Tamburlaine the Great

Tamburlaine the Great Themes


A theme that appears in Tamburlaine the Great is how masculinity is perceived. Tamburlaine stands as a symbol of masculinity: unaffected by the petty things in life, focused on war, violence, and conquering. Tamburlaine’s son, on the other hand, is not an acceptable model regarding masculinity. His disinterest in war and violence makes him a bastard in the eyes of his father, who ends up killing him without remorse. The notion that men have to be violent and stoic remained in literature for a long period of time.

The limitations of human accomplishment

Much like in Marlowe's Faustus, the range and limits of human accomplishment is perhaps the dominant theme of Tamburlaine. Being a play written in the Renaissance period, Tamburlaine represents the human who rises above his status given through birth. The Renaissance put the man in the spotlight instead of the Gods: even if the Gods remain important figures in the plays and literature in general written in that period, human are able for the first time to rise above the status that they originally had. Thus Tamburlaine rises from a mere shepherd to a king ruling over an empire. Tamburlaine represents the absolute maximum of human aspiration, something previously unseen in drama except as an example of foolishness. Even in Greek thought, which assigned a much higher place to humankind than Christianity, characters such as Tamburlaine were always severely punished for their conceit. Tamburlaine, however, though of low birth, challenges both divine and earthly power with impunity. Throughout the play, the reach of his aspirations—as expressed in his words—is in constant tension with the goals of conquest and power to which he attaches his desire. Tamburlaine’s will proves as powerful as a force of nature, but it still runs up against the limitations imposed by his material body and the necessity of limiting his desire to specific objectives.



Tamburlaine the Great manages to incorporate some of the ideas promoted by the popular morality plays of the period. Even if the allusions are not as clear as in the earlier plays, the fact that Tamburlaine ultimately dies could be considered a typical ending for morality plays. Tamburlaine is made to die in the play because the spirit of the time demanded that evil and greed be punished. Even if Marlowe raised his character to an almost God-like position, the religious mentality of the time dictated that excessive pride was a sin against God, and that such a character couldn't remain in a position fit for a God.

Poetry and Beauty

Tamburlaine’s ability to produce poetry of the highest order is a central component of his effectiveness. It’s through the power of his words that he wins over Theridamas, which constitutes his first victory of the play. Even his body is often described as a kind of poetry that figures his inner nature by means of his appearance. This is another idea drawn from the Greeks that was quite popular during the Renaissance period in which Marlowe wrote. The influence of Renaissance thought also appears through Marlowe’s suggestion that poetry functions as the mode of expression of the human nature itself, as a kind of unity of language, will, and action, as embodied in Tamburlaine.

The turning point of Part I, at which Tamburlaine resolves the psychological crisis brought on by his disagreement with Zenocrate, relies on his revision of his conception of poetry and beauty. In his soliloquy, he moves from conceiving of poetry/beauty as merely a product of human intelligence to the visible sign of humankind’s capacity to conceive even what lies beyond their limitations.

Hubris and Ambition

A consistent theme of Greek drama was divine punishment of hubris. In Greek, the word literally referred to actions that shamed or humiliated a victim for the pleasure of the abuser. Contextually it often meant specifically defiance of the gods, as in the story of Arachne and Athena. Arachne was a girl who bragged that she was better at weaving than Athena; in response, Athena challenged her to a weaving contest. Arachne won, which only further enraged Athena, who then turned her into a spider. Tamburlaine clearly exhibits both of these forms of hubris.

Yet Marlowe leaves it quite ambiguous whether or not Tamburlaine's death ultimately signifies divine retribution. Both prologues predict a tragic end for Tamburlaine, but in fact his death is rather dignified. His empire remains intact, and his sons have become satisfactory successors. Marlowe thus appears to largely invoke the theme of hubris in order to complicate or subvert it. Tamburlaine’s change of heart in Part I and the grace with which he accepts his death suggest a more nuanced concept of hubris—perhaps as rigidity or inability to change, and within the control of humankind rather than mediated by the gods.


Tamburlaine’s supreme self-confidence stems from his firm belief that he’s “fated” to rule the world. This is striking, since, presumably, few can lay claim to knowledge of their own fate. Yet Tamburlaine’s prediction seems to come true, or as true as possible. In this way he resembles a kind of inverse version of the Greek hero Achilles. At his birth, Achilles’ mother made a deal with the Fates: her son received virtual invulnerability from wounds in exchange for the fate of an early death. Achilles thus knew he was going to die; Tamburlaine, in contrast, both appears invulnerable and assured of endless success.

As the story of Achilles shows, Greek thought conceived of fate as determined by the gods, though one’s fate could be altered by appeal to those gods. Various forms of Christianity have conceived of fate in different ways, from the Calvinist doctrine of predestination (people are born destined for heaven or hell) to the Catholic notion of original sin (in which hell figures as a fate which can be averted through Church-mediated faith). Marlowe appears to reject the common theme in all these doctrines—that a person’s fate is, ultimately, out of his or her hands, something to be “accepted” once handed down. Even as Tamburlaine acts out his fate as the “scourge of God,” he reserves the right to redefine that role, and in the end he ends up deviating quite far from the script.

Human Nature

The faculties of the human spirit inspire some of Tamburlaine’s most beautiful poetry. His conception of this spirit seems to be, like so much of Marlowe’s thought, a kind of fusion of Christian and Greek ideas. In Christianity, humankind was made in the image of God—there’s some essential sense in which human nature is modeled on the nature of God. However, the specifically human is evil, and that which is good in humans is divine. The Greek gods, in contrast, largely represented forces of nature external to humankind, but were infused with the human qualities of jealously, anger, violence, and so on.

Tamburlaine fuses these systems of belief into one in which human nature is itself divine, including its base or “bad” qualities, but only insofar as they further the core drive of human nature, which is the endless aspiration inspired by its boundless capacity for knowledge. In other words, humanity desires to become divine—to contain the world, or, as Tamburlaine expresses it, to rule it. Cruelty, pride, and violence are all therefore admirable insofar as they serve to expand the range of possibilities for human aspiration.

Organized Religion vs. Religious Belief

Tamburlaine the Great is filled with references to various Greek and Roman gods, as well as to the Christian God and Mahomet (in modern spelling, Muhammad). Often the same characters call on different gods at different times, which indicates Marlowe’s relatively fluid conception of religious belief. Some have seen the play as anti-religious, and Sigismund’s betrayal of Orcanes as a condemnation of Christian hypocrisy writ large.

Sigismund’s followers, who convince him to break his oath, cite the logic that was used by the Church in order to justify the Crusades—wars waged against Muslim peoples in order to win back the “holy land” of the birthplace of Christ and surrounding areas. The idea was that the rights of believers always took precedent over those of infidels. Clearly, this doctrine has nothing to do with the teachings of the Bible and Christian theology itself, but it served the material interests of the Church. This issue may have been particularly close to Marlowe, as he was persecuted throughout his life as a supposed atheist, even being arrested at one point for blasphemy. Additionally, he almost didn’t receive his degree from Cambridge because of a rumor that he was planning on becoming a Catholic priest (intense acrimony between Catholics and Protestants was a regular feature of English culture at that time).

Love vs. Honor

One of Marlowe’s innovations on the dramatic tradition he inherited was to move away from conceiving of the conflicting claims of different human qualities as a strict binary opposition. Instead, he develops his characters dialectically, meaning that as different forces, psychological and external, press on them, they react by working out a new balance between the conflicting demands. Thus Zenocrate originally sees the prospect of marriage to Tamburlaine as a violation of her honor—since she’s already betrothed, he’s a mere shepherd, and so on—yet his natural nobility and gentle treatment of her causes her to modify her sense of honor to be more defined by actions than by rules and expectations.

Tamburlaine comes to a similar realization. He begins by seeing honor as defined by strict adherence to his word and to his nature. However, in an innovation on the heroic archetype, his nature also includes the capacity for deep, romantic love. When the claims his conception of honor are making on him conflict with the claims his love for Zenocrate are making on him, he responds not by choosing one or the other, but rather by altering his conceptions of both. He decides it’s not necessarily dishonorable to alter his decisions on the basis of his love for Zenocrate—instead, it’s a way of honoring that love.