|15th Century portrait of Timur.|
Tamburlaine the Great by Christopher Marlowe is a play in two parts, both of which were written around 1587 and published in 1590. It's based on Timur (تیمور), known also as Tamerlane (تيمور لنگ), who was born in 1336 and died 1405. He was the Turco-Mongol founder of the Timurid Empire in Persia and Central Asia and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty (گورکانیان), a Sunni Muslim dynasty.
Part I begins with the prologue,
From jigging veins of rhyming mother-wits,
And such conceits as clownage keeps in pay,
We'll lead you to the stately tent of war,
Where you shall hear the Scythian Tamburlaine
Threatening the world with high astounding terms,
And scourging kingdoms with his conquering sword.
View but his picture in this tragic glass,
And then applaud his fortunes as you please.
We go on in the first part of the play to learn about the early days of Tamburlaine. The king of Persia, Mycetes, has heard about a group of rebels led by a lowly shepherd, Tamburlaine, and he instructs his captain Theridamas to kill him, however, unbeknown to Mycetes his brother Cosroe is plotting to overthrow him. Meanwhile Tamburlaine has captured the Egyptian princess Zenocrate and declares his love for her, and when Theridamas arrives with his soldiers Tamburlaine manages to convince him to switch allegiance and join his army. As expected, Cosroe follows suit.
When Mycetes hears of this he plans to throw gold on the battle field to distract Tamburlaine's soldiers, but the plan doesn't work, Tamburlaine wins the battle, and Cosroe heads for the capital, Persepolis, to seize the crown. However it is Tamburlaine who is victorious after he challenges Cosroe who dies, but not before he curses Tamburlaine and Theridamas:
The strangest men that ever nature made!
I know not how to take their tyrannies.
My bloodless body waxeth chill and cold,
And with my blood my life slides through my wound;
My soul begins to take her flight to hell,
And summons all my senses to depart.
The heat and moisture, which did not feed each other,
For want of nourishment to feed them both,
Is dry and cold: and now doth ghastly Death
With greedy talents gripe my bleeding heart,
And like a harpy tires on my life.
Theridamas and Tamburlaine, I die:
And fearful vengeance light upon you both!
From here we see Tamburlaine become king and extend his empire, defeating the Turkish Emperor Bajazeth and making him and his wife Zabina slaves, then conquering Egypt, Syria, and Arabia, leaving a trail of blood and destruction behind him. By the end of Part I Zenocrate is crowned the queen of Persia, and it seems as though Tamburlaine is unstoppable.
Part II also being with a prologue,
The general welcomes Tamburlaine receiv'd,
When he arrived last upon our stage,
Have made our poet pen his Second Part,
Where death cuts off the progress of his pomp,
And murderous Fates throw all his triumphs down.
But what became of fair Zenocrate,
And with how many cities' sacrife
He celebrated her sad funeral,
Himself in presence shall unfold at large.
In the first act having conquered Egypt Tamburlaine has now set his eyes on Anatolia (which makes up most of modern day Turkey). As he instructs his three sons, Calyphas, Amyras, and Celebinus, on the art of war (Calyphas showing great reluctance to leave his mother's side), Callapine (the son of the now dead Turkish emperor Bajazeth) escapes prison with the help of Almeda. Tamburlaine, along with Theridamas, Techelles (the king of Fez), and Usumcasane (the king of Morocco), begin their preparations to march into Anatolia, and they are eventually met with Callapine and his army, swearing to avenge the death of Bajazeth (by this stage Zenocrate has died). Meanwhile Amyras and Celebinus are still trying to get their brother to join the fight, but when he once more refuses Tamburlaine kills him in his fury.
Still extending his now vast empire, Tamburlaine goes for Babylon and after a fierce battle (during which he orders all Qur'ans to be burned, he is victorious but has become seriously ill. As Callapine has regrouped and planned again to attack Tamburlaine's army. Tamburlaine finds he must withdraw. Amyras is then crowned king, and Tamburlaine dies. Amyras speaks the final words of the play:
Meet heaven and earth, and here let all things end,
For earth hath spent the pride of all her fruit,
And heaven consum'd his choicest living fire!
Let earth and heaven his timeless death deplore,
For both their worths will equal him no more!
This play is unrelenting in action; there is hardly room to gather one's thoughts before the next dramatic moment. Tamburlaine is a tragic anti-hero whose ambition and love of power proves to be his downfall. It's a play of excess, both the events, the characters, and even the style of the play itself. Neither Part I or Part II are exactly enjoyable; it's a gripping play, and one of the most popular during the Elizabethan period, but it is as exhausting as it is grim and disturbing. Even so, though it's not my favourite Marlowe play, I'm glad to have read it.