calyphas is later to be. The inclusion of four generations in Dido allows us to see very clearly how the cycle of flawed parent-child relationships renews and perpetuates itself.

Even when fewer generations are considered, however, the pattern is still discernible. Tamburlaine Part One both opens and closes with families: the sharp differences between Cosroe and Mycetes open up questions of heredity, family resemblances and the nature / nurture debate, which is of course raised again in even more radical form by the victories won over kings by the mere son of a Scythian shepherd; and the end of the play sees both a marriage—providing an unusually comic form of closure to so violent a story—and also the reunion between Zenocrate and her father. Family is thus signaled as an issue of some importance, and it becomes even more so in Part Two where we observe closely Tamburlaine's three boys. We see the rivalry between them, brought about primarily by the very fact that they, unlike Ascanus, are members of a family instead of isolated heirs; we witness the effect on them of their mother's early death—indeed Calyphas's effeminacy, although clearly present from the beginning, could be interpreted as perhaps becoming exacerbated by a subconscious attempt to take over the role within the family of a lost mother; and, as with Cosroe and Mycetes in Part One, we see also the radical differences amongst brothers which result eventually in the ultimate example of family fragmentation, Tamburlaine's infanticide.

Tamburlaine's killing of Calyphas is difficult to decode. It has often been seen as in some sense exemplary, in the light of Renaissance educational theory. T. M. Pearce argues that it is indeed precisely a response to such theory:

Here is portrayed a father who is at once a man of arms and a lover of poetry and worshipper of beauty, now faced with the problem of bringing up boys, his sons. The entire passage might have been written by Marlowe after reading Sir Thomas Elyot's Boke Named the Governour (1531), which appeared some fifty years earlier.

Pearce sees in Marlowe's portrayal of Tamburlaine's immovability a response to twin stimuli: the attack by Gosson (like Marlowe, a former pupil of the King's School, Canterbury) on lack of proper moral fiber in the theater, and the attack by Sir Humphrey Gilbert on modern educational methods and their failure to prepare for military service. Tamburlaine, Pearce suggests, embodies the very virtues which both Gosson and Gilbert were, in their different ways, advocating, and in nothing is this more apparent than his stoic sacrifice of his own son. Paul Kocher similarly sees in Tamburlaine's stabbing "an act of military discipline … from the Elizabethan point of view Tamburlaine is merely heroic in this," and suggests, moreover, that Tamburlaine's action is also rendered glorious by its association with the story of the Roman consul Manlius Torquatius, who similarly slew his son for disobeying orders. But such readings are, as Carolyn Williams recognizes, counter-intuitive; and, more importantly, they are notably not shared by the on-stage audience of dignitaries.

Infanticide also occurs elsewhere in the play, in Olympia's very differently motivated decision to kill her son, and crops up again in two more of the plays, The Massacre at Paris—where it is threatened rather than actual, since Catherine never needs to carry out her resolve to kill one or both of her sons—and The Jew of Malta. Here Barabas's initial affection for the daughter whose name means, ironically, "the father's joy" is violently transmuted by her conversion to Christianity—her adoption, it could perhaps be argued, of a different father-figure—into a murderous hate whose momentum not only wipes out Abigail and her entire convent of nuns but is also echoed in the kind of mock infanticide in which Barabas kills Ithamore, who, he so often stresses, has assumed the position of his heir. Family fragmentation is, of course, further emphasized in the play by the recurring presence of the two bereaved parents, Ferneze and Katherine, both of whom are apparently partnerless as well as childless. Moreover, Jeremy Tambling points to further elements in the play of fury directed at literal and symbolic members of its families when he comments on Barabas's stress on the nuns' frequent pregnancies, his identification of Abigail with the original exemplar of sibling rivalry, Cain, and the ways in which his celebrated image of "infinite riches in a little room" (I.i.37), "parodying the idea of Christ in the womb, suggest[s] a pre-Oedipal desire for identification with the mother."

In others of the plays matters never reach the pitch of family self-destruction seen in The Jew of Malta and Tamburlaine; but very often this is because, in them, families are never formed in the first place. It is notable that one of the few things Mephostophilis denies Faustus is a wife: thus the scholar, whom we assume to have long since drifted apart from the "base stock" from which he was sprung, is afforded no opportunity to recreate a family unit, something for which he perhaps compensates in his marked affection for his friends and for Wagner, and, arguably, even in his desire to please the pregnant Duchess of Vanholt. Marlowe, however, pointedly withholds from his hero personal participation in such a family unit, even though, as Emily Bartels points out, "in the sources … he and Helen get married and have a son." In a brilliant analysis of the play, Kay Stockholder demonstrates Faustus's unease with his own sexuality and the ways in which his approaches to heterosexuality are thwarted by powerful patriarchal figures which, together with the presence of the strongly developed cuckoldry theme she shows to be present in the play, indicates a deeply unresolved Oedipus complex. Ironically, the woman he is offered instead of a wife is Helen—the legendary marriage-breaker of mythology, the woman who abandoned her husband Menelaus and her daughter Hermione for the seducer Paris.

Family even becomes an issue in the pageant of the Seven Deadly Sins. Pride "disdain[s] to have any parents" (II.i.116), Wrath "had neither father nor mother" (II.i.141), Gluttony's "parents are all dead" (II.i.148), while all the rest cite ill-matched couplings as their source of origin. Once again it is possible to discern a suggestion that fractured or non-existent family structures lie behind the darkest events of the play. Similarly in Dido, Queen of Carthage there is a strong sense of the fact that in coming together these two, widow and widower respectively, would be able to restore the family structure that each has lost—something that seems strongly signaled in Dido's desire effectively to reconstitute her former marriage by rechristening Aeneas Sichaeus, and by her enthusiastic response to Ascanius's request that she should function as a replacement mother for him. It is one of the most savage ironies of the play that it is family strife amongst the gods, specifically between Juno and Venus, which prevents this dream of a new family from reaching fulfillment, just as it has previously devastated the family of Priam and Hecuba.

Family breakdown is, then repeatedly stressed as a recurring motif in Marlowe's plays, and its impact is heightened by the use of vignettes of happy families which provide both contrast and pathos. Obvious examples are Zabina and Bajazeth in Tamburlaine Part One, whose mutual affection, undiminished by the brutal circumstances of their captivity, could be seen as strongly reminiscent of the marriage of affection and mutual support proposed by Protestant ideology, and Olympia and her Family in Part Two, where again conjugal and filial devotion triumphantly survives external disasters.


Lisa Hopkins, "Fissured Families: A Motif in Marlowe's Plays," in Papers on Language & Literature, Vol. 33, No. 2, Spring 1997, pp. 198–212.

Terry Box

In the following essay, Box analyzes the five stages of dramatic development of Tamburlaine, Part I to "illustrate the degree to which irony permeates Marlowe's plots" and show that "through irony Marlowe maintains a detachment from what he has created."

Christopher Marlowe has been characterized by various critics as a markedly subjective playwright, one whose passions are reflected in the passions of his characters. Michel Poirier, for example, holds that Marlowe's mind "is spurred on by a passion similar to the one he has ascribed to some of the characters in his dramas." Poirier concludes that there is a definite connection between Marlowe's temperament and ideas. His desires govern his thoughts; his passions are the basis for his philosophy; and egotism is at the center of his life and works. John Bakeless suggests that Marlowe's art did not conceal the artist, nor did his characterization possess the depth or subtlety required to veil the mind that produced them. A. L. Rowse speaks of writers who are intensely obsessed with themselves and derive much of their power from their own egos. He concludes that Marlowe belongs to this class: "No writer was ever more autobiographical than he was.… He was an obsessed egoist.… His creations are very much projections of himself." Paul Kocher goes so far as to say that Marlowe's degree of subjectivity as a dramatist is the crucial problem of all interpretation of his work. Kocher further notes that any theory of subjectivity must depend on the whole broad body of evidence, and that this evidence includes the following: (1) the dramatist's choice and treatment of sources, (2) the background of the thought and custom of the period, (3) the practice of other dramatists, (4) the dramatist's own practice in his other works, (5) the dramatist's own personally held ideas, as supplied by background information, and (6) his manipulation of emphasis within the play by the placement, length, frequency, and eloquence of the speeches and by the good or bad standing of those who speak them. Kocher concludes, taking all these factors into consideration, that Marlowe is one of the most highly subjective playwrights of his time. Admitting that, to some degree, every dramatist exhibits in his work the major processes of his mind and emotions, Kocher goes on to say that Marlowe's plays are his not only in this general sense, but also as projections of strong personal passions.

Poirier, Bakeless, Rowse, and Kocher, however, represent but one side of what in recent years has become an on-going debate—a debate which Kenneth Friedenreich characterizes as between those who consider Marlowe essentially a Romantic and subjective artist, and those who regard him as a more conservative, objective artist whose plays focus on Renaissance drives for power, wealth, and knowledge. Representing this latter group, for example, is Gerald Pincess, who admits that Marlowe's plays are extensions and representations of his own mind, but who also admits that irony was Marlowe's most popular mode, and that this irony reflects a skepticism and detachment on the play-wright's part. Judith Weil agrees that Marlowe mocks his heroes in a remarkably subtle fashion and that it is faulty logic to assume that Marlowe shares the attitudes of his heroes. Weil goes on to say that "[b]ecause Marlowe's ironic relationship to his audience varies from play to play, we probably cannot expect to infer his personal attitude from any one work." Writing in 1984, Johannes H. Birringer observed that "[t]he Marlowe who emerged during the last decade is certainly more exciting, even more challenging; a wide range of tones has been found in his generically unstable plays, and he even begins to look … like a sardonic, maliciously enigmatic ironist."

In these latter evaluations of Marlowe, all crediting him with more objectivity than the former critics were willing to admit to, the common denominator seems to be irony; that is, it is through irony that Marlowe in his plays distances himself from his characters and their actions, and thus achieves objectivity. R. B. Sharpe defines irony as "an attitude, a temper, a spirit in which one looks at life and art. It brings to light and emphasizes by art the contradictions of living." G. G. Sedgewick gives us the following definition of dramatic irony: "Dramatic irony, in brief, is the sense of contradiction felt by spectators of a drama who see a character acting in ignorance of his condition. This is dramatic irony in its concentrated and specific form: it grows … out of that pervasive and controlling knowledge which we have called general irony and which is the property peculiar and essential to the illusion of the theatre."

Sharpe's and Sedgewick's definitions of irony and dramatic irony are especially meaningful when one considers Marlowe's plays. These works abound in the contradictions of life—contradictions between what appears to be truth and what is truth, between aspiration and achievement, between speech and action. And Marlowe's characters consistently act in ignorance of their conditions. In Tamburlaine, Faustus, Edward, Mortimer, Barabas, Guise, Dido, and other lesser characters, Marlowe has created characters in whom virtually every speech and action involve ironic undertones springing from this ignorance. This irony establishes an objective position of the part of the playwright; thus through irony Marlowe maintains a detachment from what he has created.

A careful, though admittedly not exhaustive, study of the five stages of dramatic development of Tamburlaine, Part I will, I believe, illustrate the degree to which irony permeates Marlowe's plots. The five stages—exposition, complication of plot action, turning point, climax, and denouement—are all steeped in irony, and the irony verifies Marlowe's objective position in that it helps to create the distance between playwright and character that is objectivity.

The first stage in dramatic development—exposition—introduces themes, characters, and conflicts. In Tamburlaine, Part I, Marlowe introduces these elements with an irony that shows him to be the objective observer of the forces he puts into motion. One theme is the invincible warrior—the super hero—and one method which Marlowe uses to attest ironically to the capabilities of his hero Tamburlaine is "looks" imagery. In scene i of Act I, Mycetes, king of Persia, sends Theridamas to halt Tamburlaine's invading army: "Go, stout Theridamas; thy words are swords, / And with thy looks conquerest all thy foes" (I.i.74–75). Mycetes' reliance on the looks of Theridamas is ironic because Tamburlaine also is known for fierce looks. In scene ii, Techelles, a lieutenant to Tamburlaine, declares:

As princely lions when they rouse themselves,
Stretching their paws and threatening herds of beasts,
So in his armor looketh Tamburlaine.
Methinks I see kings kneeling at his feet,
And he with frowning brows and fiery looks
Spurning their crowns from off their captive heads.

Later in the same scene, Theridamas is forced to admit of Tamburlaine that "His looks do menace Heaven and dare the gods" (I.ii.156). In the confrontation between Theridamas and Tamburlaine, Theridamas yields without a struggle and states,

Won with thy words and conquered with thy looks,
I yield myself, my men, and horse to thee,
To be partaker of thy good or ill,
As long as life maintains Theridamas.

Thus, the wellspring of Mycetes' hope, the ominous appearance of Theridamas, is overcome by a similar, but stronger force in Tamburlaine; and Theridamas becomes a lieutenant to the man he was sent to defeat. Besides attesting to the superiority of Tamburlaine, this ironic treatment of "looks" fore-shadows the fate of all those who feel confident that they can defeat Tamburlaine. As the play unfolds, many do challenge Tamburlaine, and their efforts fail, just as Mycetes' efforts failed.

While the ultimate purposes of Tamburlaine's enemies are doomed to failure, so is the goal of Tamburlaine unattainable; and this truth points up another of the themes treated in the play—that of natural order. The shepherd Tamburlaine wants to become as a god; he says as much in scene ii of Act I:

Jove sometimes masked in a shepherd's weed,
And by those steps that he hath scaled the heavens,
May we become immortal like the gods.

Such hopes are in vain and serve only to heighten the irony of mortal Tamburlaine's death in Part Two. Cosroe, Mycetes's brother, also challenges natural order when he plots the overthrow of his brother:

Well, since I see the state of Persia droop
And languish in my brother's government,
I willingly receive th'imperial crown
And vow to wear it for my country's good,
In spite of them shall malice my estate.

In Act II Cosroe joins with Tamburlaine to defeat Mycetes but is in turn defeated almost immediately by Tamburlaine; thus, after deciding to usurp the kingship and "receive th'imperial crown," Cosroe wears the crown for only a short time before he too goes down in defeat. In Tamburlaine's mortality and in Cosroe's defeat, Marlowe underscores the futility of man in challenging natural order.

Marlowe also uses irony in character presentation, especially the character of Mycetes, to present an ironic spin-off on the character of Tamburlaine as an invincible superhero, for Mycetes is a weak-minded king whose conquest does not at all enhance the glory of his conqueror. That the character of Mycetes presents no problem to Tamburlaine is made conclusively manifest in Act II as Tamburlaine toys with the defeated king:

Tamburlaine. What, fearful coward! Straggling from the camp,
When the kings themselves are present in the field.
Mycetes. Thou liest.
Tamburlaine. Base villain, dar'st thou give the lie?
Mycetes. Away! I am the king. Go! Touch me not!
Thou break'st the law of arms unless thou kneel And cry me, 'Mercy, noble king!'
Tamburlaine. Are you the witty king of Persia?
Mycetes. Ay, marry, am I. Have you any to suit me?
Tamburlaine. I would entreat you to speak but three wise words.
Mycetes. So I can, when I see my time.
Tamburlaine. Is this your crown?
Mycetes. Ay. Did'st thou ever see a fairer?
[He hands him the crown.]
Tamburlaine. You will not sell it, will ye?
Mycetes. Such another word, and I will have thee executed.
Come, give it to me.
Tamburlaine. No; I took it prisoner.
Mycetes. You lie; I gave it you.
Tamburlaine. Then 'tis mine.
Mycetes. No; I mean I let you keep it.
Tamburlaine. Well, I mean you shall have it again.
Here, take it for awhile; I lend it thee
Till I may see thee hemmed with armed men.
Then shalt thou see me pull it from thy head;
Thou art no match for mighty Tamburlaine.
Mycetes. O gods, is this Tamburlaine the thief?
I marvel much he stole it not away.

Tamburlaine belabors the obvious when he surmises that Mycetes is no match for him; Mycetes is hardly a match for anyone. Thus the character of Mycetes poses a question as to the omnipotence of Tamburlaine. Is Tamburlaine successful because of his strength, or because of the weakness of his enemies?

The various conflicts presented in the exposition of this play are also fraught with irony. One conflict is the two drastically opposed attitudes that the other characters exhibit toward Tamburlaine, and this divergence of opinion is illustrated by names applied to the warrior. Mycetes speaks of a Tamburlaine "That, like a fox in midst of harvest time, / Doth prey upon my flocks of passengers" (I.i.31–32). In calling Tamburlaine a fox, Mycetes is invoking all the pejorative connotations of the word; yet Techelles compares Tamburlaine to "princely lions" (I.ii.52), utilizing all the majestic connotations associated with lions. In having his characters carry out this sort of name-calling, Marlowe assumes an objective posture, because Mycetes has every reasons to hold a low opinion of the tyrant who threatens his kingdom. Likewise, Techelles has every reason to admire the qualities in Tamburlaine that make him a successful military leader. Any one character's opinion of Tamburlaine depends on that character's position in relation to Tamburlaine's position, not on any bias of the playwright; thus, the irony of the two distinctly different attitudes toward Tamburlaine emphasizes Marlowe's objectivity.

A second conflict concerns the attitudes of the characters toward the gods. Both the forces of Tamburlaine and the forces of his enemies claim their favor. In Act I, Zenocrate, then an enemy of Tamburlaine, declares,

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

Though she is later won over by the love of Tamburlaine, she has sounded the opinion of his enemies who are not won over. Tamburlaine, on the other hand, also claims the blessings of Jove:

Draw forth thy sword, though mighty man-at-arms,
Intending but to raze my charmed skin,
And Jove himself will stretch his hand from heaven
To ward the blow and shield me safe from harm.
See how he rains down heaps of gold in showers,
As if he meant to give my soldiers pay;
And as a sure and rounded argument
That I shall be the monarch of the East,
He sends this Soldan's daughter, rich and brave,
To be my queen and portly empress.

This claiming of God's favor recurs on both sides as the play develops.

Marlowe's exposition in this play includes theme, character, and conflict; and irony is a pervasive element. The irony helps to underscore Marlowe's objectivity. Through his presentation of a military hero who defeats all comers, yet who is himself subject to ultimate defeat because of his mortality, through his presentation of two challenges to natural order and his intimation of their futility, through his presentation of a foe that Tamburlaine conquers but whose character is questionable as a worthy opponent, and through his presentation of opposing points of view regarding names applied to Tamburlaine and attitudes exhibited toward God, Marlowe achieves distance from his characters and thus achieves objectivity.

Complication of the plot action in Tamburlaine, Part I is also fraught with irony. The outcome of one of these complications, Mycetes' challenge to Tamburlaine, has already been discussed; thus, the folly of the following words of Mycetes is evident:

Would it not grieve a king to be so abused
And have a thousand horsemen ta'en away?
And—which is worse—to have his diadem
Sought for by such scald knaves as love him not?
I think it would. Well then, by heavens I swear,
Aurora shall not peep out of her doors,
But I will have Cosroe by the head
And kill proud Tamburlaine with point of sword.

The irony of the foolish king's thundering declaration is so obvious as to render him almost a subject for laughter. A similar complication arises out of Cosroe's league with Tamburlaine. After their united forces have defeated Mycetes, Tamburlaine issues a challenge to Cosroe. The newly crowned king of Persia responds:

What means this devilish shepherd to aspire
With such a giantly presumption,
To cast up hills against the face of heaven,
And dare the force of angry Jupiter?
But as he thrust them underneath the hills,
And pressed out fire from their burning jaws,
So will I send this monstrous slave to hell,
Where flames shall ever feed upon his soul.

However, Cosroe is defeated by Tamburlaine, just as Mycetes was. Ironically, one of the reasons why Cosroe has wanted to dethrone his brother is the weak-mindedness of Mycetes; yet Cosroe is no more clever than his brother, at least in regard to judging the chances for success that his forces have against the forces of Tamburlaine.

A further plot complication is introduced in Bajazeth, Emperor of the Turks. Feeling threatened by the conquests of Tamburlaine, Bajazeth offers a truce, which is of course rejected by the shepherd. Bajazeth then blusters in a manner similar to Mycetes and Cosroe:

By Mahomet my kinsman's sepulcher,
And by the holy Alcoran I swear,
He shall be made a chaste and lustless eunuch,
And in my sarell tend my concubines;
And all his captains, that thus stoutly stand,
Shall draw the chariot of my empress,
Whom I have brought to see their overthrow.

To Tamburlaine the emperor expresses his supreme confidence:

Now shalt thou feel the force of Turkish arms,
Which lately have made all Europe quake for fear.
I have of Turks, Arabians, Moors, and Jews,
Enough to cover all Bithynia.
Let thousands die! Their slaughtered carcasses
Shall serve for walls and bulwarks to the rest;
If they should yield their necks unto the sword,
Thy soldiers' arms could not endure to strike
So many blows as I have heads for thee.
Thou know'st not, foolish hardy Tamburlaine,
What 'tis to meet me in the open field,
That leave no ground for thee to march upon.

Bajazeth's proclamations are indeed ironic, for the battle results in total defeat for him.

Thus, the irony of the various plot complications in Tamburlaine, Part I becomes apparent. Though opponents are confident of victory in their challenges to Tamburlaine, the shepherd will ultimately be victorious over all the challengers, regardless of their confidence. However, overriding this irony is that all-important irony which sustains Marlowe's objective posture. Though victorious now, Tamburlaine will ultimately meet that force which he cannot conquer; and, like Mycetes, Cosroe, and Bajazeth, he too will succumb to a force greater than himself.

The turning point of Tamburlaine, Part I is in like manner permeated with irony. It occurs in Act II when Tamburlaine and his lieutenants, after observing the pomp and majesty surrounding Cosroe, the new king of Persia, become enamored of kingship and its accompanying regality. Tamburlaine asks his lieutenants,

Is it not brave to be a king, Techelles?
Usumcasane and Theridamas,
Is it not passing brave to be a king,
And ride in triumph through Persepolis?

Theridamas answers,

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:
To wear a crown enchased with pearl and gold,
Whose virtues carry with it life and death;
To ask and have, command and be obeyed;
When looks breed love, with looks to gain the prize,
Such power attractive shines in princes' eyes.

Tamburlaine decides that he wants the kingship of Persia for himself and sends word to Cosroe that he wants to battle Cosroe for his crown. They do fight, and Tamburlaine is victorious. When Cosroe berates Tamburlaine for taking his crown, Tamburlaine answers,

The thrust of reign and sweetness of a crown,
That caused the eldest son of heavenly Ops
To thrust his doting father from his chair
And place himself in the imperial heaven
Moved me to manage arms against thy state.
What better precedent than mighty Jove?
Nature, that framed us of four elements
Warring within our breasts for regiment,
Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds.
Our souls, whose faculties can comprehend
The wondrous architecture of the world
And measure every wandering planet's course,
Still climbing after infinite knowledge,
And always moving as the restless spheres.
Wills us to wear ourselves and never rest,
Until we reach the ripest fruit of all,
That perfect bliss and sole felicity,
The sweet fruition of an earthly crown.

Tamburlaine has decided that crowns are the "ripest fruit of all," and thus the course is set for the rest of his career. He will attempt to gather all the fruit that the world has to offer. The irony of Tamburlaine's quest for kingship is that he has only recently witnessed the demise of two kings, Mycetes and Cosroe, whose royalty did not prevent disaster, and he will later observe the destruction of Bajazeth. Zenocrate, in Act V, indicates an awareness of a truth that Tamburlaine here has not perceived. She laments, "Ah, Tamburlaine my love, sweet Tamburlaine, / That fights for scepters and for slippery crowns" (V.ii.292–93). It is to the attaining of these slippery crowns that Tamburlaine dedicates his life.

The next stage of dramatic development is the climax. The climax of Tamburlaine, Part I occurs in scene iii of Act III when Tamburlaine, who has dedicated himself to collecting crowns, defeats Bajazeth and assumes all of this conquered ruler's titles. Bajazeth has earlier described himself as

… the Turkish emperor,
Dread lord of Africa, Europe, and Asia,
Great king and conqueror of Graecia,
The ocean, Terrene, and the coal-black-sea,
The high and highest monarch of the world.…

With all of his titles and positions, Bajazeth thus represents the high point in Tamburlaine's conquests. Later, as Tamburlaine mounts up into his chair by using Bajazeth as a footstool, Tamburlaine says,

Now clear the triple region of the air,
And let the majesty of heaven behold
Their scourge and terror tread on emperors.
Smile stars that reigned at my nativity,
And dim the brightness of their neighbor lamps;
Disdain to borrow light of Cynthia,
For I, the chiefest lamp of all the earth,
First rising in the east with the mild aspect,
But fixed now in the meridian line,
Will send up fire to your turning spheres
And cause the sun to borrow light of you.

The irony of Tamburlaine's position lies in his refusal to recognize that he is a lamp that will not burn eternally—that all of his titles and crowns will not protect him from his mortality—that he too one day will be the victim of a force greater than himself. The titles have not protected Bajazeth; they will not protect Tamburlaine.

The last stage in Marlowe's dramatic development is the denouement, or resolution. In Tamburlaine, Part I, Tamburlaine's working out of domestic problems constitutes the denouement. After defeating Bajazeth and assuming all his titles, Tamburlaine seeks to resolve those problems created when he kidnapped the beautiful Zenocrate. The king of Arabia must be dealt with, because Zenocrate had been betrothed to him. Tamburlaine must also reconcile himself with her father, the Soldan of Egypt. In Act V, Tamburlaine lays siege to the city of Damascus, and in the ensuing battle, the king of Arabia is killed; thus, his threat to Tamburlaine is ended. Tamburlaine ultimately takes the city; and the Soldan, upon learning that Tamburlaine has used his daughter chastely, extends his blessing: "I yield with thanks and protestations / Of endless honor to thee for her love" (V.ii.433–34). Now Tamburlaine has everything under control, and the play closes with his preparations to marry Zenocrate.

The irony in this resolution lies in a speech which Tamburlaine makes near the conclusion of the play. As Tamburlaine is solving his domestic problems, Bajazeth and his empress Zabina, both of whom he had kept in captivity, commit suicide. When Tamburlaine learns of their deaths, he says,

The Turk and his great empress, as it seems,
Left to themselves while we were at the fight,
Have desperately despatched their slavish lives;
With them Arabia too hath left his life;
All sights of power to grace my victory.
And such are objects fit for Tamburlaine,
Wherein, as in a mirror, may be seen
His honor, that consists in shedding blood
When men presume to manage arms with him.

Tamburlaine says that the deaths of Zabina and Bajazeth are mirrors that reflect his honor, and he is pleased. Just what is it that his honor "consists in"? Zabina and Bajazeth are human beings that have been caged like animals, and, in choosing honor over life, they dash their brains out against the bars of their cage. Their deaths reflect more honor on themselves than on Tamburlaine. Earlier in Act V, Tamburlaine has ordered the deaths of four virgins sent to him to plead for Damascus. It is his custom to give a besieged city two days to decide to yield; on the third day, if no surrender is forthcoming, he utterly destroys the city. On the third day of the siege of Damascus, the four virgins are sent out in hopes that their innocence can persuade Tamburlaine to spare the city. He asks them what they see on the point of his sword; and when they answer that they see fear and steel, Tamburlaine says,

Your fearful minds are thick and misty then,
For there sit Death; there sits imperious Death,
Keeping his circuit by the slicing edge.
But I am pleased you shall not see him there.
He now is seated on my horsemen's spears,
And on their points his fleshless body feeds.
Techelles, straight go charge a few of them
To charge these dames and show my servant, Death,
Sitting in scarlet on their armed spears.

The virgins are taken away and killed, and later their bodies are hung on the city's walls. This "mirror" reflects Tamburlaine's tenacity, but there is little honor in the slaughter of virgins. Tamburlaine's exultation at the end of the play is, then, ironic, especially when the results of his accomplishments are considered: two caged human beings commit suicide, and virgins are slaughtered. These are indeed mirrors to reflect Tamburlaine's honor, but the reflection is not what he thinks it to be. This irony illustrates the truth that Tamburlaine is not what he fancies himself to be, and in mistaking his own worth, he is no different from all the overconfident foes he has previously conquered.

Every stage of dramatic development in Tamburlaine, Part I has ironic undertones, as Marlowe illuminates flaws and weaknesses in his characters, and thus distances himself from them. The plot structure reveals Marlowe to be a devastatingly objective playwright. However, what value is there in determining that Marlowe's use of irony renders the playwright an objective one? As an ironist, Marlowe depicts life as it is, and he illuminates the differences between what appears to be and what is. Thus Tamburlaine, Part I becomes more than just a mirror reflecting the passions of his own mind; it can be read as his attempt to comment on the realities of the human condition. Marlowe's play becomes a comment not on just one man but on the follies of mankind.


Terry Box, "Irony and Objectivity in the Plot of Tamburlaine, Part I," in CLA Journal, Vol. 36, No. 2, December 1992, pp. 191–205.


Jonson, Ben, "To the Memory of My Beloved, the Author Master William Shakespeare, and What He Hath Left Us," in William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, by William Shakespeare, edited by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, Oxford University Press, 1988, pp. xiv–xvi.

Marlowe, Christopher, Tamburlaine the Great: Parts I and II, edited by J. W. Harper, Ernest Benn, 1971.

Sales, Roger, Christopher Marlowe, St. Martin's Press, 1991, pp. 51–83.


Battenhouse, Roy W., Marlowe's "Tamburlaine": A Study in Renaissance Moral Philosophy, Vanderbilt University Press, 1964.

This book provides an analysis of the play as a didactic and conventionally religious moral statement, in which Tamburlaine is meant to be a figure of evil.

Eliot, T. S., "Christopher Marlowe," in Selected Essays, 1917–1932, Harcourt, Brace, 1932, pp. 100–07.

Eliot's discussion of Marlowe's style is one of the most influential modern critical evaluations of the dramatist, and it includes an analysis of the verse in Tamburlaine the Great.

Manz, Beatrice Forbes, The Rise and Rule of Tamerlane, Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Manz offers a useful historical account of the Mongol conqueror.

Ribner, Irving, "The Idea of History in Marlowe's Tamburlaine," in ELH, Vol. 20, 1954, pp. 251–66.

Ribner discusses Marlowe's classical sources in Tamburlaine the Great and argues that the play denies the role of providence in human history.

Rowse, A. L., Christopher Marlowe, A Biography, Macmillan, 1964.

Rowse's book is a colorful and controversial biography addressed to a wide audience.