One afternoon in London in 1587, a playhouse audience gathered for a new play by an unknown author. An actor stepped onto the stage to declare that the ‘jigging’ rhymes and ‘clownage’ of previous drama would be cast aside. Instead,
We’ll lead you to the stately tent of
Where you shall hear the Scythian Tamburlaine
Threat’ning the world with high astounding terms.
Briefly paraphrased, he was saying: ‘Brace yourselves!’
The author was Christopher Marlowe, a 23-year-old Cambridge graduate. Over the next few hours his audience saw the warrior Tamburlaine (loosely based on a medieval conqueror, Timur the Lame) march his troops across Asia and the Middle East, triumphing over all obstacles. He defeated the King of Persia, he abducted the daughter of the Sultan of Egypt to be his bride, and he made the proud Sultan of Turkey his footstool. Marlowe miraculously conjured vast territories and armies merely through the power of words; drawing on new geographical discoveries, he wielded exotic place-names like incantations: ‘Is it not passing brave to be a king, / And ride in triumph through Persepolis?’
Tamburlaine offered a dream of power to the London citizen audience. His progress from humble shepherd to emperor of the world was an exhilarating parable of self-advancement through self-belief: ‘sooner shall the sun fall from his sphere / Than Tamburlaine be slain or overcome’. Yet this came at a cost. Tamburlaine heartlessly starved and humiliated his prisoners, driving the Sultan of Turkey to brain himself against the bars of his cage. Shockingly, when the virgins of Damascus were sent to plead with Tamburlaine to raise his siege of the city, he unhesitatingly ordered their massacre, bizarrely musing on love and beauty while it was performed. That first audience for Tamburlaine not only experienced unprecedentedly inspiring language and thrilling spectacles; they also found their ethical judgment tested as never before. Was Tamburlaine a magnificent hero, or an appalling monster – or both?
It’s hard to think ourselves back into that ground-breaking moment on the English stage. In 1587, England had not yet defeated the Spanish Armada, and most of what we think of as Elizabethan literature had not yet been published. Shakespeare, born the same year as Marlowe, had not yet written a play. The Globe playhouse, often regarded as the home of Elizabethan drama, would not exist for another 12 years (Tamburlaine was probably performed at the Rose, newly opened in 1587, the first playhouse on Bankside).
Marlowe, then, was a prodigy. Yet six years later he would be dead, leaving a clutch of remarkable plays (two parts of Tamburlaine, Doctor Faustus, The Jew of Malta, and Edward II) and an enduring mystery as to what kind of man he was. His death – stabbed in the eye at a rooming-house in Deptford, purportedly because of an argument about the ‘reckoning’ or bill – has been the subject of endless speculation. Was it a tavern brawl, a fittingly sordid end to a violent life (Marlowe had been in fights before)? Or was Marlowe, as a good deal of circumstantial evidence suggests, connected with the Elizabethan underworld of spies and informers, and did he die because he knew too much? Was he, as some claimed, an atheist and a sodomite? We can certainly conclude from his plays that Marlowe enjoyed probing the moral conventions of the day. A scholar whose insatiable thirst for knowledge drives him to a pact with the devil; a Jew who gleefully schemes and murders yet is more engaging and honest than the Christians who surround him; a king whose passion for a male social climber brings him to abdication and a grotesque death: all these creations by Marlowe are provocations to searching debate.
Not surprisingly, Marlowe’s plays were massive hits. In a culture where many plays lasted for one performance only, Marlowe’s works drew audiences well into the seventeenth century. They take us to the heart of many important issues in the history of English Renaissance drama. Although Marlowe was clearly a maverick and an individualist, all writers for the Elizabethan playhouse worked as members of a team. Marlowe’s writing was undoubtedly shaped and influenced by Edward Alleyn, a star actor known for his ‘stalking and roaring’ performances, who played Tamburlaine, Faustus, and Barabas (the Jew of Malta). Marlowe’s works also illustrate the fluidity of the Renaissance play-text: Doctor Faustus, in particular, exists in widely varying versions, reflecting additions and alterations made by others after Marlowe’s death. Marlowe’s own words may be irrecoverable, and in any case it could be argued that the play as most often performed (even if a palimpsest by several different hands) is the most ‘authentic’ version.
Marlowe’s plays, then, exemplify the artistic and thematic complexity of Renaissance drama, and its innovation and excitement. They also remind us that the story of English Renaissance drama is far more than just the story of Shakespeare – though this is by no means to underplay Shakespeare’s importance. At the end of Tamburlaine part 2 the dying protagonist calls for a map, to survey not the vast empire that he has conquered, but the many lands that remain unexplored and unconquered. We can emulate him by adventuring into the lesser known territories of the wide world of Renaissance drama. ■
Helen Hackett is the author of A Short History of English Renaissance Drama, which is available now.