Dare the gods: Marlowe's Tamburlaine

avery brooks

Avery Brooks as Tamburlaine at the Shakespeare Theater in Washington, D.C. in 2007

Somehow in between studying for his master’s of arts degree and travelling abroad as a secret intelligencer, Christopher Marlowe found the time to turn centuries of European drama on its head. He wrote Tamburlaine the Great sometime during 1587, probably before he left Cambridge. It was first performed on the London stage in November, 1587. (The Wikipedia page gets this wrong.) We know the date because a fellow named Phillip Gaudy wrote about the performance in his diary. He considered it noteworthy because a child and a pregnant woman were killed and another man injured. The guns fired during the play were loaded with live shot, as was customary in the day. (And to think I got upset when they lit an actual fire on the stage in Stratford for a production of Much Ado about Nothing. “Fire codes, fire codes!” I cried to myself. But they have so much water in England, maybe they just don’t worry about fire the way we do in Texas.)

(Photo from NPR, copied 05/04/2015. Oh, how I wish I could have seen that production!)

Marlowe’s impact

A. L. Rowse described the poet thus: “Marlowe was a bookish, intellectual dramatist whose mind was fired by ideas rather than by his immediate contacts with life or by any close observation of his fellow human beings.” He was the opposite of Shakespeare, in other words. We don’t imagine Kit wandering past a blacksmith shop and leaning in the doorway to ask appreciative questions. We do see him burning the midnight oil in his squalid chambers at Corpus Christi College, poring over Ortelius’ Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (World Map; the first true atlas.)

The Wikipedia article about Tamburlaine says, “The influence of Tamburlaine on the drama of the 1590s cannot be overstated. The play exemplified, and in some cases created, many of the typical features of high Elizabethan drama: grandiloquent and often beautiful imagery, hyperbolic expression, and strong characters consumed by overwhelming passions.”

Marlowe might not have cared a fig about the common man — much less the common woman — but he was the first English dramatist to create real individuals rather than embodiments of abstract types. Tamburlaine is Timur the Great, an historical figure, not the personification of Greed or Ambition. He grew up seeing medieval mystery plays still being performed in the streets of Canterbury, but as Rowse notes, he was interested in power, ambition, men who reached beyond the limits of their birth. Hm; Kit was the son of a shoemaker who became a Master of Arts and then blew the roofs off the theaters in London. (That’s a joke, darlin’s; theaters had no roofs.)

The play’s the thing

You can get Marlowe’s works in any e-format you like for free at the Gutenberg Project. His plays are mostly horribly boring, with occasional flashes of breathtaking poetry and insight. He coined the phrase ‘aspiring minds’ which so aptly describes the temper of the late Elizabethan period — the age of outsized dreams. The full quote is in this previous post.

Tamburlaine is about the rise of a mighty conqueror. He began as a lowly shepherd on the hills of Anatolia and went forth, driven by his vast ambition, to conquer the world; all the world you could reach on horseback, anyway. There’s plenty of blood and gore, betrayals, pleadings of women, but of course, all verbal. They didn’t do sets in those days or have much in the way of props. They had glorious costumes and actors who could pitch their voices to the uppermost galleries, even over the rumbling commentary from the groundlings standing right at their feet.

Scenes were set with words, and remember that Elizabethans loved new words and exotic imagery. Tamburlaine is studded with the names of legendary places: Scythia, Zanzibar, Persepolis. Characters are connected to the ancient gods: Phoebus, Jupiter, Saturn.

Here’s “contributory king” Techelles describing his lord:

     “As princely lions, when they rouse themselves,
     Stretching their paws, and threatening herds of beasts,
     So in his armour 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.”

And nobody writes menace like Christopher Marlowe. Here’s Tamburlaine pointing his sword at a bunch of quivering virgins:

     “Your fearful minds are thick and misty, then,

     For there sits Death, there sits imperious Death,

     Keeping his circuit by the slicing edge.”

I love to think of Kit writing this glorious stuff while sitting at his worn desk in his shabby academic garb, ignoring his chamber mates and his tutors alike. This was a man who lived in his head.

Performance history

Oddly, no movie has ever been made of this vivid, exciting play. The excuse seems to be that it would require a big cast and lots of expensive sets and that it’s hard to find an actor who could play so grand a character as Tamburlaine. To which I say, “Phooey!” What’s wrong with Avery Brooks? (I adore Professor Brooks, who played my favorite Star Trek captain, Captain Benjamin Lafayette Sisko of Deep Space Nine: the Sub-plot Laboratory.) As for the cast of thousands and the elaborate sets, have we already forgotten Cleopatra, with Elizabeth Taylor?

Part of the reason the play was so successful in its own time — a big part — was that the title role was edward alleyn wikimediaperformed by the incomparable Edward Alleyn of the Admiral’s Men. In this portrait, he looks like an ordinary pious gentleman, but he was the Avery Brooks of his time. Tamburlaine was HUGE — it rocked the whole theater-going world back on its heels. Marlowe’s reputation rocketed into the stars; not bad for a 20-year-old shoemaker’s son.

It was so popular, he wrote a sequel. (Was this the first box-office-driven sequel in dramatic history?) Tamburlaine the Great, Part 2, has the oft-quoted line, “Holla, ye pampered jades of Asia!” This is the play in which Tamburlaine harnesses the captured kings to his chariot and forces them to pull him through the streets.

Part 2 came out in 1588, followed by The Jew of Malta, Doctor Faustus, Edward II, and The Massacre at Paris. Doctor Faustus is worth reading, or you could watch the very 60’s movie with Richard Burton. I’ve mentioned the excellent RSC production of Edward II with Ian McKellan, findable at Netflix. That’ll probably do you for Marlowe.

I’ll end with one more nice long quote from Tamburlaine:

What is beauty, saith my sufferings, then?

            If all the pens that ever poets held

            Had fed the feeling of their masters’ thoughts,

            And every sweetness that inspired their hearts,

            Their minds and muses on admirèd themes;

            If all the heavenly quintessence they still

            From their immortal flowers of poesy,

            Wherein as in a mirror we perceive

            The highest reaches of a human wit;

            If these had made one poem’s period,

            And all combined in beauty’s worthiness,

            Yet should there hover in their restless heads,

            One thought, one grace, one wonder at the least,

            Which into words no virtue can digest.”



Jones, Emrys. 2008. “‘A World of Ground’: Terrestrial space in Marlowe’s ‘Tamburlaine’ plays,” The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 38, No. 1/2, Tudor Literature (2008), pp. 168-182.

Rowse, A.L. 1966. Christopher Marlowe: His Life and Work. New York: Grosset & Dunlap.





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