Rattling bloody facts; or, why Tamburlaine would make a rubbish boyfriend

I got to see Michael Boyd’s production of Tamburlaine last night, a show that focuses as much on the plays’ verse as it does on their violence. The production has the most extraordinary and urgent verse speaking I think I’ve ever heard: fast, fluent and often underscored by the band’s rhythmical beat. This blog post is not a review, but it is a response to some of the verse and textual choices in the two Tamburlaine plays, particularly the first of them.

I have to confess I’m used to thinking of this play as a bête noire. Standard narratives of English theatre history routinely point to it as a founding moment and emphasise its positive impact on future playmaking, overlooking the fact that Tamburlaine seems to mark a shift away from plays about female experience to a seemingly endless series of plays about angry men hacking away at other angry men. I’m also not convinced that blank verse, of which Tamburlaine was an early exemplar, is a self-evidently Good Thing. The prose and mixed verse of earlier plays are a gift to actors, encouraging experiment and playfulness whereas blank verse often seems to impose a regularity, precision and a more limited set of options on a performer’s creativity. So although this website is called Before Shakespeare, it could just as easily be called Before Tamburlaine. The few plays we have before Tamburlaine are about queer women, goddesses and female land owners: there are more plays before Tamburlaine named after women than named after men. As I’ve written elsewhere, Tamburlaine and Shakespeare have made us forget how much women dominated the fictional world of plays in the 1580s. And then, after Tamburlaine, it’s grumpy men agogo: Alphonsus, Solomon, the four kings in The Battle of Alcazar, a revived Wars of Cyrus, and on we go. Even the earlier Three Ladies of London gets a sequel where they’re joined by three new titular men: The Three Lords and Three Ladies of London. And of course, Shakespeare himself will soon join this foray, with his not-very-happy-about-women-at-all Taming of the ShrewTitus Andronicus and Henry VI plays, all of which explore ways to punish women who dare to participate in public life. Boys, can we just stop fighting and get back to queer love, female superheroes and rent disputes, please?

This is not to say I dislike Tamburlaine (or Shakespeare), but that I am suspicious of the reasons people cite for liking or celebrating it. They are often based on gendered, power-based assumptions about what kind of people, or what kind of verse writing, should matter in a play. But still, it was a shock last night to find myself so completely seduced by the world Michael Boyd’s production has created: its visions, sounds, performances and stories. Boyd himself brilliantly directed the Henry VI sequence twice in the 2000s, and it’s thrilling to see the same director turn to the plays that inspired Shakespeare’s early work.

My reaction made me think again about possible reactions to these plays in the 1580s. The plays’ original publisher tells us that they were  ‘delightful’ onstage (‘they have been lately delightful for many of you to see when the same was showed in London upon stages’). It feels important to emphasise that delight when modern audiences, I presume, are more likely to feel shock, horror and disgust in the face of the plays’ atrocities. Part of their delight, even hilarity, surely rests in their spectacle of powerful men declaring their invulnerability immediately before their defeat. They are not only unseated from power, but often turned into seats, footrests, pets or work animals, in some of the plays’ most powerful and enduring images.


In a world that wanted to insist on the rightfulness of monarchy and the legitimacy of its current incumbent, it must have been extraordinary to watch these plays’ depictions of multiple, insistent and seemingly unstoppable regime change. The play is pretty careful to prevent us feeling that any of these regimes are much worth keeping. In such a context, might there be a certain delight in the vision of someone’s tyrant boss or monarch made just a little horsey?

The play is funny in other ways too, not least the way its characters find it so difficult to figure each other out. ‘How can you fancy one that looks so fierce[?]’, Agydas asks Zenocrate, referring to Tamburlaine. It’s both a good and pleasingly silly question. As Agydas points out to Zenocrate, ‘when you look for amorous discourse’, Tamburlaine instead ‘will rattle forth his facts of war and blood’. That sounds either ridiculous or awful (though ‘rattle’ encourages us to imagine the former option), but it is also quite a good image of the dilemma of the audience member. This play wants you to look for amorous discourse inside the rattling facts of war and blood. But it also reminds us that no matter how terrifying or sexy Tamburlaine sometimes seems to be, he is also a very endearing sort of horror nerd. Go on, Tamburlaine, rattle some facts at me.

I was lucky enough to work with Kim Sykes’ production of Dido, Queen of Carthage, and wrote elsewhere on this website about some of the choices of language in that play, not least the word ‘silly’ and the idea of Marlowe’s mighty line. Boyd’s Tamburlaine made me think again about the word ‘might’. It’s Ben Jonson who famously referred to ‘Marlowe’s mighty line’, and given the fascination with the word ‘might’ across the plays associated with Marlowe, I just wonder if Jonson was making a pun. In Tamburlaine, certainly, the basic function words of the English language, ‘might’, ‘will’, ‘mean’, ‘could’, ‘must’ and ‘shall’ sing through character’s mouths. The rest of this post thinks about the words ‘will’, ‘might’ and ‘mean’ in the first of the two Tamburlaine plays.

These are words that make assertions about future intent and possibilities, and involve the live negotiation of a character’s power. The play opens with a crazy-terrible-incompetent version of a king, Mycetes, who confirms his dodgy sovereignty to us by muddling these words up:

MYCETES. I might command you to be slain for this –

Meander, might I not?

MEANDER. Not for so small a fault, my sovereign lord.

MYCETES. I mean it not, but yet I know I might.

Yet live. Yes, live. Mycetes wills it so.

In confusing these words, Mycetes calls attention to his hazy grasp on power. That last line, in which he says the same thing three times across three separate sentences, articulates his inarticulateness.

The play’s later and most magnificent representative of monarchy, Bajazeth, has no such qualms about such words of power, and is keen to let you know this:

The high and highest monarch of the world

Wills and commands (for say not ‘I entreat’)

The reply he receives indicates the effectiveness of his will (‘Your basso will accomplish your behest’), and Bajazeth is later unique in expressing his orders entirely through this word: ‘I will the captive pioneers of Argier/ Cut off the water’. That’s a syntactic transition – I will someone [to] cut – that swallows up the connecting word ‘to’ in an elliptical disappearance that speaks to the ease with which ‘will’ turns into action in Bajazeth’s mind. The first Tamburlaine play effectively moves from a king who ‘might’ do something (but more probably might not) to an  emperor who ‘will’ do things.

But of course the play’s most wilful doer is its protagonist. Unlike Mycetes, Tamburlaine is a very grammar-aware shepherd-monarch-tyrant-terrorist. When Theridamas says that Tamburlaine ‘Shall rouse him out of Europe’, Tamburlaine replies by commenting on his choice of grammar, that is, the way Theridamas uses language (‘mood’) to discuss something that has not yet happened:

Well said, Theridamas, speak in that mood,

For ‘will’ and ‘shall’ best fitteth Tamburlaine[.]

‘Will’, as a grammatical mood, implies absolute certainty of future action, as opposed to ‘might’. As Tamburlaine says elsewhere, ‘This is my mind and I will have it so’.

This word ‘will’ involves the discussion of the future in the present: what is the character about to do?

TAMBURLAINE. You will not sell it, will you?

MYCETES. Such another word, and I will have thee executed.

Tamburlaine thinks that ‘Our souls […] Will us to wear ourselves, and never rest’, until we kill our way to monarchy. The idea of wearing ourselves is fascinating (tire ourselves out? put ourselves on like clothing?), but so too is the idea of our souls enacting their will on us. Sometimes the importance of these words in this play becomes visible via a pun: Agydas hopes Tamburlaine ‘will willingly’ return the jewels he has taken; Tamburlaine hopes his new followers ‘will willingly remain with me’.

This idea of willing something also affects the dramaturgy of the play, the basic mechanics of how characters come on and off the stage. Menaphon ends one scene with the phrase ‘I will, my lord’; this becomes a standard exit line in early modern drama, but Tamburlaine marks its first appearance in the surviving playhouse corpus. Whereas characters in 1580s plays often leave the stage saying ‘I follow’ or ‘I go’ (an especially common exit line in indoor playhouses), Tamburlaine‘s scenes often end with ‘we will follow thee’ or ‘we will enter in’, a shift from the present to the future tense. This implies a staggered, consecutive series of exits and once more foregrounds this word of intent. I also wonder if it tells us something about the new Rose playhouse as opposed to Paul’s or First Blackfriars: does the Rose’s much larger stage affect the way a character thinks about their movement?

The word ‘might’ is even more important to Tamburlaine’s conception of himself than the word ‘will’. The title page of the printed play refers to Tamburlaine as ‘a Scythian shepherd’ who becomes ‘a most puissant and mighty monarch’, and the publisher’s prefatory letter to the plays calls him ‘so mighty a monarch’. This means that anyone reading this play in early modern printed form encounters the word ‘might’ as the key descriptor of Tamburlaine no less than three times before they’ve begun reading the play’s verse.

Everyone in this play is taken with the word ‘mighty’: across three lines, Ortygius calls Cosroe ‘Magnificent and mighty prince’ of ‘this mighty monarchy’, and both Tamburlaine and Zenocrate refer to ‘mighty’ monarchs in their very first speeches. But it is not until Zenocrate is asked to reflect on her position as captive-spouse that the play starts to think about a very different meaning for the word ‘might’, one that restores it to the grammatical mood of uncertain possibilities instead of the noun of power:

[My situation] might content the queen of heaven

[… But now an unexpected sadness] might, if my extremes had full events,

Make me the ghastly counterfeit of death.

Appearing in both cases as the second syllable in a line of blank verse, and therefore in the line’s first stressed position, ‘might’ makes its first appearance in the play as a marker of the grammatical mood of uncertainty rather than a noun about power. When used in this manner, it regularly appears in this very specific metrical position (‘And might in noble minds be counted princely’; ‘It might amaze your royal majesty’; ‘So might your highness, had you time to sort’). It is only as the play progresses that this kind of might appears in other positions in the blank verse line. Might these be especially mighty lines?

‘Mean’, like ‘might’, has a double meaning: just as ‘might’ is power but ‘it might be’ suggests only potential power, so ‘to mean’ is to intend, but ‘to be mean’ is to be of low social status. Both senses are central to Tamburlaine’s conception of himself: referring to his ‘mean estate’ at the start of the play, he makes clear that ‘I call it mean’ only because he has not yet started killing off anyone more powerful than him – but, you know, give him time.

Characters spend much of this play arguing over each other’s meaning:

MYCETES. Come, give [the crown to] me.

TAMBURLAINE. No, I took it prisoner.

MYCETES. You lie; I gave it you.

TAMBURLAINE. Then ’tis mine.

MYCETES. No, I mean I let you keep it.

TAMBURLAINE. Well, I mean you shall have it again.

When Cosroe opens a scene asking ‘What means this devilish shepherd[?]’, he poses the central question of the play: the realtime problem for characters and audiences of figuring out Tamburlaine’s intentions. To mean something, just like willing it or saying that something might be, involves reflecting in the present on the possibilities of the future. When Agydas is encouraged by an offstage Tamburlaine to kill himself, Techelles celebrates ‘how right the man/ Hath hit the meaning of my lord the king’. Hitting his meaning is the point of the play.

As I say, this blog post is not a review, and I’ve barely touched on the wonders of Boyd’s production and the strangeness of these two plays. Their gender politics are much more interesting than I’ve made them sound, and I’d love to see these plays’ interrogation of manliness and femininity explored one day by a cast that renounces binary gender. And love is an extraordinary thing in this play. Though my title cheekily suggests I wouldn’t want to date Tamburlaine, he is an unusually committed, constant and reverent early modern lover. Can anyone think of a Shakespearean man who sticks this consistently to a single partner? After all, even Romeo only moves on to Juliet after a grumpfest about another woman.

But let me end by repeating my suggestion that when Ben Jonson celebrated ‘Marlowe’s mighty line’, he pointed not only to the importance of might-as-power in these plays, but also to the grammatical mood of uncertainty and desire foregrounded whenever a character thinks about what they might do. The play may be about power, but all those grammatically moody words make declarations only possible and desired rather than certain. The verse’s insistent use of grammatical possibilities, and characters’ willingness to discuss their grammatical choices, mean that power is always under negotiation in these plays. ‘Meander, might I not?’ ‘For say not “I entreat”‘. ‘Speak in that mood’. This idea of a language that best ‘fitteth’ its character, that helps a character ‘wear ourselves’, means that the might in Marlowe’s mighty line is as much a maybe as a demand, a negotiation rather than a given.

Andy Kesson

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