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Marlowian Protagonist

The Epic of Gilgamesh, a poem by the oldest known human author we can name by name, Shin-eqi-unnini, is a story of Gilgamesh, a historical king of Uruk in Babylonia. Gilgamesh is glorified in this epic: ‘two-third of him (Gilgamesh) is god, one-third of him is human’; ‘Anu (a god) granted him the totality of knowledge of all’; ‘supreme over other kings…he is the hero…’ His mother, Queen Ninsun says to a god, “Why have you imposed–nay inflicted a restless heart on my son?”

epic of gilgamesh

As it is manifest, he is depicted as an exceedingly ambitious fellow who, apart from other daunting tasks, sets out to gain eternal life like gods, but in the end returns without gain. Nonetheless, he is overwhelmingly an ambitious soul.

A number of such Gilgameshes have been created as Titanic tragic characters by the outstanding English dramatist, Christopher Marlowe. His characters, ignited with unbridled passion and extreme cravings for things unattainable far outweigh real figures like Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, Hitler etc on the tides of time.


Marlowe, born in 1564, two months before the Bard-of-Avon (William Shakespeare), and died (murdered in a fight at the age of 29) in 1593, is denominated as ‘the Morning Star of English drama’. One critic describes him as ‘a boy in years, a man in genius, a god in ambition’. It is said that he laid the substructure of drama whereon built Shakespeare its superstructure.

Marlowe’s major tragedies, his chefs-d’ oeuvre, Tamburlaine, The Jew of Malta and Dr Faustus, all portray a protagonist, who passionately seeks power–power of rule, power of money and power of knowledge, respectively. Tamburlaine is a princely adventurer, who from a mere shepherd becomes the most puissant man in the world, a superman whom petty rules of morality do not apply on, who indulges in the wholesale slaughter of innocent people, lust for power and threatens gods. The Jew of Malta, Barabas, having been iniquitously and arbitrarily expropriated by Christians, avenges himself on them by an unwonted and exceptional series of crimes; a Mammon-worshipper; an ingenerate sinner. Dr Faustus, a demon-worshipper, phenomenally acquisitive and remarkably power-loving, is a necromancer, who takes a mammoth task of pledging his soul to the devil in return for absolute knowledge and paramount power, who gratifying his appetites for twenty four years, is eventually damned.

“…for me the most beautiful monument to human dignity is still the one I saw on a hill in the Peloponnesus. It was not a statue; it was not a flag, but three letters that in Greek signify NO: OXI. Men thirsting for freedom had written them among the trees during the Nazi-Fascist occupation…the colonels had obliterated it with a stroke of whitewash. But…the sun and the rain had dissolved the whitewash. So that day by day the three letters reappeared on the surface, stubborn, desperate, indelible” says Oriana Fallaci in the preface of her opus “Interview with History”.

All this echoes some way or other in Marlowian heroes from Tamburlaine to Dr Faustus. These protagonists ceaselessly burn with similar passion, the passion to say NO: an unequivocal, three-dimensional NO to what is expected socially, morally, religiously or politically of them.

An indomitable spirit of adventure, a staunch faith in the potentialities of the individual undaunted ambition, unquenchable cupidity for illimitable power and knowledge and the sensuous pleasures of life are the predominant characteristics of the Renaissance Movement. And the Marlowian heroes very assertively reflect the spirit of the Renaissance. Tamburlaine: “Nature…warring within our breasts for regiments/ Doth teach us all to have aspiring mind.”



Dr Faustus is afire with a craze for superhuman powers: “All things that move between the quiet poles/ Shall be at my command/ A sound magician is mighty god.” These verses mirror the inexpungable words, of Alexander the Great, inscribed on the stone of history: “I look so sad because I have only one world to conquer, and there aren’t any known to man.” Precisely, like Ghalib, who says “Hai Kaha Tamanna Ka Doosira Qadam, Ya Rab” (Oh, Lord, can’t you enable me to spot the point where I could tread the second step of my desires?), these heroes aspire for things unrealizable. Faustus says: “Be thou on the earth, as Jove is in the sky.” Truly, Marlowe is a laudable painter of human passion for the impossible.

Dr Faustus

Dr Faustus (Play)

In his magnum opus, The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli extols ambition as solely desirable virtue in a prince and repudiates all morality, except the one that operates for the wellbeing of the individual. So are Marlowian tragic heroes. All of them override the conventional moral codes. They are bent on realizing their designs and/or ideals by any means, fair or foul. Tamburlaine is amoral; Barabas, immoral, while Faustus, devil-worshipping. To them, end justifies the means. Thorndike writes: “They are evil men intent on evil deeds.” At the very pinnacle of his career, Barabas, persistent Machiavellian, soliloquies on Turks and Christians: “Thus loving neither, will I live with both/ Making a profit of my policy.” Even in the prologue to his tragedy, The Jew of Malta, Marlowe brings Maciavelli forward in person to speak: “I count religion but a childish toy/ And hold there is no sin but ignorance.”


Marlowe delineated these tragic protagonists with a majestic individuality. Marlowian tragedy was a thing of individual heroes unlike the tragedy of the Middle Ages which was essentially restricted to princes. Tamburlaine is a born peasant; the Jew, Barabas is but a Mediterranean money-lender and Faustus an ordinary German doctor and alchemist. Like the heroes of the ancient tragedy, Marlowian heroes are not puppets in the hands of blind faith. The tragic flaw is in their character and the tragic action too issues out of their character. William Blake says: “If you take big paces, you leave big spaces.” Likewise, these heroes take big paces because of irrepressible ambitiousness which leaves big spaces in shape of tragic flaw and resultantly they suffer.

In his tragedy, Oedipus at Colonus, Sophocles says through one of his characters “…thy will shall be mine”, so are Marlowian heroes, true portrayal of the author himself, and mouthpiece for the utterance of his poetry. His cold-blooded, implacable Tamburlaine reveals this when he waxes eloquent and lyrical in adulating he enchanting bounce and liveliness of Zenocrate: “Zenocrate lovelier than the lover of Jove/ Brighter than is the silver Rhodope”. Tamburlaine speaks high poetry of unquenchable passion in the most melodious and resounding verses; he gives clear utterance in poetry to Marlowe’s love of the impossible. Same is the case with Barabas in the Jew of Malta, with Dr Faustus and Edward II. However, Faustus is the most poetic with his towering imagination. Through him, Marlowe boundlessly panegyrizes Helen: “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships/ And burnt the topless towers of Illium?/ Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.”

These mountainous protagonists trumpet a tone of revolt against the conforming, hidebound and parochial themes. They appal the audience. When one of his victims denounces him as sanguinary tactician, Tamburlaine replies: “Nature wills us to wear ourselves and never rest/ Until we reach the ripest fruit of all.”

Tamburlaine repeatedly plagues its audience only to violate the convention. The slaughter of thousands, the murder of his own son, the excruciation of his royal captives are all without any observable consequence. Marlowe questions not only the traditional value system but also religious dogmas which are hindrance to a hero like Faustus, Tamburlaine, Barabas etc.

Marlowe was intrinsically a sceptic. His scepticism, whatever it might be, was construed by the prejudiced and captious puritans into absolute atheism. Even Dr Faustus, whatever the criticism, is not a Christian morality play, for it remonstrates about its imposed strictures upon the aspirations of man, holding him in thraldom and servitude. Basically, Marlowe has used a Christian view of Heaven and Hell in this play in a vehicle of protest which is in essence anti-Christian.

From Aeneas in Carthage to Barabas in Malta, almost all of Marlowe’s heroes are aliens or wanderers. Strangers in strange lands. From Tamburlaine’s never-ending expeditions to Faustus’ demoniac flights an aura of estrangement surrounds his plays. Though Barabas does not leave Malta, he is the quintessential alien. Edward II is the embodiment of the land and its people, however, without Gaveston, he lives in his own country as an exile. In Faustus, this estrangement turns existentialistic. Faustus refuses to accept the account of an immeasurable perpetual, inner hell told by Mephistopheles. But in the end he comes to believe: that man is homeless, that all places are alike, is linked to man’s inner state, to the un-circumscribed hell he carries with him. The great fear, in the words of Barabas, is ‘that I may vanish over the earth in air/ and leave no memory that e’er I was.’

Each of his cyclopean protagonists makes an atypical leap from inchoate appetite to the all consuming adventure. Tamburlaine’s first quest seems for ‘acquisition of knowledge’ but afterwards ‘the sweetest fruition of an earthly crown’. Then he pursues power, and perseveres with his persistent pursuit of it; but when he views the corpses strewn before him and defines this object for himself, there arises an absolutely different goal: “All sights of power to grace my victory/ And such are objects fir for Tamburlaine/ Wherein, as in a mirror, may be seen/ His honour, that consists in shedding blood.”

Likewise, Barabas’ avarice for wealth seems his utmost goal in the beginning of the play, but the rest of the play does not reflect this desire as the centre of his being. He rather revenges himself upon the Christians; then destroys the Turks, and then restores the Christians to power. Afterwards, he inclines to serve his own self-interest. But where precisely is the self whose interest he serves?

Jew of Malta

Jew of Malta



By the end of the play, Dr Faustus, it becomes evident that knowledge, sensuousness and power are each ‘mere approximations of the goal for which he sells his soul’ but what that goal is remains entirely unclear. He incessantly speaks of his unending desires, but what is it that he really wants? Even Edward II is no clearer. He adores Gaveston because, as he says, ‘he loves me more than all the world’. The desire returns from its object to the self, a self that is terribly inconsistent and unsteady. When Gaveston is killed, Edward, within no time, adopts someone else; the will exists but the object of the will is little more than an illusion.

To Marlowe, it seems, as if the admonitory purpose of literature were a futile attempt, to invent fiction only to create, only to fashion lines that echo in the void. Real goal of all these protagonists was to be characters in Marlowe’s plays. Or it could still be something categorically opposite to this? Not?

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