Tamburlaine is Marlowe’s seminal play: with the story of a complex and ruthless conqueror he created a magnificent theatrical architecture of power and ambition and proclaimed a new kind of verse.
From humble beginnings as a Scythian shepherd, Marlowe’s conquering hero rises, through his ferocity in war and the sheer force of his personality and imaginative ambition, to become Emperor of the Turks, King of Persia and Arabia and mighty sultan of vast tracts of what is now the Middle East. The play follows his ascent, his triumph and his destruction in two parts full of theatrical splendour and spectacular cruelty, and Marlowe’s ‘high-astounding’ as well as lyrical poetry.
Part two sees Tamburlaine grow more vicious as his imperial power becomes permanent. Family members are dispensed with; rivals and local chieftains summarily murdered; even God is challenged. Tamburlaine dies unrepentant, telling his sons to continue to conquer the world in his memory.
Tamburlaine was a major success in the theatres of the 1580s and 1590s. Marlowe’s blasphemous hero was a challenge to the orthodoxies of his culture, and whether the play constitutes a tragedy, a celebration or an ironically ambivalent study of the heroic is still a much debated question.
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