The Moral and Ethic Issues in the Play, Tamburlaine by Christopher Marlowe

Categories: Plays

One of the plays I read for class, Tamburlaine, particularly interested me because of the many moral and ethics issues it presents to its audience. For one, the audience is faced with sympathizing with the Machiavellian overachiever, Tamburlaine. This is an issue because of his multitude of seemingly super-humanness that he possessed, causing a rift in allowing us to sympathize with his tragedy because we are somewhat unable to relate with him. The kind of hero that Marlowe introduces, Tamburlaine, is the type of hero that tests the limits of the audience’s sympathy.

Tamburlaine also contains the synthesis of hero and human, but also a sort of Achilles heel that makes us apprehensive to placing our sympathies with him.

The development of Tamburlaine throughout the play goes from courageous and sensitive to monstrous. We as an audience have to ultimately applaud his demise because of this negative development that has taken place, stemming from his initial choices. In this essay, I will continue to explore the multitude of ethical issues found in Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, and explain them through my own words, and the words of a critic, Willard Thorp.

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My recent research of Marlowe has proven that he is an atheist, and that he aims to project his atheism to his audience through his plays. This is displayed in Tamburlaine, when the main character burns the Koran and desires to storm heaven himself.

The question that arises when it comes to this issues is, id Tamburlaine’s unexpected death is due to blasphemy, why didn’t Tamburlaine fall when he sized up to the gods earlier on in the play, or when he defied them in earlier scenes? Tamburlaine claims that “a god is not so glorious as a king: I think the pleasure they enjoy in heaven cannot compare with kingly joys in earth”; later he claims that he took the example of Jove overthrowing Saturn as inspiration for his own campaigns (1: 2.

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7.12-17), and though Mars and all the earthly kings oppose him, he will “wear it [the crown) in despite of them” (1: 2.7.58-61). Although atheistic values are suggested, another issue lies in the fact that Tamburlaine claims to be God’s agent, slaying all of the false kings in his honor. The ten acts of Tamburlaine display sadistic behavior as the main points of dramatization, to which the plot leads the audience to their satisfaction.

Two examples that attract and enchant the audience with their barbarity are when Bajazeth is forced into the position of a footstool and ordered to live his life in the cage, and when Tamburlaine makes the four kings steeds for his chariot. This can be considered morally challenging because of the fact that these terrible characters are granted the rough justice of their degradation. Marlowe actually has a mere scene where asks his audience to accost mass slaughter as morally culpable with his scenes of Zenocrate, already enchanted by Tamburlaine’s character and dashing nature, and has to confront her choices as she saunters through “the streets strow’d with dissevered joints of men, and wounded bodies gasping yet for life” (1: 5.2.261-62). She becomes disgusted with the moral issues involving her choices, and as this morality is very short lived, she soon will truly concur that the previously mentioned horror was “a sight of power to grace my victory” (1:5.2. 413), after Tamburlaine spares her father.

“While his work could show terrific empathy with a morally ambiguous character, Marlowe in person could be caustic and quick to rage. He certainly wasn’t afraid to speak his mind and criticize other writers and their techniques” (Ribner). Marlowe had wide education and classical learning at Cambridge. One of his greatest influences was Machiavelli and the Renaissance spirit. Marlowe was said to be Bohemian and rambunctious. In comparison Shakespeare was “self-schooled, self-sensed, self secured” (Ribner). He was unaffected by prevailing ideals and philosophical beliefs of the time, therefore it must have been his personal observation and experience that assisted him in the understanding of human nature and the objective world of reality. A scene that is particularly concerned with the morality of personal choices is displayed when Calyphas objects to going to battle, claiming that he knows “what it is to kill a man” and that “it works remorse of conscience” in him (2: 4.1.27-28).

True to his character, Marlowe quickly suffocates this moment, with Calyphas’ father murdering him for being a bitch in Tamburlaine’s rush to “conquer, sack, and utterly consume” his enemies (195). Here, we are granted some moral choices, which are hurriedly included in the conspiracy of the play itself, lost in the push for victory and conquest. Along with this, there is no moral center to give the reader an example of the opposite of the main character. There is no Banquo, for example, to grant us a measure of the hero’s decisions. Steane has noted that “”in the moral purpose the diabolian predominates” and “the essential working of the drama impels admiration for the super-humanity of one who by Christian values is detestable” (62); further, “the trouble is that there is so little evidence of the author’s dissociating himself from it”(69).

My personal inference is that the absence of a clear tragedy and recognition in this humongous amoral presentation, Marlowe has created a play whose intent is to agitate our beliefs and force us to come face to face with our own perceptions. Normally, the readers or audiences are ready to identify with the main character, and when he is strong and appealing, while his enemies are lowly, this is an easier task. Although this is the case with Tamburlaine, his behavior slowly makes the audience either have to accept and go along with his utter cruelty, or to dissociate with the “hero”. This causes a struggle between attraction and repulsion towards the main character, leading to further questions: “how does Marlowe construct Tamburlaine’s character so that we will find it difficult to dissociate ourselves from him? Further, how does the fact that none of Tamburlaine’s enemies are morally superior to him contribute to our admiration for his obvious steadfastness and purpose?” (Thorp).

Something prevalent and interesting that I also discovered throughout Tamburlaine that involves ethics was that Marlowe wielded the audience’s perceptions of Tamburlaine to display him positively. I will explain how he accomplishes this in the following paragraph. “First, Tamburlaine is as true to those loyal to him as they are to him. Zenocrate’s loyalty to him causes him to spare her father, to effect that reconciliation that ends part one in triumph and marriage, and when she dies in part two, his grief is extreme; indeed, when he himself dies, he calls for her funeral hearse to “serve as parcel of my funeral” (2: 5.3.213)” (Bakeless). Along with this, Usumcasane, Techelles, and Theridamas are crowned for their loyalties to Tamburlaine, and with this crowning he is true to his word. Second of all, Marlowe displays in Tamburlaine an “inscrutable reserve”, which is usually a trait of a tragic hero, even the evil ones, and involves their ability to attract extraordinary adoration in others because they “are best able to suggest in their manner that they have no need of it” (Frye 208).

One example of this is when Zenocrate eventually accepts Tamburlaine’s suit, and the audience realizes that it is not because of the enticement of his offer, but the unexplainable attraction she has toward him. Even after she is dropped to her “wretched” state, before falling in love with him, the change is shown as love for his personality not his offer. Theridamas is also conquered by devotion, first calling Tamburlaine’s offers “pathetical” (1: 1.2.211) and only yielding when Techelles and Usumcasane testify that Tamburlaine is for real; he is enticed by the Scythian’s “strong enchantments” and “won with thy words and conquer’d with thy looks” (1: 1.2.224, 228).

Lastly, Tamburlaine is displayed quite differently from his rivals who are very indecisive on their authority, while Tamburlaine is very motivated to terrorize the world in order to shield his position. When something goes wrong during his mission, he does not become a pussy; instead he exclaims that his men must become more ruthless in their attacks. He persuades Theridamas to join the battle with a pact to honor him for his accomplishments. Tamburlaine follows through with this and keeps his promise, as stated above. Tamburlaine’s pursuit of his new prisoner, Zenocrate is benevolent. He guarantees her a bunch of fancy things in order to put her on a pedestal against all of the other royal women, and when her father, once an enemy of Tamburlaine, notices this, he can’t help but fold to Tamburlaine’s wishes and give him his blessing.

In comparison to Tamburlaine, the antagonists in the play are all quite weak because they “never oppose him in principle, but only in strength and pride” (69). An example of this is when Bajazeth tries to overcome Tamburlaine with his authority, but ends up defaming his lineage. When he continues this foolery, Tamburlaine uses him as a stoll until the end of his days. The purpose of Bajazeth’s continuation of foolery is so that the audience’s tender understanding continues to lie with Tamburlaine, not with his enemy, even though his enemy may be the more correct one. When the governor of Damascus does not submit to Tamburlaine even when submitting may mean mercy, he realizes that he is going to lose and gifts Tamburlaine with virgins exclaiming that they want pity.

The play’s audience pushes the horrid fate of these virgins in the hands of the main character to the side because the audience believes that the fate of the virgins is the governor of Damascus’s fault because he should have submitted to Tamburlaine in the first place. At first it confused me when the supposed antagonists of the play were shown as more righteous that Tamburlaine and his excessive cruelty.

Although somewhat more righteous in their actions and beliefs, their stupidity prevails and they ultimately pay for their refusal to submit to the wrath of Tamburlaine, and they also should have used common sense to stop a lot of pain and suffering. Callapine is surprisingly similar to Tamburlaine, with his flaw being weakness. He is driven by the same goal of power and authority as Tamburlaine, but as Tamburlaine continues with his ruthless plot we start to question why we feel loyal to Tamburlaine when Callapine’s enterprise is much more legitimate.

At this point in the play a lot of aspects start to seem ridiculously contradictory, and the question of uses of supernatural power and how this affects the audience’s comprehension of these characters comes into play. J. B. Steane points out that the play is “predominantly and profoundly anti-Christian” (21), while at the same time “in its strange fashion … a deeply religious play” (22). I personally do not agree with the second part of this statement, because all of the main characters in this play are very blasphemous while comparing themselves victoriously to the gods after sinning in epic proportions with mass slaughter and such.

“His respectful references all develop from the success and apparent divine sanction for his enterprise, while his deviances generally occur when he is flush with victory, rousing his men to battle, or attempting to intimidate an enemy; in short, he appropriates them to his own purposes according to whatever function they may serve in his self-serving agenda.” Within “The Ethical Problem in Marlowe’s Tamburlaine” written by Willard Thorp in 1930 in The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Thorp dissects the personal issues he has with Marlowe’s Tamburlaine. In Thorp’s essay, he strives to convince his audience that Marlowe’s goal with Tamburlaine was to project his own religious rebellion and transgression through characters within his play.

Thorp mainly focuses on matters of religion stemming from elements of morality, and he critiques the way that Marlowe eloquently makes excuses for his lack of poetic justice in the way he allows his character Tamburlaine to massacre the masses in order to vanquish their countries. Thorp explains how Marlowe classified Tamburlaine as the Scourge of God, the “divine wrath made manifest on Earth” in order to simultaneously project his own atheistic beliefs while rationalizing the extermination of the countries he conquered, AND while pleasing his Christian audience with mentions of severe punishment to those who dispraise the laws of Christianity. In Thorp’s essay, he states that because Tamburlaine died of natural causes and not at the hands of an outraged god for his blasphemy, many critics believe that Marlowe himself was atheist, which supports his own belief on this matter.

“Marlowe’s instinct is to sympathize with ambition, and no avenging ghosts dog the footsteps of the Scythian conqueror. He simply continues his wild career till the weapons of war fall from his nerveless hands”. Thorp continues on to mention Marlowe’s struggle with the egotistical want to include his subversive and revolutionary self in his plays, but not wanting to alienate his audience. “Into this traditional cadre, Marlowe has been able to fit, through the characters of Mephistopheles and Faustus, the blasphemies of his own atheistical pamphlet”. Because of the author’s belief that Tamburlaine is God’s instrument in punishing the heathen (non-religious), he is able to make him as outrageous as he pleases. Thorp references the general excuse for the actions of Tamburlaine through the voice of Robert Greene, “Prince Tamburlaine, the most bloody butcher in the world, never shed blood where there was submission”. Through this evidence, Thorp states his case on why he believes Tamburlaine houses many ethical issues.

After analyzing both Marlowe’s Tamburlaine and Thorp’s critical essay on the supposed ethical problems within the play, I found that the leading question regarding Tamburlaine was how Marlowe wanted his audience to react to it. The whole point of Tamburlaine is that the whimsical controversy that traditional norm, and maybe even the Christian laws themselves, are hindering for genuinely heroic protagonists, but I believe the opposite. Taking into consideration the conservative and Christian beliefs of the audience during English Renaissance, I suppose that they would view Tamburlaine as a despot with a serious case of impiety, or lack of reverence for God, and castigate him. It is quite obvious, that although Marlowe has made extenuation of Tamburlaine’s actions by stating that they were in the name of God, that said actions such as oppression and massacre, are not in any way carried out in the name of God.

I believe this immense tragedy, when compared to the criterion of Marlowe’s day, is viewed as the outcome of undisciplined, incompetent, and afflicted passions. In response to Green’s statement that “Tamburlaine never shed blood where there was submission”, using the evidence from the play involving the three tents that Tamburlaine set up within three days in the new land that he wanted to conquer, the first tent, white, to signify mercy if the inhabitants submit to his conquer, red, to signify bloodshed if they did not comply with his takeover, and finally, black to symbolize the complete merciless domination and murder of all of the inhabitants, I have to agree with Green’s statement.

Although morally wrong in his ways, Tamburlaine did give the people a chance to submit to his power. Regarding the style of Thorp’s article, I believe that he could have set it up in a way that would better allow the reader to understand his points, such as with the use of bullet points including evidence to support his thesis and such. Although Thorp’s article did get the point across involving an ethical problem in Tamburlaine, I was expecting more evidence regarding things other than his ethical wrongness surrounding religion. I went ahead and found some other evidence to support the hypothesis of ethical discrepancy within Marlowe’s play that Thorp could have used in his essay to persuade his readers more.

Tamburlaine’s merciless slaying of his eldest son for not engaging in battle boasts the fact that Calyphas is not following the military law, (mandatory death for perverse absence from combat), when we all know that Tamburlaine’s principal rationale was because he didn’t want to be shamed by his own flesh and blood for not engaging in battle. This is just one of many ethical problems within Tamburlaine, which makes me question why Thorp did not add this or any other back up to his argument on the matter. All in all I thought Thorp’s essay could have been more informative on matters involving the morality issues within Marlowe’s play, but I did agree with some of his points because of the solid evidence he used to back them up.

Marlowe created this play with ten acts aimed at agitating his audience’s instinctive devotion to his play’s main character by getting rid of tragic calamity and the understanding of one’s transgressions, reinstating them with a natural death during activity and eulogies of Tamburlaine’s companions. Marlowe then moves on to muddle our perceptions even more by putting Tamburlaine out there as a Machiavellian hero/villain who is simultaneously supernaturally tenacious, emotional, and a diabolical mass murderer. Arranging the plot to accentuate the inhumanity in a certain way forces the audience to come to terms with the concurrent allure and loathing that they feel.

Marlowe accomplishes this by eradicating and playing down the portrayal of ethical scruples, adding no characters that counter this, and displaying contentment, encouragement and reward for ruthless tyranny. Ironically, Tamburlaine is constantly paraded around as a more correct, significant and superior man than his enemies, encouraging the audience to keep their loyalties with him even though he is so merciless and evil, at least until the introduction of Callapine. The characters mention the gods thoroughly throughout the play, suggesting added indication of excessive self-interest that plagues every main character in the play. Conclusively, Marlowe has his audience inquire about their own devotion through the manner in which he wields his characters, producing the phenomenon of considerable men whose own devotion and behavior are modified not by righteousness or virtue, but by unrestricted power and pompous cruelty.


  1. Bakeless, John. The Tragicall History of Christopher Marlowe. Vol one. Boston: Harvard, 1942. Reprinted. Hamden: Archon, 1964.
  2. Battenhouse, Roy W. Marlowe’s Tamburlaine: A Study in Renaissance Moral Philosophy. Nashville: Vanderbilt, 1964. Thorp, Willard. 1930.
  3. “The Ethical Problem in Marlowe’s Tamburlaine.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 29 (3): 385-389.

Cite this page

The Moral and Ethic Issues in the Play, Tamburlaine by Christopher Marlowe. (2021, Sep 24). Retrieved from

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