Tamburlaine the Great

Tamburlaine the Great Summary and Analysis of Prologue and Part One: Act I Scenes 1-2


Prologue. The prologue contrasts the “stately” theme of Tamburlaine the Great with the frivolous “clownage” and “mother wits” of other works, presumably referring to contemporary dramas (l.1-3). It further prepares the audience for a tale of conquest and bold rhetoric, and defers to them the judgment of Tamburlaine’s fortunes as pictured in “this tragic glass” (l.7-8).

Scene 1.1. In front of his court, the King of Persia Mycetes complains of his inability to express his worries regarding the current threats to his kingdom, “For it requires a great and thund’ring speech” (1.1.3). He asks his brother Cosroe to speak on his behalf, and Cosroe obliges, but slips intimations of Mycetes’ incompetence into his rhetoric. Mycetes makes some blustering threats, but quickly backs off. Trying again to move the conversation in the direction he wants, Mycetes now asks Meander to speak his worries, specifying that by 'worries' he means Tamburlaine.

Meander somewhat disdainfully refers to Tamburlaine as a “sturdy Scythian thief,” though one “Hoping, misled by dreaming prophecies, / To reign in Asia, and with barbarous arms / To make himself the monarch of the East” (1.1.36-43). Mycetes approves of his presentation of the problem, and resolves to send a thousand horsemen to put an end to Tamburlaine’s banditry. He selects Theridamas, “The chiefest captain of Mycetes’ host,” to lead the expedition (1.1.58). Theridamas accepts, and leaves vowing that soon Tamburlaine will be either dead or captured.

When Mycetes moves to send another Persian lord, Menaphon, to support Theridamas, Cosroe says he should instead send Menaphon to rule over Africa, since the Babylonians will soon revolt “unless they have a wiser king than you” (1.1.92). Mycetes challenges him, and Cosroe doubles down, telling his brother quite clearly that he’s unfit to rule. Enraged, Mycetes storms off, accompanied by Meander.

Alone with Menaphon, Cosroe reveals that he and other Persian nobles have laid a plot to depose Mycetes and make him, Cosroe, king, as Mycetes is so clearly an incompetent ruler. Two other Persian nobles, Ortygius and Ceneus, arrive bearing a crown, which they present to Cosroe, and declare him king of Persia. Cosroe and his co-conspirators then flee with a small army to gain time to prepare for battle with Mycetes.

Scene 1.2. Enter Tamburlaine, as yet in shepherd’s clothes, and his loyal followers, Techelles and Usumcasane. He’s also accompanied by Zenocrate, daughter of the Soldan of Egypt, and the Median lords Magenetes and Agydas, all of whom he’s recently captured along with their treasure. Tamburlaine assures Zenocrate that she’ll be safe, and, refusing her and Magnetes' appeal to their guarantee of protection from the emperors of the Tartars and the Turks, asks her whether she’s betrothed. Her answer—yes—in which she calls him “lord,” prompts Tamburlaine to declare his intention and right to marry her as the future conqueror of Asia. “I am a lord,” he says, “for so my deeps shall prove,” and removes his shepherd’s clothes, revealing the princely armor beneath (1.2.33-34). His impressive appearance, that of a natural leader, moves Techelles to comment that “Methinks I see kings kneeling at his feet” (1.2.55).

Tamburlaine meets another attempt to convince him to ransom his captives with an eloquent speech, in which he praises Zenocrate and promises her the world he intends to rule. Techelles, surprised, asks him whether he's in love, and the warlike Tamburlaine admits that he is.

Before Zenocrate can respond, a soldier enters with the news that Theridamas and his army are at hand. Tamburlaine knows that his force is by far the weaker, and asks to parley. Far from appealing for mercy, though, without hesitation he launches into an attempt to lure Theridamas to his side. He flatters Theridamas and demonstrates his characteristically unwavering confidence in his ability to achieve his destiny as a mighty conqueror: “I hold the Fates bound fast in iron chains, / And with my hand turn Fortune’s wheel about, / And sooner shall the sun fall from his sphere / Then Tamburlaine be slain or overcome” (1.2.173-176). And, finally, he promises Theridamas a mighty share in his future conquests if he follows him. With only slightly more persuasion, Theridamas is “Won with thy words and conquered with thy looks,” and pledges himself to Tamburlaine (1.2.227). Turning to Zenocrate and the Medians, Tamburlaine reiterates his refusal to release them. They resign themselves to captivity, though Zenocrate vocally bemoans her lot.


Marlowe’s prologue effectively establishes a certain set of expectations for the play that follows. It will be distant from contemporary drama in both form and subject: it will be the tale of the extraordinary military exploits of a hero, Tamburlaine. And it will, he suggests, contain elements of tragedy.

The prologue, though most likely not performed by a chorus as in classical tragedy—the play itself gives no indication of who’s speaking—thus invokes elements of Greek tragedy and the Elizabethan drama of the time. As in the former, fate has a prominent role here, but unlike the works of antiquity, Marlowe suggests that there’s no definitive moral parable present in Tamburlaine. In the final line of the prologue he instead instructs the audience to “applaud his fortunes as you please,” thus subordinating his—the Poet’s—judgment to theirs (l.8). Like his description of the play as a tragic glass, this concluding line reflects the emerging Renaissance notion—found also in Shakespeare—that the poet should merely, in Hamlet’s words, “hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature.”

Tamburlaine’s towering ambition and supreme self-confidence likewise correspond to the classical theme of hubris, which would later feature as a major theme in Marlowe’s masterpiece, Faustus. But Marlowe’s frequent use of the word “scourge” to describe his hero—both in Tamburlaine’s own speeches and elsewhere—suggests the influence of an interpretation common in Elizabethan Christian theology in which tyrants and warlords function indirectly as agents of God’s divine retribution for mankind’s sins. Despite his reputation as an atheist, Marlowe was an accomplished student of theology, and the “scourge” trope features prominently in one of his principal sources for the story of Tamburlaine, Thomas Fortescue’s The Forest (1571). Among others, Fortescue names Tamburlaine specifically as an example of an unwitting “minister of God."

Certainly in Scene 1.1 Marlowe presents the victims of Tamburlaine’s first conquest as worthy targets of divine punishment. Mycetes is a pompous, weak, incompetent ruler, inadequate even to master his own speech, much less an empire. Despite Cosroe’s more-or-less blunt assertion that he’s unfit to rule, Mycetes remains oblivious to the threat posed by his more competent brother. And Cosroe, though certainly more suited to rule, demonstrates gratuitous cruelty by not only plotting to depose his older brother, but also humiliating Mycetes in front of the other Persian lords by repeatedly pointing out his inadequacies.

By beginning the play with this representation of the Persian nobility, Marlowe effectively creates a stark contrast between these supposedly well-bred aristocrats and the Scythian shepherd Tamburlaine. Mycetes may be a king, but he doesn’t act, speak, or look like one. And though born a shepherd, Tamburlaine has a genius for compelling poetic language, a striking, noble appearance, and immediately establishes himself a decisive, bold leader. Also unlike Mycetes, his natural gifts command both total loyalty and admiration from his followers. He can be cruel—such as when he insists on holding Zenocate and her companions against their will—but in contrast to Cosroe he wears his intentions and his ambitions on his sleeve. In a matter of minutes, he’s sure of his love of Zenocrate and declares to all present his determination to marry her.

In addition to the contrasting juxtaposition with Cosroe and Mycetes, Marlowe employs a variety of other devices, including situational irony and imagery, to establish Tamburlaine as a natural-born ruler. His claim to nobility, he promises, will be proven by his deeds, and as evidence merely tosses off his shepherd’s clothes to reveal the armor beneath. As will be the case throughout the play, his appearance provokes comparison with the majesty of nature—“As princely lions when they rouse themselves, / Stretching their paws and threatening herds of beasts, / So in his armor looketh Tamburlaine” (1.2.52-54).

Tamburlaine's self-confidence is shocking. As yet only a common bandit, Tamburlaine rejects commands of protection Zenocrate and Magnetes possess from the emperors of both the Turks and the Tartars, saying “But now you see these letters and commands / Are countermanded by a greater man” (1.2.21-22). And Marlowe then goes on to back Tamburlaine’s claim up with the plot twist of his successful appeal to Theridamas. Realizing his force is by far the inferior one—he has only 500 foot to Theridamas’s 1000 horse—he asks for a parlay. But instead of attempting to bargain—perhaps by exchanging Zenocrate and the Median lords and/or their treasure—he launches unhesitatingly into a poetic, compelling speech declaring his invincibility and urging Theridamas to join him.

This brilliant piece of oratory conveys the sheer force of Tamburlaine’s will, as expressed in lines like the striking imagery of the rightly famous lines, “I hold the fates fast bound in iron chains / and with my hand turn Fortune’s wheel about” (1.2.173-174). And here, against all odds, Tamburlaine’s command does indeed effectively countermand that of a “real” king—Mycetes—as Theridamas turns against that king’s command: “Won with thy words and conquered with thy looks / I yield myself, my men, and horse to thee...” (1.2.227-228). Marlowe thus creates a twist both ironic in its reversal of expectations yet at the same time an explicit fulfillment of Tamburlaine’s earlier claim.

That the Scythian warlord’s first victory is a victory of the mind suggests that Tamburlaine the Great is something more than an account of the military exploits of a fearsome warlord. Though expressed as a lust for conquest, Tamburlaine’s rhetoric reveals that his ambitions are in fact much greater than this purely earthly aim. The breadth of aspiration contained in the claim to “hold the Fates fast bound in iron chains” far exceeds the comparably mundane desire to rule a large empire. Besides his self-definition as an expression of divine will—as a so-called “scourge”—Tamburlaine repeatedly identifies the object of his desire for conquest as the “earth” or “world” (e.g., 1.2.38, 1.2.196). He aims to dominate—as much by force of will as by force of arms—not any particular expanse of land, but the entirety of the material world. In this way, his desire is at once earthly and divine: to rule an empire is the realm of man, but to rule the earth is the province of God.

As the play progresses, Tamburlaine will show further signs of his deviation from the archetype of the conquering hero. Already hinted at by Techelles comment about Tamurlaine being in love, Tamburlaine's feelings for Zenocrate will prove a complicating influence for the Scythian warrior, and also represents a distinctively Renaissance addition to the type of the classical hero. Scene 1.2, however, ends with Zenocrate’s exclamation of distress at her captivity: “I must be pleased perforce. Wretched Zenocrate!” In contrast, Agydas accepts his fate relatively passively. Zenocrate, though a woman and therefore excluded from the realm of war, thus shows herself as stronger-willed than her supposed guardians. This seems to suggest that Tamburlaine’s courtship of her will be a rocky one. Additionally, by giving Zenocrate the scene’s final line, Marlowe lays special emphasis on her importance in the play.