Tamburlaine the Great

Tamburlaine the Great Study Guide

Written and published in 1587, the play Tamburlaine the Great was well received by English society. Part I was originally a single play; Christopher Marlowe wrote Part II a year later due to the initial play’s popularity.

Along with his contemporaries, Shakespeare and Kyd, Marlowe is considered one of the most important English playwrights of the 16th century, a period in which the theatre was transformed from a mere demonstration of communal piety into an expression of literary achievement.

Even though Marlowe is considered an important playwright, Tamburlaine the Great was the only play actually published during his lifetime, at the beginning of his literary career. This was partly because, with a lack of copyright laws, publication made it easier for other companies to 'steal' one's plays.

The play is considered an important stylistic innovator of the period because it adapted blank verse, breaking from the rigid style in which poetry and plays were written before it.

The play breaks with contemporary morality in a way that must have been both scandalous and exhilarating at the time. Like the Guise in Marlowe's The Massacre of Paris, Tamburlaine likes best that which flies beyond his reach. In other words, he is a typical Marlovian 'Overreacher'. Medieval society had preached that each individual should know his (or her) place. Marlowe was fascinated by those who, through force of character, rejected the lot into which they were born and, through force of personality, reached for the stars. Marlowe's Barabas in The Jew of Malta seeks limitless wealth; Faustus seeks forbidden knowledge; Mortimer (in Edward II) wants to usurp the crown. However, the shepherd Tamburlaine is more ambitious than any of them: he aims to rule the world and rival the gods! No wonder Marlowe's contemporaries considered him a dangerous atheist.

Elizabethan audiences would have recognized hubris when they saw it. They had consumed a diet of moralizing tracts such as The Mirror of Magistrates. So the expectation would be to watch Tamburlaine rise on the Boethian wheel of fortune, only to fall. This does not happen. Tamburlaine "hold[s] the Fates bound fast in iron chains, And with [his] hand turn[s] Fortune's wheel about" (1.2.173-176). Through his Hegelian will, Tamburlaine defines his own fate and the destiny of others. This was nothing short of revolutionary.

Even when Marlowe wrote his potboiling Part II, he refused to give Tamburlaine a conventional fall. Indeed, it is the death of the hero in Tamburlaine (rather than some character fault) that constitutes the tragedy. "Tamburlaine, the Scourge of God, must die," but he dies threatening to ascend to heaven and conquer new dominions (5.3.248)!

Tamburlaine the Great can be seen as a milestone in the Elizabethan drama and is considered the first public success of Elizabethan drama. Even if the play is considered inferior to later works, there is no denying Marlowe’s influence on the English stage before the closing of the theaters in 1642 by the Puritans.

Tamburlaine the Great is a masterpiece that marked the beginning of introducing vivid language and complexity into the plays of that time and demonstrated the potential of blank verse.