Thursday, 30 August 2018

30 August, 1594 - Tamburlaine

Here's what the Admiral's Men performed at the Rose playhouse on this day, 424 years ago...
Henslowe writes: ye 28 of aguste 1594 ... j ... R at tamberlen ... iijll xis 

In modern English: [30th] August, 1594 ... 1 ... Received at Tamburlaine ... £3 and 11 shillings

What a surprise! Today, the Admiral's Men have revived Tamburlaine, an old play that possessed an almost legendary status among the theatregoers of the day.

Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great and its sequel had been mega-hits of the late 1580s. Loosely based on the life of the fourteenth century warlord Timur the Lame, it tells the story of a shepherd who becomes an all-conquering emperor. With its grand speeches, its exotic imagery, and its amoral but awe-inspiring protagonist, the plays dazzled their original audiences, who would still have remembered them in the mid-1590s. You can get some sense of what the Tamburlaine plays are like from this trailer for a recent production in Brooklyn by Theatre for a New Audience:

Why Tamburlaine now?

Illustration of the historical Tamburlaine
from Richard Knolles' General History

of the Turks (1603).
In a way, this diary entry represents Tamburlaine coming home. The play had been first performed in 1587 by an earlier version of the Admiral's Men, here at the Rose playhouse. Then as now, Edward Alleyn was the leading actor of that earlier company, and the role of Tamburlaine had helped to make him a star.

But around 1590-91, Alleyn had left the Admiral's Men to join Lord Strange's Men (whose fortunes we were following at the beginning of this blog). The remnants of the Admiral's Men did not perform in London but rather toured the country. And they seem to have retained ownership of the Tamburlaine plays, because Alleyn did not perform them when he was acting with Strange's Men. Indeed, Strange's Men created instead Tamar Cam, a pair of plays about a different conqueror of Asia, but one with a suspiciously similar name.

Now, in 1594, Alleyn is back at the Rose with a reconstituted version of Admiral's Men, and he has clearly regained possession of Tamburlaine. He is therefore roaring back onto the stage in the role that had made him a legend, finally able to perform it again after many years away from it. This must have been an exciting day at the Rose!

So, what is Tamburlaine, and what is all the excitement about?

 The play

At the beginning of the play, Tamburlaine is a mere shepherd from Scythia (the steppes of Central Asia), who has taken up banditry. He leads a gang of highwaymen who rob travellers on the outskirts of Persia. But prophecies have told him in dreams that one day he will be the "monarch of the East"...

Timur holding court; from the Zafarnamah
of Sharaf al-Din Yazdi
Tamburlaine's unlikely rise to power begins when he captures Zenocrate, daughter of the Sultan of Egypt, who is at first his captive but comes to love him. The ineffectual King Mycetes of Persia sends the warrior Theridamas with troops to kill Tamburlaine, but Theridamas is so impressed by his ambitious enemy that he joins him.

Tamburlaine commands admiration in all who meet him, and is presented as a remarkable, almost superhuman figure. He is "so large of limbs, his joints so strongly knit," that he has "such breadth of shoulders as might mainly bear / Old Atlas's burden". His eyes are "piercing instruments of sight / Whose fiery circles bear encompass├Ęd / A heaven of heavenly bodies in their spheres", and "his lofty brows in folds do figure Death" (II.i).

Tamburlaine joins with the fratricidal Cosroe to help him overthrow his brother, King Mycetes. But Tamburlaine becomes enthralled with the idea of winning a crown for himself.  His lieutenants agree: "To be a king is half to be a god", but Tamburlaine scoffs: "A god is not so glorious as a king. / I think the pleasure they enjoy in heaven / Cannot compare with kingly joys on earth" (II.v). He turns his armies against Cosroe and takes his crown, becoming King of Persia.

The Ottoman Sultan Bajazath I
(anonymous Italian portrait)
All Asia is now concerned about the rise of Tamburlaine, who acquires the nickname of "the scourge and wrath of God" (III.iii). The next ruler to take arms against him is Bajazeth, Emperor of the Turks. Like many monarcxhs before and afterward, Bajazeth is contempuous of the upstart Scythian, but lives to regret his But Bajazeth too is defeated by Tamburlaine's army, and subjected to utter humiliation: he and his wife are kept in a cage, and fed scraps from Tamburlaine's sword; Tamburlaine even uses him as a footstool. Eventually Bajazeth and his queen commit suicide by knocking their own brains out against the bars of the cage.

It is now the turn of Zenocrate's father, the Sultan of Egypt, to join the war against Tamburlaine. But Tamburlaine besieges the city of Damascus, using a colour scheme as a countdown. On the first day, he wears white to show that if the city surrenders, he will not kill anyone. On the second day, he wears red to show that he will kill only the soldiers. The Damascans hold off until the third day, hoping that the Sultan will arrive to rescue them.

Timur beseiging a city, from the
Zafarnamah of Sharaf al-Din Yazdi
But the Sultan does not appear, and on the third day Tamburlaine wears black to signify that he will destroy the city and kill everyone. The Governor of Damascus sends four innocent virgins to Tamburlaine to plead for mercy. But Tamburlaine shows them his sword, telling them "there sits Death, imperious Death, / Keeping his circuit by the slicing edge" (V.i.). He has them killed and massacres everyone else in the city.

Tamburlaine then fights and the Sultan's forces. Zenocrate is in torment, as her lover and her father are at war. But although Tamburlaine wins, he lets the Sultan live. And in the play's final moments, glorying in his domination "from the bounds of Afric to the banks / Of Ganges" Tamburlaine tells his subject kings that he will turn to peace: "Tamburlaine takes truce with all the world." Turning to Zenocrate, he ends the play by telling her,

Then, after all these solemn exequies,
We will our rites of marriage solemnize.

The legacy

It is easy to see why Tamburlaine made such an impression on theatregoers in the late 1580s. In the prologue, Marlowe announces that he is doing something new: he dismisses the silly rhyming verse and clowning of the older drama and tells the audience that they will instead "hear the Scythian Tamburlaine / Threat'ning the world with high astounding terms / And scourging kingdoms with his conquering sword".

Persepolis. It would be passing brave to ride in
triumph through it, do admit.
Those "high astounding terms" refer to the play's soaring poetry, especially Tamburlaine's magnificent speeches that build and build. Some of its lines became legendary, in particular, Tamburlaine's dream of power: "Is it not passing brave to be a king, / And ride in triumph through Persepolis?" (II.v). One of the most interesting descriptions of Tamburlaine in performance is by the clergyman Joseph Hall in his Virgidemiarum (1597), who seems to have been disgusted by the experience, but even his sneery description of "big-sounding sentences" and "terms Italianate" being used to "patch me up his pure iambic verse" also admits that the poetry "ravishes" the gazing spectators.

And the speeches must have sounded incredible when declaimed in the mighty voice of Edward Alleyn, who seems to have brought all of his outsized physical presence to the part: in 1597, a book called The Discovery of the Knights of the Post described a character who "bent his brows" and walked "up and down the room with such a furious gesture as if he had been playing Tamburlaine on a stage". Similarly, Hall refers to "the stalking steps of his great personage".

Map of Asia, from Ortelius's atlas of the world (1570)
The poetry transported the audience to exotic places around the world, and opened the eyes of ordinary Londoners to the vast world that was in the process of being explored by Europeans during the so-called Age of Discovery. Tamburlaine's vision is impressively global: he imagines the pirates of the Mediterranean hiding in fear,
Until the Persian fleet and men-of-war,
Sailing along the oriental sea,
Have fetched about the Indian continent,
Even from Persepolis to Mexico,
And thence unto the Straits of Gibraltar,
Where they shall meet and join their force in one,
Keeping in awe the Bay of Portugal,
And all the ocean of the British shore. (III.iii)
He even plans "to travel to th'Antarctic pole, / Conquering the people under our feet!" (IV.iv). (He'd be disappointed when he got there and found it inhabited only by penguins, but neither Marlowe nor his audience knew that...)

But the play is not simply an exercise in glamorous exoticism. It is genuinely radical in what it is saying. Nature, says Tamburlaine,
Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds:
Our souls, whose faculties can comprehend
The wondrous architecture of the world
And measure every wand'ring planet's course,
Still climbing after knowledge infinite
And always moving as the restless spheres,
Wills to wear ourselves and never rest
Until we reach the ripest fruit of all:
That perfect bliss and sole felicity,
The sweet fruition of an earthly crown. (II.vii)
Title page of a 1592 printing
of Tamburlaine
Placed in the mouth of a mere shepherd, this speech is antithetical to the entire principle of Elizabethan hierarchy, in which power is restricted only to those of noble blood. Tamburlaine upends the social hierachy, showing a man at the bottom rising to the top with only his raw talent and aspiring mind to help him, while the ruling classes are represented as inept or decadent.  Even more astonishingly, at the end of this play, Tamburlaine is the winner. One might expect him to suffer hubris and be punished for his ambition. But no: he rules a vast empire and is very happy to be doing so. (Admittedly, Marlowe did write a tragic sequel shortly afterward, but it's not clear that he always intended to).

What are we to make of this triumphant anti-hero? Tamburlaine is terrifyingly cruel, heartless and uncompromising, yet he is also fascinating and charismatic, drawing followers from every nation that he visits. The effect of the play is complex: as David Fuller puts it, the audience is "simultaneously drawn in by the poetry and repelled by the action". Marlowe offers no help in this matter: his Prologue simply advises the audience "View but his picture in this tragic glass / And then applaud his fortunes as you please".

Although its enormous cast requirements make it a challenge for all but the largest theatre companies, Tamburlaine can still be seen on stage today in the 21st century. Indeed, at the time of writing, Michael Boyd's production, starring Jude Owusu as the Scythian shepherd, can be seen at the Royal Shakespeare Company's Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.


What we learn from this

We learn from today's performance that the Admiral's Men were willing to turn back to older plays rather than constantly chase novelty. Tamburlaine may have been a blast from the past, but it drew a huge audience today, and had clearly been greatly missed by the Rose audience. It's a reminder that although theatre in 1594 is flourishing across London, and Shakespeare is about to write his most famous plays, the older pioneers of Elizabethan drama continue to have a hold on the public.


Tamburlaine information

  • J.S. Cunningham, ed., Tamburlaine the Great. Manchester University Press, 1981. 
  • G.K. Hunter, English Drama, 1586-1642: The Age of Shakespeare. Clarendon Press, 1997.
  • David Fuller, ed., "Introduction", in The Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe, Volume V (Clarendon Press, 1998), xvii-liii
  • Andrew Gurr, Shakespeare's Opposites: The Admiral's Company, 1594-1625 (Cambridge University Press, 2009), 14-17, 33, 207-8.
  • Martin Wiggins, British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue, vol. 2 (Oxford University Press, 2012), entry 784.

Henslowe links


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