Communicating Ambition: The Effect of Literary Devices in Tamburlaine

Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine was a great milestone in Elizabethan drama and shocked audiences of the time with its unconventional tragedy plot and strikingly successful characters. Marlowe’s unusual approach with the character of Tamburlaine brought upon an unexpected enjoyment from his audience. Through skillful literary techniques interlaced in Tamburlaine’s character, Marlowe is able to communicate the idea that human beings have ungodly potential and can easily rise to success.

Marlowe created the idea of a character from obscure origins who rose to a position of worldly power as a reflection of a theatrical, however still applicable narrative. Renaissance humanism had “become a popular fantasy that could be exploited and enlarged upon in a theatrical context (Cartelli)” and so Marlowe used literary devices such as amplification, decorum, and circumlocution to intensify his tale. After losing the crown to Cosroe in part one, act two, scene five, Tamburlaine has to convince his followers and friends that they too should strive to be greater than they ever thought possible. In Tamburlaine’s dialogue we can see that his speech has been amplified in order to convey his desired effect: “Is it not passing brave to be a king, ‘And ride in triumph through Persepolis’? (2.5.53)” Tamburlaine’s character carries the play’s themes of ambition and masculinity through all his lines and his characterization plays on this through words like “brave” and “triumph”. In the lines that follow, Theridamas assists Tamburlaine’s character by greatly adorning the wonders of being a king: “A god is not so glorious as a king. I think the pleasure they enjoy in heaven Cannot compare with kingly joys in earth: To wear a crown enchased with pearl and gold, Whose virtues carry with it life and death; To ask, and have; command, and be obeyed; When looks breed love, with looks to gain the prize – Such power attractive shines in princes’ eyes.” (2.5.57) In this passage, Marlowe is using decorum to not only appeal to the characters in the scene but also to the audience’s desires. Marlowe also, strangely, plays on the idea that being a king is more glorious than being a God and he speaks of kingship in a grand and noble way to convey this: “enchased with pearl and gold.” Marlowe uses Theridamas to switch the statures of Gods and kings so that the audience can relate to Tamburlaine’s goals of kingship. It is extremely common for plays to use circumlocution to exaggerate their characters’ dialogue, and it is evident here in Tamburlaine’s speech as he draws out his sentences. The effect of this on his friends is one of awe and respect, adding to his complex characterization. “Tamburlaine attempts to fill… Theridamas with the taste and desire for grander exposure, while simultaneously remarking the potential worth of those… unnoticed” (Cartelli). Marlowe utilizes decorated and expressive language to draw the characters and the audience into Tamburlaine’s fantasy of other-worldly potential.

Tamburlaine slides through history as one of the most successful and persuasive characters ever seen in an Elizabethan tragedy. Marlowe employs skills of persuasion into Tamburlaine’s character through the techniques of ethos, logos, and pathos. Conventionally, plays will see characters display one of these three methods; however, Tamburlaine can be seen to utilize them all. Act two, scene five sees a largely introspective exchange of persuasion between Tamburlaine and his friends which then sees them willingly following him into battle once again. Ethos, appealing to morality and ethics, and logos, logical rationality, are both already present as in Tamburlaine’s characterization as he has proven himself to his followers time and time again: “I could attain it with a wondrous ease.” Tamburlaine empathetically appeals to the audience and the characters using words such as “desire” and “wondrous” as Marlowe employs pathos to trigger their craving for success. Being an outsider from distant origins it is increasingly convincing to see Tamburlaine succeed in such a glorious way. Usually, the protagonist should experience a downfall in his storyline; however, Marlowe defied this expectation and brought Tamburlaine to rise, and rise, and rise, only to fall when he is subsequently killed. Because of this, Tamburlaine is a very respected and trusted character and so his followers would easily believe the speech he has given: “and would not all our soldiers soon consent” (2.5.75). Thomas Cartelli, noted author, reflects on the fact that Tamburlaine has the “capacity to articulate in the most prescient terms the inmost fantasies” (Cartelli). This claim is perfectly accurate as the reader is drawn into Tamburlaine’s character and his quest for “greatest novelty.” Marlowe uses ethos, logos, and pathos techniques to add to Tamburlaine’s character a skill of utmost persuasion. Marlowe then uses Tamburlaine to appeal to the audience the idea of aspiration of immense power and control.

One of the most notable aspects of an Elizabethan tragedy is the use of monologues or soliloquies to present subjectivity. These help to bring the audience into the same mindset as the character. Thomas Cartelli, in his article Marlowe, Shakespeare, and the Economy of Theatrical Experience expresses his opinion on how Marlowe plays on the ‘theatrical experience’ of a tragedy to increase meaning: “Marlowe’s skill at making Tamburlaine less an Elizabethan Everyman than the theatrical equivalent of a magnetic field attracting everything within reach into its orbit”. This can be seen in act one, part two, scene five when Tamburlaine uses theatrical dialogue such as “faint and destitute” and “aim at such a dignity”. Because Tamburlaine’s character has been formed around a characterization of masculinity and success, it is subjective to think that he would not stop aiming for greater things; this then draws the viewer to endeavour for greatness. Thus, reflecting on the idea of human potential.

Christopher Marlowe utilizes his persuasive, intelligent, successful character to deliver his intended meaning of the ultimate potential of human beings. In the exchange between Tamburlaine and his friends in act two scene five we can see multiple literary techniques used which shows just how precisely Marlowe constructed his dialogue to convey certain ideas and meanings. Tamburlaine’s larger than life character leaves the reader with a feeling of absence of success which then ultimately leads to the idea of unlocking great potential.