Article Title

Justice Is a Mirage: Failures of Religious Order in Marlowe's Tamburlaine Plays


Leila Watkins


Recent Marlowe criticism displays a fragmented understanding of the Tamburlaine plays’ religious affiliations. Some scholars read the play as an affirmation of orthodox Christianity, while others locate strains of radical antinomianism, Calvinism, or anti-Catholic propaganda. My essay argues that these widely different critical readings reflect the plays’ larger attitude toward religion as a cultural phenomenon: namely, that all religious systems offer inconsistent and inadequate frameworks through which to interpret human events. In order to demonstrate the plays’ skepticism toward all religious orders, I track the failures of divine justice in classical paganism, Islam, and Christianity through Tamburlaine I and II. While many critics distinguish between Marlowe’s representations of Christian and non-Christian faiths in the plays, I argue that Marlowe does not characterize Christianity as a superior alternative to pagan or Islamic religious systems. Although characters of all of these faiths expect their deities to administer justice—i.e., reward for good deeds and punishment for wrongdoing—the plays repeatedly expose these deities’ inability to curb Tamburlaine’s cruelty, tyranny, and irreverence. I argue that while the Tamburlaine plays do not necessarily encourage atheism or unbelief, they do offer early modern spectators the interpretive possibility that religion is an inadequate lens through which to interpret human warfare and politics.

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