Elizabethan pix & quotes: Ortelius maps and Tamburlaine

I love maps. Many people do. The Elizabethans — and Renaissance Europeans generally — loved them even more. Their world was expanding before their very eyes and map-makers like Abraham Ortelius were in great demand. Christopher Marlowe had access to beautiful maps of the world in the library at Corpus Christi College, where he still lived while he was writing Tamburlaine, part 1, the play that rocked the socks of European theater in 1587.


Typus Orbis Terrarum, by Abraham Ortelius

Marlowe didn’t leave us much, beyond a half-dozen poorly preserved plays and a few scraps in institutional records here and there. So scholars have pored over his plays for clues about the man and the world he lived in. 

Over 40 different place names are mentioned in Tamburlaine part 1 and over 80 in part two. Errors are always revealing. Ethel Seaton discovered that errors in Marlowe’s geography could be traced to a particular version of Ortelius Theatrum orbis terrarum. (He placed Zanzibar on the west coast of Africa rather than the east.)

Emrys Jones thinks Marlowe got the idea of using maps as literary devices from Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, a romantic epic poem widely read in sixteenth century Europe. From 1540 to 1580, there appeared at least 113 editions of Orlando. (I really must read that, at least some of it. All my young characters love it. I suspect it was like their Lord of the Rings. We can find the full text of John Harington’s 1597 English translation online at the Internet Archive.)

Here’s a quote from Orlando, via Jones. Our hero is flying over North Africa on a winged horse.

“Oran he saw, Ippon, Marocco, Fesse,

Algier, Buzea, and those stately townes,

Whose Princes with great pompe and pride possesse

Of divers Provinces the stately crownes.

He saw Byserta and Tunigi no lesse,

And flying over many dales and downes

He saw Capisse and Alzerbee Ile

And all the Cities to the flood of Nyle…”

Marlowe’s characters are real, however. They must march, rather than fly. He writes about power politics, not fantastic romances.

“Kings of Argier, Moroccus, and of Fesse,

You that have marched with happy Tamburlaine

As far as from the frozen plage of heaven

Unto the wat’ry morning’s ruddy bower,

And then by land into the torrid zone,

Deserve those titles I endow you with.” (I Tamburlaine, IV. 4. 123-28.)

They march and they march. They march toward Persia, along Armenia and the Caspian Sea. Africa, Asia, Scythia. They ride, too, especially “in triumph through Persepolis.” (The only way to see the place.) They battle in Bithynia (Turkey), specifically in Ankara. 

Tamburlaine eventually crowns himself emperor of Asia and Africa. (Zenocrate is his beloved wife, whom he captured in Egypt.)

“To gratify thee, sweet Zenocrate,

Egyptians, Moors, and men of Asia,

From Barbary unto the Western Indie,

Shall pay a yearly tribute to thy sire;

And from the bounds of Afric to the banks

Of Ganges shall his mighty arm extend.” (V.I.517-22)

I like to think about Marlowe in his shabby robes, holed up in the stuffy library at his college, poring over the maps to plot his play, picking out exotic names that fit his mighty rhythmic lines.



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.

Seaton, Ethel. 1924. “Marlowe’ Map,” Essays and Studies, 10 (1924), pp. 13-35.

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