The play Tamburlaine the Great begins with a prologue declaring that the play with not focus on petty subjects that are discussed in other plays, and that it will instead be about a great conqueror and his victories.
Act 1 opens with Mycetes, the king of Persia, complaining to his brother Cosroe about a Scythian shepherd named Tamburlaine who, together with his band of outlaws, causes him trouble. Cosroe starts criticizing his brother for being week and foolish, and yet the king does nothing to stop him. In an attempt to stop Tamburlaine from entering Persia, Mycetes sends his chief captain, Theridamas, to kill Tamburlaine. After Theridamas and Mycetes leave the stage, Cosroe is told that the Persians don’t like Mycetes as king; they offer him the crown, which Cosroe accepts.
Tamburlaine appears for the first time in the second scene, when he captures Zenocrate, the Egyptian princess. Tamburlaine starts declaring his love for her and promises to make her a queen. Theridamas arrives with an army twice as big as Tamburlaine’s, but is convinced to switch sides and becomes loyal to Tamburlaine.
Cosroe also joins Tamburlaine, hoping that he will be able to take his brother’s throne with the help of Tamburlaine’s army. When Mycetes hears about what happened, is advised by Meander to throw gold on the battlefield in an effort to distract the soliders. Tamburlaine comes in when Mycetes tries to hide his crown. Instead of taking it then, Tamburlaine lets Mycetes hold the crown until he destroys his army.
After Tamburlaine wins the fight, Cosroe flees with the crown to Persepolis. Tamburlaine challenges Cosroe and wins, Cosroe dying in the process.
The third act begins with the Turkish Emperor Bajazeth discussing Tamburlaine with his kings. They all agree that Tamburlaine must be stopped from entering the Turkish Empire.
In the next scene, Tamburlaine walks in on Lord Agydas telling Zenocrate to not let herself be manipulated by Tamburlaine; Zenocrate tells Agydas that she wants to marry Tamburlaine. When Agydas realizes that Tamburlaine heard what he said, he stabs himself, preferring to kill himself rather than letting Tamburlaine torture him.
In the next act, Tamburlaine defeats the Turkish emperor, making Bajazeth and his wife, Zabina, his slaves. Tamburlaine and Zenocrate then enjoy torturing and humiliating Bajazeth and Zabina.
Zenocrate’s father, the sultan of Egypt, vows to stop Tamburlaine with the help of the Arabian king. Despite Zenocrate’s pleas, Tamburlaine prepares to attack Egypt.
Tamburlaine’s army attacks Damascus and the governor sends a group of virgins for Tamburlaine’s army as an attempt to stop them from attacking. Tamburlaine declines his offer; he has the virgins slaughtered and then displayed on the city walls.
While Tamburlaine is at war with Egypt, Bajazeth kills himself by bashing his head into a wall, not being able to endure the humiliation any longer. When Zabine sees him, she does the same thing, running headfirst into the walls of her husband’s cell.
Tamburlaine wins the battle against the sultan and the king of Arabia. While the king of Arabia dies, Tamburlaine spares the sultan and gives him more territory than before.
After the battle with the sultan, Tamburlaine returns to Zenocrate and crowns her queen of Persia, thus ending the first part of the play.
The second part opens with Sigismond, the king of Hungary, and Orcanes, the king of Natolia, signing a truce while Tamburlaine advances towards Natolia.
Back in Egypt, Bajazeth’s son, Callapine, manages to escape from Tamburlaine’s prisons by bribing his jailer, promising him a kingdom.
Tamburlaine teaches his three sons about war; while two of them are just like him, cruel and eager to be on the battlefield, one of them, Calyphas, doesn’t have the same mentality as Tamburlaine does. After that, Tamburlaine meets with Theridamas, Techelles, and Usumcasane and they prepare to march towards Natolia.
In the next act, Sigismond breaks his vow and attacks Natolia while Tamburlaine does. However, Orcanes defeats them, believing that he won because Sigismond broke the vow he made to the Christian savior.
Hearing that Zenocrate became ill, Tamburlaine returns to her. Zenocrate dies and Tamburlaine burns down the city where she died, forbidding anyone to rebuild it.
Callapine is crowned as the Turkish emperor and swears that he will revenge his father’s death and the humiliations he suffered.
Theridamas and Techelles march northward, where they conquer another city. The captain of that city dies; Theridamas and Techelles take his wife, Olympia, with them. Tamburlaine and Usumcasane then parlay with Callapine and his subsidiary kings, threatening each other and boasting.
Act 4 opens with Calyphas' brothers harrassing him, looking for a fight. He refuses; when Tamburlaine returns, he stabs Calyphas, thus killing his own son. Tamburlaine then orders the Turkish concubines to go and bury his son. He then goes away in a chariot pulled by the kings of the lands he conquered, and tells his soldiers to rape the Turkish concubines.
Meanwhile, Theridamas falls in love with Olympia and tries to court her, but she refuses his advances. Olympia tricks Theridamas into killing her, telling him that she has an ointment that can protect a person from getting wounded when stabbed.
Tamburlaine continues his conquests and arrives in Babylon. There, he hangs the governor of the city, orders every Babylonian drowned, and burns Islamic religious books. Tamburlaine returns to Persia feeling very ill. On the way back, they are attacked by Callapine, who is forced to run away. In Persia, Tamburlaine names Amyras his successor to the throne before dying.
The play ends with the lamentations of Tamburlaine’s son, Amyras, fearing that he will never be as great as his father.