"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Tamburlaine, Titus Andronicus, Machiavelli, and Nietzsche


In my extensive reading of Shakespeare’s Histories and Tragedies over the last eight months or so, I have been fascinated by the persistent theme, found in these plays, of pure, unalloyed, untrammeled ambition – the embodiment of Nieztzche’s theory of the pure will of the Superman, an amoral striver beyond good and evil; and Machiavelli’s similar exhortations.  A simple, but familiar example:

Love is a link of obligation which men, because they are rotten, will break at any time they think doing so serves there advantage

Machiavelli also commented on law and force, suggesting that princes need law, but there are times when only “beastly force” will suffice.  In short Machiavelli, like Nietzsche understood that accession to power requires setting aside the more bourgeois assumptions of morality.

Finally Machiavelli is famously remembered for his conviction that while love the the people can be useful, it is fear that is the most instrumental tool in gaining and retaining power.

The perfect embodiment of this is Richard III and Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus, Titus himself, and of course the Goth Queen and her sons. There are other heroic pretenders, like Macbeth, who pursues his bloody, amoral path to the throne, and even Hamlet in his search for revenge; and lesser historical characters. All the kings from John to Henry VIII act within the Grand Mechanism, and plot, maneuver, and chop heads off to accede to, secure, and retain power; but most do it with some compunction (mothers, wives, uncles, etc. throw them off), and do not qualify as obsessed, amoral, fixated supermen.  Henry V is often put in the superhero/superman category, but he is simply patriotic, and his speech outside the gates of Harfleur, all menace of blood and guts, is more political threat and warning than preamble to slaughter.

Which leads me to Tamburlaine, fascinating to read for many reasons.  I was sent in that direction by my mentor, Bloom, who steered me to Nietzsche as well.  I wanted to first find out why and how Marlowe – a contemporary and a competitor – was also Shakespeare’s mentor.  I recently saw The Merchant of Venice and am really curious as to how Marlowe depicted his Jew of Malta.  Most importantly, however, was to see how Marlowe treated Tamburlaine – truly the best explicit example of single-minded, amoral, violent, rapacious, pursuit of power.  I have read Mongol history, and Timur (Tamurlaine) were as bloody as they come. 

Timur's reputation is that of a cruel conqueror. After capturing certain cities he slaughtered thousands of the defenders (perhaps 80,000 at Delhi) and built pyramids of their skulls. Although a Muslim, he was scarcely more merciful to those of his own faith than to those he considered infidels

Genghis Khan, his forbearer, was even more merciless in his rampages across Asia, the Middle East and Europe.  So, both Genghis Khan and Timur must have been models for Marlowe and later Nietzsche.

I was first disappointed by the play itself, the language, the plot, and the drama.  Reading Marlowe makes one appreciate Shakespeare even more (as though comparisons were necessary).  Tamburlaine is simplistic, with heroic poetry describing the godlike character of Tamburlaine; and none of the subtlety, interior drama, moral or psychological questions common in Shakespeare.  Tamburlaine is single-minded juggernaut whose military onslaught is delayed or mitigated only slightly by his proclaimed love for Zenocrate (who, of course, he abducted and raped).  I thought I was going to get something of Richard or Aaron, or maybe a more amoral Henry; but no – to me a uni-dimensional character. 

Tamburlaine, however, is most certainly a Superman.  In perhaps some of his most reflective lines, he says:

     Our souls, whose faculties can comprehend
     The wondrous architecture of the world,
     And measure every wandering planet's course,
     Still climbing after knowledge infinite,
     And always moving as the restless spheres,
     Will us to wear ourselves, and never rest,
     Until we reach the ripest fruit
125 of all,
     That perfect bliss and sole felicity,
     The sweet fruition of an earthly crown.

Here is the clearest, most unequivocal statement of purpose possible.  Such princely ambitions would be quickly understood in Shakespeare,  but in Marlowe we understand that Tamburlaine was a simple shepherd who overreached, became king and emperor; so these words have even more salience.

He goes on to state his absolute conviction of not only becoming emperor but ruling the whole world:

And sooner shall the sun fall from his sphere
     Than Tamburlaine be slain or overcome.
     Draw forth thy sword, thou mighty man-at-arms,
     Intending but to raze my charmed skin,
     And Jove himself will stretch his hand from heaven
     To ward the blow, and shield me safe from harm.
     See, how he rains down heaps of gold in showers,
     As if he meant to give my soldiers pay!
     And, as a sure and grounded argument
     That I shall be the monarch of the East,
Part I of Tamburlaine seems to end with peace at hand, but Tamburlaine realizes that peace undermines authority, and that the only way to retain and increase power is through incessant war; and in Part II he acts on that understanding with a vengeance. 
The first sign of how he will accomplish the feat – “the scourge will come That whips down cities and controlleth crowns….”:     
   Now crouch, ye kings of greatest Asia,
   And tremble when ye hear this scourge will come
   That whips down cities and controlleth crowns,
   Adding their wealth and treasure to my store...
   Thorough the streets, with troops of conquered kings,
   I'll ride in golden armour like the sun,
   And in my helm a triple plume shall spring,
   Spangled with diamonds, dancing in the air,
   To note me emperor of the threefold world…
   At every little breath through heaven blown...
   To Babylon, my lords, to Babylon!

And then the blood and guts:

   For he shall wear the crown of Persia
   Whose head hath deepest scars, whose breast most wounds.
   Which being wroth sends lightning from his eyes,
   And in the furrows of his frowning brows
   Harbours revenge, war, death, and cruelty;
   For in a field, whose superficies
   Is covered with a liquid purple veil
   And sprinkled with the brains of slaughtered men,
   My royal chair of state shall be advanced;
   And he that means to place himself therein,
   Must armed wade up to the chin in blood.

  So burn the turrets of this cursed town,
   Flame to the highest region of the air,
   And kindle heaps of exhalations
   That, being fiery meteors, may presage
   Death and destruction to th' inhabitants!
   Over my zenith hang a blazing star,
   That may endure till heaven be dissolved,
   Fed with the fresh supply of earthly dregs,
   Threatening a death and famine to this land!
   Flying dragons, lightning, fearful thunderclaps,
   Singe these fair plains, and make them seem as black
   As is the island where the Furies mask,
   Compassed with Lethe, Styx, and Phlegethon,
   Because my dear Zenocrate is dead. 

  How different is this from Henry V before the gates of Honfleur, although as I have said before, Henry threatened, Tamburlaine acted:

If not, why, in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dash'd to the walls,
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
Do break the clouds, as did the wives of Jewry
At Herod's bloody-hunting slaughtermen.
What say you? will you yield, and this avoid,
Or, guilty in defence, be thus destroy'd?

So my excursion into Marlowe and Tamburlaine, while far from satisfying from the point of view of drama, character, insight, and drama as in Shakespeare, it was important for me to further my understanding of the superhero, and by extension – the real reason for my exploration of this theme – an understanding of human nature which still, in 2011 still seems to follow Machiavelli, Nietzsche, Tamburlaine, Genghis Khan, and Richard III

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