Tamburlaine Summary

Christopher Marlowe

Tamburlaine

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Tamburlaine Summary

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Christopher Marlowe’splay Tamburlaine the Great, written around 1587 and 1588, is based loosely upon the life of the Asian emperor Timur. Part one opens in Persepolis, with the Persian emperor Mycetes sending troops to destroy the Scythian shepherd and bandit Tamburlaine. The emperor’s brother, Cosroe, criticizes Mycetes for being weak, and in the same scene, begins to plot the emperor’s overthrow.

Elsewhere, in Scythia, Tamburlaine successfully woos Zenocrate, the daughter of the Egyptian king. As Mycetes’s soldiers attack, Tamburlaine convinces them—as well as Cosroe—to join forces with him against Mycetes. Tamburlaine promises the throne of Persia to Cosroe, but after the battle is successfully won, Tamburlaine takes the kingship for himself. Tamburlaine and Cosroe fight over the Persian crown, and Cosroe is killed.

Embolden by his successes, Tamburlaine sets his eyes on the Turkish emperor, Bajazeth. He captures Bajazeth and Bajazeth’s wife, Zabina. Tamburlaine keeps the defeated ruler in a cage, feeds him scraps, and only lets him out so he can be used as a footstool. When Bajazeth hears about another Tamburlaine military success, he kills himself on stage by bashing his head into the cage’s bars. When Zabina finds his body, she commits suicide the same way.

Tamburlaine finishes conquering Africa and declares himself emperor of the entire continent. He sets his eyes toward Damascus. To get there, he will need to defeat his father-in-law. Zenocrate begs Tamburlaine to spare her father, and he complies, turning the sultan into a tributary king. During the battle, the governor of Damascus sends a group of virgins to Tamburlaine’s army, hoping to appease him. Tamburlaine has the army slaughter the women, and has their remains displayed on the city walls. Tamburlaine wins the battle.

The first part of the play ends with the wedding of Tamburlaine and Zenocrate; she is named Empress of Persia.

Part two begins with Tamburlaine teaching his sons to be conquerors just like him, while he continues to attack his neighbors. Two of his sons share his mentality, but the third son, Calyphas, does not. Calyphas stays with his mother, unwilling to risk death, and this bothers Tamburlaine.

Tamburlaine learns that his wife has fallen ill. He returns to her, and when Zenocrate dies, Tamburlaine burns down the city. He forbids anyone to rebuild.

Elsewhere, the son of Bajazeth, Callapine, breaks out of the jail he has been placed in, and musters a group of tributary kings to challenge Tamburlaine’s rule and avenge the death of Callapine’s father. The armies meet in battle, and Tamburlaine is victorious once again. Tamburlaine discovers that Calyphas has stayed in his tent during the battle, and in a rage, Tamburlaine kills his son.

Tamburlaine and his armies reach Babylon, which holds out against the attack. Tamburlaine becomes more and more savage. He violently assassinates the governor, and ties together all the city’s citizens and casts them into a lake. He burns a copy of the Qu’ran and declares himself better than any god.

Tamburlaine returns home, feeling terribly ill. He declares that his son Amyrus will be his successor. As Tamburlaine dies, Amyrus worries that he will never be as great as his father.

THEMES

Critics have identified several important themes in Tamburlaine the Great. The play discusses the nature of masculinity and manhood. Tamburlaine’s ferocity and bloodlust is placed in direct opposition to the other leaders who appear more willing to avoid battle. Tamburlaine’s son dies as a result of his differing masculinity.

The play also places Tamburlaine in opposition to God and people who believe in a God. This reading is given additional weight by the fact that the play’s author, Christopher Marlowe, was accused of atheism. Tamburlaine, at one point, calls himself “the scourge of God,” a term first applied to Attila the Hun.

Tamburlaine’s drive to conquer unveils a tremendous amount of hubris and ambition. While many plays that feature such a driven ruler would end with the conqueror’s ignominious death or defeat, Tamburlaine actually is offered a fairly painless and dignified death. Still, he is struck down by illness, and Marlowe leaves it unclear if Tamburlaine’s death is bad luck or some sort of divine intervention.

Looking back upon the play, modern critics are quick to point out the significance of Tamburlaine. Critics note that many of Tamburlaine’s sensibilities and elements quickly began appearing in plays performed shortly after its debut. This includes characters with deeply held passions and motivations, and language that is, in some cases, beautifully overwrought. The plot structure is tighter than the work that preceded it, with thrilling action sequences. These characteristics made the play popular with performers and with audiences, and marked a shift in what we think of when we describe Elizabethan drama.

They did not stay popular forever, though, and eventually, dramatic sensibilities shifted away from plays like Tamburlaine. Still, its influence is obvious in the way that later plays responded to the work. Several successful plays that debuted after Tamburlaine comment upon Marlowe’s work, proving that while performers and audiences had partially moved on from the play, they hadnot completely escaped it.