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Justice is a mirage: failures of religious order in Marlowe's Tamburlaine plays.

In The Defence of Poesy, Philip Sidney declares that poetry is morally useful because it can portray not only what "is or is not, but what should or should not be" (1) Unlike philosophy, which is abstract, or history, which is bound to record events as they happened, literature's representative and imaginative qualities allow it to create an easily comprehensible picture of virtue. Performed a year after Sidney's death (but eight years before the publication of the Defence), Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine plays could not be further from this moral project. The play's titular character incarcerates people in cages, kills his own son, burns an entire city to the ground, forces prisoners of war to draw his chariot, and openly defies the gods. While most early modern playwrights bring tyrants like Tamburlaine to violent ends, Marlowe ushers his protagonist into a comparatively comfortable death that caps off a victorious military career. Surrounded by friends, physicians, and multiple sons who can take over his empire, Tamburlaine's only regret is that he has not conquered more land. Although Tamburlaine fills two plays with his acts of cruelty, he himself never experiences cruelty, even at his death.

For contemporary readers accustomed to the poetic justice of the Duke's murder in The Revenger's Tragedy or the fatal plot twist that kills Macbeth, Tamburlaine's death seems out of place with a central tradition of early modern English drama. Why is a character who routinely slaughters civilians, women, and children and who treats humans like animals allowed to die unpunished? While Sidney, had he been alive, might have read Marlowe's plays as an abuse of poetry's power, I argue that the plays perform a different kind of cultural work: instead of offering models of virtuous or immoral behavior, they invite spectators to critique the efficacy of institutions that seek to enforce such moral codes. Tamburlaine and other characters frequently invoke justice as defined by Christianity, Islam, and paganism, but none of these religious orders offers an adequate explanation for the apparent injustice of Tamburlaine's life. Rather than show how Christianity is superior to Islam and polytheism, the plays produce skeptical interpretations of every religious order--and thus of religious justice as a concept.

Some critics have looked to the historical record to explain Marlowe's seeming lack of concern with justice in Tamburlaine I and II. (2) That is, because the historical Tamburlaine did not suffer military defeat, Marlowe cannot afford his character a tragic fall without stretching the limits of his audience's credulity. Yet because almost no early modern playwright deemed an accurate account of real-life events essential to a "history play" such an argument cannot explain Marlowe's choice to represent Tamburlaine as a terrifying tyrant who escapes both divine and human justice. Furthermore, since Tamburlaine I and II were not commissioned but were conceived by Marlowe himself, one might ask why he chose to dramatize a story of such inexplicable suffering and chilling injustice. (3) I propose that Marlowe was attracted to this story precisely because it provides little, if any, affirmation of his own society's religious ideals of justice.

In his formulation of religion as an anthropological phenomenon, Clifford Geertz describes the cultural work of a religious order as "the formulation, by means of symbols, of an image of such a genuine order of the world which will account for, and even celebrate, the perceived ambiguities, puzzles, and paradoxes in human experience. The effort is not to deny the undeniable--that there are unexplained events, that life hurts, or that rain falls upon the just--but to deny that there are inexplicable events, that life is unendurable, that justice is a mirage." (4) By repeatedly representing situations in which religious faith has no bearing on military success or failure, the Tamburlaine plays raise doubts about whether religion is the correct lens through which to view any historical or political event. For an early modern audience all too familiar with the interchangeability of political and religious rhetoric, the plays threaten to invalidate religion as an adequate predictor, organizer, or explainer of human politics.

Recent criticism of the Tamburlaine plays attempts to explain their attitude toward justice in terms of three main cultural phenomena: political ideology, class identity, and religious history. Criticism influenced by postcolonialist theory focuses on international politics and ideology, reading the main tensions of the Tamburlaine plays in dialogue with English attitudes toward imperialism and colonization. (5) In these readings, Tamburlaine becomes an allegory for the ideal--if also problematic--English conqueror. Scholars of national politics and social class take a more local approach, drawing similarities between Tamburlaine's ethos and emerging republican thought or between his entrepreneurial interests and those of the middle class in early modern London. (6) Like London's middle class, the shepherd-turned-conqueror scorns a social hierarchy based on pedigree rather than merit. Criticism addressing the plays' religious attitudes, however, tends to be more divergent. Perhaps in an attempt to avoid the now unfashionable habit of reading Marlowe's plays as evidence of his "atheism" recent critics have been eager to tease out the specific religious affiliations of the Tamburlaine plays and their titular character. In the past fifteen years, the plays have been read as affirming Anglican Christianity, critiquing antinomian thought, promoting anti-Catholic propaganda, imagining an ideal Calvinist world, and representing the apocalypse. (7) I suggest that scholars' ability to locate so many different and contradictory strands of religious affiliation in the Tamburlaine plays is symptomatic of the plays' larger attitude toward religion--namely, that they deliberately contest the idea that any one system of faith can fully explain human events. (8)

Whether characters express faith in the gods, Islam, or Christianity, no representation of these religious systems articulates a coherent sense of order that could explain the events of the plays. All three religions' failures to enforce divine justice produce resounding doubts in God's or the gods' power. No matter how often characters remind deities of their promises to reward good and punish wrongdoing, evil consistently triumphs in the plays. At first, characters are confident that God will come to the aid of his devotees, but their prayers go unanswered as Tamburlaine swoops in to steal crowns, hostages, and kingdoms. The plays are peopled with characters desperate to assign a supernatural cause to the outcomes of war and the horrors of suffering. Yet as characters seek to explain events as the product of supernatural powers, Marlowe also engineers the action of the plays in such a way as to render these characters' explanations ridiculous, untenable, or incomplete at best. I argue that the Tamburlaine plays maintain an equally decisive skepticism toward all supernatural forces and deities, including those of Islam, paganism, and Christianity.

While skepticism need not imply unbelief, such an interpretation of the Tamburlaine plays does evoke certain aspects of the perennial debate about Marlowe's atheism. Because Marlowe's personal beliefs and the cultural work his plays perform for spectators are two vastly different things, many scholars now wisely hesitate to draw direct relationships between allegations of Marlowe's atheism and the religious discourse his plays produce. (9) Recent scholarship in the history of ideas, however, suggests that "atheism" in the sense of "unbelief" was a genuine, if rare, historical phenomenon in early modern England. (10) Michael Hunter explains that while the word atheism was a widespread term of abuse, often applied to heterodox thought, licentious living, and rival sectarian beliefs, it also carried the additional meaning of "irreligion in the sense of a more or less extreme attack on orthodox Christianity from a cynical or Deistic viewpoint." (11)

But even as scholars recover the intellectual threads of an "atheist" tradition in early modern England, they remain reluctant to apply this tradition to Marlowe's work. While Nicholas Davidson points out that British culture of the 1580s and 1590s was especially anxious about atheism, he maintains that Christian orthodoxy ultimately wins out in the Tamburlaine plays since their hero does not have a peaceful or happy death. (12) While I make no claims for Marlowe's personal convictions-about which one can only speculate--I contend that the skepticism of the Tamburlaine plays offered early modern spectators the opportunity to consider irreligion or unbelief as a viable worldview.

Literary criticism about religion in the Tamburlaine plays generally takes a historical approach, mining the plays for clues about contemporary religious conflict in early modern England, despite the plays' portrayal of events outside of England. In order to glean domestic religious discourse from the plays, critics must argue that references to foreign deities are sometimes euphemisms for Christian concepts. Yet because early modern Christian practice often involved discrediting other religions, critics must also consider the possibility that some of the plays' references to non-Christian deities are meant to be taken literally. These opposing interpretive possibilities turn the plays' portrayals of non-Christian faiths into dubious signifiers, which critics (as well as spectators) interpret in wildly different ways. In contrast with the relatively stable allegories of earlier English drama, such as morality plays, the Tamburlaine plays draw attention to the "arbitrary" nature of signs in the theater and the "opportunistic" possibilities for those interpreting the signs. Just as Tamburlaine "progressively reinterprets his motives and role" so do the plays' unstable representations of supernatural order afford an audience multiple interpretive choices. (13) But in the process of providing so many choices, the plays generate a skeptical atmosphere in which spectators can never be quite sure which religious interpretation is the "right" one.

Because the Tamburlaine plays deal with a range of geographical regions and ethnicities, they present a broad range of such explanatory symbolic orders. Characters from the Persians to Tamburlaine himself evoke a generically pagan order that recognizes classical gods and mythical entities such as Jove, Pluto, and the Furies. Broad allusions to this pagan order constitute the most frequent religious references in the plays, but some characters also look to monotheistic deities, such as the Muslim Mahomet or the Christian God. (14) Paganism, Islam, and Christianity make up the three major religious orders in the Tamburlaine plays, but it is often difficult to untangle these systems from one another. Despite their usual religious affiliations, characters often indiscriminately pray to deities from other religious orders. (15) But whether characters try to make sense of the world through Islam, Christianity, or paganism, the Tamburlaine plays relentlessly undermine all three of these religious orders. Marlowe's plays signal a remarkable moment in the history of early modern English drama because they portray Christianity as simply another unsatisfactory and irrational worldview, along with paganism and Islam.

While Tamburlaine invokes deities from all three religious orders, Jove is the one to whom he most often refers. Tamburlaine's wildly inconsistent articulation of his relationship to Jove offers one of the first hints that "Jove" may be an empty concept rather than an actual force in the plays. Sometimes Tamburlaine implies that he operates as Jove's human instrument in the world. In Part I, he claims that Jove will protect him from harm (1.2.179-81), and in Part II, he insists that he will not give up being cruel until Jove commands him to (4.2.124-26), that Jove might deem him too good for the world one day (4.4.60-63), and that he is Jove's messenger (5.1.92). Yet at other moments, Tamburlaine irreverently dismisses Jove's power, claiming that Jove is afraid of him and does his bidding (Part I, 5.7.389-93), that Jove will be petrified by the amount of blood he will shed (Part II, 1.4.38-44), and that love has made an enemy of him (4.2.46-56).

Sometimes Tamburlaine expresses contradictory attitudes toward Jove in the same scene. In Part II, when Tamburlaine executes Calyphas for refusing to fight in the wars, he curses Jove for giving him such an unworthy son, threatening, "Thou hast procured a greater enemy / Than he that darted mountains at thy head" (4.2.52-53). Yet only twenty lines later, he reminds his captives Orcanes and the King of Jerusalem that he has been "made arch-monarch of the world, / Crowned and invested by the hand of Jove" (75-76). If audience members take both of these utterances seriously, they are faced with an interesting conundrum. Either Jove does not mind that his servant boasts publicly about his own agency without crediting Jove as the source of his power, or Tamburlaine is pretending that his power comes from Jove when it really comes from another source. The first possibility makes Jove look weak; the second makes him irrelevant. In either case, Jove's omnipotence is incompatible with Tamburlaine's insolence.

In the scene mentioned above, Tamburlaine implies that he acts as the agent of Jove's desires--if Jove abhors something, Tamburlaine will scour it from the earth. Yet a closer look at his language reveals an unsettling tension in the agent-cause relationship. Although Tamburlaine describes Jove as "heaven's eternal majesty," it is not clear who holds the upper hand in this power arrangement:
   Villains, these terrors and these tyrannies--
   If tyrannies war's justice ye repute--
   I execute, enjoined me from above,
   To scourge the pride of such as heaven abhors;
   Nor am I made arch-monarch of the world,
   Crowned and invested by the hand of Jove,
   For deeds of bounty or nobility;
   But since I exercise a greater name,
   The scourge of God and terror of the world,
   I must apply myself to fit those terms,
   In war, in blood, in death, in cruelty,
   And plague such peasants as resist in me
   The power of heaven's eternal majesty.


By using passive verb constructions such as "enjoined" "invested" "made" and "crowned,' Tamburlaine seems at first to identify Jove as the main source of power through which he receives his own license to act. Yet, as the passage continues, Tamburlaine begins to employ active verbs, such as "exercise," "apply," and "plague," that indicate he himself is the main actor. As Tamburlaine's grammar slyly begins to privilege his own power over Jove's, his speech also demonstrates language's ability to affix different moral labels to the same event; what Orcanes and Jerusalem call "tyrannies," he calls "war's justices." Not only does Tamburlaine use his eloquence to redefine terms, but he draws the audience's attention to this malleability of language by emphasizing words such as "name" and "terms." As Tamburlaine "appl[ies] [him]self to fit those terms" that others have created to explain his military successes, Marlowe suggests that his protagonist inhabits his received title as "the scourge of God" not because it is accurate, but because it makes sense to others. Thus, an audience is led to wonder if love in any way contributes to Tamburlaine's power or if the god merely serves as a convenient concept for the tyrant to manipulate further those who believe in a world controlled by a deity.

While the above speech occurs near the end of Part II, Tamburlaine expresses open contempt for the gods' strength throughout the plays. After conquering the Soldan of Egypt in Part I, he declares, "Jove, viewing me in arms, looks pale and wan, / Fearing my power should pull him from his throne" (5.2.389-90). Tamburlaine goes on to claim that the Fates and Death are working overtime at his service, clogging the banks of the Styx with souls bound for hell. By portraying Jove as an anxious and jealous ally, Tamburlaine suggests that the god is his agent rather than the other way around.

As if these inconsistencies were not enough to prove his point, Marlowe toys with his audience's expectations of religious justice by setting up dramatic situations that seem to portray divine vengeance only to be revealed as having other causes. Tamburlaine's defeat of Cosroe in Part I offers the clearest example of his conquering someone who is actually wicked. Unlike the citizens of Damascus and the Soldan of Egypt, whose main crimes are waiting too long to surrender to Tamburlaine, Cosroe's depravity truly seems to merit his downfall. Cosroe has just risen to the throne of Persia by seizing the crown from his brother Mycetes. The Persian king's filial treachery and political treason mark him as a prime candidate for God's just punishment. His death by political betrayal offers spectators a ripe opportunity to revel in divine justice--because Cosroe unlawfully deposed his brother, his own political overthrow and death satisfactorily complete the moral and aesthetic cycle of justice. As in Geertz's theory of religious order, this event proves that some divinity monitors human actions and rewards them accordingly--in short, that justice is not a mirage.

Yet just as spectators get a chance to marvel at the aptness of this punishment, Marlowe negates such an interpretation of Cosroe's death by refusing to let Tamburlaine verbalize the expected moral. Instead of lecturing Cosroe on the idea of "reaping what one sows" or proclaiming his duty to punish the wicked, Tamburlaine admits that his own lust for earthly political power led him to betray the Persian king. Even more surprisingly, Tamburlaine cites Jove as his "precedent" for committing such a violent and dishonest action:
   The thirst of reign and sweetness of a crown,
   That caused the eldest son of heavenly Ops
   To thrust his doting father from his chair,
   And place himself in the imperial heaven,
   Moved me to manage arms against thy state.
   What better precedent than mighty Jove?


Instead of claiming a moral superiority over Cosroe, Tamburlaine acknowledges that all people seek "[t]he sweet fruition of an earthly crown" (1.29). Even the gods value power so highly that they will put their own ambitions before filial and political obligations. Tamburlaine's picture of Jove is a troubling one--if the gods have so little regard for justice that they will steal thrones from each other, how can people expect them to support justice in human politics?

Tamburlaine's identification of himself with Jove collapses the difference between humans and gods, painting both as beings who value power over justice. This amoral representation of the gods opens up the disconcerting possibility that Cosroe is not being punished for fratricide at all; rather, he may simply be next in line to fall prey to a greater power. Thus, instead of framing Cosroe's death as God's punishment of a traitor, Marlowe suggests that his defeat is a secular byproduct of humanity's ongoing struggle for power. Once again, audience members must ask themselves whether Tamburlaine really believes that Jove's example justifies his own martial exploits, or whether the tyrant's invocation of the god ironically suggests that the world is not governed by deities who care about justice.

Tamburlaine further undermines the gods' relevance to his success as he assumes Cosroe's crown:
   Tamburlaine: Though Mars himself, the angry god of arms,
   And all the earthly potentates conspire
   To dispossess me of this diadem,
   Yet will I wear it in despite of them,
   As great commander of this eastern world,
   If you but say that Tamburlaine shall reign.
   All: Long live Tamburlaine, and reign in Asia!
   Tamburlaine: So; now it is more surer on my head
   Than if the gods had held a parliament,
   And all pronounced me king of Persia.


Instead of viewing his newly gained kingdom as a gift from the gods, Tamburlaine acknowledges human approval as a more valuable source of power. (16) This attention to visible earthly forces accords with his earlier claim that humanity's will drives it to "reach the ripest fruit of all, / That perfect bliss and sole felicity, / The sweet fruition of an earthly crown" (2.7.27-29). "Perfect bliss and sole felicity" sound like heavenly rewards for a pious life, so it is jarring when Tamburlaine asserts that political power can produce such feelings. Despite all his verbal claims to divine power, Tamburlaine suggests here that religious concepts derive from human politics rather than vice versa. This idea departs radically from the early modern commonplace that human domestic and political systems are modeled after divine relationships between God and man.

Thus far I have demonstrated that pagan symbolic orders do not work smoothly in the Tamburlaine plays, an observation that may not seem remarkable for texts that are products of early modern British (and therefore Christian) culture. Yet because Tamburlaine is never punished for the cruelties he sometimes attributes to the help of pagan gods, some critics propose that Jove and the gods are meant to be read as euphemisms for the Christian God. (17) In these readings, Tamburlaine enjoys an exceptional access to God's power, which allows him to act as God's instrument of punishment to wicked people. But despite its assumption of Christianity's superiority, early modern British culture was also engaged in debates about the relationship between classical Greek and Roman thought and Christian theology. Because early modern literature invokes classical culture both as a virtuous prototype of Christianity and as a foil to set off Christianity's superiority, it is difficult to determine when references to pagan deities on the Renaissance stage are meant to be understood literally and when they are meant to be read as thinly veiled stand-ins for the Christian God.

Not only does the Tamburlaine plays' inconsistent representation of pagan faiths make it impossible to determine in which way one should read Jove, but it also reveals that both interpretations lack a coherent version of divine justice. If Jove signifies the Christian God, one can read Tamburlaine's attitude toward him as a depiction of his relationship to God. Critics who assume a euphemistic function for the non-Christian faiths in Tamburlaine, however, come to vastly different conclusions about this relationship. Roger Moore uses this interpretive method to read Tamburlaine's death as a consequence of his radical, antinomian irreverence toward established religion. (18) Jeff Dailey uses it to imply Tamburlaine's Christian prerogative to commit such violent actions. (19) Both readings remain problematic: in the first case, Tamburlaine's "fall" is not drastic enough to signify its status as a punishment; in the second, the Christian God does not appear to be just.

Instead, I would argue that when either euphemistic or literal interpretations of Jove are carried to their logical conclusions, both lead to a skeptical reading. Those who read Jove as a Christian symbol must accept that all of Tamburlaine's violence, including the slaughter of women and children, is fully endorsed by the Christian God. They must also accept a God who licenses grabbing power by any means, including deception. And finally, they must find a way to explain numerous moments when Tamburlaine either explicitly defies Jove or calls attention to the unjust aspects of his nature. Must spectators conclude that this is also the plays' view of the Christian God?

If spectators read Marlowe's undermining of pagan orders literally, they are left with the sense that he satirizes these symbolic orders without offering a viable Christian alternative. Tamburlaine does not suffer the poetic or divine justice of being killed by methods as violent as his own, which suggests that the plays do not condemn Jove and paganism in favor of an alternative religious order that does punish cruelty. Indeed, it seems that no deity can control Tamburlaine's destructive rampages. Geertz argues that religion's social function is to help people accept events that seem unjust by looking forward to future reward or punishment, but Tamburlaine exploits this social function of religion by invoking the highest powers his subjects and captives can imagine and then positioning himself above these powers. In either case, the plays chip away at both pagan and Christian symbolic orders, offering an audience two equally troubling possibilities: either Tamburlaine is a pagan falsely claiming to be God's instrument, yet never checked by that God, or he is truly the scourge of a God who might not be altogether just.

If Jove's power is uncertain in the Tamburlaine plays, Mahomet's is decidedly irrelevant. Like other early modern caricatures, Muslims in Marlowe's plays are sometimes cowardly and effeminate, but his equally disparaging portraits of Christians and pagans undermine the idea that these qualities are uniquely Islamic traits. It is important to note that the Ottoman Empire posed a significant threat to England at the time of the plays' performance--onstage representations of Muslim defeat were likely a welcome form of wish fulfillment for English audiences anxious about Ottoman power in Europe. Yet while some of the most gruesome deaths in the plays happen to Muslim characters, Marlowe refuses to characterize these deaths as Christian victories over false gods, as early modern politicians might have done. I propose that the plays' representation of Mahomet paints the prophet not as the reason for Muslim defeat but as simply another empty religious signifier. Like the pagans (and the Christians, as I will discuss later), Muslim characters seek justice and order in a religious figure whose lack of power proves no different from Jove's or Christ's.

While characters give lip service to Mahomet's power, they often question his very existence when he fails to rescue Muslims from Tamburlaine. Non-Muslim characters scorn Mahomet for his inability to respond to his devotees' suffering, and even Muslim characters are brought to such despair that they no longer believe in their prophet's power. The deaths of the Turkish emperor, Bajazeth, and his wife, Zabina, offer one of the plays' most memorable instances of Muslim despair. Near the end of Part I, Tamburlaine imprisons Bajazeth in a cage and brings him out for entertainment during dinner. As those around the starving Bajazeth feast on fine delicacies, Tamburlaine mocks the Turkish emperor, suggesting that he eat his own flesh if he is hungry. When Bajazeth refuses the scraps offered him, Tamburlaine thunders, "Take it up, villain, and eat it, or I will make thee slice the brawns of thy arms into carbonadoes and eat them" (4.4.43-44). One of Tamburlaine's attending lords, Usumcasane, suggests that Bajazeth eat his wife first so that her flesh may keep him alive for another month. As he looks on, Theridamas muses, "Dost thou think that Mahomet will suffer this?" (4.4.51). In a reply that could sum up the plays' approach to deity in general as well as to Mahomet specifically, Techelles rejoins, "'Tis like he will, when he cannot let it" (4.4.52). (20) Techelles' remark can imply either that Mahomet's nonexistence ensures that he will not deliver his followers or that Mahomet does exist but is too weak to intervene in the affairs of powerful humans. In either case, Mahomet is irrelevant--he holds no sway over the course of human politics.

The plays' events bear out Techelles' words about Mahomet, despite the number of characters who express the belief that Mahomet will reward and protect his servants. In Part I, Zabina trusts that Mahomet will allow her husband, Bajazeth, to win the battle in return for the Turkish emperor's sacrifices to the prophet (3.3.195-200). Bajazeth himself also prays to Mahomet's priests for vengeance when he has been captured by Tamburlaine and forced into a cage (4.2.2-7). Yet the pair is forced to give up their illusions that Mahomet is either able or willing to deliver them from Tamburlaine's cruelties. By the end of their lives, Zabina comes to regard Islam's symbolic order as an empty one, crying out, "Then is there left no Mahomet, no God, / No fiend, no fortune, nor no hope of end / To our infamous, monstrous slaveries?" (5.2.176-78). Both plunge into despair, killing themselves by bashing out their brains against the side of the cage in which Bajazeth is imprisoned.

Although Tamburlaine's bombastic speeches make up most of the irreverence directed at Jove, other characters join him in dismissing the Muslim prophet Mahomet. Non-Muslim characters scorn the prophet as an ineffective being whose power can be surpassed by humans. In Part I, Zenocrate declares that she would not believe Mahomet if he descended from heaven in person to tell her Tamburlaine had lost a battle (3.3.20811), and in Part II, Theridamas claims that Tamburlaine is greater than Mahomet (3.4.45-46). Even Muslim characters blaspheme the name of Mahomet, insisting that there are situations in which they would not be ruled by him. In Part II, the captain of Babylon protests that he would not yield the city to Tamburlaine even if the conqueror's men were Mahomet's brothers (3.3.35-37), and the traitorous Amasia assures his new Turkish master, Callipine, that the prince could fight off both God and Mahomet if he chose (5.2.37-41).

The presence of Islam in the Tamburlaine plays further complicates attempts to understand their religious attitudes. Critics are faced with a similar question to that about Jove and the pagan gods: should references to Mahomet be read literally or euphemistically?21 At many points, Mahomet's failure to rescue Muslims appears to be a typical sign of his status as a false prophet. At other times, however, critics are tempted to read Tamburlaine's own disrespect for Mahomet as a profound expression of general godlessness rather than as a critique directed only at Islam. The temporal proximity of the Koran-burning scene to the onset of Tamburlaine's illness in the second play sometimes invites causal interpretations of the two events.22 But such interpretations again require critics to read Mahomet as a euphemistic symbol for the Christian God--unless they want to claim that a literal Mahomet punishes Tamburlaine, vindicating Islam as the only true faith in the plays. Such a reading seems highly unlikely, given the plays' previous critiques of Islam, as well as general early modern prejudices against Muslims.

Tamburlaine's burning of the Koran in Part II is the scene that most often prompts euphemistic interpretations of Mahomet as a general "God" figure. In this scene, Tamburlaine denounces Mahomet as he tosses Muslim holy texts into a fire:
   In vain, I see, men worship Mahomet.
   My sword hath sent millions of Turks to hell,
   Slew all his priests, his kinsmen, and his friends,
   And yet I live untouched by Mahomet.
   There is a God, full of revenging wrath,
   From whom the thunder and the lightning breaks,
   Whose scourge I am, and Him will I obey.
   So, Casane; fling them in the fire.
   Now, Mahomet, if thou have any power,
   Come down thyself and work a miracle.
   Thou are not worthy to be worshipp6d
   That suffers flames of fire to burn the writ
   Wherein the sum of thy religion rests.
   Why send'st thou not a furious whirlwind down
   To blow thy Alcoran up to thy throne,
   Where men report thou sitt'st by God himself?
   Or vengeance on the head of Tamburlaine
   That shakes his sword against thy majesty
   And spurns the abstracts of thy foolish laws?
   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.


While even the staged representation of Koran-burning is controversial enough to keep it out of performances today, it is more difficult to pinpoint the exact significance of such an act on the early modern stage. (23) Many historicist scholars see nothing unusual in displays of anti-Muslim sentiment in a cultural context that frequently voiced similar prejudices against Judaism, Catholicism, and even radical Protestant sects. Some of these critics see a vindication of the Christian God in Tamburlaine's references to a true God who is other than Mahomet. (24) Yet even if this "true God" is in fact the Christian God, the plays confirm a version of Christianity in which God does not seriously punish the arrogance and cruelty of a person like Tamburlaine--his carefully tended sickbed experience is hardly comparable to the violent deaths he inflicts on others throughout the plays. Or worse still--if Tamburlaine really is the "true God's" representative, his life then illustrates the essential cruelty of God's nature.

Interpretations of this "God" as a final endorsement of Christianity are further complicated by Tamburlaine's insistence that he previously believed in Mahomet's divinity:
   Now, Casane, where's the Turkish Alcoran
   And all the heaps of superstitious books
   Found in the temples of that Mahomet
   Whom I have thought a god?


If audience members take this statement seriously, they must acknowledge that Tamburlaine could not have been acting at the Christian God's behest the entire time. If they recall the inconsistency of Tamburlaine's own representation of his religious beliefs, they might choose to read this statement as a disingenuous rhetorical move that adds dramatic flair to his burning of the Koran. But if spectators choose this latter reading, they can hardly trust Tamburlaine's assertions about the one true God to reflect genuine belief. In any case, Tamburlaine's religious inconsistency heavily impairs a Christian reading of his character--if Christianity's purpose, like that of other religions, is to establish a consistent framework through which to interpret the natural world, it weakens its effectiveness by choosing such a changeable man as its representative.

David Farr's 2005 London production of Tamburlaine muted a sectarian reading of this scene, substituting texts from many different religions for Muslim holy texts and implying that Tamburlaine takes issue with religion in general rather than with Islam in particular. Farr's explanation of his directorial choice goes one step further, suggesting that Marlowe might actually have been masking atheist ideas: "In our production, Tamburlaine's god does not belong to any religion, for they are all in hell. 'Seek out another godhead to adore. The god that lives in heaven, if any god. For he is god alone, and none but he.' The phrase 'if any god' becomes key. Tamburlaine is positing what Marlowe could never have proposed at that time without literally risking his neck. He is proposing atheism." (25)

While modern scholars are usually reluctant to label Marlowe's plays unequivocally "atheist" such an interpretation might have been available to early modern spectators. Tamburlaine may be scorning Islam specifically in this scene, but nowhere else in the play does he express allegiance to a clearly delineated alternative system. Stephen Greenblatt implies Marlowe's critique of religion in general when he says of this scene, "The effect is not to celebrate the transcendent power of Mohammed but to challenge the habit of mind that looks to heaven for rewards and punishments, that imagines human evil as 'the scourge of God.'" (26) In other words, Marlowe flirts with an implication his audience is likely to find ridiculous--that Mahomet finally rids the world of Tamburlaine's evil--in order to illustrate the folly of interpreting physical events as the administration of any faiths divine justice. Like Islam and classical paganism, Marlowe suggests, perhaps even Christianity fails to posit a world order in which evil actions are punished and good ones are rewarded.

Explicit references to Christianity rarely surface in the Tamburlaine plays, and when they do, Marlowe represents this faith in the same inadequate light as its non-Christian counterparts. Like Muslims and pagans, Christians are treacherous and morally compromised; like Mahomet and Jove, Christ fails to prove that he holds any power over human events. It is possible that early modern spectators would have associated the plays' Christian characters with Catholicism, given the historical setting, and thus would not have been offended by the grim inadequacy of Christianity in the plays. It is equally possible, however, that the guise of historical Catholic figures allowed Marlowe the freedom to critique Christian ideals more broadly, whether Catholic or Protestant. Like references to "Jove" early modern theater's representations of Catholicism often act as double signifiers that point to either "popish" Catholicism as reviled by the Church of England or a virtuous form of Christianity that acts as a sort of proto-Protestantism (as in many of Shakespeare's history plays). Although the plays' Christian characters are non-English (and presumably also non-Protestant), Marlowe's use of the word "Christian" rather than "Catholic" continues to blur the line between historical and contemporaneous interpretations of Christian faith in the Tamburlaine plays.

In the second play, the Christian king of Hungary, Sigismund, and the Turkish king of Natolia, Orcanes, contract a truce so that they may combine forces against Tamburlaine, agreeing to maintain peace throughout their lives. Although they do not share the same faith, each king swears on his respective deity. Sigismund utters the following oath:
   By Him that made the world and saved my soul,
   The Son of God and issue of a maid,
   Sweet Jesus Christ, I solemnly protest
   And vow to keep this peace inviolable.


After Orcanes swears on Mahomet and the Koran, both kings further confirm their treaty by drawing up written documents and breaking bread together.

Even if both parties were to keep their sides of the bargain, such an exchange comes perilously close to suggesting the relative nature of religious devotion--that is, the truce implies that different groups of people have different religious convictions but that all symbolic orders fulfill similar social functions as guarantors of human morality.27 But the fact that it is the Christians rather than the Muslims who break the peace treaty further prevents Christianity from standing out as the morally superior religion in the Tamburlaine plays. Sigismund's advisors, Baldwin and Frederick, urge him to take advantage of Orcanes' withdrawal of his troops to make a surprise attack on the Turks. When Sigismund objects that breaking their promise would reflect badly on their Christian faith, Baldwin explains that Christians are not bound to treat non-Christians by their normal moral code--and since Islam is a false faith, they cannot trust Orcanes' oath anyway. Sigismund protests that such an action would make them no different from the Muslims:
   Though I confess the oaths they undertake
   Breed little strength to our security,
   Yet those infirmities that thus defame
   Their faiths, their honors, and their religion
   Should not give us presumption to the like.
   Our faiths are sound, and must be consummate,
   Religious, righteous, and inviolate.


Frederick dismisses this scruple with the somewhat incoherent argument that God has given them a special dispensation to break oaths in this context since it will give them an opportunity to "scourge" the "foul blasphemous paganism" of the Turks (2.1.53). Frederick's use of the word "scourge" subtly recalls Tamburlaine's title as the "scourge of God," a designation repeatedly used to justify his acts of cruelty and conquest. To a discerning spectator who picked up this echo, the stage might have seemed to be suddenly overrun by multiple characters claiming to be the scourge of God in order to gain land or revenge or political power. How is one to discern when a person is a legitimate instrument of God to scourge the wicked or when he adopts the title as a convenient excuse for pursuing his own agenda?

As it turns out, Marlowe uses Orcanes, not Sigismund, to illustrate the folly of trusting an oath sworn on unshared religious convictions. Ironically, Sigismund displays precisely the kind of treacherous behavior Baldwin warns him the Muslims might perpetrate. When Orcanes learns of Sigismund's betrayal, he expresses astonishment at the Christians' apparent disregard for the honor of their own God. Assuming that Christ is as jealous of his name as Mahomet is, Orcanes declares that if Christ exists, he will punish the Christians for breaking an oath sworn on his name.

Sigismund's subsequent defeat at Orcanes' hands leaves audience members with a choice between two extremely distasteful interpretations of Christianity. If spectators agree with Baldwin and Frederick's argument that Christian oaths are not binding in a pagan context and that God has ordained this opportunity for victory, the Christians' military failure calls the power of such a God into question. He may be capable of creating opportunities for success, but he cannot be relied upon to carry them through. If spectators choose the more likely explanation, agreeing with the dying Sigismund that "God hath thundered vengeance from on high / For my accursed and hateful perjury," they must confront the specter of hypocrisy, acknowledging that Christians are no more virtuous than the followers of any other faith (2.3.2-3). At least this second option allows for the possibility that Sigismund's treachery is a moral aberration in the Christian universe and that it has been soundly punished by God.

But instead of allowing this latter interpretation to crystallize, Marlowe subtly undermines it through other characters' retrospective contemplations of the event. While he had been so sure of Christ's vengeance before the battle, a calmer Orcanes revises his view, saying, "Christ or Mahomet hath been my friend," expressing doubt as to which deity orchestrated the situation (2.3.11). (28) His servant Gazellus responds with the suggestion that their victory may have nothing to do with any God: "'Tis but the fortune of the wars, my lord, / Whose power is often proved a miracle" (2.3.31-32). Gazellus's alternative, nonreligious explanation recalls Anippe's similar suggestion to Zenocrate that Tamburlaine might simply be beyond the reach of fortune or the gods (Part I, 5.2.309-13).

Here spectators must consider the unsettling thought that Gazellus's interpretation of events is just as plausible as Sigismund's or Orcanes'. After all, neither ruler displays any particular strength of character or sign of divine favor that could corroborate his reading of the battle. What if, in fact, Christ and Mahomet have nothing to do with this outcome? Must Sigismund's defeat necessarily be read as a sign of Christ's vengeance, especially when Christ never shows up anywhere else in the plays? Gazellus's demurral at the idea of Christ and Mahomet being involved in the victory could suggest that religious faith is simply the wrong lens through which to interpret the world. (29) The plays themselves take Gazellus's musing a step further. Rather than simply discard religious faith for a more pragmatic interpretation of events, they deliberately and repeatedly offer spectators dubious depictions of all religious orders. While multiple interpretations of the plays are possible, Marlowe consistently stymies those that could provide a favorable view of Christianity as a just alternative to pagan corruption and violence. Rather than force an audience to choose one interpretation, the Tamburlaine plays urge spectators to see that all religious options are equally ineffectual.

The Tamburlaine plays' representation of Christianity may also illuminate critical discussions about religion in Marlowe's later plays, such as The Jew of Malta. After a truly horrifying display of deception, betrayal, and the sanctioning of murder, Malta's surviving Christian ruler, Ferneze, praises heaven for his success: "So, march away, and let due praise be given / Neither to fate nor fortune, but to heaven" (5.5.123-24). These final lines of the play are certainly bewildering to modern spectators who eschew discrimination and oppression in the name of religious justice, but I suspect early modern spectators would also have found them difficult to swallow. As in the Tamburlaine plays, Marlowe chooses to use the term "Christian" rather than "Catholic" throughout Malta. Without an alternative model of religious justice, the play's final lines seem to indicate exactly the opposite of their literal sense. In a world in which three equally corrupt religious groups vie for money and political power, "heaven's" endorsement of Ferneze's victory looks quite dubious indeed. Might not spectators have remembered Tamburlaine and drawn the conclusion that, in fact, it would be far preferable to interpret Ferneze's victory as an act of fate or fortune than as evidence of a just religious order?

Scholars sometimes attribute the Tamburlaine plays' seemingly amoral outlook to the youth of either Marlowe or early modern English tragedy as a dramatic form. C. L. Barber, for instance, regards Doctor Faustus as the first fully developed tragedy in English but sees the Tamburlaine plays as a crucial experiment in Marlowe's artistic development as a playwright. (30) Because the Tamburlaine plays precede the tragedies of Shakespeare, Jonson, and other canonical Elizabethan dramatists, it is tempting to chalk up their lack of coherent moral or religious order to the fact that Marlowe had few templates of English tragedy from which to draw when he wrote the plays. They can thus be read as prototragedies that represent an art form in transition. But such an interpretation also opens up the less obvious possibility that later English tragic modes might have been a reaction to the moral chaos of Tamburlaine I and II.

In her analysis of Marlowe's "interrogative" drama, Sara Munson Dears draws attention to Marlowe's ability to execute many of the fine rhetorical ambiguities that scholars of early modern drama usually regard as exclusively Shakespearean. (31) While Deats encourages scholars to reconsider a Shakespeare-centric view of early modern drama by considering the equally complex creations of earlier playwrights, I would add that such "Shakespearean" ambiguities may have become necessary elements of early modern theater after the early radicalism of the Tamburlaine plays. These plays push religious skepticism so far that they leave almost no room for other early modern plays to conduct further questioning. As early as 1589, only two years after the debut of Tamburlaine I, licensing commissions sprang up to control the portrayal of God on the English professional stage. By 1606, it was illegal to mention or represent specific religious words and concepts onstage. (32) An irreligious interpretation of the Tamburlaine plays offers scholars the opportunity to move beyond sectarian readings in order to consider early modern dramas contributions to changing cultural conceptions of religion as a social force. Nearly a century before the Restoration and Enlightenment, the Tamburlaine plays express early modern doubts about religion's ability to offer a satisfactory understanding of the world humans navigate on a daily basis.

University of Michigan


I would like to thank Theresa Tinkle for her invaluable guidance with this article.

(1) Philip Sidney, Sir Philip Sidney: The Major Works, ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 235. Following Aristotle's lead in the Poetics, Sidney uses the term poetry to encompass the literary arts of verse, prose fiction, and drama.

(2) In "The Influence of Marlowe's Sources on Tamburlaine I," Modern Philology 24 (1926): 181-99, Leslie Spence reminds us that "[t]he major difference between Tamburlaine and his enemies--indeed, the only one history set forth--was this: he won; they lost" (192).

(3) While it is important to remember that Tamburlaine I and H are separate plays, this article reads the story of Tamburlaine through both plays. Since Part II was being performed within a few months of Part I's debut, early modern viewers would have had the option of thinking about the two plays as a connected narrative. As is so often the case with early modern drama, there is little measure of the extent to which Richard Jones's play text (London, 1590) accurately represents contemporary performance. Jones's head note to the plays suggests a particularly vexing disparity between text and performance: "I have purposefully omitted and left out some fond and frivolous gestures, digressing and, in my poor opinion, far unmeet for the matter, which I thought might seem more tedious unto the wise than any way else to be regarded, though haply they have been of some vain, conceited fondlings greatly gaped at, what times they were showed upon the stage in their graced deformities." While I acknowledge that this one text cannot be used to measure all interpretive possibilities of the plays' performance, I must work with what we have. For more on Jones's editorial practice, see Kirk Melnikoff, "Jones's Pen and Marlowe's Socks: Richard Jones, Print Culture, and the Beginnings of English Dramatic Literature," Studies in Philology 2 (2005): 184-209.

(4) Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 108.

(5) See Emily Barrels, Spectacles of Strangeness: Imperialism, Alienation, and Marlowe (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993); Mary Floyd-Wilson, English Ethnicity and Race in Early Modern Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Jonathan Burton, "Anglo-Ottoman Relations and the Image of the Turk in Tamburlaine," Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 30 (2000): 125-56; and Javad Ghatta, "By Mortus Ali and our Persian gods': Multiple Persian Identities in Tamburlaine and The Travels of the Three English Brothers," Early Theatre 12 (2009): 235-49.

(6) See Patrick Cheney, Marlowe's Republican Authorship: Lucan, Liberty, and the Sublime (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009); Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); and Rick Bowers, "Tamburlaine in Ludlow," Notes and Queries 45 (1998): 361-63.

(7) See, respectively, Jeff Dailey, "Christian Underscoring in Tamburlaine the Great, Part II," Journal of Religion and Theatre 4 (2005): 146-59; Roger Moore, "The Spirit and the Letter: Marlowe's Tamburlaine and Elizabethan Religious Radicalism," Studies in Philology 99 (2002): 123-51; Mark Hutchings, "And almost to the very walles of Rome': 2 Tamburlaine, II. i. 9," Notes and Queries 52 (2005): 190-92; Claudia Richter, "Performing God's Wrath: Tamburlaine, Calvinism, and the Phantasma of Terror," Shakespeare Jahrbuch 143 (2007): 52-70; and Richard F. Hardin, "Apocalypse Then: Tamburlaine and the Pleasures of Religious Fear" Baylor Journal of Theatre and Performance 3, no. 2 (Autumn 2006): 31-41.

(8) Joel Slotkin argues that one might instead read this indeterminacy as a sign of the plays' consideration of religious syncretism. He further distinguishes Tamburlaine's contempt for human religion, expressed in iconoclastic acts such as burning the Koran, from his metaphysical uncertainty about the existence of God ("'Seeke out another Godhead': Religious Epistemology and Representations of Islam in Tamburlaine," forthcoming in Modern Philology).

(9) Ruth Lunney, Marlowe and the Popular Tradition: Innovation in the English Drama before 1595 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 4.

(10) Such research overturns the widely accepted commonplace advanced by Lucien Febvre in 1942 that sixteenth-century culture did not allow people the capability to conceive of "atheist" thoughts in a modern sense of the word. In "Christopher Marlowe and Atheism," Nicholas Davidson also reminds us that arguments against orthodox Christianity abounded in classical texts, even before the scientific explosion of the seventeenth century (in Christopher Marlowe and English Renaissance Culture, ed. Darryll Grantley and Peter Roberts [Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 1996], 129-47 [132, 134]).

(11) Michael Hunter, "The Problem of 'Atheism' in Early Modern England," Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th ser., 35 (1985): 135-57 (136, 139-40).

(12) Davidson, 135, 139.

(13) Lunney, 54, 51.

(14) Mahomet is a prophet rather than a deity in the Islamic tradition, but characters in the plays refer to him both as a prophet and as a god. When I refer to Mahomet as a deity, I do so in the context of characters labeling him as such.

(15) As, for instance, when Zenocrate repents to both Jove and Mahomet (Part I, 5.2.300) or when Orcanes thanks both Mahomet and Christ for his victory (Part II, 2.3.33-35). Quotations from The Complete Plays of Christopher Marlowe, ed. Irving Ribner (New York: Odyssey, 1963), are hereafter cited in the text.

(16) For a deeper discussion of Tamburlaine's preference for the people's approval, see Cheney, 100.

(17) This approach is consistent with other representations of paganism in early modern drama. Because plays were subject to state censorship, early modern playwrights often masked allusions to contemporary religious discourse through the use of non-Christian deities as allegorical figures. If a playwright wanted to convey a religious message, he often had to make use of tools such as allegory, metaphor, and historical distance to push plays through the censors' office and onto the stage. See Sara Munson Deats, "Marlowe's Interrogative Drama: Dido, Tamburlaine, Doctor Faustus, and Edward II," in Marlowe's Empery: Expanding His Critical Contexts, ed. Sara Munson Dears and Robert A. Logan (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2002), 107-30 (108). Consider Twelfth Night, in which the "Puritan" Malvolio praises Jove upon the misguided revelation that Olivia is in love with him (2.5.162). Given what they already know about Malvolio's character and reputation, audience members are unlikely to assume that he actually subscribes to a polytheistic system or worships Roman deities. Instead "Jove" simply acts as a legal stand-in for the word "God." See William Shakespeare, The Oxford Shakespeare: Twelfth Night, or What You Will, ed. Roger Warren and Stanley Wells (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

(18) Moore, 150.

(19) Dailey, 153.

(20) "Let" here means "prevent" ("let, v.2", Oxford English Dictionary Addition Series, 1997, OED Online, Oxford University Press. Also available online at

(21) Dailey supports a literal reading against the more allegorical readings of critics such as A. L. Rowse, who suggests that "Mahomet and the Koran, Christ and the Bible were interchangeable" (Christopher Marlowe: His Life and Work [New York: Harper and Row, 1964], 73, quoted in Dailey, 152).

(22) See, for instance, Moore's suggestion that Tamburlaine's disrespect for the Koran mirrors early Quakers' preference for the spirit over the letter of the law (136). Moore goes on to suggest that because Marlowe disapproves of his hero's antinomian tendencies, he changes the historical record to make Tamburlaine die of illness rather than old age in order to demonstrate the folly of such an antimaterialist attitude (149).

(23) In "Marlowe's Koran-Burning Hero Is Censored to Avoid Muslim Anger," Dalya Alberge reports that David Farr's 2005 London production of the Tamburlaine plays changed the scene to have Tamburlaine burn texts from all religions rather than just the Koran (The Times, 24 November 2005). In his editorial reply, "Tamburlaine Wasn't Censored," Farr denied accusations that he changed the scene simply for the sake of political correctness, citing a broader philosophical focus on "existential epic" rather than "anti-Turkish pantomime" (The Guardian, 25 November 2005, available at <> [accessed 6 July 2011]).

(24) Dailey, 152-53. Such a reading is problematic, given the plays' earlier reluctance to identify Tamburlaine as a Christian conqueror. Even if Tamburlaine's ties to the Christian God are implied in his title "scourge of God," they are never explicitly confirmed. In Part I, Tamburlaine expresses an intention to free Christian slaves (3.3.44-47), and in Part II, he is said to have pitied and relieved Georgian Christians (5.1.31-33), but neither of these references proves that Tamburlaine regards himself as a follower of the Christian faith.

(25) Farr, "Tamburlaine Wasn't Censored."

(26) Greenblatt, 202.

(27) As Burton shows, Elizabeth I's foreign policy with the Ottoman Empire often displayed a similar willingness to downplay religious differences between Christianity and Islam when a political benefit could be achieved by doing so (132). Because national religious attitudes often shifted with the political climate, Burton suggests that "the shifting representation of Tamburlaine is better understood as conditional than ambiguous" (139).

(28) Slotkin argues that this moment provides an important, if brief, model of religious pluralism as an alternative to Tamburlaine's strident skepticism.

(29) As if in response to Gazellus's skepticism toward religious explanations for human events, several critics have set aside religious considerations to read the Tamburlaine plays in terms of the period's more secular concerns such as Machiavellian politics, the power of linguistic facility, and a growing sense of abstraction toward military personnel. But it is equally possible that the failure of religion to adequately frame the events of the Tamburlaine plays is itself a statement about religion and its irrelevance. See, respectively, Joseph Khoury, "Marlowe's Tamburlaine: Idealized Machiavellian Prince," in Seeking Real Truths: Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Machiavelli, ed. Patricia Vilches and Gerald Seaman (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 329-56; Mark Byron, "Logic's Doubt: The Spanish Tragedy and Tamburlaine," Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 30 (1999): 81-94; and Patricia Cahill, Unto the Breach: Martial Formations, Historical Trauma, and the Early Modern Stage (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

(30) C. L. Barber, Elizabethan Tragedy: The Theater of Marlowe and Kyd (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 49-50.

(31) Deats, 107-9.

(32) Richard Dutton, Licensing, Censorship, and Authorship in Early Modern England: Buggeswords (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000), 71, 122-23.
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Author:Watkins, Leila
Publication:Comparative Drama
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2012
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