Free «Marlowe's Tamburlaine» Essay Sample

This paper intends to explore how Marlowe’s Tamburlaine reflects the Islamic beliefs, culture and history in its play. It also tries to see the conduct of different Muslim characters in the play and how they hold to their beliefs of the religion as the play progresses. Their conduct is further analysed to see if it is in accordance with the Islamic laws that they were supposed to follow. An attempt is also made to see how Tamburlaine play has reflects the actual historic events that had happened and how the character Tamburlaine influences the other historical leaders in some way or the other.

The early European literature always portrayed Islamic followers as bloodthirsty and barbaric, not as loyal as Christians but Tamburlaine play reflects through the actions of its main character Tamburlaine  that Christians have as much capacity to be disloyal as Muslims and die dishonourably.  The arrogance of Tamburlaine is displayed all through the play and sometimes he gets to a point when he mocks God and compares himself [Part 1 Act2, Scene 3, Page no 14] Tamburlaine compares himself with Ancient Greek Gods and heroes displaying arrogance when mortal men compare themselves to Gods.

The rivalry between the two religions has been going on for hundreds of years in Europe. Through this the play, even though brings in the elements of faith and religion also makes a point that loyalty is more important than any other faith or religion. It is also to be noted that Tamburlaine does not have any allegiance towards Christians or Muslims in particular. Tamburlaine himself is not a religious person by any means which is evident in many scenes of the play. Tamburlaine is not a God loving or God fearing person as he keeps challenging God through his arrogance. When the four virgins pleads for mercy when he went to attack the Egypt, through his soliloquy he reveals that even God cannot deter from his quest to conquer Damascus. [Marlowe, Part 1 Act 5 Scene1 Page 31]

This play written in 1588 gives us an insight into how the Muslim women were perceived at the time. The play also brings out the loyalty of Muslim women towards their husbands. When her husband King Bajazeth took his own life, his faithful wife Zabina followed him just like Olympia planned to when her husband was dying. Even when Theridimas offers her the status of queen, she preferred to die as her husband and son had died and tricked him into killing her.

When Tamburlaine dies of mysterious disease after the incident of burning Quran, it can be argued that it goes with the Muslim belief that dishonouring their faith and religious artefacts will bring them to the fury of the almighty and that is the reason Tamburlaine died an unnatural death.

Western scholars of the medieval era were ignorant of the Islamic culture. It can be argued that such ignorance and disregard for the religion is wilful to certain extent. Unfortunately Marlow also falls into the same category and believed and propagated that Mohammed is considered a God for the Muslims. This is evident when Zabina, the empress mocks Mohammed as ‘drowsy God’ after her husband.  [Marlowe, Part 1 Act 5 Scene2 Page 32]

When the emperor Bajazeth and his queen Zabina speaks against Mahomet (Mohammed), it seems comical for the readers and their expressions portrayed are blasphemous and hopeless for faith of Islam which also supports the fact that there was an anti-Islam opinion at the time among Christians. Here   historical theme of Tamburlaine was perfectly exhausted by Marlowe. 

He again attempts to propagate that Mohammed is God for Muslims when he tries to draw a theological parallel between the two religions. He tries to equate the concept of Trinity with the concept of Prophecy which in effect argues that like Christ is God for Christians, Mohammed is the God for Muslims.  When Orcanes makes the statement   ‘He by Christ and I by Mahomet,’ to King Sigmund a striking distinction is proposed here over the divinity of both.  (Burnett, Part II, V.i.181). 

When Tamburlaine says “God sits in the heaven whom I only obey” (Burnett, Part II, V.i.184), he is referring to the place of his God. Islamic people consider the divinity of Muhammad, Christ or any creation as polytheism. Orcanes echoes this idea with and elegant speech after his victory in a battle: 

 “Christ or Mahomet hath been my friend

Yet in my thoughts shall Christ be honoured,

Not doing Mahomet an injury“.  (Burnett, Part II, II.iii.33–34)

According to Muslim religion, Prophet Mohammed is not an idol or a deity but he is a messenger of God but the medieval writers including Marlow portrayed Prophet Mohammed as Islamic God. This is due to the mere ignorance of the values and basic understanding of the religion. This lack of understanding led them to consider Mohammed like Christ. Just like how Christ is to Christian religion, they perceived Mohammed to Islamic religion. This basic understanding of the writers of medieval times is reflected in Marlowe’s writing of Tamburlaine.

Marlowe’s lack of understanding of Islam religion and its faith is again demonstrated in the scene where King of Amasia looks at the sky to see Muhammad, armed and prepared to support Callapine in his combat with Tamburlaine: “Mahomet is therefore able to come to earth and interact with humans, but is unable or unwilling to stop Tamburlaine’s affront” (Burnett, Part II. V.ii.30–35. The character of Tamburlaine concludes that ‘In vain, I see men worship Mahomet’ (Burnett, Part II, V.i.177). Idol worship or deity worship was/is not a Muslim practice but is depicted in the play as something Muslims practise. When Zenocrate express grief over the suicides of Bajazeth and Zabina and knowing that her husband is the reason for their death, she prays to Jove and Mohammed seeking forgiveness for her husband. The concept of Jove as God of Muslims is a medieval. 

Sigismund and Orcanes shake hands together to fight together against Tamburlaine the former swearing by Christ and the later by Mohammad clearly indicating that the latter is of Islamic faith. [Marlowe, Part 2 Act 1 Scene 2 Page 36] The practice of sealing the deal in God’s name has been followed in early history and continued to be followed even now which has been shown in true sense in this play.  When Tamburlaine shakes hands with Theridimas (General of Mycetes, King of Persia) after he agrees to join him and serve him till the end, he calls upon Gods to witness their vow of friendship. [Marlowe, Part 1 Act2, Scene 2 Page 43]

Marlowe does portray Tamburlaine as an enemy of Muslim when he burns down the holy book of Muslims, the Quran and also by challenging Mohammed to take revenge for his actions which he knows is going to hurt the Muslims that they will seek for revenge. He expects Mohammed to rise and takes the sword and fights for revenge which is unlike the Muslim belief where Mohammed is only a messenger of God.

“Now Mahomet, if thou have any power:\ Come down thyself and work a miracle” (Burnett, Part II, V.i.185–6).

He defies Mohammed by treating the Quran and other Muslim books in a barbarous way. He also describes Quran as ‘foolish laws’ which can be argued as what Marlowe perceives Quran to contain. This challenge of Tamburlaine to Mohammed to fight for revenge and his illustrations of heaven and hells show a poor understanding of Islamic beliefs. He goes to the length to ask the followers to find another God in

Well, soldiers, Mahomet remains in hell;

 He cannot hear the voice of Tamburlaine:

Seek out another godhead to adore.. (Burnett, Part II, 5.1.196–8)

When Cosroe gets angry over Tamburlaine claiming his kingdom, Tamburlaine compares himself to the king of Gods Jupiter, who slew his father to gain the kingdom. When Cosroe curses him while dying, he ignores it saying Crown is more securely his than if the Gods themselves had placed it on his head. Tamburlaine again speaks of King of Gods Jupiter, when Zenocrate pleads for mercy against his attack on her father. All these instances show Tamburlaine as demi-God. [Marlowe, Part 1, Act 2, Scene 7 Page 19]

Islamic region is mentioned remarkably in two parts of the play. Tamburlaine sees Quran, the holy book of Islam as an enemy of the Elizabethans. Tamburlaine burns Quran to show the power and victory of Christian. He mocks Prophet Mohammed by challenging him to take his revenge. The characters do show doubts in the religion and God in some parts of the play when evil triumphs in the play through Tamburlaine in many instances. The failure of all the religions to enforce divine justice to stop the atrocities or punish the evil makes this doubt even more. The characters in the play seek divine justice sometimes and hope for it. This play maintains a kind of scepticism towards religion, deities and supernatural forces regardless of the religions but at the same time by making Prophet Mohammed as a God for Muslims like how Christ is for Christians, it shows how ill-informed Marlowe was about Islam.  

The events in the play cannot be articulated in a coherent sense of order by any representation of religious systems be it Muslim or Christianity or even the faith in God of the characters in the play. 

Zenocrate acts as a true Muslim while lamenting over the deaths of the emperor Bajazeth and empress Zabina, and praying to Jove and Mohamet to forgive her husband who is the cause of their death.

Oracens, is portrayed in the play as a true Muslim in Tamburlaine Play as he swears by holy Mohammed.            When Orcanes says

By sacred Mahomet, the friend of God,

Whose holy Alcaron remains with us,

Whose glorious body when he left the world,

Closde in a coffin mounted up the air,

And hung on stately Mecca’s Temple roof,

I swear… (Burnett, Part II, 1.2.60–65)

He is describing his death-place in the grand mosque of Makkah, with his body hanging on the roof of the holy Ka’aba in a coffin, between the earth and the sky. In another part, after the death of King Sigismund who was defeated, the Orcanes states that the punishment of Christians and Sigismund are to be fed from the tree ‘Zoacum,’ with bitter leaves, which can only be found in hell. This is the same tree ‘Zaqqum’ which is mentioned in the Quran as a tree with branches like the heads of devils. For the followers of Islam, this tree signifies the hell and Marlowe portrays the same concept in his play in the minds of criminals when he makes the depiction:

... feeds upon the baneful tree of hell, That Zoacum, that fruit of bitterness, That in the midst of fire is ingraffed, Yet flourisheth as Flora in her pride, With apples like the heads of damed fiends. (Burnett, P II, II.iii.16–20)

There is other numerous Muslim characters, such as Zabina in Tamburlaine portrayed as not a true Muslim. Bajazeth and Zabina cries to Mohammed for help indicating that they are of Islam religion but they mocks Mohamet (Mohammed) calling as drowsy God which is against them being Muslim. They not only mock the Prophet but also calling him God is against the Muslim culture where Mohammed is considered a Prophet. [Marlowe, Part 1 Act 3 Scene 3 Page 23]

Zabina retract against Islam religion when she declares: “there left no Mahomet, no God” (Marlowe, Part I, IV.iv, 290–2). Through this Zabina is shown as not true to the religion, unfaithful, defiant and not a true worshipper.

Bajazeth pronounces the doubts of other ordinary characters in the play. Barbarous cruelty is displayed in many scenes including the one where King Bajazeth and Zabina take their own life. Even though they mocked the Prophet before, at the time they hope “Dost thou think that Mahomet will suffer this?” And “If his highness would let them be fed it would do them more good” (Marlowe, Part 1, V, ii, 176). 

The ethical element vanishes in Tamburlaine under the excitement of conquests that happen in the play(Woodworth, 1985). This is evident when Tamburlaine asks his soldiers with faith to seek another God like he instead of the Prophet who he says is in hell.

Well, soldiers, Mahomet remains in hell; 

He cannot hear the voice of Tamburlaine,

Seek out another godhead to adore

- (Burnett, Part II, 5.1.196–198)

Basically what has been evident in this play is the misrepresentation of Islamic culture and beliefs. The Prophet Mohammed and the holy book Quran has been portrayed in a way that asserts the Elizabethan attitude towards Muslims and its culture and beliefs. The book that Muslims believe to be divine is shown to be burnt in this play which hurt the sentiments of the followers of Islamic religion.

Zabina the wife of Bajazeth acts in accordance with the Sharia law by following her husband in death as well. Zenocrate who was betrothed to King of Arab was kept captive by Tamburlaine and she seemed to have taken sides with him as she also enjoys torturing Bajazeth and Zabina.  Islamic law was not familiar in Europe. It is deeply rooted in the culture and religion of the Islam. When Zenocrate asks for forgiveness from Jove and Mohamet after her husband causes the death of emperor Bajazeth and empress Zabina, she acts as a true Muslim asking for pardon for a crime she knows need punishment according to Muslim Sharia law.

Even when Tamburlaine finally succumbs to death, which is sometimes interpreted as his punishment for how he treated Quran and Mohammed, it can also be argued that the death came to him more as a gift as he attained death not from his enemies and undefeated and also leaving his sons to carry forward his empire.  This is in contrary to the deaths of Bajazeth and Zabina who had a barbarous death even in the eyes of Zenocrate who had no mercy before their death.

“that gave them honour at their birth/ and let them die a death so barbarous” (1 Tam. 5.1.350–51). It can also be interpreted that Zabina acted according to the laws of Muslim women by following her husband in death and thus guarding the remaining of her honour rather than living in shame at the mercy of Tamburlaine.

There is no specific mention of Umma, the Muslim community in the play but there are many characters, very significant and important characters in the play belonging to the community. Zenocrate, betrothed to King of Arabia, daughter of Sultan of Egypt playing a very important part in Tamburlaine, becoming the love of his life, showing his humane side, showing his vulnerable side belongs to the Muslim community. It becomes evident not only from the fact that she is the daughter of Sultan of Egypt but also when she asks for forgiveness from Prophet Mohammed after seeing the slain bodies of Emperor Bajazeth and Zabina who also are from the Muslim community. Zenocrate also pleads for mercy towards her father and once betrothed king of Arabia to Tamburlaine when he sets out in a battle against them. Zenocrate’s plea for mercy was answered when Tamburlaine shows mercy and leaves her father unhurt. She also shows kindness towards her first love, King of Arabia when she goes to attend to him while he was dying. It can be interpreted that Zenocrate’s love towards Tamburlaine grew after he showed mercy towards her father.  Another important figure belonging to the Muslim community is Oracens who forms an alliance with King Sigismund to fight against Tamburlaine.

Bajazeth and Zabina are also from Muslim community who finally gave up their own life to guard the honour what they left after being treated like animals by Tamburlaine. There is also Cellapine in part II of the play, son of Bajazeth and Zabina who is hungry for revenge against Tamburlaine for the death of his parents.

It can be argued that role of Tamburlaine was created to reprimand the Turks for the distress the Europeans had to suffer under the Turkish Empire. The on-going threat of Turkey to Christendom was indicated in the play and finally when Tamburlaine spoils the Turks, Marlowe is giving his audience what they desire to see. Tamburlaine’s character reflect the historical Timur , the conqueror who lived during the period 1336-1405 because Tamburlaine showed the exact or even more aggression, arrogance and hunger for battle like Timur. The play showed Tamburlaine conquering almost the whole world just like Timur who also invaded the whole world Persia, Russia, India and was on his way to China when he suddenly died. The character shown in the play dies of mysterious illness rather than in a battle as is the case with Timur who died when he was on a march to China to conquer that place as well. Another striking similarity is that both Tamburlaine’s character and Timur had sons. When Tamburlaine wanted his sons to be like him and wanted them to fight and become an emperor like him, Timur also wished the same and divided the conquered land among his sons before his death.

The striking difference between the play and the real conqueror was that Tamburlaine is shown as of Christian origin while Timur was of Muslim origin. While there is a clear portrayal of Tamburlaine disliking Islamic religion and its culture, which is shown by defying Mohammed and burning Quran, the Timur was known to have no allegiance with any particular religion. When he was massacring hundreds of people after conquering a land, he was known to have shown no mercy to people of Islam either.

The female character shown in the play, Zenocrate also was not known to have existed in the life of Timur. Timur even though of Muslim origin, was known to be threat to the Muslim world than a member of the community. Thus by portraying Tamburlaine as from Christian origin rather than Muslim origin by Marlowe is not far from reality after all(Weil, 1977).

Tamburlaine’s over authoritative and over aggressive character was known to have put to shame some of the leaders at the time. Even when he was dying, what he wanted was a map to see how much was left for him to be conquered.

“Give me a map; then let me see how much / Is left for me to conquer all the world,” - (2 Tam. 5.3.124-125, 159).

Tamburlaine play is based on the historic tale of Asiatic conqueror Timur or Tamerlane (1336-1405). He is also called the Timur the Lame (Timur Leng). He was a Mongol conqueror from Kesh near Samarkand.He was born in 1336 to Muhammad Taraghay , a tribal leader who became a conqueror. He apparently claimed to be a descendant of Jenghiz Khan in the year 1370. He assembled Turks and Turkic –speaking Mongols to form an army to conquer the area.  He proclaimed to be the restorer of Mongol empire by conquering Transxonia. He engaged himself in campaigns to conquer different parts. Till 1387 he led campaigns waged against Persia and then he advanced crossing Euphrates River to conquer the territory between the Caspian and Black seas in 1392 to invade several of the Russian states. He weakened the Crimean Tatars which helped clear the way for the conquests of the grand duchy of Moscow. After abandoning some of his Russian conquests, he returned to his capital Samarkand and then continued his campaign to invade India in 1398, along the route of the Indus River. He then took Delhi, bringing an end to the Delhi Sultanate and then withdrawing slowly.

In 1400, he continued his campaigns to invade Georgia, Levant, taking Aleppo and Baghdad. In 1402 he fought against Ottoman Turks at Angora in his next war and captured their sultan, Beyazid I, who, contrary to popular belief, was well treated. His next plan was to invade China but he succumbed to death before that. 

Just like the character in Tamburlaine, Timur's reputation is that of a cruel conqueror. He killed and slaughtered mercilessly thousands of defenders after capturing their cities. He is said to have slaughtered almost eighty thousand people in Delhi when he captured the city.  Timur, was from Muslim origin unlike Tamburlaine who is portrayed as from Christian origin. Even being an Islam, he is known to have shown no mercy to people from his religion or other.  Apart from being a conqueror, Timur had shown interest in art, literature and science and have encouraged developments in these fields that Samarkand became a centre of science and scholarships. He died on Feb 19th 1405 in Otrar, near Chimkent and before he died he divided his vast conquests among his sons.  This is another connection that Marlowe had made in his play where Tamburlaine also makes his son involved in his battles to invade different regions.  


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