Monday, February 28, 2011

Two views of ambition

In Marlowe’s vision of the exotic East, vaunting ambition, stopping at nothing, leads to the establishment of a grand world order, cruel but magnificent. That order, as part two of Tamburlaine shows, crumbles, but only because everything eventually crumbles: there is no moral other than the brute fact of mortality. In Shakespeare’s vision of English history, vaunting ambition leads to chaos, an ungovernable, murderous factionalism and the consequent loss of power at home and abroad. Despite or even because of his ruthlessness, Marlowe’s hero bestrides the world like a god, doing whatever it pleases him to do—“This is my mind, and I will have it so” (4.2.91). By contrast, Shakespeare’s petty Tamburlaines, even though they are queens and dukes, are like mentally unbalanced small-town criminals: they are capable of incredible nastiness but cannot achieve a hint of grandeur. – Stephen Greenblatt

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