If you do not have a grasp of the brutality that human beings have been capable of practicing throughout the history of this planet, please make a point to read
this play. It is actually two plays, Part 1 and Part 2, written in about 1587.
Wikipedia has an excellent
article about the real person, a Mongol warrior known as Tamerlane who began his life as a Scythian shepherd. He became a savage scourge throughout Europe
and Asia, wiping out an estimated 17 million people (about 5 percent of the population) during his reign of terror. Tamerlane lived from 1336 to 1405.
I won't write too much about Marlowe himself, since I wrote a great deal about him in the review of The Jew of Malta. But let it suffice to say that he had a thing for evil characters, and this one makes both the Jew and Dr. Faustus look like naughty boys.
In Part 1, we meet Mycetes, the incompetent King of Persia as his brother Cosroe plots against him. It is an easy conquest, but his triumph is short-lived. Next we meet Tamburlaine as he has just captured Zenocrate, daughter of the Soldan of Egypt, who is betrothed to someone else. However, Tamburlaine does woo and win her, and his only moments of love and tenderness are in her presence.
Though Cosroe thinks he has a pact with Tamburlaine, he is mistaken, and soon slaughtered. Here we begin to see the ruthlessness of the barbaric Mongol, as he and his armies move like a blaze of fire, wiping out everything in their path.
Next is Bajazeth, Emperor of the Turks, who is captured along with his wife. He is put in a cage, and she is forced to be a slave to Zenocrate's handmaid. To say they refuse to cooperate is an understatement. They both commit suicide by smashing their brains out by banging their heads against the wall.
Tamburlaine has his own methods for dealing with his enemies, and just about everyone is his enemy. When his encampment moves in, he flies the white flag for three days, allowing the town to surrender. It then moves to blood red, then black, and nothing can reverse Tamburlaine's decision at that point. The Governor of Damascus dares to try him by sending virgins to negotiate after the white flags come down, and he responds by slaughtering them and hanging out their bodies on the wall. He is utterly merciless and barbaric. Brutal murder of women and children is his privilege.
And arrogant, but his arrogance takes on a level of evil that few people are able to reach. He not only believes and brags that the gods, and Mahomet (Mohammed) are on his side, and his is the side of righteousness—power is rewarded no matter how savagely it is used, but as he conquers more and more countries, he believes himself superior to the gods.
In Part 2, some years later, we learn that Zenocrate has borne him three sons: Calyphas, Amyras, and Celebinus. Two Tamburlaine loves, but Calyphas he hates because he is too effeminate and refuses to fight. Zenocrate soon dies, and to vent his grief, Tamburlaine burns down the town.
"So burn the turrets of this cursed town,
Flame to the highest region of the air,
And kindle heaps of exhalations
That being fiery meteors may presage
Death and destruction to the inhabitants!
Over my zenith hang a blazing star,
That may endure till Heaven be dissolved,
Fed with the fresh supply of earthly dregs,
Threatening a death and famine to this land!
Flying dragons, lightning, fearful thunderclaps,
Singe these fair plains, and make them seem as black
As in the island where the furies mask,
Compassed with Lethe, Styx, and Phlegethon,
Because my dear'st Zenocrate is dead.
Then he mocks Mahomet, and burns the holy books, declaring his superiority:
Well, soldiers, Mahomet remains in Hell;
He cannot hear the voice of Tamburlaine;
Seek out another Godhead to adore,
The God that sits in Heaven, if any God;
For he is God alone, and none but he."
But in the end, no God will save him, and he is struck down with a fatal disease and dies.
In spite of the horror of the play's brutality, Marlowe was a master poet and the beauty of his verse is a feast for the senses. One ponders what this man could have achieved had he lived to old age. Would Shakespeare hold the position he does now? I wonder. . .
Here are some beautiful images taken from the Wikipedia article:
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