284. Tamburlaine the Great, Part One by Christopher Marlowe, 1586-7

“His looks do menace Heaven and dare the Gods, His fiery eyes are fixed upon the earth”                                  

Act 1, scene 2, lines 195-6

Its time to celebrate the 5th anniversary of Chronolit! And what better than some good old fashioned Elizabethan bloodshed and violence!

Source :  Although I have a paperback copy of Marlowe’s complete plays (Penguin, 1969), its annotations are quite rudimentary, so I have opted again for the online version at elizabethandrama.org as I can rely on the annotations when Tamburlaine’s speeches, particularly his cosmological and mythological references, require some explanation.

Thoughts : The true arrival of powerful English drama thanks to the use of blank (non rhyming) verse. Tamburlaine is a shepherd who has risen to become general of an ever-growing army which is sweeping across Persia, convinced of his own fate to be Emperor of the World. He is so persuasive and magnetic that adversaries become accomplices, and his captured Egyptian princess Zenocrate falls in love with him. His enemies constantly underestimate him, partly because of this lowly background and their own blind superiority complexes.

The play is a series of martial successes as Tamburlaine scoops up the crowns of every king he confronts, but our perception of his magnetism is replaced by the realisation that his cruelty is relentless. He drags around Bajazeth, the defeated Turkish Emperor, in a cage, starving him and using him as a human footstool, until in desperation Bajazeth kills himself by crushing his skull into the cage bars.

Tamburlaine’s method of besieging towns is to display his tents, armor and horse in white on the first day, signifying the town will be treated with mercy if they surrender immediately. Day two the regalia is changed to red, and only the soldiers and leaders will be killed. But if his offer is not accepted by day three, everything is clothed in black, promising every man, woman and child will be massacred. Damascus holds out, hoping that the Egyptian and Arabian forces will arrive in time to save them, and when this doesn’t happen, they send out some virginal supplicants to appeal to Tamburlaine, who are promptly killed and strung up on the city walls.

Tamburlaine is based on a real life person, Timur the Lame, a Mongol conqueror of the 14th century whose short-lived empire stretched across huge swathes of Central and Western Asia. Of course, Marlowe took some liberties with history, geography and character in making his plays, but the cruelty may actually have been understated. The Wikipedia entry claims Timur’s wars led to the deaths of 17 million people, roughly 5% of the world’s population at the time.

It will be interesting to see how Zenocrate’s character and thoughts develop further in Part Two. Will she come to see Tamburlaine as a monster, or accept and even relish her power and status as Empress?

Favourite quotes/scenes:


“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 knowledge infinite,

And always moving as the restless spheres,

Will 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.”

Act II, Scene VII, lines 19-30

Digressions/diversions:   Literally everything, which is no reflection on this play, but an indication that reading two or three books every week may not be sustained forever.

Personal rating: 6/10

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