Tamburlaine (play)
Tamburlaine the Great is the name of a play in two parts by Christopher Marlowe
Christopher Marlowe
Christopher Marlowe was an English dramatist, poet and translator of the Elizabethan era. As the foremost Elizabethan tragedian, next to William Shakespeare, he is known for his blank verse, his overreaching protagonists, and his mysterious death.A warrant was issued for Marlowe's arrest on 18 May...

. It is loosely based on the life of the Central Asia
Central Asia
Central Asia is a core region of the Asian continent from the Caspian Sea in the west, China in the east, Afghanistan in the south, and Russia in the north...

n emperor, Timur
Timur , historically known as Tamerlane in English , was a 14th-century conqueror of West, South and Central Asia, and the founder of the Timurid dynasty in Central Asia, and great-great-grandfather of Babur, the founder of the Mughal Dynasty, which survived as the Mughal Empire in India until...

 'the lame'. Written in 1587 or 1588, the play is a milestone in Elizabethan public drama; it marks a turning away from the clumsy language and loose plotting of the earlier Tudor
Tudor period
The Tudor period usually refers to the period between 1485 and 1603, specifically in relation to the history of England. This coincides with the rule of the Tudor dynasty in England whose first monarch was Henry VII...

 dramatists, and a new interest in fresh and vivid language, memorable action, and intellectual complexity. Along with Thomas Kyd
Thomas Kyd
Thomas Kyd was an English dramatist, the author of The Spanish Tragedy, and one of the most important figures in the development of Elizabethan drama....

's The Spanish Tragedy
The Spanish Tragedy
The Spanish Tragedy, or Hieronimo is Mad Again is an Elizabethan tragedy written by Thomas Kyd between 1582 and 1592. Highly popular and influential in its time, The Spanish Tragedy established a new genre in English theatre, the revenge play or revenge tragedy. Its plot contains several violent...

, it may be considered the first popular success of London
London is the capital city of :England and the :United Kingdom, the largest metropolitan area in the United Kingdom, and the largest urban zone in the European Union by most measures. Located on the River Thames, London has been a major settlement for two millennia, its history going back to its...

's public stage.

Marlowe, generally considered the greatest of the University Wits
University Wits
The University Wits were a group of late 16th century English playwrights who were educated at the universities and who became playwrights and popular secular writers...

, influenced playwrights well into the Jacobean
Jacobean era
The Jacobean era refers to the period in English and Scottish history that coincides with the reign of King James VI of Scotland, who also inherited the crown of England in 1603 as James I...

 period, and echoes of Tamburlaine's bombast and ambition can be found in English plays all the way to the Puritan
The Puritans were a significant grouping of English Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries. Puritanism in this sense was founded by some Marian exiles from the clergy shortly after the accession of Elizabeth I of England in 1558, as an activist movement within the Church of England...

 closing of the theaters in 1642. While Tamburlaine is considered inferior to the great tragedies of the late-Elizabethan and early-Jacobean period, its significance in creating a stock of themes and, especially, in demonstrating the potential of blank verse
Blank verse
Blank verse is poetry written in unrhymed iambic pentameter. It has been described as "probably the most common and influential form that English poetry has taken since the sixteenth century" and Paul Fussell has claimed that "about three-quarters of all English poetry is in blank verse."The first...

 in drama, are still acknowledged.


The play (in both parts) was entered into the Stationers' Register
Stationers' Register
The Stationers' Register was a record book maintained by the Stationers' Company of London. The company is a trade guild given a royal charter in 1557 to regulate the various professions associated with the publishing industry, including printers, bookbinders, booksellers, and publishers in England...

 on August 14, 1590 (as "two comical discourses"). Both parts were published in a single octavo
Book size
The size of a book is generally measured by the height against the width of a leaf, or sometimes the height and width of its cover. A series of terms is commonly used by libraries and publishers for the general sizes of modern books, ranging from "folio" , to "quarto" and "octavo"...

 later the same year by the printer Richard Jones. A second edition was issued by Jones in 1592. The plays were next published separately in quarto
Book size
The size of a book is generally measured by the height against the width of a leaf, or sometimes the height and width of its cover. A series of terms is commonly used by libraries and publishers for the general sizes of modern books, ranging from "folio" , to "quarto" and "octavo"...

 by the bookseller Edward White, Part 1 in 1605 and Part 2 in 1606.


The play opens in Persepolis
Perspolis was the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire . Persepolis is situated northeast of the modern city of Shiraz in the Fars Province of modern Iran. In contemporary Persian, the site is known as Takht-e Jamshid...

. The Persian emperor, Mycetes, dispatches troops to dispose of Tamburlaine, a Scythian shepherd and at that point a nomadic bandit. In the same scene, Mycetes' brother Cosroe plots to overthrow Mycetes and assume the throne.

The scene shifts to Scythia, where Tamburlaine is shown wooing, capturing, and winning Zenocrate, the daughter of the Egyptian king. Confronted by Mycetes' soldiers, he persuades first the soldiers and then Cosroe to join him in a fight against Mycetes. Although he promises Cosroe the Persian throne, Tamburlaine reneges on this promise and, after defeating Mycetes, takes personal control of the Persian Empire.

Suddenly a powerful figure, Tamburlaine decides to pursue further conquests. A campaign against Turkey yields him the Turkish king Bajazeth and his wife Zabina as captives; he keeps them in a cage and at one point uses Bajazeth as a footstool.

After conquering Africa and naming himself emperor of that continent, Tamburlaine sets his eyes on Damascus
Damascus , commonly known in Syria as Al Sham , and as the City of Jasmine , is the capital and the second largest city of Syria after Aleppo, both are part of the country's 14 governorates. In addition to being one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, Damascus is a major...

; this target places the Egyptian Sultan, his father-in-law, directly in his path. Zenocrate pleads with her husband to spare her father. He complies, instead making the Sultan a tributary king. The play ends with the wedding of Zenocrate and Tamburlaine, and the crowning of the former as Empress of Persia.

In Part 2, Tamburlaine grooms his sons to be conquerors in his wake as he continues to conquer his neighbouring kingdoms. One of his sons, Calyphas, preferring to stay by his mother's side and not risk death, incurs Tamburlaine's wrath. Seeing this son as a coward, Tamburlaine kills him in anger after a battle in which he refuses to fight. During this time, Bajazeth's son, Callapine, plans to avenge his father's death. Finally, while attacking an Islamic nation, he scornfully burns a copy of the Qur'an
The Quran , also transliterated Qur'an, Koran, Alcoran, Qur’ān, Coran, Kuran, and al-Qur’ān, is the central religious text of Islam, which Muslims consider the verbatim word of God . It is regarded widely as the finest piece of literature in the Arabic language...

 and claims to be greater than God. Suddenly, Tamburlaine is struck ill and dies, giving his power to his remaining sons, but still aspiring to greatness as he departs life.

Critical history

The influence of Tamburlaine on the drama of the 1590s cannot easily be overstated. The play exemplified, and in some cases created, many of the typical features of high Elizabethan drama: grandiloquent and often beautiful imagery, hyperbolic expression, and strong characters consumed by overwhelming passions. The first recorded comments on the play are negative; a letter written in 1587 relates the story of a child being killed by the accidental discharge of a firearm during a performance, and the next year Robert Greene, in the course of an attack on Marlowe, sneers at "atheistic Tamburlaine" in the epistle to Perimedes the Blacksmith. That most playgoers (and playwrights) responded with enthusiasm is amply demonstrated by the proliferation of Asian tyrants and "aspiring minds" in the drama of the 1590s. Marlowe's influence on many characters in Shakespeare's history plays has been noted by, among others, Algernon Swinburne. Stephen Greenblatt
Stephen Greenblatt
Stephen Jay Greenblatt is a literary critic, theorist and scholar.Greenblatt is regarded by many as one of the founders of New Historicism, a set of critical practices that he often refers to as "cultural poetics"; his works have been influential since the early 1980s when he introduced the term...

 considers it likely that among Shakespeare's very first in-London theater-going experiences was Tamburlaine and that this experience moved him greatly, inspiring directly early works like the three Henry VI plays
Shakespearean history
In the First Folio, the plays of William Shakespeare were grouped into three categories: comedies, histories, and tragedies. This categorisation has become established, although some critics have argued for other categories such as romances and problem plays. The histories were those plays based on...


By the early years of the 17th century, this hyberbolic language had gone out of style. Shakespeare himself puts a speech from Tamburlaine in the mouth of his play-addled soldier Pistol. In Timber, Jonson condemned "the Tamerlanes and Tamer-chams of the late age, which had nothing in them but the scenical strutting and furious vociferation to warrant them to the ignorant gapers."

Subsequent ages of critics have not reversed the position advanced by Jonson that the language and events in plays such as Tamburlaine is unnatural and ultimately unconvincing. Still, the play was regarded as the text above all others "wherein the whole restless temper of the age finds expression" (Long). Robert Fletcher notes that Marlowe "gained a high degree of flexibility and beauty by avoiding a regularly end-stopped arrangement, by taking pains to secure variety of pause and accent, and by giving his language poetic condensation and suggestiveness" (Fletcher). In his poem on Shakespeare, Jonson mentions "Marlowe's mighty line," a phrase critics have accepted as just, as they have also Jonson's claim that Shakespeare surpassed it. But while Shakespeare is commonly seen to have captured a far greater range of emotions than his contemporary, Marlowe retains a significant place as the first genius of blank verse in English drama.


The play is often linked to Renaissance humanism
Renaissance humanism
Renaissance humanism was an activity of cultural and educational reform engaged by scholars, writers, and civic leaders who are today known as Renaissance humanists. It developed during the fourteenth and the beginning of the fifteenth centuries, and was a response to the challenge of Mediæval...

 which idealises the potential of human beings. Tamburlaine's aspiration to immense power raises profound religious questions as he arrogates for himself a role as the "scourge of God" (an epithet originally applied to Attila the Hun
Attila the Hun
Attila , more frequently referred to as Attila the Hun, was the ruler of the Huns from 434 until his death in 453. He was leader of the Hunnic Empire, which stretched from the Ural River to the Rhine River and from the Danube River to the Baltic Sea. During his reign he was one of the most feared...

). Some readers have linked this stance with the fact that Marlowe was accused of atheism
Atheism is, in a broad sense, the rejection of belief in the existence of deities. In a narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities...

. Others have been more concerned with a supposed anti-Muslim thread of the play, highlighted in a scene in which the main character burns the Qur'an, though Tamburlaine's eventually fatal illness strikes him immediately after this act, suggesting divine retribution.

Jeff Dailey in his article "Christian Underscoring in Tamburlaine the Great, Part II, has shown that, rather than being evidence of Marlowe' atheism, Tamburlaine the Great, Part II actually reinforces Anglican religious orthodoxy.

Performance history

The first part of Tamburlaine was performed by the Admiral's Men
Admiral's Men
The Admiral's Men was a playing company or troupe of actors in the Elizabethan and Stuart eras...

 late in 1587, around a year after Marlowe's departure from Cambridge University. Edward Alleyn
Edward Alleyn
Edward Alleyn was an English actor who was a major figure of the Elizabethan theatre and founder of Dulwich College and Alleyn's School.-Early life:...

 performed the role of Tamburlaine, and it apparently became one of his signature roles. The play's popularity, significant enough to prompt Marlowe to produce the sequel, led to numerous stagings over the next decade.

The stratification of London audiences in the early Jacobean period changed the fortunes of the play somewhat. For the sophisticated audiences of private theaters such as Blackfriars
Blackfriars Theatre
Blackfriars Theatre was the name of a theatre in the Blackfriars district of the City of London during the Renaissance. The theatre began as a venue for child actors associated with the Queen's chapel choirs; in this function, the theatre hosted some of the most innovative drama of Elizabeth and...

 and (by the early 1610s) the Globe Theatre
Globe Theatre
The Globe Theatre was a theatre in London associated with William Shakespeare. It was built in 1599 by Shakespeare's playing company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, and was destroyed by fire on 29 June 1613...

, Tamburlaine's "high astounding terms" were a relic of a simpler dramatic age. Satiric playwrights occasionally mimicked Marlowe's style, as John Marston
John Marston
John Marston was an English poet, playwright and satirist during the late Elizabethan and Jacobean periods...

 does in the induction to Antonio and Mellida.

While it is likely that Tamburlaine was still revived in the large playhouses, such as the Red Bull Theatre
Red Bull Theatre
The Red Bull was a playhouse in London during the 17th century. For more than four decades, it entertained audiences drawn primarily from the northern suburbs, developing a reputation for rowdy, often disruptive audiences...

, that catered to traditional audiences, there is no extant record of a Renaissance performance after 1595.

In 1919, the Yale Dramatic Association
Yale Dramatic Association
The Yale Dramatic Association, also known as the "Dramat," is the second-oldest college theater company in the country. Founded in 1900 by undergraduates at Yale University, the Dramat has been producing some of the finest student theatre in the United States for over a century.Though no formal...

 staged a Tamburlaine which edited and combined both parts of Marlowe's play. For the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (now the Stratford Festival of Canada
Stratford Festival of Canada
The Stratford Shakespeare Festival is an internationally recognized annual celebration of theatre running from April to November in the Canadian city of Stratford, Ontario...

) in 1956, Tyrone Guthrie
Tyrone Guthrie
Sir William Tyrone Guthrie was an English theatrical director instrumental in the founding of the Stratford Festival of Canada, the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota and the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, at his family's home, Annaghmakerrig, in County Monaghan, Ireland.-Life and career:Guthrie...

 directed another dual version, starring Donald Wolfit
Donald Wolfit
Sir Donald Wolfit, KBE was a well-known English actor-manager.-Biography:Wolfit, who was "Woolfitt" at birth was born at New Balderton, near Newark-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire and attended the Magnus Grammar School and made his stage début in 1920...

, William Shatner
William Shatner
William Alan Shatner is a Canadian actor, musician, recording artist, and author. He gained worldwide fame and became a cultural icon for his portrayal of James T...

, Robert Christie
Robert Christie (actor)
Robert Christie was a Canadian actor and director.He was born in Toronto in 1913 and received a B.A. from the University of Toronto. In 1936, he moved to England where he performed with various companies including the Old Vic Company. He served with the Canadian Army during World War II. After the...

 and Louis Negin
Louis Negin
Louis Negin is a Canadian actor, recently best known for his roles in the films of Guy Maddin.Negin, most prominently a stage actor, had his earliest film and television roles in the 1950s Canadian dramatic anthology series First Performance, and as a chorus member in Tyrone Guthrie's 1957 film of...

; it travelled to Broadway, where it failed to impress—Eric Bentley
Eric Bentley
Eric Bentley is a critic, playwright, singer, editor and translator. He became an American citizen in 1948, and currently lives in New York City...

, among others, panned it— although Anthony Quayle
Anthony Quayle
Sir John Anthony Quayle, CBE was an English actor and director.-Early life:Quayle was born in Ainsdale, Southport, in Lancashire to a Manx family....

, who replaced Wolfit
Donald Wolfit
Sir Donald Wolfit, KBE was a well-known English actor-manager.-Biography:Wolfit, who was "Woolfitt" at birth was born at New Balderton, near Newark-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire and attended the Magnus Grammar School and made his stage début in 1920...

 in the title role, received a Tony Award
Tony Award
The Antoinette Perry Award for Excellence in Theatre, more commonly known as a Tony Award, recognizes achievement in live Broadway theatre. The awards are presented by the American Theatre Wing and The Broadway League at an annual ceremony in New York City. The awards are given for Broadway...

 nomination for his performance, as did Guthrie
Tyrone Guthrie
Sir William Tyrone Guthrie was an English theatrical director instrumental in the founding of the Stratford Festival of Canada, the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota and the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, at his family's home, Annaghmakerrig, in County Monaghan, Ireland.-Life and career:Guthrie...

 for his direction.

The Royal National Theatre
Royal National Theatre
The Royal National Theatre in London is one of the United Kingdom's two most prominent publicly funded theatre companies, alongside the Royal Shakespeare Company...

 production in 1976 featured Albert Finney
Albert Finney
Albert Finney is an English actor. He achieved prominence in films in the early 1960s, and has maintained a successful career in theatre, film and television....

 in the title role; this production opened the new Olivier Theatre on the South Bank
South Bank
South Bank is an area of London, England located immediately adjacent to the south side of the River Thames. It forms a long and narrow section of riverside development that is within the London Borough of Lambeth to the border with the London Borough of Southwark and was formerly simply known as...

. Peter Hall directed. This production is generally considered the most successful of the rare modern productions.

In 1993 the Royal Shakespeare Company performed an award-winning production of the play, with Antony Sher
Antony Sher
Sir Antony Sher, KBE is a double Olivier Award winning South African-born British actor, writer, theatre director and painter.- Early years :...

 as Tamburlaine and Tracy-Ann Oberman
Tracy-Ann Oberman
Tracy-Ann Oberman is an English television, theatre and radio actress, known for her role as Chrissie Watts in the BBC soap opera Eastenders...

 as Olympia.

Jeff Dailey directed both parts of the play, uncut, at the American Theatre of Actors in New York City. He presented Part I in 1997 and Part II in 2003, both in the outdoor theatre located in the courtyard of 314 West 54th Street.

Avery Brooks
Avery Brooks
Avery Franklin Brooks is an American actor, television director, jazz musician, opera singer and college professor. Brooks is perhaps best known for his television roles as Benjamin Sisko on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and as Hawk on Spenser: For Hire and its spinoff A Man Called Hawk, and in the...

 played the lead role in a production of the play for the Shakespeare Theatre Company
Shakespeare Theatre Company
The Shakespeare Theatre Company is a regional theatre company located in Washington, D.C. Their self professed mission "is to present classic theatre of scope and size in an imaginative, skillful and accessible American style that honors the playwrights’ language and intentions while viewing their...

. The play ran from October 28, 2007 to January 6, 2008 and was directed by Michael Kahn
Michael Kahn (theatre director)
Michael Kahn is the Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., USA. He held the position of Richard Rodgers Director of the Drama Division of the Juilliard School from 1992 to 2006....

. http://www.broadwayworld.com/viewcolumn.cfm?colid=16340

While the play has been revived periodically over the past century, the obstacles it presents—a large cast and an actor capable of performing in such a challenging role chief among them—have prevented more widespread performance. In general, the modern playgoer may still echo F. P. Wilson's question, asked at mid-century, "How many of us can boast that we are more than readers of Tamburlaine?"

In 2008, a comedic reworking of the play entitled "Tamburlaine: Lion of Persia (Not a Real Lion)" was performed by the Fez of Etymology theatre group in the Carriageworks Theatre in Leeds, UK.

In 2011, James Keegan played the lead in a production at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia
Staunton, Virginia
Staunton is an independent city within the confines of Augusta County in the commonwealth of Virginia. The population was 23,746 as of 2010. It is the county seat of Augusta County....

. The play was directed by Jim Warren.


In November 2005, a production of Tamburlaine at the Barbican Arts Centre in London was accused of deferring to Muslim
Islam . The most common are and .   : Arabic pronunciation varies regionally. The first vowel ranges from ~~. The second vowel ranges from ~~~...

 sensibilities by amending a section of the play in which the title character burns the Quran and excoriates the prophet Muhammad
Muhammad |ligature]] at U+FDF4 ;Arabic pronunciation varies regionally; the first vowel ranges from ~~; the second and the last vowel: ~~~. There are dialects which have no stress. In Egypt, it is pronounced not in religious contexts...

. The sequence was changed so that Tamburlaine instead defiles books representing all religious texts. The director denied censoring the play, stating that the change was a "purely artistic" decision "to focus the play away from anti-Turkish pantomime to an existential epic". This however shifts a considerable degree of focus from a number of anti-theist (and specifically anti-Muslim) points within the play and changes, significantly, the tone and tenor of the work.

External links

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