Allegory, Religious Language, And Symbolism In Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine The Great

Christopher Marlowe is one of the most influential playwrights and blank verse dramatists of the sixteenth century. Though perhaps not as renowned in mainstream circles as some his contemporaries, Marlowe’s works have played a crucial role in the development and popularization of dramatic blank verse. This is particularly evident with arguably his seminal work, Tamburlaine the Great. One of the first blank verse epics, Tamburlaine played a pivotal role in establishing the thematic, structural, and cultural tenants of the Elizabethan epic. In this essay, I shall argue that Jove is the most important word in Tamburlaine the Great. In particular, I will analyze how the use of religious language, allegory, and symbolism highlight the importance of the word Jove.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), Jove is defined as “A poetical equivalent of Jupiter, name of the highest deity of the ancient Romans” (“Jove” def. 1a). In Roman mythology, Jove is a figure associated with ideas of power, dominance, and divinity. It is therefore thematically resonant for Jove to be the most important word in the play due to its close association with the titular character. Throughout the play, Tamburlaine is endowed with repeated instances of religious language, symbolism, and allegory. The prologue makes this clear, introducing him with the line “Threatening the world with high astounding terms, and scourging kingdoms with his conquering sword”. By introducing Tamburlaine in this fashion, Marlowe immediately signals to the reader Tamburlaine’s comparison to divinity. This comparison is demonstrated with Tamburlaine’s control over traditionally divine elements - death and fate - with his claim to “hold the Fates bound fast in iron chains, and with my hand turn Fortune’s wheel about”. In mythology, The Fates are a group of three goddesses that assign destinies to mortals. It is therefore clear that by holding ‘the Fates bound fast in iron chains’, Marlowe is symbolically stating that Tamburlaine is not only the master of his destiny but the destiny of all mortals on earth. This is reinforced in the following section with Tamburlaine being able to turn ‘Fortune’s wheel’ – a medieval concept that involved the use of a wheel a person symbolically rode during his or her life. According to the OED, Jove is considered as the supreme deity. As a result, Jove can control the destinies (Fates) and the luck (Fortune’s Wheel) of all mortals on Earth. Marlowe highlights Tamburlaine’s control over Fate and Fortune’s Wheel with the execution of the virgins of Damascus. In mythology, virgins are viewed to possess a divine connection to the gods due to their purity. By executing them, Tamburlaine is symbolically placed on the Jove’s level. This is shown later in the play, with Tamburlaine making a direct comparison between himself and Jove, claiming that “Jove sometime masked in a shepherd’s weed; and by those steps that he hath scal’d the heavens, may we become immortal like the gods.” This passage contains a large amount of allegorical language. Firstly, Tamburlaine compares himself to Jove with the claim that Jove is ‘masked in a shepherd’s weed’. This is important as Tamburlaine himself is a shepherd and views his journey to be divinely inspired. This is alluded to in the following phrases ‘he hath scal’d the heavens’ and ‘become immortal like the gods’. Like Jove, he is a shepherd whose believes his destiny is to become immortalized by ruling the world – metaphorically scaling the heavens. This belief aligns with the definition of Jove provided by the OED.

Throughout the play, Marlowe makes a deliberate effort to have Tamburlaine be involved with Jove or, at the very least, be elevated to Jove’s level. When presented with the threat of physical violence, Tamburlaine has no issue proclaiming that “Jove himself will stretch his hand from heaven toward the blow and shield me safe from harm”. Tamburlaine’s deliberate choice of words serves to imply a special connection between himself and Jove. Moreover, stating that Jove will ‘ward the blow and shield me safe from harm’ implies a degree of favouritism or, perhaps, potential control over the ruler of the gods. As his victories mount, other characters are forced to arrive at the same conclusion: Tamburlaine is Jove’s equivalent on Earth. Usumcasane, the King of Morocco and follower of Tamburlaine, makes a direct comparison between Tamburlaine and the mythological stories of Jove, proclaiming that “For as, when Jove did thrust old Saturn down, Neptune and Dis gain’d each of them a crown, so do we hope to reign in Asia, if Tamburlaine be plac’d in Persia”. This is another example of Tamburlaine being infused with religious language/symbolism. It is also evidence of another character apart from Tamburlaine making a comparison to Jove. By being crowned King of Persia, Tamburlaine is being allegorically crowned King of the Gods like Jove, and, just like Neptune and Dis, can grant ‘each of them a crown’. Tamburlaine is being viewed as a representative of divine authority on Earth despite previously being low born. This fact is important due to the medieval belief that royal blood is blessed by God. By being able to bestow titles and nobility to others, Tamburlaine has effectively taken the place of Jove, who similarly dispatched ‘old Saturn’.

In this essay, I have argued that Jove is the most important word in Tamburlaine the Great. Although usually overlooked, Jove’s symbolic connection to ideas of power, prestige, and divinity is important to its association with the plays titular character, Tamburlaine. The definition provided by the Oxford English Dictionary served as the foundational point for understanding this connection. To achieve this, I analysed how the frequent use of religious language, symbolism, and allegory is directly associated with the comparison of Tamburlaine to Jove. 

09 March 2021
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