This is an essay I wrote on Marlowe's playwrighting, originally under the title: “… the central weakness in Marlowe’s plays is their imbalance. Tamburlaine
is so strong a presence, both linguistically and dramatically that no-one else has a chance of being fully realised.” :Discuss
Whether Tamburlaine is a very strong character or not should not affect the ability of Marlowe to “fully realise” the other characters. It is not the character of Tamburlaine that could prevent such an occurrence within the play itself, more the mental straightjacket that he may have imposed on the author, dominating his mind and preventing a sufficient expenditure of thought over the other characters. What should be examined then, is the extent to which Tamburlaine is dominant in linguistic and dramatic terms over the other parts, and if any of these parts are believable characters that display more than superficial traits. The parts of the play in which this might become clear are the scenes in which Tamburlaine does not appear. If these seem to be as well written, and believable as the rest of the scenes it merely shows that Marlowe has created an especially strong character in Tamburlaine and that any overshadowing is probably intentional. A weakness in these scenes might lead to a conclusion of a flaw in Marlowe’s skill as a playwright.
The first major area of investigation is the linguistic dominance of Tamburlaine. Does Marlowe give Tamburlaine all the best lines? Are Tamburlaine’s lines noticeably more intelligently written than those of all the other characters? It is certainly the case that Tamburlaine speaks well in the play, and is portrayed as a man at ease with his words, who does not stumble. He has almost all of the large speeches within the play, such as on p146 (2,IV,1,145). He seems capable of glorifying himself, and speaking in a profound way, with enough authority that he is not interrupted, even in those scenes where he is given the majority of the lines (e.g. 2,III,2). Despite this dominance that Tamburlaine shows in linguistic matters whilst on stage it does seem that Marlowe was capable of giving other characters intelligent and meaningful lines, unconnected with Tamburlaine. Perhaps the best example of this is in the scene in which only Olympia and Theridamas are involved (2,IV,2). One can sense the desperation of Theridamas and the manipulative prowess of Olympia through their words alone, and the dramatic action that occurs later in the scene is merely an addition to the speaking that goes on between them, rather than a device that is pulled in to attempt to bring in any emotion at all to the scene. The action of Theridamas’ murder of Olympia is however essentially necessary to the success of the scene, but it seems that we should not view this as a flaw of the scene as it is an action that comes from the words, rather than one to inspire them or to conceal any flaws within the lines of the scene. Whilst I have no knowledge of Faustus, from memories of “The Jew of Malta” I would not have thought Barrabas to have been too strong a linguistic presence within that play, although in terms of clarity of character development he was certainly ahead of the rest of the characters.
As Tamburlaine has a strong linguistic presence so his dramatic presence is also very strong within both the plays. It is in this respect, more than in the respect of his linguistic dominance he seems to be more overwhelming of all the other characters. Perhaps his finest dramatic act, and one that also ties in very well with the concept of linguistic dominance is the killing of Calyphas (2,IV,1,119). There is a stark contrast between this event and Theridamas’ stabbing of Olympia slightly later in the play. While Tamburlaine is in control of the situation and clearly wants to commit the act Theridamas is coerced by Olympia, and does not really want to kill her, realising his mistake as soon as he has murdered her. We see that for actions that are equally dramatic one is truly the act of Tamburlaine, but the other has more to do with Olympia, and her dislike of Theridamas. This shows Tamburlaine to be a man of action, who is in control of himself, and clearly places him on a level above Theridamas, who is one of the more developed other characters. While in this respect Tamburlaine seems to be dominant it is not the case that the other character is dramatically overshadowed, this only occurs within the play. This example leads us back to our idea of linguistic dominance, as Calyphas’ last words are in fact some time before his death (he is with Tamburlaine, speechless for around 25 lines before being stabbed). Thus Tamburlaine is not allowing his son to speak, and asserting dominance over him, evidence of dramatic and linguistic inequality.
Whether or not Tamburlaine prevents the other characters from being fully realised is much more open to debate than his overpowering presence on stage. I would argue that Tamburlaine the character is not excessively restrictive over the personalities of the other characters within the two plays. While his attitudes and personality are very clear it is not the case that Marlowe ignored those of other people. Whilst Tamburlaine’s character may make it difficult for the reader of the play to sense the subtleties of the other characters this doesn’t mean that they aren’t there. The character of Zenocrate is an example of this. She is more independent and strong willed than one might expect from the Soldan’s daughter and does not fall for Tamburlaine at first sight. When having fallen for Tamburlaine she still displays affection for her father (1,IV,2), and is not totally enraptured by Tamburlaine, despite his power and influence. The example of Theridamas and Olympia that has been used throughout may again be used here. While one can see below the surface of these two characters in places it is the case that they do not seem “fully realised”. In this case is seems that Tamburlaine’s strengths may have prevented Marlowe from adequately dealing with the characters.
Dealing only with both Tamburlaine I’d suggest, in conclusion that he is too strong a presence on stage. This does not prevent outright the character development of the other characters, but restricts it to those instances in which Marlowe makes a special effort, that is, it does not happen in the usual way.
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