Tamburlaine The Great Part 1 Analysis Essay

When Tamburlaine the Great burst upon the Elizabethan stage in 1587, it took audiences by storm. The most popular tragedy of the time had been Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (pr. c. 1585-1589, pb. 1594?), which featured a strong dramatic sense but unmemorable verse. Tamburlaine the Great, in contrast, was written in poetry of the scope and magnificence that moved Shakespeare to write of “the proud full sail of [Marlowe’s] great verse” (Sonnet 86).

Vital to the play’s success was the figure of Tamburlaine. The prologue introduces him in lines that were to become famous: “Threatening the world with high astounding terms,/ And scourging kingdoms with his conquering sword.” Tamburlaine’s power comes from his limitless self-concept, not from his birth, which was that of a humble shepherd. In Marlowe’s world, a person’s worth is measured by his or her actions. Thus Tamburlaine declares, “I am a lord, for so my deeds shall prove—/ And yet a shepherd by my parentage.” His thoughts, he says, are coequal with the clouds, and his aspiration is immortality such as the gods enjoy. Indeed, he claims to gain his authority to terrorize the world from Jove himself, whose scourge he is.

As for the traditional enemies of the aspirant—Death and Fortune—the plays contain frequent references to Tamburlaine’s mastery over them, as in the passage in Part I, act 1, where he claims that he has bound the Fates in iron chains and turns Fortune’s wheel with his own hand. He appears to have assumed the role of Fate in condemning the virgins of Damascus to death for their failure to surrender before he symbolically decked his tents in black: His Customs, he says, are “as peremptory/ As wrathful planets, death, or destiny.”

Such assertions are hubristic in the extreme and, in a Christian context, would merit a downfall such as Faustus’s. Tamburlaine, however, moves freely in a non-Christian setting. His death, when it comes, occurs through illness. He is never punished for his past exploits; rather, he is lionized by all save his enemies. “Nature,” he says, “ . . . doth teach us...

(The entire section is 881 words.)


1. Introduction

2. Marlowe’s concept of women

3. Zenocrate’s character
3.1 Zenocrate as captive
3.2 Zenocrate as loving maid
3.3 Zenocrate as equal partner for Tamburlaine
3.4 Zenocrate’s influence on Tamburlaine

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Christopher Marlowe’s play Tamburlaine has often been analysed in respect of various factors and characters including power, the motive of overreaching, religion and many more. What has been treated with less interest is the role of females in this play. As C. L. Barber states, Marlowe “knew the available sources for the history of the great conqueror remarkably well”[1] but the character of Zenocrate is not mentioned in the sources of the historical Timur who lived from 1336 until 1405 and “was widely known in the West as the conqueror of Baghdad (1401) and Damascus (1403).”[2] Therefore it is suggested that Marlowe must have had a special reason for he “created the role of Zenocrate in Tamburlaine out of whole cloth.”[3]

When Part I was first staged in 1587, the society at that time was greatly different in its conception of gender and gender-related attributes in comparison with modern thinking about men and women and their roles in society. It was “highly gender- segregated [and] [d]ifferent physical, emotional and intellectual qualities were ascribed to men and women, and to a significant extent they inhabited distinct social spaces.”[4]

From the traditional patriarchal perspective, therefore, qualities conventionally approved in women - passivity, sensitivity, tenderness, compassion, self-sacrifice, silence - are scorned in men as effeminate. Similarly, the attributes most admired in the male - activity, assertiveness, resourcefulness, resolution, eloquence - are deplored and sometimes even excoriated in the female as unnatural.[5]

Women were therefore commonly characterised as being associated with “the earth, sensuality, personal relationships, imagination, intuition, nature, and so on,”[6] whereas men were perceived as the powerful, mighty, aggressive intelligent human beings who manage politics and war, from which women were mostly excluded. According to these values, “women [in literature often] function as apolitical, moral arbiters and men as monstrous Machiavells.”[7]

Though Zenocrate is mostly seen as the female counterpart to the male character of Tamburlaine, she is also characterised as the beautiful woman who devotes herself to the patriarchal values represented by Tamburlaine. Moreover some scholars claim that it is only because of her beauty that Tamburlaine wants to make her his wife and queen of Persia. As a consequence, Tamburlaine’s withdrawal from war and the truce at the end of Part I are due to Zenocrate’s outer appearance and without any influence of her further personal attributes. This, however, cannot be the single reason for such heavy weighing changes in Tamburlaine’s character. This essay therefore tries to find additional reasons for the drastic turn in Tamburlaine’s life, in order to vitiate the conventional interpretation of Zenocrate as a pale and lame character who lacks any dramatic influence on the outcome of the play.

2. Marlowe’s concept of women

Although five of Marlowe’s six major plays stage the deeds and achievements of men, he also created a different image of women as being allowed to interfere in domains widely seen as restricted to males. His active women adopt attitudes that contradict the common image of women as private and emotional creatures excluded from public matters and politics.[8]

In works representing men and women as objects of desire, passionate suitors, ambitious politicians, agents and victims of violence, loyal and treacherous towards family and friends, Marlowe navigated the boundaries of acceptable and transgressive behaviour in ways that both reflected and challenged the values of his society.[9]

Though various scholars suggest that Shakespeare created, according to the change in values and the new definition of gender stereotypes at the end of the sixteenth century, “charismatic androgynous characters,”[10] Christopher Marlowe’s plays and his dialectic of gender in them are almost ignored. In contrast to Dido, Queen of Carthage, where Dido’s influential position is already apparent in the title, the character of Zenocrate in Tamburlaine is mostly interpreted as conforming to the traditional patriarchal values and therefore as being a silent, obedient, and pale character with the single function to stress Tamburlaine’s power. However, as Charles Brooks notes, Marlowe’s women are active, striving to attain individual aims, not passively virtuous women like the usual romantic heroines. Virtue is something to be attained rather than protected, beauty is an asset to be used, women are to be conquered rather than served, and delight in love is a vision of triumph. Destiny is to be moulded rather than endured.[11]

Stephen Greenblatt states in his book Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare that “in the sixteenth century there appears to be an increasing self- consciousness about the fashioning of human identity as a manipulable, artful process.”[12] Therefore the striving for power in Tamburlaine can be seen as an attempt for self-determination since “Marlowe’s women share with his men a motivation that is as much political as emotional.”[13] with men “tend[ing] to seek power for the purpose of determining the destinies of others [and] […] women […] do so in order that they may determine their own destinies.”[14]

Despite the traditional norms in which men and women were categorised, Marlowe plays in his works with the concepts of gender, which are “socially constructed terms.”[15] The required differences in the dichotomy of male and female attributes mean that men and women have to behave in a distinct way and try to avoid similarities. Since “[k]inship systems rest upon marriage […] [and] transform males and females into ‘men’ and ‘women,’ each an incomplete half which can only find wholeness when united with the other,”[16] as Gayle Rubin suggests, Tamburlaine’s male behaviour as aggressive and ruthless conqueror of the world has to have a counterpart character possessing attributes like mercy, compliance and diplomacy. Therefore Marlowe created the figure of Zenocrate in respect of being Tamburlaine’s female complement, which requires more than just a beautiful appearance.[17]

3. Zenocrate’s character

Since Tamburlaine nevertheless deals mainly with the achievements and the power of Tamburlaine and his followers, Zenocrate is introduced in the second scene of act one as the captive of Tamburlaine. Marlowe then carefully develops her character until the end of the play and virtuously plays with the before mentioned gender stereotypes. In the following chapters it should be shown that Zenocrate, despite the widespread opinion of her as a silent and obedient woman, is a strong character and of great value for the development of Tamburlaine and the end of the play since in Marlowe’s plays “many of his female characters [are allowed] to intervene in, and offer resistance to, the male-orientated social structures.”[18]

3.1 Zenocrate as captive in war

In the stage directions in the second scene of act one Tamburlaine leads Zenocrate onto the stage followed by soldiers “loaden with treasure,”[19] which indicates that Tamburlaine has captured Zenocrate together with other treasures when she was on her way to Syria. In this scene Zenocrate is introduced as the daughter of the Sultan of Egypt and sole heiress to Egypt which shows that Tamburlaine is aware of her identity and her status in society. Tamburlaine, who previously is characterised by his opponents as “sturdy Scythian thief”[20] with “barbarous arms,”[21] “paltry Scythian,”[22] “wicked”[23] and as a “fox in midst of harvest time,”[24] is quite complaisant and generous towards Zenocrate, although she insults him with “shepherd”[25] as well. Though women were seen as treasures of war for men at that time, Corinne Abate suggests that the most important reason for capturing Zenocrate is that Tamburlaine tries to legitimate his campaign against the world and overcome his base background by marrying a woman of higher status than his own. When he is called a shepherd he proudly replies

I am a lord, for so my deeds shall prove, And yet a shepherd by my parentage.

But, lady, this fair face and heavenly hue Must grace his bed that conquers Asia[26]

and removes his shepherd dress in order to present a “complete armour and […] curtle- axe.”[27] Techelles and Usumcasane, who had been captured as well, are immediately astonished by Tamburlaine’s looks but Zenocrate is not very enthusiastic about becoming “empress of the East,”[28] nor is she impressed by Tamburlaine’s armour. Agydas, Zenocrate’s follower, tries to buy them free with their treasures and introduces the fact that Zenocrate is engaged with Lord Alcidamus, the king of Arabia. Tamburlaine then tells them, as it is adequate for a lord, that “[n]ot all the gold in India’s wealthy arms / Shall buy the meanest soldier in my train” and that Zenocrate’s “person is more worth to Tamburlaine / Than the possession of the Persian crown.”[29] This supports Corinne Abate’s argument that Zenocrate is of great value for Tamburlaine because of her royal background. Tamburlaine than begins to woo Zenocrate with his familiar high rhetoric:

Thy garments shall be made of Median silk, Enchased with precious jewels of mine own, More rich and valorous than Zenocrate’s; With milk-white harts upon an ivory sled Thou shalt be drawn amidst the frozen pools And scale the icy mountains’ lofty tops, Which with thy beauty will be soon resolved; My martial prizes, with five hundred men, Won on the fifty- headed Volga’s waves, Shall all we offer to Zenocrate, And then myself to fair Zenocrate.[30]

Tamburlaine’s rhetoric is so overwhelming that even Techelles asks him “What now? In love?” Joel Altman claims for that scene that when Tamburlaine says that “women must be flattered. / But this is she with whom I am in love.”[31] Tamburlaine “pats his trusty sword familiarly.”[32] Altman therefore suggests that Tamburlaine only uses art and really loves war, a thesis to which I cannot agree. There is no hint in the text which proves this assumption to be true nor do I agree that Tamburlaine is not in love with Zenocrate. Although he is impressed by her beauty, which he immediately recognises, and is aware of her value for him as a woman of noble background, he nevertheless offers all his said riches and himself to Zenocrate herself, not to her father, the Sultan of Egypt which shows how high he estimates her.[33] After Tamburlaine’s speech of worship for Zenocrate she stays silent. However, this does not mean that Tamburlaine has rendered her silent and subdued her but she shows strength in not immediately giving in to his marriage offer. She does not let Tamburlaine rush her into marriage or show to be easily won by his words which shows her difference to Theridamas. When he is spoken to by Tamburlaine’s eloquent rhetoric he admits that “[n]ot Hermes, prolocutor to the gods, / Could use persuasions more pathetical”[34] and goes on to be totally overwhelmed by Tamburlaine’s speech and his looks so he devotes himself to Tamburlaine with words that show how much he is impressed:

Won with thy words and conquered with thy looks, I yield myself, my men, and horse to thee, To be partaker of thy good or ill As long as life maintains Theridamas.[35]

This words from Theridamas are also heard by Zenocrate and her companion Agydas. When Tamburlaine then asks them again to devote themselves to him and threatens them that they “shall be forced with slavery” if they do not give in, Agydas immediately devotes himself to Tamburlaine. Zenocrate, on the contrary, answers with “I must be pleas’d perforce. Wretched Zenocrate!”[36] which shows again her strength to resist since she lets him know through her words that she is not happy with that decision and does not use flattering words like Agydas. “Her resistance to Tamburlaine’s offer is quite anomalous, as she has just witnessed his foe, the Persian lord Theridamas […] switch allegiances”[37] and other Persian lords are absolutely impressed by his looks and describe him with attributes that show how overwhelmed they are:

So large of limbs, his joints so strongly knit, Such breadth of shoulders as might mainly bear Old Atlas’ burden. […] His lofty brows in folds do figure death, And in their smoothness amity and life. In every part proportioned like the man Should make the world subdued to Tamburlaine[38]

3.2 Zenocrate as loving maid

In respect of her previous resistance against Tamburlaine’s marriage offer, the point for Zenocrate to fall in love with him is when he has acquired the Persion crown. Corinne Abate suggests that “this latest usurpation establishes for Zenocrate that Tamburlaine presents a complete and solvent package”[39] since he is flamboyant in his appearance - “[a]s looks the sun through Nilus’ flowing stream, / Or when the morning holds him in her arms, / So looks my lordly love, fair Tamburlaine”[40] - very eloquent in his rhetoric since “[h]is talk [is] much sweeter than the Muses’ song / They sung for honour ’gainst Pierides, / Or when Minerva did with Neptune strive”[41] and Tamburlaine is wealthy. In Agydas’ company she confesses her love to Tamburlaine with similar words as Theridamas before: “That I may live and die with Tamburlaine!”[42] Peter Boenisch claims that Zenocrate has not fallen in love with Tamburlaine but has recognised that giving in is the only way to improve her situation since the kidnapping is long ago and there is no hint at this time of the play that her father and her country is preparing to free her. Therefore Boenisch argues that Zenocrate suffer from a “radikalen Identiätskrise”[43] and tries to imitate Tamburlaine’s rhetoric in order to find a new identity in Tamburlaine. However, this cannot be proved since Zenocrate is at that time still in company of her follower Agydas to whom she could have been honest and could tell him her pain. In fact, she defends Tamburlaine against Agydas’ insults and accounts reasons for his worthiness for her to fall in love with him.

As his exceeding favours have deserved, And might content the queen of heaven as well As it hath changed my first-conceived disdain, Yet, since, a farther passion feeds my thoughts.[44]

When Agydas talks about Zenocrate’s “offensive rape by Tamburlaine,”[45] Joel Altman sees clearly that it had happened[46] and Mary Beth Rose even states that Tamburlaine “wins Zenocrate by kidnapping and raping her.”[47] Here I vehemently disagree with them and subscribe to Corinne Abate’s statement that this rape in our modern sense never had happened and she proved that “[i]n the English Renaissance, ‘rape’ did not mean solely the sexual violation that the term connotes in modern times. Instead, it could also mean seizure or, according to the OED, ‘the act of carrying away a person, especially a woman, by force.’”[48] In contrast, Tamburlaine has never touched her for she is his legal entrance into society and his legitimacy for his conquering of countries. When the Sultan is concerned about her chastity Tamburlaine stresses this vehemently in front of Zenocrate’s father that “for all blot of foul inchastity, / I record heaven, her heavenly self is clear.”[49] Zenocrate testifies this earlier when she scolds Agydas that “[t]he entertainment we have had of him / Is far from villainy or servitude, And might in noble minds be counted princely.”[50] Agydas calls Tamburlaine “vile and barbarous”[51] and argues that she is “[b]eing supposed his worthless concubine.”[52] Abate states here rightly that “[o]nly a barbarous, base, wicked thief would force a maiden, and a royal, high-ranking member of society at that, to yield her chastity.”[53]


[1] C. L. Barber, “The Death of Zenocrate: ‘Conceiving and subduing both’ in Marlowe’s Tamburlaine,” Literature and Psychology 16.1 (1966) 15.

[2] Notes to Tamburlaine the Great. In: Marlowe, Christopher. The Complete Plays. Ed. Frank Romany and Robert Lindsey. New York: Penguin Group, 2003: 577.

[3] Barber 15.

[4] Kate Chedgzoy, “Marlowe’s men and women: gender and sexuality.” The Cambridge Companion to Christopher Marlowe, ed. Patrick Cheney (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004) 245.

[5] Sara Munson Deats, “The dialectic of gender in four of Marlowe’s plays,” University of Hartford studies in literature 20 (1988) 13.

[6] Theodora A. Jankowski, Women in Power in the Early Modern Drama (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992) 5.

[7] Joanna Gibbs, “Marlowe’s politic women.” Constructing Christopher Marlowe, ed. J. A. Downie and J. T. Parnell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) 164.

[8] cf. Gibbs 164.

[9] Chedgzoy 246.

[10] Deats 14.

[11] Charles Brooks, “Tamburlaine and Attitudes Toward Women,” ELH 24 (1957) 4.

[12] Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1980) 2.

[13] Gibbs 175.

[14] Ibid., 175-76.

[15] Corinne S. Abate, “Zenocrate: not just another ‘fair face’,” ELN 41.1 (2003) 28.

[16] quoted in Abate 28.

[17] cf. Abate 28.

[18] Gibbs 176.

[19] Christopher Marlowe, Tamburlaine the Great, Part I, 1.2.stage directions, The Complete Plays, ed. Frank Romany and Robert Lindsey (New York: Penguin Group, 2003) 81. Following quotes from Tamburlaine Part I and II are only given in Part, Act.Scene.Line, e.g. Part I, Act 1, Scene 2, line 5 would be I, 1.2.5.

[20] I, 1.1.36.

[21] I, 1.1.42.

[22] I, 1.1.53.

[23] I, 1.1.64.

[24] I, 1.1.31.

[25] I, 1.2.7.

[26] I, 1.2.34-37.

[27] I, 1.2.stage direction after 41.

[28] I, 1.2.46.

[29] I, 1.2.85-86, 90.

[30] I, 1.2.95-105.

[31] I, 1.2.107-8.

[32] Joel B. Altman, The Tudor Play of Mind. Rhetorical Inquiry and the Development of Elizabethan Drama (Berkeley, Los Angeles et al.: University of California Press, 1978) 327.

[33] cf. Abate 20.

[34] I, 1.2.210-11.

[35] I, 1.2.228-31.

[36] I, 1.2.259.

[37] Abate 21.

[38] I, 2.1.9-30.

[39] Abate 22.

[40] I, 3.2.47-49.

[41] I, 3.2.50-52.

[42] I, 3.2.24.

[43] Peter M. Boenisch, “‘I doubt not, I, but she will stoop in time’. Frauenfiguren in Tamburlaine and The Spanish Tragedy,” Zeitschrift für Anglistik und Amerikanistik 45 (1997) 327.

[44] I, 3.2.10-13.

[45] I, 2.3.6.

[46] cf. Altmann 327.

[47] Mary Beth Rose, The Expense of Spirit. Love and Sexuality in English Renaissance Drama (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1988) 106.

[48] Abate 22.

[49] I, 5.1.486-87.

[50] I, 3.2.37-39.

[51] I, 3.2.26.

[52] I, 3.2.29.

[53] Abate 23.

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