August 29th, 2016


Tamburlaine, Parts 1 and 2, by Christopher Marlowe

Second speech of third scene of Tamburlaine, Part One (Act 2 Scene 1):
MENAPHON [describing Tamburlaine]: Of stature tall, and straightly fashioned,
Like his desire, lift upwards and divine;
So large of limbs, his joints so strongly knit,
Such breadth of shoulders as might mainly bear
Old Atlas' burden; 'twixt his manly pitch,
A pearl more worth than all the world is plac'd,
Wherein by curious sovereignty of art
Are fix'd his piercing instruments of sight,
Whose fiery circles bear encompassed
A heaven of heavenly bodies in their spheres,
That guides his steps and actions to the throne
Where honour sits invested royally;
Pale of complexion, wrought in him with passion,
Thirsting with sovereignty and love of arms;
His lofty brows in folds do figure death,
And in their smoothness amity and life;
About them hangs a knot of amber hair,
Wrapped in curls, as fierce Achilles' was,
On which the breath of heaven delights to play,
Making it dance with wanton majesty;
His arms and fingers long and sinewy,
Betokening valour and excess of strength;--
In every part proportion'd like the man
Should make the world subdu'd to Tamburlaine.
Second speech of third scene of Tamburlaine, Part Two (Act 1 Scene 3):
[The imprisoned Callapine asks his guard Almeda for pity.]
Almeda.My lord, I pity it, and with my heart
Wish your release; but he whose wrath is death,
My sovereign lord, renowmed Tamburlaine,
Forbids you further liberty than this.
This is usually discussed as a single play in two parts, and I guess I agree with that, though it is notable that the two parts are set at least twenty years apart - the first ends with Tamburlaine marrying Zenocrate, by the start of the second they have three grown-up sons. I felt it had a tremendous energy; lots of violence and horrible death, a portrait of a monstrous leader who in the end is defeated not by battle but by illness. It's deliberately over the top, I think, and Shakespeare makes fun of the line "Holla ye pampered jades of Asia!" addressed by Tamburlaine to two captive kings harnessed to his chariot (in Henry IV part 2 II.iv).

A lot of commentators try to read Marlowe's own views into Tamburlaine, in particular extrapolating his supposed atheism from the scene in Part Two where Tamburlaine burns the Koran. It seemed pretty clear to me that this scene is about Tamburlaine breaking faith with his own former religion, just as he has broken faith with the Christian rulers in the first act and with his insufficiently violent son Calyphas, and we should not mistake the views and actions of the character for those of the author. That's not to say that Marlowe was not an atheist, just that I don't find this scene convincing evidence that he was (whereas I do find the opening scene of Dido convincing evidence that he was very comfortable with man-boy love).

I'm perfectly satisfied with Tamburlaine as a new form of entertainment rather than a political statement. This was apparently the first attempt to do an epic in blank verse; there's also vast amounts of conflict and spectacle - defeated opponents killed in various gory ways, Tamburlaine himself as a dominant character and aspirant force of nature, attempting to shape the world to his own liking and ultimately defeated not by Man but by entropy. It made Edward Alleyn's reputation when first produced. (It didn't make William Shatner's reputation, though he appeared in a Broadway production in 1956 as Tamburlaine's hanger-on Usumcasane.)

I've long been fascinated by the real Timur, and hope that some day I will be able to visit his tomb in Samarkand. Needless to say, Marlowe's narrative bears only the vaguest resemblance to the real history of his subject. Unlike Dido, where I think there's a didactic point about taking the Æneid and adding to it rather than varying, the point here is invention rather than history.