It is rather hard to imagine a coeval equivalent to Christopher Marlowe’s choice of a fourteenth-century Turk commander as a subject for popular demonstration. The historic Timur had no direct effect on English culture or history. Those English texts that had taken an interest in historical Muslims had, more often than not, portrayed figures like Timur as savage and bloodthirsty, “princes of darkness,” associated with cruelty, terror and the antichrist.
In taking up the story of a long-passed Muslim conqueror, Marlowe tapped into commercial and politic concerns in Asian, Near-Eastern and Northern African markets and also anxieties over the cultural swaps accompanying such attempts. English joint stock companies in the last quarter of the sixteenth century were discovering trade in certainly those areas of North Africa and the Levant that Marlowe’s Tamburlaine plays traverse.
The English were enthusiastic to enlarge their economy but anxious, too, with preserving their standing in what Sir Thomas More referred to as “the common corps of Christendom.” After all, commercial ventures in the Islamic world exposed the English to accusations of degeneracy and even perversity from domestic critics and contending continental powers. Set two hundred years in the past, Tamburlaine presented a historically remote site for English matters of the avantages, risks and cultural implications of English trade in non-Christian lands.
This is not to say that Marlowe was repeating a rhetoric of legitimation to bear out the increased connection with Muslims. Instead, Marlowe’s plays seem most interested in laying bare the ways in which religious rhetoric could be strategically amplified or muted to serve economic and political interests. For Marlowe, a model of shifting, politically appropriate attitudes toward religious difference was present in the foreign policy of his own government.