« ZurückWeiter »
settings were scanty; the play was the thing. Mouthed in sonorous Elizabethan fashion, this new and magnificent blank verse must have charmed and electrified the Elizabethans like marvellous music.
Blank verse had been introduced into English poetry by the Earl of Surrey, who, about the middle of the sixteenth century, translated two books of the Æneid in this measure. But Surrey's style was naturally rough and halting; and a perusal of his work gives little idea of what possibilities lay in this instrument. The stiff Senecan tragedy Gorboduc (acted about 1561) was written in blank verse of monotonous rigidity; it chilled rather than charmed. The playwrights who immediately preceded Marlowe failed in the one thing in which he most emphatically succeeded; namely, expression. They could conceive dramatic situations, but the language accompanying the supreme moment was usually entirely inadequate, and often pitiably weak. Marlowe's characters and events required a "great and thundering speech”; and, needless to say, it was plentifully supplied. It thundered, indeed, so loudly that some contemporaries laughed it to scorn, but their laughter has the discordant tone of envy rather than the ring of sincerity. In the preface to Greene's Menaphon, Nash remarked: “Idiote artmasters, that intrude themselves to our eares as the alcumists of eloquence; who (mounted on the stage of arrogance) think to outbraue better pens with the swelling bumbast of a bragging blanke verse." And . again, he alludes to what he calls “the spacious volubilitie of a drumming decasillabon.” Greene, who sneered at Marlowe as a “cobler's eldest sonne," said with swelling blank verse we should not dare “God
out of heauen with that atheist Tamburlan." Ben Jonson said the play had nothing in it“but the scenical strutting and furious vociferation to warrant [it] to the ignorant gapers."
Tamburlaine was peculiarly Elizabethan in tone, and it is not at all surprising to find that in Restoration days it had passed almost into oblivion. Charles Saunders, in a preface to his play Tamerlane the Great in 1681, wrote: “It hath been told me there is a Cockpit play going under the name of The Scythian Shepherd or Tamberlain the Great, which how good it is any one may judge by its obscurity, being a thing, not a bookseller in London, or scarce the players themselves who acted it formerly, cow'd call to remembrance."
Tamburlaine was a real character in history, whose actual achievements sound like a wild romance. Timur, called Timur Lenk (that is, Timur the Lame), Tamerlane, or Tamburlaine, was an Asiatic Napoleon of the fourteenth century. He was born in 1333 in Central Asia, and for some time was merely the chief of a petty tribe. But he finally overran and subdued an enormous stretch of territory, extending from the Chinese Wall to the Mediterranean Sea, and from Siberia to the Ganges. His cruelty was as notable as his genius, though not so uncommon. He is said to have built a pyramid constructed entirely of the heads of his foes. He died in 1405, and his empire went to pieces. In 1543 a Spanish biography of him appeared at Seville, composed by Pedro Mexia. This book had great vogue, and was translated into various European languages. The English version was printed in 1571, and it is extremely probable that it is the chief source of the drama Tamburlaine. The details are largely the same; the cage, the crumbs of bread, the scraps of meat, and the title, Scourge of God, are all in the original.
It is difficult to speak calmly of this tremendous ten-act tragedy. If its author exceeded all bounds of restraint, the critics from that day to this have unconsciously followed his example. To some it is wisdom, to others foolishness; but both those who condemn and those who praise have drawn heavily on their stock of adjectives. Lamb did not take it seriously; but Swinburne in writing of it had one of his frequent fits of ecstasy. The play of course shows no regard for dramatic structure. There is no development, either of plot or of character; there might as well have been a hundred acts as ten. As some one has said of Hauptmann, the play does not end, it quits.
But the salient virtue of this drama, apart from its superb diction, is that we have, for the first time in English tragedy, one grand, consistent, unforgettable character. We do not ask of romantic heroes, either in Cooper or in Shakespeare, that they shall resemble actual life. All we demand is that they make a permanent impression on the imagination. This Tamburlaine assuredly does. No one who has ever once read the play can by any possibility forget the protagonist. He is the incarnation of the spirit of aspiration the spirit of Marlowe, and the spirit of the Eliza
He revels in the intoxication of boundless power. His swelling confidence hypnotizes his friends, and paralyses his enemies. His most bitter foes feel the resistless fascination of the man. Some of the best things said about him are uttered by his
antagonists. Tamburlaine trusts no earthly or divine agent; his God is himself.
His passionate love for Zenocrate is perfectly natural, and not in the least inconsistent. His wild pagan nature has its one ideal side — beauty.
Of beauty in the abstract he speaks in language too familiar to quote, but which Shelley or Keats might have envied. Now beauty in the concrete, beauty incarnate, appears in the fair person of Zenocrate, and the strong man worships. Their marriage is an ideal union, strength and beauty; and it is easy to understand how Zenocrate falls under the spell of the man's dominant power, and returns his love with constant devotion.
There is no real humour in the drama, but there is terrible irony. Tamburlaine treats his victims as the cat handles the mouse. His mock courtesy is more awful than his positive cruelty. But there is a far deeper irony than this, and it is here that the drama ceases to be merely a resplendent romance; at this point it reaches the very basis of human tragedy, for it represents nothing less than the irony of life. So far as I know, this appears here for the first time in English drama. Some one has defined happiness as “freedom from limitations."
Tamburlaine, drunken with success, believes that he has attained this liberty. The death of Zenocrate bewilders as much as it grieves him. And finally he, too, must yield to a foe stronger than himself. The advance of death is a tremendous shock to his aspiring heart; and he realizes, as other conquerors have realized, that instead of controlling fate he is its plaything. After all, he has his tether, and he has reached the end of it. Death is the only “check to egotism."
The passion of this play sweeps the reader along with it now, much as it did in the sixteenth century. Some one has compared the perusal of it to a debauch of mental passion, leaving the reader weak and exhausted. It was written hot from the brain, and is evidently full of those magnificent impromptus so frequent in Shakespeare. The late Richard Holt Hutton used to speak of the “sudden solemnizing power” of Browning - how after a long pedestrian passage, suddenly, without any warning or premonition to the reader, the great poet irresistibly carries us off into the ether. Such power is also peculiarly characteristic of the author of Tamburlaine. In the midst of sheer nonsense or vain bombast comes a passage that salutes our ears with strains divine.
In Elizabethan times, England knew France, Italy, and Spain very well. But Germany was an undiscovered country. The English of 1540 and the English of 1590 looked at Germany from widely different view-points. In the early part of the century, the great German name was Luther, and the word Germany signified Protestantism. Then as the influence of the Renaissance grew and prevailed (and it should never be forgotten that the Renaissance was pagan, both in spirit and in power), and as England grew in military greatness and began to triumph on land and sea, Germany rather lost its religious significance, and assumed a new and literary interest unlike anything it had possessed before.
1 The next few paragraphs owe much to Professor C. H. Herford's admirable book, Studies in the Literary Relations of England and Germany (1886). It is a model of what such a work should be.