At War With God: Theology In Christpher Marlowe’s Essay, Research Paper
In the fall of 1587, the historical drama of a little-known Cambridge graduate took London by storm. Although he was but twenty-three years of age, Christopher Marlowe seemed to have embodied the spirit of the Renaissance in his work Tamburlaine the Great. On the surface, the work simply retells the history of Timur the Lame, a figure familiar to the educated populous during the Renaissance. Below the surface, however, the work holds a much deeper meaning, standing almost as Marlowe’s commentary on the ideology of the Renaissance. Himself a rebel, Marlowe first refused to take the holy orders for which he had been educated, then rejected biblical moral principles (Baines, 1593, n. p.; Hutton, n. d.., n. p.; Wraight, 1993, n. p.), and aligned himself with the controversial “free-thinkers” (Wraight, 1993, n. p.) who espoused a primitive form of Unitarianism, and finally embraced atheism (Kocher, 1940, pp. 159-166). At the time of his death, in fact, Marlowe faced multiple charges of heresy (Baines, 1593, n. p.), any one of which could have led to his execution. In many ways, Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great functions as a mirror, reflecting the author’s revolutionary theological suppositions. First, Marlowe’s Tamburlaine challenges the person of God. Throughout both the first and second parts of this work, Marlowe questions the identity of God. On thirteen occasions, Marlowe refers to “the gods” (Ed. Fehrenbach et al, 1982, pp. 442-443). None of “the gods,” however, prove to be a match for the power of Tamburlaine. As Tamburlaine and his forces prepare to engage Mycetes, Tamburlaine assures his company, “Our quivering lances, shaking in the aire / And bullets like Jove’s dreadful thunderbolts / Enroll’d in flames and fiery smoldering mists / Shall threat the gods more than Cyclopian wars” (Marlowe, 1967, p. 31). Indeed, Tamburlaine’s succeeding conquest seems to lend credence to his boasts. Shortly after Tamburlaine’s boasts, his rival Cosroe describes Tamburlaine as one “That thus opposeth him against the gods / And scorns the powers that govern Persia,” then encourages his soldiers to defend their king and country from the corrupting influence of the “devilish shepherd” (Marlowe, 1967, p. 40). Cosroe and his army, however, encounter swift defeat; and Tamburlaine once more seems capable of successfully opposing the gods. Marlowe also refers to Jehovah as God more than thirty times throughout the two works (Ed. Fehrenbach et al, 1982, p. 667). Nowhere does he portray Jehovah and Tamburlaine in direct confrontation, but he implies that Tamburlaine would emerge the victor were such a confrontation to occur. When Zenocrate pleads with Tamburlaine to spare her homeland Egypt, he replies, “Zenocrate, were Egypt Jove’s own land, / Yet would I with my sword make Jove to stoop” (Marlowe, 1967, p. 76). Later Tamburlaine remarks to Zenocrate’s father, the sultan of Egypt, “Jove, viewing me in arms, looks pale and wan, / Fearing my power shall pull him from his throne” (Marlowe, 1967, p. 96). Ribner (1953) summarizes, saying that Marlowe fashions in Tamburlaine a created being wholly free from the control of his Creator. Whereas the Christian interpretations of history popular throughout the Tudor Renaissance depicted man as “working out God’s plan,” Marlowe reacts by establishing an earthly empire whose governor “defies and contradicts” God’s purposes, yet succeeds in spite of rebelling against the Almighty (pp. 84-85). Having attacked both classical paganism and orthodox Christianity, Marlowe refers to Mohammed as a deity. Mohammed likewise proves to be no match against the power of Tamburlaine; thus, Marlowe’s religious skepticism enlarges itself to question the Islamic faith as well. In vain Bajazeth and Zabina wait for Mohammed to deliver them from the cruel hands of Tamburlaine. At last, driven to the brink of madness by starvation and despair, Bajazeth confesses that “The heavens may frown, the earth for anger quake / But such a star hath influence in his sword /As rules the skies and countermands the gods / More than Cimmerian Styx or destiny.” Sensing Bajazeth’s abandonment of hope, Zabina asks, “Then is there left no Mahomet, no god, / no fiend, no fortune, nor no hope of end / To our infamous, monstrous slaveries?” (Marlowe, 1967, p. 88). Whether Mohammed is impotent or simply disinterested in their plight, the consequences of his failure to act on behalf of his followers is dramatically portrayed at the close of the scene when both Bajazeth and Zabina, overcome by the hopelessness of their circumstances, brain themselves against the sides of Bajazeth’s cage. After Bajazeth’s death, his son Callapine maintains his confidence in Mohammed, telling the Persian army, “Whet all your swords to mangle Tamburlaine, / His sons, his captains, and his followers. / By Mahomet, not one of them shall live” (Marlowe, 1967, p. 151). As before, Mohammed proves no defense against Tamburlaine. The Persian armies are conquered, Callapine enslaved, and the followers of Mohammed left to mourn their god’s failure to act on their behalves. In addition, Marlowe’s Tamburlaine minimizes the glory of God. “To be a king is half to be a god,” declares Usumcasane, to which Theridamas replies, “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 enchas’d with pearl and gold, / whose virtues carry with it life and death; / To ask and have, command and be obeyed ” (Marlowe, 1967, p. 37). Deity, then, is reduced to a figure of speech, while a human being is exalted as lord supreme over the affairs of men, law-giver, and the final authority over life and death. As Appleton (n. d.) notes, “all Marlowe’s heroes are overreachers’ who refuse to accept human limitations. . . . [In Tamburlaine] the hero seeks limitless power, . . . [in The Jew of Malta], limitless wealth, . . . [and in Dr. Faustus], limitless knowledge” (n. p.). Through characterizations such as these, Marlowe teeters dangerously near the brink of heresy, suggesting that man may possess the omnipotence and omniscience ascribed by orthodox Christianity to a Creator-God alone.
Along similar lines, Marlowe’s Tamburlaine undermines the character of God, picturing God as a being unconcerned by the struggles of man. Agydas names no specific deity, but sensing Tamburlaine’s anger toward him, describes himself as “lifting his prayers to the heavens for aid /Against the terror of the winds and wave . . . / That sent a tempest to my daunted thoughts / And makes my soul divine her overthrow” (Marlowe, 1967, p. 49). No divine assistance, however, does Agydas find. Rather, this one who has so faithfully warned Zenocrate of Tamburlaine is destroyed by the very evil he sought to expose. Ribner (1953), in fact, suggests that the characteristic which most distinguishes Tamburlaine among Tudor Renaissance literature is the absence of a Christian ideal in which “divine providence . . . rewards man for good and punishes him for evil.” In contrast, Marlowe espouses a sort of secular humanism in which the will and wisdom of man, more than moral principle or divine providence, determine the course of history (pp. 82-84). Thus, as reflected also in Mohammed’s abandonment of Bajazeth and Zabina, an aloof deity turns a deaf ear to the cries of His followers and abandons civilization to the whim of human tyrants. Second, Marlowe’s Tamburlaine challenges the power of God as it challenges God’s right to govern in the affairs of men. Tamburlaine bows to no authority beyond himself, declaring, “I hole the Fates bound fast in chains, / And with my hand turn Fortune’s wheel about” (Marlowe, 1967, p. 21). Even more bold is his later claim that Jehovah would Himself would bow before him (Marlowe, 1967, p. 76). Most shocking of all is Tamburlaine’s indignant response to sickness as he exclaims, “What daring god torments my body thus / And seeks to torment mighty Tamburlaine?” To no avail his faithful friends beg him to hold his peace and respect the authority of the gods in such matters, but Tamburlaine will have none of it. Instead, he bids them rebuke Jehovah for this violation of his rights and warns that should the Almighty fail to remedy the illness promptly, he will storm the very courts of heaven, forcing Jehovah to submit to him. (Marlowe, 1967, pp. 186-187). Ribner (1953) perhaps best summarizes Tamburlaine’s attitude toward the sovereignty of God, saying that Tamburlaine not only rejects the authority of a Supreme Being, but also establishes himself as a challenging authority and demands that those under his authority honor him with the same obedience and faithful service they would show their god (p. 87). Marlowe’s Tamburlaine also disputes God’s ability to govern the affairs of men. The pagan god of war has surrendered control to him, Tamburlaine maintains (Marlowe, 1967, p. 95). Consequently, he is of no benefit to those who would withstand him. Jehovah, Tamburlaine claims, lives in terror, fearing He Himself may be dethroned by Tamburlaine at any moment. (Marlowe, 1967, p. 96). Consumed with fear and busy protecting His own kingdom, then, Jehovah also stands powerless to intervene in earthly matters. Finally, according to Tamburlaine, “Mahomet remains in hell,” unaware of the sufferings his people endure at Tamburlaine’s hands. Marlowe, 1967, p. 182). Lacking knowledge and himself a prisoner, Mohammed too is incapable of affecting the course of history. Through Tamburlaine’s portrayals of the Greek and Roman pagan deities, the Jehovah of Christianity and Judaism, and the Mohammed of Islam, Marlowe effectively suggests that man will find in organized religion no divine being capable of assisting him in the struggles of life. In conclusion, Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, likes its author, defies the spirit of the Tudor Renaissance by denying the role of providence in the events of history. Furthermore, it rejects the orthodox Christianity of Marlowe’s era, exalting both Mohammed and the manifold deities of Greece and Rome to the level of Jehovah and implying that all are equally impotent. Finally, having brought into question the identity of the true God, His character, and His power, Marlowe’s Tamburlaine prepares the reader to question the very existence of God and so advances Marlowe’s own atheistic philosophy.