Tamburlaine the Great

Tamburlaine the Great Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Critics have argued that Tamburlaine the Great is an “undramatic” play, since its hero suffers virtually no setbacks. What’s the evidence for and against this view, and which evidence do you find most convincing?

    Self-doubt and self-questioning are key elements of modern drama, and it’s true that Tamburlaine rarely seems to doubt himself. His military victories, though at first they occur against all odds, often feel preordained. Yet Tamburlaine’s psychological conflict regarding Zenocrate’s plea for mercy for her father is a clear example of dramatic tension. Likewise, his relationship with Calyphas and his other sons, along with the suspense surrounding Tamburlaine’s evolving attitude towards death, provides truly dramatic conflict in Part Two. Thus, though it retains elements of the epic, Tamburlaine does qualify fundamentally as drama.

  2. 2

    Is Tamburlaine a hero or an anti-hero? Does Marlowe give us a clear answer to this question?

    Tamburlaine’s vicious cruelty, above all else, makes it difficult to see him as a real hero. However, the force and clarity of his vision and ambition cause the reader to gravitate toward seeing the world of the play from his perspective. Both the hero and the anti-hero coexist in Tamburlaine: he is at once a tyrant and a figure of the indomitable human spirit. To classify him firmly as one or the other runs counter to the purpose of the play.

  3. 3

    How does Marlowe’s adaptation of the notion of a “scourge of God” illustrate his conception of divine justice?

    Divine justice, in Tamburlaine, doesn’t necessarily come from the gods directly. Orcanes, for example, though a Mahometan, appears to function as the agent of Christ’s revenge on Sigismund for his perjury. Insofar as Marlowe believes in divine justice, he takes a big-picture view of it. The gods don’t intervene in particular situations in order to rectify injustice, as Tamburlaine assumes when he burns the Mahometan holy books. Divine justice instead seems like a principle that guides human action for either good or ill, depending on the value of a given characters’ conception of it. It’s not a static concept imposed from some otherworldly realm.

  4. 4

    How are the two characters that speak on behalf of pacifism—Calyphas and Mycetes—portrayed? What do they contribute to our understanding of the rest of the (incredibly violent) play?

    Mycetes and Calyphas are, not coincidentally, the only mainly comic characters in the play. Mycetes' only truly noble moment comes when he speaks against the horrors of war. Calyphas represents a refinement of this one moment of Mycetes’: Calyphas isn’t a coward; he’s witty, and consistent in his beliefs. Still, he meets a swift and tragic end. Together, these two characters demonstrate both the existence of philosophies other than Tamburlaine’s, and also their impossibility in the context of the world depicted in the play.

  5. 5

    Is Tamburlaine’s death tragic? If so, by what definition of tragedy: Marlowe’s, or classical tragedy? Are these two definitions different from one another?

    Classical tragedy stipulates that the hero’s death be caused by his possession of a hamartia, or “tragic flaw.” Marlowe’s innovation with Tamburlaine was to make what might usually be his tragic flaws his greatest strengths as well. If Tamburlaine’s death is tragi,c then, it must be tragic in a different sense—perhaps that he never fulfills his goal of conquering the world. Yet his goals were always obviously impossible, and thus it’s unclear whether his failure to achieve them can be called tragedy at all.

  6. 6

    Tamburlaine, unlike most warlord characters, has many traits that associate him with poetry and the figure of the poet. How do these traits alter our general understanding of Tamburlaine and the meaning of his story?

    In Tamburlaine, Marlowe imagines a poet who doesn’t just recount great deeds, but also performs them. In this way the character of Tamburlaine dramatizes the split between thought and action: he describes his vision for himself in poetry, and then moves to actualize it in his deeds. He thus provokes the question of whether human action in the real world can ever quite measure up to the human capacity for imagination, or vice-versa.

  7. 7

    Marlowe’s settings are extremely vague and broad—we’re told that Part One is set in “Africa, Europe, and Asia.” What effect does this expansive setting and the choice of an ancient, quasi-mythic time for the action of the play have on the audience’s reaction to it?

    Though the cartography within the play is generally accurate by Renaissance standards, Marlowe did not set out to write a faithful representation of historical events. Tamburlaine, as his self-characterizations and others’ descriptions of him show, is essentially composed of ideas, concepts—as we see, for example, when Menaphon describes him as containing both life and death. The broad setting and distant time keep the audience from imagining themselves as transported to the time and place of the play, and instead we encounter it as a simplified myth from long ago.

  8. 8

    Is there a particular moral lesson to be drawn from Tamburlaine the Great? If yes, what is that lesson? If no, why not?

    Tamburlaine himself recognizes no morality: for him, his own nature and his role as the “scourge of God” are the only laws. No other characters offer a clearly viable alternative moral viewpoint, and Tamburlaine’s ultimate demise doesn’t appear to be linked to any particular flaw in his character. If there is a moral lesson to be drawn from the play, Marlowe has made it ambiguous and subject to contestation.

  9. 9

    Compare and contrast Marlowe’s representation of Mahometans with his representation of Christians. Does he represent either group as better than the other? What’s the relationship in Tamburlaine between religion and morality?

    Both Christians and Mahometans perform clearly immoral actions in Tamburlaine the Great. Sigismund betrays Orcanes despite a solemn oath, and in that instance the Mahometan Orcanes proves to be more faithful to Christian values than the Christians are. On the other hand, the slaughter of the inhabitants of Babylon is a result of the Governor of Babylon’s pride, which prevents him from surrendering despite the citizens’ pleas. This undermines Tamburlaine’s conclusion that it’s Mahomet’s fault, since the god failed to intervene on behalf of his adherents, and suggests that human failings occur regardless of religious beliefs.

  10. 10

    There’s a critical consensus that Part One of Tamburlaine the Great is a better play than Part Two. Do you agree? Why or why not?

    Tamburlaine cuts a much less impressive figure in the second part of Tamburlaine the Great, yet he remains the central driving force of its actions. Likewise, he undergoes no psychological conflict as compelling as his disagreement with Zenocrate in Part One. One can argue, though, that Part Two includes valuable elaborations of themes developed in Part One, and that without Part Two’s extended investigation of mortality, the play as a whole would be less complete.