Shakespearing #19.2: Another Interlude

Shakespearing #19.2 by David Foley

Another Interlude: Tamburlaine

Since it was Marlowe who first got me started on my Shakespeare project, I thought I’d pause and take in the wonderfully bloody and inventive production of Tamburlaine, Parts 1 and 2, at Theatre for a New Audience. I’d never read the plays before, but managed to do so last week, and that helped me follow the plot, though plot is not quite the word for what happens. It’s hard to have a plot when there’s only one cause and one effect. Tamburlaine conquers and the world submits. Over and over. Tamburlaine is his own cause; indeed as the play goes on he sets up himself up as rival to the First Cause, God himself.

It’s hard to see or read Marlowe without a renewed bewilderment at the folks who think Marlowe wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare’s voice is multiple and various, where Marlowe’s is single and obsessive. But even that doesn’t get at the difference between the two. Marlowe is almost the anti-Shakespeare. Shakespeare reconciles. Even his bloodiest plays try to set the world back in balance. In Tamburlaine, Marlowe shows no such concern. He’s fascinated by will, and if people are guilty of anything in the play, it’s insufficient will, or rather will without the might or perhaps mana to back it up. As the evening winds towards its end, we think we may finally have found the one person willing to change the story, to oppose honor and dignity against Tamburlaine’s will. The defeated governor of Babylon defies him: “Do all thy worst. Nor death, nor Tamburlaine,/Torture, or pain, can daunt my dreadless mind.” But in his very next line, he begs and bargains for his life. Tamburlaine, true to form, accepts the bribe and kills him anyway. In this play, weakness is the only sin. Or to be more accurate, since none of the characters is actually weak, to be weaker is the only sin.

This gives enormous strength to the poetry. It plays much better than it reads. On the page, it lacks the surprise and mobility of Shakespeare, but spoken, particularly here in John Douglas Thompson’s magnificent performance, the lines sing.

19.2 TamburlaineYou can imagine how they intoxicated their Elizabethan audience. If the language starts to weary after a while, it’s because it hits the same note over and over, although with admirable versatility. Marlowe’s song is the song of will and reach. Even in Tamburlaine’s mourning for his wife Zenocrate (in which, intriguingly, Marlowe uses a ghazal-like refrain: “To entertain divine Zenocrate”), the language vaults towards the skies, not in spiritual longing but in a kind of ambition of grief.

But will is not the same as drama, and it’s certainly not the same as psychology, which seems to interest Marlowe not at all. People try to impose their wills on situations, and this requires some changing as situations change, but the emotional texture of the characters is largely diagrammatic: pride + imprisonment = helpless rage. This is particularly notable in the character of Zenocrate, who must be both in love with Tamburlaine and devastated at Tamburlaine’s destruction of her city and his murder of her friends. As a portrait of fate, it’s mysterious and terrible. As psychology, it’s nearly unplayable. Shakespeare would unfold a psychological bind for us. He’d make it not just believable, but harrowingly so. Marlowe is more interested in the fact itself. Like everyone else, Zenocrate must bow to power. The fact that she loves Tamburlaine in spite of his ruthlessness—his literal, constitutional lack of ruth—is the tribute love pays to power.

The production gets this tone exactly right. It bathes the stage in blood, blood being the sign of ruthlessness. Marlowe, too, continually reminds us of the cost in blood. The corpses pile up. There’s never any question of a humane side to his hero. And yet he remains a hero, a figure of fascination, even admiration. At times, Marlowe seems to fascinate himself, to ask himself how horrific he can make the man’s deeds and still set him up as a hero. Virgins begging for their lives are raped and slaughtered. Thousands of men, women, and children are put to the sword or, at Babylon, drowned in a lake. Like Zenocrate, Marlowe seems to ask himself how much horror he can face and still love. The fascinating villain, of course, is a staple of literature. In his final decadence, he becomes Hannibal Lecter. But here we’re still in the realm of Camus’s rebel: a man vying with God himself, defying God’s mercy as he embodies his mercilessness.

The back cover of my Penguin edition of Marlowe mentions a debate as to whether Marlowe was an “atheist rebel” or a “Christian traditionalist.” On the evidence of Tamburlaine, you’d have to plunk for the former. In a scene in which the Christian King of Hungary and the Muslim King of Natolia trade notes, Marlowe slyly draws an equivalence between the Virgin Birth and Mahomet’s coffin rising to Mecca’s roof when he died. Both, he seems to imply, are equally improbable legends. And this is before Tamburlaine burns the “superstitious books” in one of his last acts. It may be that to be religious you need to be able to imagine a place for pity in the world. Shakespeare’s world view is essentially compassionate. Marlowe’s is pitiless, and director Michael Boyd’s production reveals that such a vision has its own ravishing power.


David FoleyDavid Foley is a playwright and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. His plays include Cressida Among the Greeks, Paradise, Nance O’Neil, The Murders at ArgosA Hole in the Fence, and Sad Hotel, among others. His novel The Traveler’s Companion is available on Amazon. He teaches at New York University.

3 responses to “Shakespearing #19.2: Another Interlude”

  1. […] “much fall of blood, whose guiltless drops/Are every one a woe.” No martial adventurer (no Tamburlaine), Henry knows that the cost of war is paid in the blood of real soldiers. The Archbishop offers 63 […]

  2. […] be fair, easier to follow sitting well-rested on a sofa than frazzled and dragging in a theater). Tamburlaine, too, is alien to us. The things that thrilled his Elizabethan audience now appall us. The recent […]

  3. […] interesting to read Cymbeline in context of ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore and Tamburlaine. Those plays, written after and before Shakespeare respectively, are easier to read. Their language […]

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