From Socialist Review, No. 169, November 1993.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Tamburlaine the Great
by Christopher Marlowe
Christopher Marlowe was born in the 1560s – a time of huge social change. The property relations which had glued sections of the English ruling class together in an uneasy alliance had been smashed by Henry VIII’s Reformation 30 years earlier. Church land was up for grabs and Henry and his mates took full advantage. Enclosure of land had thrown thousands of peasants onto the highways and into the towns.
Political intrigue and royal in-fighting still hung in the air as Elizabeth ascended the throne. Hierarchies and old pecking orders were undermined. New men of wealth and property were emerging to challenge the old.
Henry’s attack on Catholicism set off a tussle for ideological power which was not to be resolved until after the English Revolution a hundred years later. Elizabeth’s reign was marked by vicious battles between different strains of Puritanism while the old Catholic forces kept a watching brief inside and outside the country. The scope and depth of these struggles are amply reflected in Marlowe’s work.
Tamburlaine is a Scythian shepherd who amasses power to conquer the kings of large parts of the world. He is an outsider, a newcomer, in large part like Marlowe himself – who came from humble roots to win a scholarship at Oxford – but also like the new men around Elizabeth’s court.
The character of Tamburlaine can also very clearly be seen as reflecting the then growing belief in the power of reason over mysticism and of the new feeling abroad that man could affect his surroundings and his own future. He need no longer be content with his predetermined fate or reward in some afterlife. ‘Nature that framed us of four elements/Warring within our breasts 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/Wills us to to wear ourselves and never rest/Until we reach the ripest fruit of all/That perfect bliss and soul felicity/The sweet fruition of an earthly crown.’
This was dynamite in the context of 16th century theatre, especially after Elizabeth moved against the more radical elements within the new church she was struggling to control later on in her reign. Marlowe was subject to investigations by her Star Chamber, a slightly less fanatical form of the Inquisition.
Unfortunately, very little of this manages to force its way on to the Barbican stage. What we get is a sort of Conan the Barbarian version of Marlowe, with lots of blood, extended fight scenes and pyrotechnics but not much space for reflection on what the playwright is trying to say. There are two main reasons for this.
Firstly, Barbican managers may well have calculated that unless they present such a play as a sort of blood drenched pantomime no one will want to come and see it. Visual effects take precedence over dramatic content so that at one point Anthony Sher who plays Tamburlaine speaks blank verse while suspended ten foot above the stage gripping a rope with one of his legs. This is certainly athletically very impressive but I for one can’t remember a word he said.
Secondly, the production team are trying to make a point about the danger to society of dictators. While this is obviously something socialists would applaud, Tamburlaine is not the play to do it with. A Scythian shepherd who looks to reason instead of mysticism, while putting one over on kings, is a challenge to social hierarchies and a historically progressive character. He can’t be simply lumped in with the latter day Hitlers of this world as the producers try to.
Attention to history is completely lacking in this production, making the performance simplistic, empty and as an attempt to attack the dangers of dictatorship totally ineffective. This is a great shame, since the play is such a strong one.
Tamburlaine plays in repertory at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Barbican Theatre, London
Last updated: 28 February 2017