Posts Tagged Christopher Marlowe

Soul and Inspiration from Central Asia

Thursday, October 4th, 2018 | Permalink

Entrance to Tamerlane the Great’s tomb.

As stated on my Facebook page, my wife and I returned from a two week trip to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan last Friday evening. After answering our friends’ initial question “Where is that?” (Central Asia), their follow-up is some variant of “What prompted you to go there?”

My wife’s reply usually centers around the mystery and romance that surround the Silk Road, the caravan route that connected China with the eastern Mediterranean in Roman and medieval times. Mine is a little more nuanced and esoteric: Marlowe’s mighty line.

Let me explain. The term arises from Elizabethan author, Ben Jonson, who in assessing the poets and playwrights of his day, was referring to the language and style of the most prominent among them, Christopher Marlowe. At this point, in 1593, William Shakespeare had some theatrical successes, but pre-eminent among contemporary playwrights was Marlowe who sought to rid his plays “From jigging veins of riming mother wits” and replace the dialogue with more natural language, what we’ve come to know as iambic pentameter or blank verse.

To accomplish this transformation, his plays featured bold, assertive, and iconic protagonists like Edward II and Doctor Faustus. The most famous of these heroes appears in his Tamburlaine The Great, the play about the Scythian shepherd who tempts Fortune’s wheel (What today we would call beating the house) by “Threat’ning the world with high astounding terms/ And scourging kingdoms with his conquering sword.”

The extent of Tamerlane’s empire.

Like Marlowe’s other protagonists, Tamburlaine would succumb to the Wheel’s turning and be brought low (see Tamburlaine, Part II). But, for the entirety of the first part, Marlowe’s avatar sweeps all before him–like his central Asian counterpart who restored most of Genghis Khan’s empire established a century and a half earlier.

For a 20-old undergraduate English major facing an uncertain future (the selective service draft for the Vietnam War had just been established), this play was a revelation. Instead of novels depicting niceties of British etiquette and table manners, here was a story with a red-blooded character who swept all before him. Reading Marlowe’s epic may have been a form of wish fulfillment much as contemporary young men find solace and inspiration in the exploits of superheroes, but Tamburlaine’s exploits, more important his strength of character, provided a model for the inspiration and resolution needed to face the unknown terrors that may and did lay ahead of me.

Tamerlane’s sarcophagus in the center is made of dark green jade.

For those reasons, I thought then that some day I’d like to visit the origins of the real-life person who inspired Marlowe’s creation. Visiting Tamerlane’s tomb and birthplace 50 years later fulfilled that ambition to experience the environment hammered by the sun which forged the steel will of his conqueror’s soul and made the world tremble at his name.