Marlowe's Tamburlaine: Unsettling Audience Loyalties
by David Cope
More than any other English playwright before Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe presented complex characters not easily reducible to types of good or evil, and plots which challenge and problematize their subjects, often without clear resolution. These complexities are reflected in the positions critics have taken about his plays. The modern critical reaction to the two parts of Tamburlaine makes a good case in point; the Scythian shepherd whose initial desire to maintain his life "exempt from servitude" (1: 1.2.31) leads him to become the "scourge of God," eventually dismembering whole populations, is clearly a Nietzschean superman, yet on that model critical opinion has spun in several—sometimes contradictory—directions. For example, Battenhouse (and before him, Alois Brundl) sees Tamburlaine as a Machiavellian hero-villain who extends the character traits of his Senecan predecessor, claiming that the play offers a moral lesson in the consequences of the shepherd's choices. Criticizing Battenhouse's view that the ten acts "offer one of the most grandly moral spectacles in the whole realm of English drama," Steane points out that "the assumption that Marlowe wishes you to watch the play with a conventional mind because he is giving something which will fortify you in your conventionality" is false because it is "at odds with the excitement and thrust of the poetry" (73).
Tamburlaine is also the overreacher, the scourge, in his own words, a hyperbolic character who flouts kings, gods, the world itself in his drive to glory (Levin); yet if the overreacher must inevitably rise in Fortune to the point of his fall, where, one may ask, may we locate Tamburlaine's tragic recognition and descent? A traditional explanation such as Levin's makes a connection between the burning of the Koran and the challenging of the gods to Tamburlaine's distempering and death, yet Elaine Bartels notes that "neither the play nor any of its characters make a definitive link between the two" (75, 80). John Bakeless's sense of him as a man who is at once super-human and all too human may come closest to an accurate assessment of his character, yet an examination of the various ways in which Marlowe problematizes the representation, both through development of plot and characters, may disclose the play's central issues. I shall explore two representational aspects central to the problematic nature of the play, later examining loyalties, duplicity and divine invocations as contributing to this problematization, raising questions we should ultimately redirect to ourselves.
Transference and The Sadistic
Perhaps the first problem that confronts us is whether the two plays may even be seen as tragedy. Tamburlaine is, as noted, developed as a Machiavellian overreacher, one whose fall is necessary if we are to reify the values of society and give the audience the true catharsis—that mixture of sorrow and relief that leaves us thoughtful about the human condition, our conscious values reified after indulging in the expression of the forbidden. Catastrophe or nemesis—the "righting of the balance"—must occur in order to effect that transference (Frye 209; see also Morrell 286-89); further, tragedy also presupposes that we must empathize with the hero enough to rue his fall—though he must in some ways be super-human, he must also possess enough human qualities to afford us sympathy for him. In Tamburlaine, Marlowe introduces a kind of hero who tests the limits of that sympathy, who contains not only the combination of the heroic and human, but also a kind of hamartia that makes us uneasy about placing our sympathies with him. Like Macbeth, Tamburlaine is one whose character displays courage and sensitivity, whose initial choices make us pause and later horrify us through the more and more desperate and cruel choices he makes—and whose death we must ultimately applaud because he has become a monster.
Yet this problem is complicated in Tamburlaine because there is no clear catastrophe to bring the Scythian shepherd down—no transference which allows us to feel vindicated and freed of the fantasy. Battenhouse had, as noted, claimed that the play exhibited such a fall, and Levin suggests that the fall is located as a result of his burning the Koran and the desire to storm heaven itself (53); less sequentially, Frye finds nemesis in that "invisible force known only by its effects"—in "the death that quietly seizes on Tamburlaine when the time has come for him to die" (216). I suggest that Frye's interpretation presents us with a deflation, not a catastrophe; Tamburlaine's death in this case cheats Callapine of his revenge, and Tamburlaine's remaining sons are there to continue his work in any case; further, the closing speeches ring him out in triumph that hardly recalls either catastrophe or recognition. As for the Battenhouse and Levin interpretations, both Greenblatt and Bartels have questioned the connection between Tamburlaine's defiance of Mahomet and his sudden distempering. Further, if Tamburlaine's sudden death is due to blasphemy, the question then arises as to why he didn't fall when he compared himself to or defied gods in earlier scenes.
shall deal with the problematic question of gods and religion later, but a
simple review of his earlier blasphemies should clarify the fact that blasphemy
in itself is not a sufficient reason to draw conclusions as to why the shepherd
dies. In 1: 2.5.56-58, for example, Tamburlaine claims that "a god is not so
glorious as a king: I think the pleasure
they enjoy in heaven cannot compare with kingly joys in earth"; later he
claims that he took the example of Jove overthrowing Saturn as inspiration for
his own campaigns (1: 2.7.12-17), and though Mars and all the earthly kings oppose
him, he will "wear it [the crown] in despite of them" (1:
2.7.58-61). His first defiance of
Mahomet occurs when he suggests that Zabina should be
killed and fed to her husband; Theridamas asks,
"dost thou think that Mahomet will suffer
this?" (1: 4.4.55-56), to which Tamburlaine does not directly answer,
merely repeating the orders. Later, he
swears that "were Egypt Jove's own land, yet I would with my sword make
Jove to stoop" (1: 4.4.79-80), and after his victory in
A second problem is that of the attractiveness of the sadistic. Playwrights and screenwriters have long known that representing horrific and taboo acts attracts as well as repels audiences. Aristotle explained the phenomenon in terms of the purging unhealthy emotions, of freeing us to be ourselves through the representation of taboo behaviors and later through their exorcism via the consequences of such behaviors, yet the ten acts of Tamburlaine present sadistic behavior as the focal points of dramatic spectacle, to which the plot leads us for our satisfaction. Bajazeth's defiance earns him the position of footstool and a life in the cage, just as the four kings are made the steeds for Tamburlaine's chariot—spectacular moments which dazzle the audience with barbarity, attractive in the sense that despicable characters are given the "rough justice" of their degradation.
There is of course horror in this, as there is in the spitting of the Damascan virgins, the murder of Calyphas, and the hanging and arrowing of the governor, yet in only two scenes does Marlowe present that horror as truly horrifying. The first of these is where Zenocrate, already enthralled with Tamburlaine's personality and dash, has to confront her choices as she walks through "the streets strow'd with dissevered joints of men, and wounded bodies gasping yet for life" (1: 5.2.261-62). Bajazeth and others cry out at the shepherd's cruelty, but their moral authority is itself in question and their complaints ring out as curses; here, Zenocrate is genuinely disturbed by the moral implications of her choices—and this is the only scene in both plays where Marlowe, through his characters, asks us to confront the facts of mass slaughter as morally reprehensible. The moment is short-lived, though; she will again securely place her allegiance with him when he spares her father, and he will claim that the very horrors just noted, as well as the suicides of Bajazeth and Zabina, are "all sights of power to grace my victory" (1: 5.2. 413). At this point, the captive Soldan quickly agrees to his servitude, happy because Tamburlaine has "with honour us'd Zenocrate" (423), and all moral qualms will disappear from the stage in the ensuing marriage.
A second scene—less concerned with the horror of mass slaughter than with the morality of individual choices—occurs when Calyphas refuses to be a part of the battle, claiming that he knows "what it is to kill a man" and that "it works remorse of conscience" in him (2: 4.1.27-28). As with the earlier scene, this moment is quickly extinguished, as Calyphas is stabbed by his father and dismissed as an "effeminate brat" (164) in Tamburlaine's rush to "conquer, sack, and utterly consume" his enemies (195). We are in effect presented with moral options which are quickly subsumed in the machinations of the plot itself, lost in the thrust towards conquest and triumph.
Other than these scenes, there is no moral center, no interior raisonneur—no Banquo, for example—to give us a measure of the hero's choices. Steane has noted that "in the moral purpose the diabolian predominates" and "the essential working of the drama impels admiration for the super-humanity of one who by Christian values is detestable" (62); further, "the trouble is that there is so little evidence of the author's dissociating himself from it" (69). I suggest that in the lack of a clear catastrophe and recognition (either on Tamburlaine's or his followers' parts) in this largely amoral presentation, Marlowe has contrived a play whose purpose is to unsettle our allegiances and force us to confront our own perceptions. We are prepared to identify with the protagonist, especially when he is both strong and eloquent and when his antagonists are cowardly or duplicitous, as is the case with Tamburlaine and most of his enemies, yet the shepherd's own behavior forces us to either accept and participate in inhuman cruelty or to dissociate ourselves from the hero—to struggle with our attraction to and repulsion from him. This leads to further questions: how does Marlowe construct Tamburlaine's character so that we will find it difficult to dissociate ourselves from him? Further, how does the fact that none of Tamburlaine's enemies are morally superior to him contribute to our admiration for his obvious steadfastness and purpose?
Loyalties, Duplicity, and Invoking the Divine
The playwright manipulates our perceptions of Tamburlaine to reflect him in a positive light in three ways. First, Tamburlaine is as true to those loyal to him as they are to him. Zenocrate's loyalty to him causes him to spare her father, to effect that reconciliation that ends part one in triumph and marriage, and when she dies in part two, his grief is extreme; indeed, when he himself dies, he calls for her funeral hearse to "serve as parcel of my funeral" (2: 5.3.213). Similarly, the loyalty of Techelles, Usumcasane and Theridamas earns crowns for each of them; Tamburlaine is true to his word. When he has need of them in part two, they return from their separate campaigns to fight by his side, battle-hardened veterans who stand by him right to the end.
Secondly, Marlowe manages to present what Frye calls an "inscrutable reserve" in Tamburlaine's character; this reserve is a common trait of the tragic hero, even those who are sinister, and involves being able to attract intense devotion in others because they "are best able to suggest in their manner that they have no need of it" (Frye 208). When Zenocrate, for example, finally accepts Tamburlaine's suit, it is not because of the attractiveness of his offer; indeed, at first she is resigned to her "wretched" state and only later falls in love with him, the change largely undramatized and understood as being part and parcel of the attractiveness of his personality. Theridamas is similarly won over, first calling Tamburlaine's offers "pathetical" (1: 1.2.211) and only yielding when Techelles and Usumcasane testify that Tamburlaine is for real; he is enticed by the Scythian's "strong enchantments" and "won with thy words and conquer'd with thy looks" (1: 1.2.224, 228).
Thirdly, we are shown the obvious differences between the Scythian shepherd and his adversaries; Mycetes is weak, so unsure of his throne that he must appeal to Meander for verification of his authority, while Cosroe schemes to overthrow his own brother, thinking to use Tamburlaine for that purpose. When we first meet Tamburlaine, he knows his own mind, is ambitious to make his place secure by being "a terror to the world," and wants the hand of his new prisoner, Zenocrate. When the odds are against him, he does not shrink from the task but inspires his men to attack boldly, and when he convinces Theridamas to join him with promises of honors according to his merits, Tamburlaine follows through, as already noted, on those promises. His courtship of Zenocrate is similarly chivalrous; he treats her as a queen, promising and delivering worldly goods to make her the envy of all other royalty, and when her father, the Soldan who had fought against the shepherd, sees how well she has been treated, he willingly resigns his claims and heartily accepts his new son-in-law.
other enemies, whatever their claims to legitimacy, usually present themselves
as weak, mindlessly stubborn, or duplicitous, often undercutting their own
claims with invective; further, as Steane notes,
though Tamburlaine's actions "are marked by a growing extremism and an
obsessive megalomaniac destructiveness,"
his enemies "never oppose him in principle, but only in strength
and pride" (69). Bajazeth, for example, at first tries to bully Tamburlaine
with his power, and when that fails, resorts to denigrating his parentage. When he is defeated, he continues his
invective, leading Tamburlaine to use him for a stool; right up to his death,
the Turk and his queen express their defiance in curses and reminders of the
shepherd's baseness. The effect of this
invective is to ensure that the audience's sympathy lies with Tamburlaine, not
with Bajazeth—no matter how right his position
ultimately may be. Tamburlaine's
next opponent, the governor of
Tamburlaine's opponents in part two are similarly arrayed, though with different consequences and, in Callapine's case, a trajectory that appears righteous in relation to the Scythian's needless cruelty. Sigismund is as duplicitous as Cosroe, but he is destroyed by Orcanes, who later joins Callapine, the new emperor and son of Bajazeth. The Captain of Bersera and the governor of Babylon are as stubborn as the governor of Damascus—and both of them pay for their choices, the first with a bullet in the heart, the second shot as he hangs from the city walls; they are pathetic figures whose courage is misplaced in light of the real situation they are involved in, and like the governor of Damascus, could have saved their people with common sense. Callapine is a different story, his whole enterprise consumed in his righteous revenge. Callapine shows some of the same behaviours characteristic of Tamburlaine, but his lesser stature is apparent when Almeda has to ask the Scythian's permission to take the crown Callapine offers him (2: 3.5.134); yet of all the opponents, only Callapine truly stands in relation to Tamburlaine as a man driven by an intense purpose and wielding rewards to consolidate his power. As we go farther and farther into the plot, Tamburlaine seems driven to exact the maximum penalty to each of his opponents—drowning a whole population, for example—in a way that lends that much more legitimacy to Callapine's enterprise, forcing us more and more to question the loyalties the text has encouraged us to place. Yet our struggle to integrate the text's contradictory messages is complicated by a further problem—the uses to which divine authority is put and how that affects our understanding of all these characters.
In his introduction to The Complete Plays, J. B. Steane points out that the play is "predominantly and profoundly anti-Christian" (21), while at the same time "in its strange fashion . . . a deeply religious play" (22). This claim is bunk—all of the major characters of this play use references to the gods in a self-serving way, whether thanking them or comparing themselves favorably to them after slaughtering others, blaming them and cursing them in defeat, or using them to curse others whose powers they themselves cannot curb. In Tamburlaine's case, he is respectful or submissive to the gods he names thirteen times, blasphemous or defiant eight times, and simultaneously respectful and blasphemous three times (see appendix). His respectful references all develop from the success and apparent divine sanction for his enterprise, while his defiances generally occur when he is flush with victory, rousing his men to battle, or attempting to intimidate an enemy; in short, he appropriates them to his own purposes according to whatever function they may serve in his self-serving agenda.
The same is true of other characters. Cosroe, for example, uses Jove to explain his brother's fickleness, to define his own ambition, and to curse Tamburlaine once he realizes he is outwitted. Zenocrate at first curses Tamburlaine by invoking the powers of the gods to protect the innocent (herself and her retainers), and later compares herself favorably with Juno if only she might have Tamburlaine; when her allegiances have shifted to the Scythian, she invokes divine aid to strengthen him in his enterprise. Bajazeth and Zabina follow the pattern of the disappointed believer, invoking gods to strike their enemies and doubting their efficacy when they are defeated, while Orcanes variously invokes the powers of Mahomet, Christ, and Pluto to keep a vow, give thanks for victory over Sigismund, and to curse Tamburlaine. Callapine appropriates Roman and Moslem gods to curse Tamburlaine and to call for a slaughter in the field. In none of these references is there a true religious understanding; all are imperialists, warlords out for conquest and using religion as a pretext and justification for their agendas. These references and their relation to the behavior of the characters clearly underline Marlowe's ultimate theme—the exposure of untrammeled power and self-serving barbarity in the entire panorama of represented civilization and its leaders, cloaked in a variety of attractive disguises that force the audience to question its own perceptions of each character closely.
Marlowe has given us ten acts intended to unsettle our natural loyalties to his play's protagonist by eliminating tragic catastrophe and the recognition of one's faults, replacing them with a natural death in the course of action and the eulogies of Tamburlaine's friends. He complicates our perceptions by presenting Tamburlaine as the type of the Machiavellian hero-villain who is at once super-humanly strong, sensitive, and a vicious mass murderer, and by orchestrating the plot to emphasize the barbarity in such a way as to force us to confront the simultaneous attraction and revulsion audiences feel. He does this by eliminating or deemphasizing the representation of moral scruples—there are no raisonneurs or effective countering characters—and by represented assent or applause for conquest and tyranny. Further, Tamburlaine is consistently presented as a better man than the other characters in the drama—more true, more loyal, more strong—so that, at least until the appearance of Callapine, the text encourages us to to place our loyalties with him in spite of the fact that he is also boundlessly cruel. Finally, through references to the gods and their relationship to the represented situations, we find further evidence of the siren call of self-interest that marks all the major players in the drama. Ultimately, Marlowe would have us question our own loyalties through the ways in which he manipulates his characters, presenting us with the spectacle of great men whose own loyalties and behavior are conditioned not by morality or civilized values, but by untrammeled power and self-serving cruelty.
Appendix: Appropriations of the Gods
Key: Each entry cites the speaker, the religious system (Roman, Christian, Moslem, or unstated), and the kind of use to which the speech is being put (invocation, oath, blasphemy, acknowledgement of divine influence). By means of this system, we may determine who puts what gods to which uses and thus determine how the gods function in Marlowe's two parts of Tamburlaine. One should note that many of the acknowledgements are self-serving, as are the curses.
1. Cosroe (Roman; acknowledgement): Cosroe's lament that Jove and Mercury had no "influence in his [Mycetes'] fickle brain" (1: 1.1.14-15).
2. Cosroe (Roman; acknowledgement): wishes that "Jove may never let me longer live than I may seek to gratify your [nobles giving him crown] love" (1: 1.1.170-71).
3. Zenocrate (Unstated; curse): Z claims "the gods, defenders of the innocent, will never prosper your [Tamburlaine's] intended drifts" (1: 1.2.68-69)—because he oppresses her.
4. Tamburlaine (Roman; invocation): "Jove himself will stretch his hand from heaven to ward the blow and shield me safe from harm" (1: 1.2.180-81).
5. Tamburlaine (Unstated; acknowledgement): "Fates and oracles [of] heaven have sworn to royalise the deeds of Tamburlaine" (1: 1.3.7-8).
6. Tamburlaine (Roman; acknowledgement and blasphemy): "Our quivering lances . . .and bullets, like Jove's dread thunderbolts . . . shall threat the gods" (1: 1.3.18-21).
7. Usumcasane (Unstated; blasphemy): "To be a king, is half to be a god" (1: 2.2.56).
8. Tamburlaine (Unstated; blasphemy): "A god is not so glorious as a king; I think the pleasure they enjoy in heaven, cannot compare with kingly joys in earth" (1: 2.5.56-58).
9. Cosroe (Roman; curse): What "presumption" makes Tamburlaine "dare the force of angry Jupiter?" (1: 2.6.2, 4).
(Roman; acknowledgement and blasphemy):
example of Jove overthrowing Saturn gave him motivation to overthrow
11. Tamburlaine (Roman; blasphemy): Though Mars and all earthly kings oppose him, "yet I will wear it [crown] in despite of them" (1: 2.7.58-61).
12. Zenocrate (Roman; blasphemy): "Higher would I rear my estimate than Juno . . . if I were matched with mighty Tamburlaine" (1: 3.2.53-55).
13. Tamburlaine (Unstated; acknowledgement): "I that am term'd the Scourge and Wrath of God" (1: 3.3.44)—part of planning speech to his men before meeting Bajazeth.
14. Zenocrate (Unstated;
invocation): calls on "gods and
powers that govern
15. Zabina (Moslem; invocation): countering Zenocrate's invocation, calls on Mahomet to "solicit God himself" to kill Tamburlaine (1: 3.3.195-97).
16. Bajazeth and Zabina (Moslem; invocation and blasphemy): both call on "sleepy Mahomet" and "cursed Mahomet" who didn't help them (1: 3.3.269-70).
17. Tamburlaine (Unstated / Christian; acknowledgement): "The chiefest god, first mover" would sooner burn heaven than overthrow him (1: 4.2.8-11).
18. Bajazeth (Unstated; invocation): calls on "dread god of hell" to strike both him and Tamburlaine down (1: 4.2.27-29).
19. Tamburlaine (Unstated; acknowledgement and oath): They'll "carouse full bowls of wine unto the god of war" (1: 4.4.6).
20. Theridamas (Moslem; acknowledgement): After Tamburlaine's abuse of Bajazeth and Zabina—"Dost thou think that Mahomet will suffer this?" (1: 4.4.55-56). Techelles responds"'Tis like he will, when he cannot let it" (57); Tamburlaine responds, "Go to. Fall to your meat" (58).
(Roman; blasphemy): "Were Egypt
Jove's own land, yet I would with my sword make Jove to stoop" (1:
4.4.79-80), explaining to Zenocrate that
22. Zabina (Moslem; blasphemy): doubts there is a Mahomet or God to end their misery (1: 5.2.176-78).
(Roman; blasphemy): After victory in
24. Soldan (Christian and Moslem; acknowledgement): "Mighty hath God and Mahomet made thy hand" (1: 5.2.418).
25. Sigismund (Christian; oath): swears by Christ to keep vow of peace (2: 1.2.56-59).
26. Orcanes (Moslem; oath): swears by Mahomet to keep vow of peace (2: 1.2.60-65).
27. Tamburlaine (Moslem; oath): has "sworn by sacred Mahomet" to make Larissa Plains "parcel of my empery" (2: 1.4.109-10).
28. Tamburlaine (Roman; blasphemy): Entering Jove's court would not delight him more than seeing Techelles and Usumcasane (2: 1.6.26-29).
29. Baldwin (Christian; regarding his oath): Insists that he and Sigismund are not bound to keep oaths to infidels (2: 2.1.33-36).
30. Orcanes (Christian and Moslem; acknowledgement): Thanks both Christ and Mahomet for giving him victory over Sigismund (2: 2.3.33-35).
31. Tamburlaine (Roman; acknowledgement): "Amorous Jove hath snatch'd my love from hence" (2: 2.4.107).
32. Callapine (Roman; curse): hopes that Jove will scourge "the pride of curs'd Tamburlaine" (2: 3.1.36-38).
34. Theridamas (Moslem;
35. Callapine (Moslem; oath): "By Mahomet, not one of them shall live" (2: 3.5.17).
36. Callapine (Moslem; oath): Calls to sacrifice "mountains of breathless men to Mahomet" (2: 3.5.55).
38. Tamburlaine (Roman; invocation): Admonishes Jove to receive Calyphas's soul before stabbing him (2: 4.1.113-14).
39. Tamburlaine (Moslem; blasphemy): Swears by Mahomet that "in sending my issue such a soul . . . thou hast procured a greater enemy than he that darted mountains at my head" (2: 4.1.123-30).
40. Tamburlaine (Unstated; acknowledgement): Because he is the Scourge of God, he must "plague such peasants as resist in me the power of Heaven's eternal majesty" (2: 4.1.156-60).
41. Tamburlaine (Roman; acknowledgement): Until he hears Jove say "cease," he'll persist being a terror to the world (2: 4.1.200-03).
42. Tamburlaine (Roman; acknowledgement): "Thus am I right the scourge of highest Jove " in speech where kings first draw his chariot (2: 4.3.24).
43. Orcanes (Roman; invocation): Calls on Pluto to bring down "this proud contemner of thy dreadful power" (2: 4.3.40).
44. Tamburlaine (Roman; invocation): Exclaims to King of Jerusalem that his boy Celebinus will be raised higher "if Jove, esteeming me too good for earth, raise me, to match the fair Aldeboran" (2: 4.3.60-61).
(Roman; acknowledgement): Calls
himself the "wrathful messenger of mighty Jove" in speech to governor
46. Tamburlaine (Roman; blasphemy): In same speech as #45, speaks of touching the gates of hell and waking "black Jove to crouch and kneel to me" (2: 5.1.98).
47. Tamburlaine (Moslem and unstated; blasphemy and acknowledgement): After burning Alcoran, says "in vain, I see, men worship Mahomet" while claiming that "there is a God . . . whose scourge I am, and him will I obey," later taunting Mahomet to "come down thyself and work a miracle" (2: 5.1.176, 181-83, 186).
48. King of Amasia (Moslem; acknowledgement): Sees "great Mahomet . . . marching about the air with armed men" to help Callapine defeat Tamburlaine (2: 5.2.31-35).
49. Theridamas, Techelles, Usumcasane (Unstated; invocation): Call on heaven to spare Tamburlaine (2: 5.3).
50. Tamburlaine (Unstated; blasphemy): Swears he'll "march against the powers of heaven" and slaughter the gods (2: 5.3.48-50).
51. Tamburlaine (Roman; acknowledgement): Suggests that Theridamas should "haste to the court of Jove" to get him to send Apollo to save him (2: 5.3.61-63).
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