Tamburlaine the Great

Critical reception

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. 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 Tamburlaine was among the first London plays that Shakespeare saw, an experience that directly inspired his early work like the three Henry VI plays.[3]

By the early years of the 17th century, this hyberbolic language had gone out of style. Shakespeare himself puts a speech from Tamburlaine in the mouth of his play-addled soldier Pistol (2 Henry IV II.4.155).[4] In Timber, Ben 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 are unnatural and ultimately unconvincing. Still, the play was regarded as the text above all others "wherein the whole restless temper of the age finds expression" (Long). Robert Fletcher notes that Marlowe "gained a high degree of flexibility and beauty by avoiding a regularly 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.


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