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The Irony of Identity: Self and Imagination in the Drama of Christopher Marlowe

By Ian McAdam | Go to book overview

3
Tamburlaine the Great: Tenuous Godhood

As SUGGESTED AT THE END OF THE PREVIOUS CHAPTER, TAMburlaine is a compensatory figure for the weak and uncertain Aeneas. Since Aeneas’s failure is in part due to an absence of satisfactory masculine idealized self-objects, Marlowe’s response, under the influence of Hermetic writings, is to create a character who egoistically asserts this ideal from within himself. In terms of the striving toward adequate manhood, the movement from Dido to Tamburlaine reflects an “important rule” Kohut draws attention to: “When [potentially] higher forms of adaptation fail, then the grandiose self emerges.”1 The result is that while Tamburlaine represents an artistic advance over Dido, it is also in some ways a psychological regression. Tamburlaine becomes a kind of God, a self-creating being, who seems to enjoy absolute confidence and absolute rhetorical control, but his divinity is in fact a pathology that, to borrow Kohut’s terms, takes the form of a relentless exhibitionistic perversion. This perversion involves a constant manipulation of self-objects by the protagonist so that they mirror his own grandiosity. Tamburlaine’s self-assertions might therefore be termed, in a clinical sense, not healthy but essentially pathological. However, we are of course not dealing with a patient undergoing psychotherapy but one of the most important historical moments in the history of English theater, and I am left, like my critical contemporaries and predecessors, striving to explain why a play “executed in bold, broad strokes episodic in structure, occasionally stupefying in the monotonous pitch of its rhetoric, indelicate in its avowed appetites and immoderate in its gratification of them”2 nevertheless remains a deeply impressive and obsessively fascinating work of art.

Like Dido but to an even greater extent, the two parts of Tamburlaine constitute an extremely controversial play,3 what Catherine Belsey calls “a notoriously plural text.”4 Mulryne and Fender

-73-

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