It is difficult to imagine a contemporary equivalent to Christopher Marlowe’s choice of a fourteenth-century Turko-Mongol warlord as a subject for popular entertainment. The historical Timur had no immediate impact on English culture or history, and many audience members would have been entirely unfamiliar with him or the military campaigns that he undertook two centuries prior to the 1587 staging of Marlowe’s play. Those English texts that had taken an interest in historical Muslims had, more often than not, described figures like Timur as barbarous and bloodthirsty, “princes of darkness,” associated with tyranny, terror and the antichrist. What then might have drawn Marlowe and his audiences to this fascinating but seemingly remote subject?
In taking up the story of a long-passed Muslim conqueror, Marlowe tapped into commercial and diplomatic interests in Asian, Near-Eastern and Northern African markets as well as anxieties over the cultural exchanges accompanying such ventures. English joint stock companies in the last quarter of the sixteenth century were exploring trade in precisely those areas of North Africa and the Levant that Marlowe’s Tamburlaine plays traverse. The English were eager to expand their economy but concerned, too, with maintaining their standing in what Sir Thomas More referred to as “the common corps of Christendom.” After all, trading ventures in the Islamicate world exposed the English to accusations of degeneracy and even heresy from domestic critics and competing continental powers.
Set two hundred years in the past, Tamburlaine offered a historically remote site for English considerations of the benefits, risks and cultural implications of English trade in non-Christian lands. This is not to say that Marlowe was rehearsing a rhetoric of legitimation to justify increased contact with Muslims. Instead, Marlowe’s plays seem most interested in laying bare the ways in which religious rhetoric could be strategically amplified or muted to serve economic and political interests. Moreover, in taking up his subject a second time in a sequel motivated, according to its prologue, by “the general welcomes Tamburlaine received, / When he arrived last upon our stage,” Marlowe manages a brilliant and disquieting feat: He traps audiences into confronting the inconsistencies in their own beliefs.
For Marlowe, a model of shifting, politically expedient attitudes toward religious difference was available in the foreign policy of his own government. In the last quarter of the sixteenth century, English diplomats recognized that frayed relationships between the Ottomans and the French created an opening for Anglo-Ottoman trade. In his 1578 “Memorandum on the Turkey Trade,” Queen Elizabeth I’s spymaster and principal secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham, cautioned that an embassy to the Turks “is to be handled with great secrecy” and that “it shall be very well done to give out that in respect of the danger of the traffic her majesty cannot be induced that her subjects shall trade thither.” Walsingham recognized that any alliance with the Ottomans could be perceived as an act of heresy, especially in the eyes of Catholic rivals that had called for Elizabeth’s excommunication earlier in the decade. Thus, from its foundation, England’s policy on trade with the Ottoman Empire depended upon saying one thing and doing another. It had no genuine concern with religious difference, only one that was sometimes given out depending upon the party to whom it was given or made available.

Anglo-Ottoman trade developed despite the protests of continental rivals and a domestic tradition associating Turks with the devil. Reporting on his inability to check English commercial advances, the French ambassador Jacques de Germigny reported that the English “brought in a large amount of steel and bits of broken images of brass and latten copper to cast ordnance, and promise to bring in a great deal more of it secretly in future, which is a form of contraband hateful and pernicious to all Christendom.” If such promises were made, the English were careful not to make them public. None of the correspondence between Elizabeth and Murad mentions this arms trade. However, Elizabeth’s first letter to Murad was carried aboard the Prudence, a ship that Bernardino Mendoza, Spain’s ambassador to England, alleged, in a report of December 1579, to be carrying a cargo of “bellmetal and tin to the value of twenty thousand crowns.”

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Where Mendoza and de Germigny’s letters detailing dangerous “infidels” and acts “hateful and pernicious to Christendom” seek to expose, Queen Elizabeth’s correspondence with the Ottoman Sultan Murad III is characterized instead by rhetorical obfuscation. Elizabeth’s exchange of letters with Murad is striking for the ways in which both writers mute or qualify religious difference while emphasizing a specious doctrinal similarity. In other correspondence, Murad makes no effort to downplay his religious identity. So, for example in a letter to the French King Henri III, defending his admission of English merchants, Murad insists “our felicitous Porte is always open, with the praise of Allah, exalted be He!” Phrases like this are absent from his correspondence with Elizabeth where he conspicuously removes references to the divine as in his identification of himself as “Murad Shah, son of Selim Shah Khan, he who is granted victory always.” The ambiguity about who is doing the granting is mirrored and complemented by Elizabeth’s careful treatment of the divine. In requesting that Murad authorize the release of Englishmen held captive in Ottoman slave galleys, she assures him that she will seek for the Sultan the blessings of “God who only is above all things, and all men, and is a most severe revenger of all idolatry, and is jealous of his honor against the false gods of the nations.” As she does elsewhere in this correspondence, Elizabeth emphasizes shared doctrine, rendering Protestants and Muslims alike in their opposition to polytheism and idolatry (a charge regularly levelled against Catholics who adorned their churches with statues and stained glass windows depicting Christ, Mary and various saints).

The same conditional activation and suspension of religious prejudice is apparent in and essential to Marlowe’s Tamburlaine plays. So where critics have sometimes described the spectacularly violent and brilliantly eloquent Tamburlaine as “morally ambiguous,” it may be more pertinent to consider Tamburlaine as a device constructed to explore the moral ambiguities in early modern English ideas about religious difference. In other words, Marlowe’s unstable and even contradictory representation of his title character is, in fact, no more ambiguous than his queen and country’s curious relationship with Islam and the Ottoman Empire. Tamburlaine’s religious identity simply shifts with the plays’ shifting circumstances.
T he historical Timur was a Muslim. Those pledging allegiance to him upon his coronation in Samarkand were asked to swear on the Qur’an. He kept with him an official Islamic counselor, and on two occasions massacred the Christian population while sparing the Muslims of a resisting garrison. This brand of detail is wholly missing from Marlowe’s first play. Throughout the first two acts, issues of religious difference are significantly muted: Tamburlaine speaks anachronistically of Olympian gods. He is juxtaposed to the Sultan Bajazeth who claims Muhammad as a kinsman and swears “by the holy Alcoran” to make Tamburlaine “a chaste and lustless eunuch” for his attempt to opposes the Turkish siege of Constantinople. Rather than seeking to spare the lives of opposing Muslims, Marlowe’s Tamburlaine defies Bajazeth and his faith, proposing to “rouse the him out of Europe…and then enlarge / the Turk’s Christian captives.” So, if Bajazeth is tailored to represent Islam’s threat to Europe, Tamburlaine exemplifies instead the way in which Muslims could be strategically aligned with European interests as long as their religious difference was either silenced or recast as sameness.
Throughout acts three and four of Part One, each amplification of the Turks’ Muslim identity is followed by a mystification of Tamburlaine’s religious difference. Thus when Bajazeth calls upon “holy priests of heavenly Mahomet” to poison Tamburlaine, the conqueror insists upon his safety from such curses as the scourge of the “chiefest god.” If Tamburlaine never clearly identifies himself with any particular religion, a defeated Bajazeth recognizes and gives voice to Part One’s conflation of Tamburlaine and European Christendom. He realizes that Tamburlaine’s victory is Christendom’s victory, and correspondingly,
Now will the Christian miscreants be glad,
Ringing with joy their superstitious bells,
And making bonfires for my overthrow.
If Part One ended with the defeat of Bajazeth, the play might be considered an unqualified example of how rhetorics of legitimation are employed. Tamburlaine would remain, ahistorically, the protector of Christendom, while Bajazeth would be contrastingly figured as the Turkish Antichrist. Instead, the emergence of Tamburlaine’s savagery, marked by a contrasting humanization of Bajazeth and Zabina, unsettles the play’s closure and elicits an experience of misgiving in its audience.

As the audience grows less and less comfortable with Tamburlaine’s mounting brutality, his wife Zenocrate gives voice to these anxieties and activates a degree of religious difference, creating a buffer between the audience and Tamburlaine. She, too, is distressed by the slaughter of “heavenly virgins and unspotted maids,” the sight of “streets strowed with dissevered joints of men” and finally the “bloody spectacle” of Bajazeth and Zabina. In her anguish, she turns to the heavens to seek a pardon for Tamburlaine, but this time her addressee is “holy Mahomet.” Zenocrate’s shift strategically distances Tamburlaine from Christianity as his brutality becomes more conspicuous. In other words, as Timur’s Muslim identity becomes visible in Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, his shaping by ideology becomes more apparent: when he is Europe’s protector, Tamburlaine is distanced from Islam. When Europe is secure, Tamburlaine’s brutality and Muslim identity emerge together as if congenitally linked.

If Part One only briefly and in its final scenes confronts the audience with its conditional embrace of a Muslim conqueror, The Second Part of Tamburlaine the Great sets up that embrace as a premise before proceeding to anatomize it. The sequel begins with a conflict that seems to replicate the early dynamic of Part One. Tamburlaine is again off-stage, and Europeans are again threatened with Turkish conquest and the prospect of “Turkey blades…gliding through all their throats.” As in the first play, Tamburlaine appears to protect Europe and her mercantile interests from Ottoman violence. He plans to assault Turkish Natolia, “and for that cause” one Turkish leader decides “the Christians shall have peace.” Yet this is where the similarities between the two plays end. In the first play, Tamburlaine’s responses to Turkish threats tend to distance him from Islam. In the second it is more difficult to demarcate the two until, finally, Tamburlaine and those about him out-“Turk” the Ottomans in their cruelty. Tamburlaine’s armies are no longer concerned with protecting Christian European interests. Instead, they place Europe and its trade in jeopardy. What’s more, if Tamburlaine’s religious difference is generally muted in the first play, it is foregrounded in the second. Indeed, he now vows “by sacred Mahomet” to defeat his enemies. Complicating matters for an audience seeking a point of allegiance, the play’s Christians act despicably and irreligiously and are routed from the play. Absent the triangulating force of European interests, the audience is asked to choose between a monstrous Tamburlaine they had previously embraced and the Turks they had previously scorned.

The soaring rhetorician of Part I gives way to a spectacular sadist, and in a series of episodes offering discordant echoes of the first play, Tamburlaine’s mercilessness draws sympathy to his Muslim victims. So, for example, Tamburlaine’s alliance with Theridimas and skillful conciliation of the Soldan in the first play are rewritten in Part Two as Callapine’s unflagging opposition and Almeda’s betrayal. His moves toward friendship and family in the first play are answered, in the second, with Tamburlaine’s slaughtering of his own son. Likewise Tamburlaine’s captivating seduction of Zenocrate in Part One warps into Theridimas’s near-rape of Olympia in Part Two. When his enemies describe Tamburlaine as a “damned monster…a fiend of hell,” audiences must concede that they share a sense of disgust with the Turk.
But Marlowe is not through with his audience even when he has made them identify with the Turks. He has only now fully set his trap. Tamburlaine orders his men to burn the Qur’an in defiance of the Prophet. For members of an Elizabethan audience, this might seem a praiseworthy act. Yet Tamburlaine is made to perform this, his most anti-Islamic act, when he is at the height of his repellent viciousness: he has just issued the order to “drown them all, man, woman, and child.” The effect is to equate virulent anti-Islamicism with the sort of cruelty and violence early modern Europeans associated with Islam. For the audience of the second play it is impossible to assimilate Tamburlaine, impossible to fully distance Tamburlaine by attributing his actions to Islam, and impossible to see Christianity as an exemplary negation of Islam.