Tamburlaine the Great

Tamburlaine the Great Summary and Analysis of Part One: Act IV Scenes 1-4


4.1. The Soldan of Egypt, Zenocrate’s father, receives a messenger who tells him that Tamburlaine is marching with a huge army on the city of Damascus. The messenger emphasizes the strength and fearsomeness of Tamburlaine, and recounts his practice of changing the colors of his tents from white to red to black. White is an offer of mercy; red signifies that blood will be spilled; and black indicates that no one will be spared.

The Soldan is merely angered by the warning, which implies that he should fear a man he considers nothing more than a barbarian. No matter how many men Tamburlaine has, he’s going to fight him to protect his kingdom from rule by the uncivilized Scythian, and to avenge the kidnapping of his daughter. The Soldan sends his men to prepare to fight.

4.2. Tamburlaine has Bajazeth and Zabina locked in cages, and has cruelly taken to using Bajazeth as a footstool. Bajazeth and Zabina insult Tamburlaine’s barbarism and low birth, calling him a usurper and unworthy emperor. Despite the fact that they’re no threat, their words anger Tamburlaine and his followers. Tamburlaine responds with further insults and taunts, and orders them to be fed only the scraps from his table.

Theridamas informs Tamburlaine that the white tents have been pitched before the gates of Damascus, and Tamburlaine outlines his plan to grant only a specific window in which his offer of mercy is valid. Zenocrate intervenes to beg for mercy for her father and her city, but Tamburlaine quickly refuses.

4.3. The Soldan of Egypt approaches the King of Arabia to suggest that they join forces against Tamburlaine. The King of Arabia is hesitant, aware of the recent defeat of Bajazeth, but the Soldan persuades him. They agree to march together to Damascus and confront Tamburlaine.

4.4. Tamburlaine, presiding over a banquet, orders the color of his switched tents from white to red. Bajazeth and Zabina are present, watching the feast from their cages. Tamburlaine taunts Bajazeth and Zabina with the food, and they curse him. When he offers Bajazeth some of the scraps, Bajazeth throws them on the ground. With increasingly cruelty, Tamburlain commands Bajazeth to eat, or else he’ll force him to eat his own flesh; Usumcasane responds by saying that it would be better to force him to eat Zabina.

Tamburlaine asks Zenocrate why she seems so sad, and she replies that it’s because of the sight of her father’s city besieged. She asks him again to raise the siege and offer a truce. Tamburlaine refuses again, claiming that his honor is at stake if he breaks his word. Zenocrate insists, and he agrees at least to spare the lives of her father and friends if they agree to surrender. Instead of food, the next course brought in is a course of crowns: Tamburlaine uses them to crown Techelles, Usumcasane, and Theridamas the kings of Morocco, Fez, and Argier. He won't crown Zenocrate, he says, until he’s won sufficient honors to deserve her.


Tamburlaine has always been cruel—as the scourge of god he must be—but the cruelty he exhibits in these scenes is above-and-beyond. Though he contends that his treatment of Damascus is a matter of honor—he must abide by the timeline laid out in his system of changing the color of his tents—his treatment of Bajazeth and Zabina is entirely gratuitous.

Tamburlaine’s cruelty only escalates from 4.1 to 4.4. By the end it’s clear how far we are from Tamburlaine’s pursuit of his grand vision, which he’s claimed as justification for his ruthlessness, and which he’s laid out so poetically in the earlier sections of the play. Fittingly, then, this is the only part of the play in which Marlowe has Tamburlaine speak in prose. We saw this technique earlier when Mycetes’ speaking in prose signified his incompetence with language. Notably, Tamburlaine’s first prose lines occur in 4.4. in response to Bajazeth, whose dialogue Marlowe also here represents in prose—as though, in his cruelty, Tamburlaine is sinking to Bajazeth's level. This heartless display obviously contributes to Zenocrate’s worries about the fate of her father, and possibly she dislikes it even in the case of Bajazeth and Zabina. She seems, at least, no longer inclined to insult the former empress.

Clearly Tamburlaine and his followers see these exchanges as comic, but to an outsider they come off only as juvenile and cruel. For example: “Sirrah,” Tamburlaine says, “why fall you not to? Are you so daintily brought up, you cannot eat your own flesh?” (4.4.36-37). Earlier, Bajazeth had cursed Tamburlaine's banquet by reference to the myth of Thyestes, who was tricked into eating his own sons. Tamburlaine's response here also prompts a perverse comparison to the Last Supper, at which Jesus said of the bread "This is my body which is given for you." Thus the imagery of self-cannibalism in the scene inverts the selfless proffering by Jesus of his own body to his followers.

At first Zenocrate’s pleas are entirely ineffective: Tamburlaine doesn’t even explain his refusal. But she does, eventually, get an explanation from him, namely that his honor won’t allow him to go back on what he’s declared he’ll do. She suggests that he can both be merciful and keep his honor, and this seems to move Tamburlaine to the promise of safety for her father and friends.

This exchange represents the first indication of psychological conflict within the mind of Tamburlaine. Thus far he’s been all decisive actions, simply ruthlessly pursuing the path laid out for him as the “scourge of God.” Yet even as he reveals a capacity for gratuitous cruelty, Tamburlaine’s love for Zenocrate also opens up the possibility of a shift toward mercy not inherent in his nature. This represents a fundamental shift in the play. Tamburlaine’s fate no longer seems set in stone; he has a decision to make with real moral consequences, and the answer isn’t immediately clear. Up to this point, Marlowe’s play perhaps functioned more like an epic than a modern drama, but Tamburlaine’s psychological crisis here marks a firm break with this earlier mode.