Tamburlaine Must Die

by Louise Welsh

Edition reviewed: Canongate, Edinburgh, 2005, ISBN 1 84195 604 X

Tamburlaine Must Die is set in London during the period 19-29 May 1593. Its central character is Christopher Marlowe, and other historical figures include Sir Walter Raleigh, Thomas Walsingham (cousin to Sir Francis Walsingham, head of the Elizabethan intelligence service) and the astrologer and alchemist Dr John Dee.

Who can fail to be entranced by the sheer romanticism of Christopher Marlowe’s life? Poet, playwright, rumoured spy, rumoured homosexual, he lived fast and died young in mysterious circumstances in the seedy underworld of Elizabethan London. Marlowe was Shakespeare’s contemporary and literary equal - some would say superior - author of Tamburlaine and Doctor Faustus. He died from a stab wound to the head in a house in Deptford on the evening of 30 May 1593. The official records state that his death resulted from a fight over the bill, though conspiracy theorists ever since have insisted there must have been more to it than that. Tamburlaine Must Die is among their number.

It is 1593 and pestilence is ravaging London. Handbills blaming the pestilence on Dutch immigrants and inciting riot and massacre have appeared, posted by person or persons unknown and signed with the name of Marlowe’s most famous theatrical creation, Tamburlaine. A friend’s betrayal throws suspicion on Marlowe, who is summoned before the Privy Council and accused of treason and heresy. Marlowe has to find and kill the unknown Tamburlaine to clear his name and save his life, but there are deep undercurrents in high politics and more lives and reputations than Marlowe’s are at stake.

Tamburlaine Must Die is elegantly written in a style that echoes some of the rhythms of Elizabethan drama. Inventive turns of phrase and original imagery abound, such as, “....my mind, as busy as a late-night gaming board....” and “...like a father bestowing pearls on a daughter of whose virginity he is certain.” A series of vivid vignettes bring Elizabethan London to life in all its squalid energy, from the crowded street scenes to the booksellers in St Paul’s churchyard.

My chief complaint is that there wasn’t a lot more of this book. I estimate the length at around 25,000 words, a cross between a novella and a beefed-up short story. The plot promised much but in the end it seemed quite slight, even for a novella. I guessed the identity of Tamburlaine about two-thirds of the way through, and when I got to the end I thought, “Oh. Is that it?” Readers hoping for a crime novel or a spy thriller are liable to come away disappointed. I’d have liked to see this expanded into a full-length novel, with a more complex plot and a larger cast of characters, for an extended stay in Marlowe’s colourful world.

A stylish novella about a most fascinating subject.