Posts Tagged ‘Christopher Marlowe’

Marlowe: The Jew of Malta

March 12, 2020

The Jew of Malta
Christopher Marlowe
(Oxford World’s Classics, 1995) [c.1590]
75 p.

The Jew of Malta, though it involves extortion, fraud, and mass murder, is as close as Marlowe came to writing a comedy, for it ends with the happy comeuppance of its wicked protagonist, and has a fleet, circumstance-rich plot that reminded me of the comedies of Plautus and Menander.

The Jew is Barabas, a rich Maltese citizen called upon to pay the nation’s debts from his own coffers. Refusing, his goods are confiscated and his person thrown into prison. From that low estate he plots revenge on the governors and ruling powers of Malta. Eventually, by cunning and slaughter — of his daughter’s suitors, of a friar, of a group of nuns, of his servant, and even of his own daughter! — he contrives to become governor himself, from which post he plans to execute his final vengeance, only to be caught, at the last minute, in his own trap.

The play has been accused of anti-Semitism, and, indeed, it is hard to avoid the charge. This Jew is rich, greedy, faithless, cunning, and ruthless, and it makes for painful reading. One could argue that a play can have a wicked character without thereby impugning that character’s ethnicity in general, and this is true, but certain passages in the play do the generalizing for us:

I have been zealous in the Jewish faith,
Hard-hearted to the poor, a covetous wretch,
That would for lucre’s sake have sold my soul
(IV, i)

Or consider this exchange:

First help to bury this; then go with me,
And help me to exclaim against the Jew.

Why, what has he done?

A thing that makes me tremble to unfold.

What, has he crucified a child?

Ugly, and no question about it. We can take some comfort, I suppose, in  dramatic irony, as when Barabas knowingly exaggerates his own faults in order to play upon his opponents’ prejudices for his own purposes, and it is true, also, that the Christians in the play are, if not quite so black as Barabas, at least sketched in a dark charcoal:

Know that confession must not be reveal’d;
The canon-law forbids it, and the priest
That makes it known, being degraded first,
Shall be condemn’d, and then sent to the fire.

So I have heard; pray, therefore, keep it close.
Death seizeth on my heart:  ah, gentle friar,
Convert my father that he may be sav’d,
And witness that I die a Christian!          [Dies.]

Ay, and a virgin too; that grieves me most.

Whereupon the good Friar spills the beans about Abigail’s juicy confession.

Really all of the play’s characters, with the exception of poor, dead Abigail, are power hungry, or greedy, or murderous, or selfish, or hypocritical. Barabas is merely the king of this infernal kingdom. No doubt we are more sensitive today to Jewish stereotypes than was Marlowe’s Elizabethan audience, for whom tales about cunning Jews may have been rather like our tales about, say, medieval men, whom we imagine to have been ignorant and brutal as a matter of course: it’s unjust, but convenient rather than malicious. That’s the best construction that could be put on it, anyway.

All the same, we are more sensitive, and there is no doubt that the play is difficult to enjoy as a result. This is not to deny, however, just praise where it is due: it is very well constructed, fabulously witty at times, and works well as a tragic revenge comedy, or a comedic revenge tragedy. It’s a pity that Marlowe didn’t have time to give us an outright comedy.

Marlowe: Tamburlaine

February 6, 2020

Tamburlaine the Great
Parts I and II
Christopher Marlowe
(Oxford World’s Classics, 1995) [c.1587]
136 p.

Most of us, if we read Marlowe, read Doctor Faustus, and I am no exception. But having embarked on a tour of early-ish modern drama, I thought I would back up a few years to read some of Marlowe’s earlier plays, and I landed on this two-part historical drama about the fourteenth-century Eurasian conqueror, Timur.

First, a word about the place of these plays in the grand scheme of things. Elizabethan drama has a high reputation in English letters, mostly, of course, on account of a certain dramatist from Stratford-upon-Avon, but I am a little surprised to find little evidence of noteworthy dramatists before Marlowe, who was an exact contemporary of Shakespeare, and who first took the stage when Elizabeth had already been on the throne for three decades. Elizabethan drama, it seems, was a late but quick bloomer.

With this in mind, it is interesting to learn that Marlowe’s Tamburlaine plays were a new kind of excellent thing, or at least a kind of thing newly excellent. He is credited with demonstrating the dramatic potential of blank verse, and with bringing a fresh and admirable level of craftsmanship to the English stage. The plays were a commercial success, and were the only of Marlowe’s plays to be published in his lifetime.


The Tamburlaine plays chart the rags-to-riches story of a shepherd boy (though, historically, a minor nobleman) who rises to be ruler of a huge swathe of land stretching from Egypt to Persia. He is a man of unwavering courage and winsome charisma who first charms, and then slaughters, his way to the top. Marlowe gives us this evocative description of his person:

Of stature tall, and straightly fashioned,
Like his desire, lift upwards and divine;
So large of limbs, his joints so strongly knit,
Such breadth of shoulders as might mainly bear
Old Atlas’ burden; ‘twixt his manly pitch,
A pearl more worth than all the world is plac’d,
Wherein by curious sovereignty of art
Are fix’d his piercing instruments of sight,
Whose fiery circles bear encompassed
A heaven of heavenly bodies in their spheres,
That guides his steps and actions to the throne
Where honour sits invested royally;
Pale of complexion, wrought in him with passion,
Thirsting with sovereignty and love of arms;
His lofty brows in folds do figure death,
And in their smoothness amity and life;
About them hangs a knot of amber hair,
Wrapped in curls, as fierce Achilles’ was,
On which the breath of heaven delights to play,
Making it dance with wanton majesty;
His arms and fingers long and sinewy,
Betokening valour and excess of strength;—
In every part proportion’d like the man
Should make the world subdu’d to Tamburlaine.
(II, i)

And he himself reveals his defining characteristic — ambition — in a speech from the second play:

Nature, that fram’d us of four elements
Warring within our breasts for regiment,
Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds:
Our souls, whose faculties can comprehend
The wondrous architecture of the world,
And measure every wandering planet’s course,
Still climbing after knowledge infinite,
And always moving as the restless spheres,
Will us 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)

He is a noble character, in the beginning, whose confidence lies in virtue (“the fount whence honour springs / And they are worthy she investeth kings” (Part I, IV, iv)) and a conviction that fate intends him for great things (“And sooner shall the sun fall from his sphere / Than Tamburlaine be slain or overcome.” (Part I, I, ii).

And so he rises, relentlessly, conquering first the Persians, then the Turks, and then marching against Egypt. He marries a beautiful woman, Zenocrates, daughter of the Egyptian ruler, but even this alliance is not enough to quell his conquering spirit. As his power grows, he becomes increasingly cruel, the devotion his men feel for him being gradually replaced by fear, and the slaughter of his enemies becoming ever more theatrical and indiscriminate, until a character can aptly describe him as

The monster that hath drunk a sea of blood,
And yet gapes still for more to quench his thirst
(Part II, V, ii)

(This is not a gross exaggeration on Marlowe’s part; the historical Tamburlaine is estimated to have killed 5% of the world’s population in his wars.)


Despite the violence and bloodshed, there is room in the plays for other kinds of pathos. When, in the second play, Tamburlaine’s wife dies, this man of whom we have become increasingly wary is granted a moving expression of his grief:

Black is the beauty of the brightest day;
The golden ball of heaven’s eternal fire,
That danc’d with glory on the silver waves,
Now wants the fuel that inflam’d his beams;
And all with faintness, and for foul disgrace,
He binds his temples with a frowning cloud,
Ready to darken earth with endless night.
(Part II, II, iv)

And there is even a dash of comedy in the play, especially in a scene from Part I in which the lady-loves of Tamburlaine and his Turkish foe watch the battle from a promontory, exchanging taunts about how each will treat the other when her husband is victorious. It’s worth sampling at some length:

ZABINA. Base concubine, must thou be plac’d by me
That am the empress of the mighty Turk?

ZENOCRATE. Disdainful Turkess, and unreverend boss,
Call’st thou me concubine, that am betroth’d
Unto the great and mighty Tamburlaine?

ZABINA. To Tamburlaine, the great Tartarian thief!

ZENOCRATE. Thou wilt repent these lavish words of thine
When thy great basso-master and thyself
Must plead for mercy at his kingly feet,
And sue to me to be your advocate.

ZABINA. And sue to thee! I tell thee, shameless girl,
Thou shalt be laundress to my waiting-maid.—
How lik’st thou her, Ebea? will she serve?

EBEA. Madam, she thinks perhaps she is too fine;
But I shall turn her into other weeds,
And make her dainty fingers fall to work.

ZENOCRATE. Hear’st thou, Anippe, how thy drudge doth talk?
And how my slave, her mistress, menaceth?
Both for their sauciness shall be employ’d
To dress the common soldiers’ meat and drink;
For we will scorn they should come near ourselves.

ANIPPE. Yet sometimes let your highness send for them
To do the work my chambermaid disdains.
(III, iii)

Ill-humoured humour, perhaps, but humour nonetheless.


Tamburlaine moves from strength to strength as the plays progress, but the plays are tragedies, so we know things must eventually take a turn. We might expect, or at least hope, that Tamburlaine’s downfall would be occasioned by his waxing cruelty, or by some other defect of character, and a seeming prophetic utterance of his Turkish enemy in Part I gives us some ground to expect as much:

BAJAZETH. Great Tamburlaine, great in my overthrow,
Ambitious pride shall make thee fall as low
(IV, ii)

Yet, as it falls out, Tamburlaine simply goes from strength to strength until he doesn’t. We are already in the fifth Act of the second play before, as he prepares to exit a scene, Tamburlaine remarks,

But stay; I feel myself distemper’d suddenly.
(V, i)

And so it happens, nearly as suddenly, that he falls ill and dies. What are we to make of this? It feels arbitrary and anticlimactic to me. Perhaps Marlowe intends us to see in this sudden misfortune the hand of Fate or a judgment of Providence upon Tamburlaine. If so, he goes to his grave quite unconscious of his faults, and boasting of his divine mandate:

Farewell, my boys! my dearest friends, farewell!
My body feels, my soul doth weep to see
Your sweet desires depriv’d my company,
For Tamburlaine, the scourge of God, must die.
(Part II, V, ii)


I have some reservations, then, about the overall dramatic structure of the plays. The plot is, by the standards of at least one of Marlowe’s contemporaries, remarkably simple, following, to a good approximation, a single line and one main character. The tragic element, as I’ve just said, seems peremptory and unmotivated.

But there is much to enjoy as well: the plot, though simple, is sweeping and exotic; the arc of the story is intriguing, as the plays encourages us to admire their central character and then to reluctantly abandon our admiration; and the language of the plays has a weight and eloquence admirably suited to their subject.