Tamburlaine (play)

Tamburlaine (play)

"Tamburlaine the Great" is the name of a play in two parts by Christopher Marlowe. It is loosely based on the life of the Central Asian emperor, Timur 'the lame'. Written in 1587 or 1588, the play is a milestone in Elizabethan public drama; it marks a turning away from the clumsy language and loose plotting of the earlier Tudor dramatists, and a new interest in fresh and vivid language, memorable action, and intellectual complexity. Along with Thomas Kyd's "The Spanish Tragedy", it may be considered the first popular success of London's public stage. Marlowe, generally considered the greatest of the University Wits, influenced playwrights well into the Jacobean period, and echoes of Tamburlaine's bombast and ambition can be found in English plays all the way to the Puritan closing of the theaters in 1642.

While "Tamburlaine" is considered inferior to the great tragedies of the late-Elizabethan and early-Jacobean period, its significance in creating a stock of themes and, especially, in demonstrating the potential of blank verse in drama, are still acknowledged.


The play (in both parts) was entered into the Stationers' Register on August 14, 1590 (as "two comical discourses"). Both parts were published in a single octavo later the same year by the printer Richard Jones. A second edition was issued by Jones in 1592. The plays were next published separately in quarto by the bookseller Edward White, "Part 1" in 1605 and "Part 2" in 1606. [Chambers, Vol. 3, p. 421.]


The play opens in Persepolis. The Persian emperor, Mycetes, dispatches troops to dispose of Tamburlaine, a Scythian and at that point a nomadic bandit. In the same scene, Mycetes' brother Cosroe plots to overthrow Mycetes and assume the throne.

The scene shifts to Scythia, where Tamburlaine is shown capturing, wooing, and winning Zenocrate, the daughter of the Egyptian king. Confronted by Mycetes' soldiers, he persuades first the soldiers and then Cosroe to join him in a fight against Mycetes. Although he promises Cosroe the Persian throne, Tamburlaine reneges on this promise and, after defeating Mycetes, takes personal control of the Persian Empire.

Suddenly a powerful figure, Tamburlaine decides to pursue further conquests. A campaign against Turkey yields him the Turkish king Bajazeth and his wife Zabine as captives; he keeps them in a cage and at one point uses Bajazeth as a footstool.

After conquering Africa and naming himself emperor of that continent, Tamburlaine sets his eyes on Damascus; this target places the Egyptian soldan, his father-in-law, directly in his path. Zenocrate pleads with her husband to spare her father. He complies, instead making the Sultan a tributary king. The play ends with the wedding of Zenocrate and Tamburlaine, and the crowning of the former as Empress of Persia.

In Part 2, Tamburlaine grooms his sons to be conquerors in his wake as he continues to conquer his neighbouring kingdoms. One of his sons, preferring to stay by his mother's side and not risk death, incurs Tamburlaine's wrath. Seeing this son as a coward, Tamburlaine kills him in anger after a battle in which he refuses to fight. Finally, while attacking an Islamic nation, he scornfully burns a copy of the Qur'an and claims to be greater than God. Suddenly, Tamburlaine is struck ill and dies, giving his power to his sons, but still aspiring to greatness as he departs life.

Critical history

The influence of "Tamburlaine" on the drama of the 1590s cannot easily 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. The first recorded comments on the play are negative; a letter written in 1587 relates the story of a child being killed by the accidental discharge of a firearm during a performance, and the next year Robert Greene, in the course of an attack on Marlowe, sneers at "atheistic Tamburlaine" in the epistle to "Perimedes the Blacksmith". That most playgoers (and playwrights) responded with enthusiasm is amply demonstrated by the proliferation of Asian tyrants and "aspiring minds" in the drama of the 1590s. Marlowe's influence on many characters in Shakespeare's history plays has been noted by, among others, Algernon Swinburne. Stephen Greenblatt considers it likely that among Shakespeare's very first in-London theater-going experiences was "Tamburlaine" and that this experience moved him greatly, inspiring directly early works like the three Henry VI plays. ["Will in the World" (2004) 189-249]

By the early years of the 1600s, this hyberbolic language had gone out of style. Shakespeare himself puts a speech from Tamburlaine in the mouth of his play-addled soldier Pistol. In Timber, Jonson condemned "the Tamerlanes and Tamer-chams of the late age, which had nothing in them but the scenical strutting and furious vociferation to warrant them to the ignorant gapers."

Subsequent ages of critics have not reversed the position advanced by Jonson that the language and events in plays such as "Tamburlaine" is unnatural and ultimately unconvincing. Still, the play was regarded as the text above all others "wherein the whole restless temper of the agearly end-stopped arrangement, by taking pains to secure variety of pause and accent, and by giving his language poetic condensation and suggestiveness" (Fletcher). In his poem on Shakespeare, Jonson mentions "Marlowe's mighty line," a phrase critics have accepted as just, as they have also Jonson's claim that Shakespeare surpassed it. But while Shakespeare is commonly seen to have captured a far greater range of emotions than his contemporary, Marlowe retains a significant place as the first genius of blank verse in English drama.


The play is often linked to Renaissance humanism which idealises the potential of human beings. Tamburlaine's aspiration to immense power raises profound religious questions as he arrogates for himself a role as the "scourge of God" (an epithet originally applied to Attila the Hun). Some readers have linked this stance with the fact that Marlowe was accused of atheism. Others have been more concerned with a supposed anti-Muslim thread of the play, highlighted in a scene in which the main character burns the Qur'an, though Tamburlaine's eventually fatal illness strikes him immediately after this act, suggesting divine retribution.

Performance history

The first part of "Tamburlaine" was performed by the Admiral's Men at the Fortune Theatre late in 1587, around a year after Marlowe's departure from Cambridge University. Edward Alleyn performed the role of Tamburlaine, and it apparently became one of his signature roles. The play's popularity, significant enough to prompt Marlowe to produce the sequel, led to numerous stagings over the next decade.

The stratification of London audiences in the early Jacobean period changed the fortunes of the play somewhat. For the sophisticated audiences of private theaters such as Blackfriars and (by the early 1610s) the Globe Theatre, Tamburlaine's "high astounding terms" were a relic of a simpler dramatic age. Satiric playwrights occasionally mimicked Marlowe's style, as John Marston does in the induction to "Antonio and Mellida".

While it is likely that "Tamburlaine" was still revived in the large playhouses, such as the Red Bull Theatre, that catered to traditional audiences, there is no extant record of a Renaissance performance after 1595.

In 1919, the Yale Dramatic Association staged a "Tamburlaine" which edited and combined both parts of Marlowe's play. For the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (now the Stratford Festival of Canada) in 1956, Tyrone Guthrie directed another dual version, starring Donald Wolfit. (This production also included William Shatner); it travelled to Broadway, where it failed to impress—Eric Bentley, among others, panned it— although Anthony Quayle, who replaced Wolfit in the title role, received a Tony Award nomination for his performance, as did Guthrie for his direction.

The Royal National Theatre production in 1976 featured Albert Finney in the title role; this production opened the new Olivier Theatre on the South Bank. Peter Hall directed. This production is generally considered the most successful of the rare modern productions.

Avery Brooks played the lead role in a production of the play for the Shakespeare Theatre Company. The play ran from October 28, 2007 to January 6, 2008 and was directed by Michael Kahn. [http://www.broadwayworld.com/viewcolumn.cfm?colid=16340]

While the play has been revived periodically over the past century, the obstacles it presents—a large cast and an actor capable of performing in such a challenging role chief among them—have prevented more widespread performance. In general, the modern playgoer may still echo F. P. Wilson's question, asked at mid-century, "How many of us can boast that we are more than readers of Tamburlaine?"

In 2008, a comedic reworking of the play entitled "Tamburlaine: Lion of Persia (Not a Real Lion)" was performed by the Fez of Etymology theatre group in the Carriageworks Theatre in Leeds, UK. [cite web| title = Whats On (Carriageworks)| url =http://www.carriageworkstheatre.org.uk/page.aspx?parent=F6DCC1DF-20A1-4820-A517-D80E72AD5017&listing=8823da50-1225-4dae-b017-a514cc623794| accessdate = 18/01/08 ]


In November 2005, a production of "Tamburlaine" at the Barbican Arts Centre in London was accused of deferring to Muslim sensibilities by amending a section of the play in which the title character burns the Quran and excoriates the prophet Muhammad. The sequence was changed so that Tamburlaine instead defiles books representing all religious texts. The director denied censoring the play, stating that the change was a "purely artistic" decision "to focus the play away from anti-Turkish pantomime to an existential epic". This however shifts a considerable degree of focus from a number of anti-theist (and specifically anti-Muslim) points within the play and changes, significantly, the tone and tenor of the work. [timesonline, [http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2-1887902,00.html "Marlowe's Koran-burning hero is censored to avoid Muslim anger"] ] [Guardian Unlimited, [http://www.guardian.co.uk/arts/comment/story/0,16472,1650659,00.html "Tamburlaine wasn't censored"] ]



* Bevington, David. "From Mankind to Marlowe: Growth of Structure in Elizabethan Drama". Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965.
* Chambers, E. K. "The Elizabethan Stage." 4 Volumes, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1923.
* Geckle, George L. "Tamburlaine and Edward II: Text and Performance". New Jersey: Humanities Press International, 1988.
* Kuriyama, Constance Brown. "Christopher Marlowe: A Renaissance Life". Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2002.
* Waith, Eugene. "The Herculean Hero in Marlowe, Chapman, Shakespeare, and Dryden". New York: Columbia University Press, 1967.
* Wilson, F.P. "Marlowe and the Early Shakespeare". Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1953.

External links

* [http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/1094 Project Gutenberg etext of part I]
* [http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/1589 Project Gutenberg etext of part II]
* [http://www.masoncode.com/Tamburlaine.htm Masoncode.com - Esoteric symbolism in Tamburlaine]
* [http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2-1887902,00.html Times Online article about the censorship of the play]
* [http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/?lid=1632 "Tamburlaine the Great" retrieved August 3, 2006.]
* [http://www.gutenberg.org/files/10609/10609-h/10609-h.htm Long, William. "English Literature: Its History and Significance".]
* [http://classiclit.about.com/library/bl-etexts/rfletcher/bl-rfletcher-history-6-marlowe.htm Fletcher, Robert. "A History of English Literature." 1918.]

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