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Examine the relationship between speech and power in Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine and Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy

Rita Mae Brown’s sentiment may be more visibly apparent in Marlowe’s Tamburlaine than Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy; however both Elizabethan dramas use language to convey power and authority in different ways. When considering the importance of speech in a play, there are fundamental functions must not be forgotten; speech is not simply a method of conveying a story to an audience, but also a manner of setting a scene when few props or stage materials are available.

Speech must also be used to develop characters on stage, often achieved through the use of asides, in which a character speaks a line heard only by the audience, or by soliloquies, whereby a character delivers a dramatic speech whilst alone on stage, expressing their intimate thoughts and feelings.

Lastly, as the only communication medium, a playwright must make their attempt at innovation and originality through character’s speech.

Whilst combining all these elements, the play must flow naturally through continued speech and tell the story in an unforced manner, so as not to seem constructed or disjointed for the audience; all this without even considering the actual words themselves! In many ways it can be argued that The Spanish Tragedy is a play of silences, or repressed language.

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In contrast, Tamburlaine is defined by its powerful dialogues, use of rhetoric and persuasive language throughout. Within the first act of the play, Marlowe constructs Tamburlaine as a powerful character through his own speech and through the speech of others. Read about the management of Grief symbolism

In the first scene of the play an image of Tamburlaine has been created for the audience by Mycetes, Meander, Cosroe and Theridamas.

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Tamburlaine’s interaction with Zenocrate in Act One Scene Two is the first and most prominent example of the powerful effect that his words can have on other characters. His generous offerings, promises of safety and comfort and declarations of love lead Zenocrate change her opinion of him, from that of a ‘shepherd’ (1. 2. 7)1 to a ‘lord’ (1. 2. 34) within the space of just twelve lines of speech.

Within, therefore, thirty-four lines of Tamburlaine appearing on stage, he has already commanded the respect of royalty; a trait which will reoccur throughout the play. Tamburlaine’s rhetoric is one of the principle reasons for his successes. Elizabethan authors and playwrights often tried to recreate the rhetorical style of the classical authors such as Homer and Ovid, to make their own works more respected. Humanist thought placed emphasis on elocution, distinction in language and effective argument structure, which they believed would allow a man to better himself (Hattaway 2003).

Marlowe uses many rhetorical features in Tamburlaine’s speeches for, perhaps, exactly this reason. Donald Peet believes ‘we should hardly be surprised to find [Marlowe] paying particular attention to those rules for verbal organisation and ornamentation which the consensus of learned opinion held essential for public speech’ (1959:138). Tamburlaine even asks his soldiers at the beginning of the play whether he ‘… should play the orator’ (1. 2. 129), an ironic question when read in hindsight of the play.

Levin (1954:44) notes that the average speech in the first part of Tamburlaine is 5. 9 lines long and the second part 6. 3 lines. This simple statistic is illustrative of Marlowe’s rhetorical style. Even minor characters seem to have their lines extended : Soldan: Capolin, has thou surveyed our powers?

Capolin: Great Emperors of Egypt and Arabia

The number of your hosts united is, A hundred and fifty thousand horse, Two hundred thousand foot, brave men-at-arms, Courageous and full of hardiness: As frolic as the hunters in the chase Savage beasts amid the desert woods. (4. 3. 50-57)

Despite being asked a straightforward question, Capolin is given more lines to reply than are necessary, with embellishment through description. Marlowe uses many different rhetorical figures in Tamburlaine. In fact, ‘there is scarcely a moment [… ] when one of the characters is not pursuing the primary goal of the rhetorician – persuasion’ (Peet 1959:140). As leader of an army one of Tamburlaine’s main functions is to persuade.

Firstly he must persuade his men to have faith in their own abilities for war, but also he must charm Zenocrate into joining him instead of being enslaved.

Thomas Wilson’s view on ‘deliberative oration’ is also valid here as he defines rhetoric as ‘a meane, whereby we doe perswade, or disswade, entreate, or rebuke, exhorte, or dehort, commend, or comforte any man’ (1909:29). All these topics are covered in the Tamburlaine’s speeches; one of the most prominent being his convincing of Theridamas into joining him and leaving King Mycetes. Tamburlaine’s speech, like that delivered to Zenocrate, promises great things, on this occasion likely victory and great rewards, and he also flatters and commends the lord.

Although this lengthy speech could be encapsulated in one line, ‘Forsake thy king and do but joine with me’ (1. 2. 172), by extending it, Marlowe demonstrates his rhetorical style and the power such language can have on a character. Hyperbole, where statements are exaggerated often beyond the literal, is by far the most common rhetorical feature in the play as a whole. Tamburlaine’s claim that the Damascans would walk ‘Half dead’ in fear is just one instance (4. 4. 4), as well as Bajazeth’s, ‘I could / Willingly feed upon thy blood-red heart’ (4. . 11-2).

This is coupled with enacted hyperbole; Bajazeth is in a cage in this scene and in another he is used as a footstool, serving not only parallel Tamburlaine’s words but also to ‘gain symbolic status because they identify the successful use of rhetorical power as political power’ (Birringer 1984:227). Anaphora and epizeuxis, repeating words in separate clauses or repeating consecutively, were also popular to emphasise the speakers point, making it a more powerful statement.

Reiterating a detail in this way often gives the impression of a higher level of authority, almost as if instructing or ordering, thereby seeming as if the speaker has more power. It is also a device to help the audience remember certain phrases, frequently used by politicians, for example Tony Blair’s ‘Education, education, education’ (1996: Labour Party Conference) and the famous ‘We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills.

We shall never surrender’ (Churchill 1940: Speech to House of Commons – emphasis added). Marlowe also uses many other rhetorical figures, such as pysma, subiectio, synathroismus, distributo and incrementum to achieve a more sophisticated manner of speech delivery. Although these figures were popular in Elizabethan dramas, the regularity of them would suggest that Marlowe intentionally inserted them into his work to deliberately create more powerful, rhetorical dialogue.

As Peet states, ‘Marlowe never slackens his constant rhetorical attack upon his audience’ in order to ‘make sure that the spell cast by Tamburlaine’s personality is never broken’ (1959:151). However this rhetoric is also found in the speech of other characters, thus it could be argued that this heightens Tamburlaine’s power even more so, to still be able to exert control over them. This works also for his opposition, ‘if his enemies are depicted as possessing immense power, then even more powerful must be the conqueror who subdues such mighty adversaries’ (Peet 1959:151).

The combined effect of the simplicity of the rhetorical figures Marlowe uses, as well as the consistent flow of them helps to make the language even more powerful. Tamburlaine’s thirst and hunger for power goes hand in hand with a powerful rhetorical style of speaking but his exertion of power is displayed in other ways as well. He often ridicules characters; raising his own status by lowers others’. This is achieved through actions as well as words; Tamburlaine uses Bajazeth as a footstool in one scene, putting himself physically above the Turkish Emperor.

Bajazeth is repeatedly humiliated by being captured and placed in a cage, being fed scraps like an animal. The image ‘King Henry VIII Enthroned with the Pope as a Footstool’ cited in Brown’s article ‘Marlowe’s Debasement of Bajazet’ (1971) shows a woodcut with a reflection of Tamburlaine and Bajazeth. It is interesting for Tamburlaine to be compared to a notorious English monarch in this way, as the audience would be very familiar with Henry VIII and the events of his reign, which do not have overwhelming resemblance to the story of Tamburlaine, aside from both being equally feared.

Of course only the exceptionally wealthy would have seen this image, as manuscripts were very expensive. When we combine the image with the costume, white robes, the spectacle of Tamburlaine rising to his throne using Bajazeth as a footstool is a very impressive one. The white clothing would create such an impact on the audience that they would not take in how poorly Tamburlaine treats his slaves; he is almost tyrannical, but with these garments appears more of a saviour or heroic figure.

Although, as Birringer notes, ‘Tamburlaine does not speak like a tragic hero’ (1984:235), when he is compared to a classic example such as Macbeth. Whereas Macbeth tries not to see his actions or admit his desires, ‘Stars, hide your fires / Let not light see my black and deep desires’ (Macbeth 1. 4. 50-51) and ‘I am afraid to think what I have done’ (Macbeth 2. 2. 48), Tamburlaine is fully expressive of his intentions. His power-hungry persona is also built up through a certain amount of self-reassurance and ‘self-mythologizing’ (Birringer 1984:229).

Freud’s description of narcissism can help to explain this further; ‘… in literature, indeed, even the great criminal and the humorist compel our interest by the narcissistic self-importance with which they keep at arms length everything which could diminish the importance of their unassailable libido-position’ (1963:70). Tamburlaine’s repeated hyperbolic claims show this clearly; ‘Fearing my power should pull him from his throne; / Where’er I come the Fatal Sisters sweat’ (5. . 454-5), ‘And with this pen reduce them to a map’ (4. 4. 80) and the definitive ‘This is my mind, and I will have it so’ (4. 2. 91). This type of language evokes a sense of admiration from the audience, another attempt to gain power and respect. Although Tamburlaine’s language does command respect and sends signals of power, it is often the symbolism, the dramatic irony and the physical action on stage that is more powerful for the audience.

Birringer notes that ‘success often depended on the playwright’s skill in imagining his language invested with the few effects available on an open stage – costumes, props, the use of space – and what the actors could contribute, their gestures, postures, movements’ (1984:228) and therefore, speech was perhaps not always the most crucial element in creating a powerful presence on stage. Camden’s short article suggests that Tamburlaine’s physical appearance contributes a great deal to his persona and is the reason for many of his traits.

Marlowe may well have had these Elizabethan beliefs of physiognomy in mind when writing Tamburlaine, but to what extent this can be applied to a performance of his play, where the actor may not be exactly what the playwright had in mind, is questionable. The symbolism and hidden meaning is more typical of Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy in which words are always more carefully chosen and very often hidden from the public sphere. As previously mentioned, The Spanish Tragedy can be viewed as a play of silences, plagued with lies, deception, misunderstandings and manipulation of language.

Scott McMillin’s article focuses on the figure of the Old Man or Senex in the play; ‘The Old Man is virtually silent, unable to connect the past to the present through speech, and in a play rife with language this figure of silence holds a special position’ (McMillin 1972:27). He works though symbolism and metaphor; silence perhaps more powerful in this instance to convey his circumstances. This figure is especially poignant as Hieronimo confuses him first for his son; ‘Sweet boy, how art thou chang’d in death’s black shade! ‘ (3. 13. 46) and then sees himself; ‘Thou art the lively image of my grief’ (3. 13. 162). At the end of the play, Hieronimo actually becomes this figure of silence, unable to express himself as ‘He bites out his tongue’ (4. 4. 191. 1). The General of the Spanish army is the opposite of this; he serves only to publicly communicate information to the audience about the battle between Spain and Portugal. His lengthy speech is the second longest in the play and whilst he plays no other function in the story as a whole, his language is full of rhetorical features which make it appear a formal and important delivery.

Just as Tamburlaine adjusts his speech depending on his audience, the General’s story of the deaths during the fighting is tailored for the court. Both furnish’d well, both full of hope and fear, Both menacing alike with daring shows, Both vaunting sundry colours of device Both cheerly sounding trumpets, drums and fifes (1. 2. 25-28) The anaphora in the description of the battle, as well as the Latin phrases later on in the speech give the impression of a formalised account of the events. It is conveyed almost as ‘action and reaction, movement and counter-movement’ (McMillin 1972:29), like a mirror reflection, a symmetrical shape.

Of course, this cannot have been how the war occurred and so this stylistic, eloquent manner of speaking holds little power. Tamburlaine’s rhetoric shows him to be a powerful character, whereas the General is simply adapting himself for the circumstances. Lorenzo is another figure of interest in The Spanish Tragedy. He abuses language and power to pursue his own goals and ambitions, though frequently he relies simply on his authority to progress. Full of lies and deceit, Lorenzo seems to be able to control other characters and control language, using it as a weapon and making it serve him.

Lorenzo is characterised, in a certain respect, as having a disregard for language and speech in the way he uses it to his advantage and seems also to distrust it. McMillin sees him as ‘the ultimate cynic’ toward language, and goes so far as to claim that ‘words are merely a way, and one of the less effective ways, of controlling others’ (1972:32). There is evidence to support this argument; Lorenzo declares he wants ‘not to spend the time in trifling words’ (2. 1. 44 emphasis added) and he will reward Pedringano ‘Not with fair words, but store of golden coin’ (2. 1. 52).

However, this bribe does not work and instead we see Lorenzo turning to the use of his sword to force Pedringano to speak. It is interesting to see this reversal; an exertion of power leading to speech, rather than the opposite, as has been seen previously. This unconventional action leads to an ironic end for Pedringano, who believes that a pardon is contained in the box Lorenzo has delivered to him. As a result Pedringano struts about the stage and taunts the executioner, thinking he will be saved, yet the audience knows the truth; that Lorenzo has manipulated the entire situation.

After the threat, Lorenzo forces Pedringano to silence; ‘Swear on this cross, that what thou say’st is true,/ And that thou wilt conceal what thou hast told’ (2. 1. 87-88) and consequently, as Pedringano loses language, he also loses power. McMillin envisages Lorenzo as believing that ‘behind the fai??ade of ceremony and eloquence by which the public life of Spain pretends to be organised, men are actually motivated and commanded by the properties of wealth and power’ (1972:33). He cites the quote, ‘Where words prevail not, violence prevails: / But gold doth more than either of them both’ (2. 1. 108-9) to back up his case.

With regards to the incident with Pedringano, Lorenzo uses all three methods against him; words, violence and gold but foolishly, Pedringano accepts Lorenzo’s word when it is given him. It is ironic perhaps, that Lorenzo’s lack of words, i. e. no pardon, has he ultimate power and leads to the hanging of Pedringano. ‘His perfect achievement would consist of arranging an object to control others in his absence, a potentially comic situation’ (McMillin 1972:33) and this does occur; the ‘pardon’ is not even delivered by Lorenzo himself and therefore he manages to remove himself completely from the situation.

Although the outcome is not necessarily comic, the image of Pedringano placing full faith in an empty box and then suddenly being killed is indeed a ‘grim joke’ (McMillin 1972:33). All this is achieved without Lorenzo being present, without a word. In a twist, Lorenzo later uses words as the power to kill when stabbing Horatio; ‘Ay thus, and thusi?? these are the fruits of love’ (2. 4. 55 emphasis added), saying ‘thus’ with every stab of the sword. This is followed by a degrading comment, ‘Although his life were still ambitious proud, / Yet is he at the highest now he is dead’ (2. . 61-2), almost in the style of Tamburlaine; another exertion, or attempt at display, of power. It could be argued that Hieronimo is the character with the best command of language and speech. He withholds his feelings publicly, though the audience is shown them through the use of soliloquies. This private release of emotion is often a more powerful display than an interaction between two characters, as the audience is alone with the character to try and identify and understand their grief.

Hieronimo knows that he must bide his time to exact his revenge and is finally given the opportunity of the play-within-a-play to do so. It is interesting to note the dramatic irony of the Spanish King’s comment to the Viceroy, ‘These be our pastimes in the court of Spain’ (4. 4. 8). Of course he refers to the show they are about to witness, but it could also be interpreted as revenge being the pastime of the Spanish court. The audience know that Hieronimo is planning something more, and their minds are cast back to his line, ‘I’ll play the murderer, I warrant you, / For I already have conceited that’ (4. . 133-4).

Hieronimo asks the other characters to act their parts ‘in unknown languages’ (4. 1. 173), though this is not actually fulfilled ‘for the easier understanding to every public reader’ (4. 4. 10. 1). In performing in Latin, Greek, French and Italian, it is possible that the actors did not understand what each other were saying, therefore creating an air of confusion, which allowed Hieronimo to perform his acts of revenge in front of the entire court. Once Lorenzo, Balthazar and Bel-Imperia have been killed, Hieronimo embarks on the longest speech in The Spanish Tragedy.

Full of emotive rhetorical figures, poignant explanation, coupled with the revealing of his dead son’s body, this is a most powerful delivery for the audience. The on-stage audience, however, are confused and do not understand. ‘Court people like to believe in a future, and even with their children dead at their feet they will call for effective instruments to probe into the reasons for these events’ (McMillin 1972:47). Hieronimo’s declaration that ‘hope, heart, treasure, joy and bliss, / All fled, fail’d, died, yea, all decay’d with this’ (4. 4. 4-5) is lost on the listeners and even with a lengthy explanation, the court cannot comprehend his grief without experiencing it first hand.

This, in fact, is exactly what Hieronimo does; in front of their eyes, the Duke of Castile and the Viceroy of Portugal lose their children. It is action, therefore, rather than the language, which holds the power in this scene. Hieronimo ends his speech with, ‘Urge no more words, I have no more to say’ (4. 4. 152) and by biting out his tongue he ends all language; perhaps a symbolic demonstration of the futility of words, the ineffectiveness of speech when trying to convey so powerful an emotion.

Hieronimo therefore, turns into the Old Man by removing his tongue and then into the silent Old Man by killing himself (McMillin 1972:48). Despite The Spanish Tragedy and Tamburlaine being performed at approximately the same time (Gibbons 1990:219), they contain two very different styles of portraying the relationship between speech and power. Tamburlaine demonstrates the power that effective rhetorical speech can achieve and the variety of situations in which it can be of use; from enticing a woman, to commanding an army.

On the other hand, The Spanish Tragedy illustrates perhaps, the corruptible nature of language in how it can be manipulated, misrepresented and how silence is sometimes more powerful than words. The plays come to very different endings; in Tamburlaine II, even on his deathbed Tamburlaine delivers powerful lines, whereas Kyd’s play terminates in speechlessness and shock from all but two characters, Revenge and Don Andrea, both of whom have been detached from the events.

Revenge, in fact, has known all along how the play will finish and so his language is controlled and unaffected. These opposing endings could conceivably be explained by the authors’ individual styles, their desire to be inventive and unique and create an innovative play script. Nevertheless, The Spanish Tragedy and Tamburlaine prompt ‘the audience’s imaginative participation’ and convey ‘the circumstances of speech’ (Braunmuller 1990:61) to achieve that which every playwright wants; to entertain and delight their audience.

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Examine the relationship between speech and power in Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine and Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

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