Louise Welsh: Tamburlaine Must Die (2004)

It’s 1593 and London is a city on edge. Under threat from plague and war, it’s a desperate place where strangers are unwelcome and severed heads grin from spikes on Tower Bridge. Playwright, poet, spy, Christopher Marlowe has three days to live. Three days in which he confronts dangerous government factions, double agents, necromancy, betrayal and revenge in his search for the murderous Tamburlaine, a killer who has escaped from between the pages of Marlowe’s most violent play. The Final Testament of Christopher Marlowe is a swashbuckling adventure story of a man who dares to defy God and state and who discovers that there are worse fates than damnation.

I really enjoyed Tamburlaine Must Die. I liked Louise Welsh’s latest novel Naming the Bones (here’s the review) and wanted to read another one and I wasn’t disappointed. However I know the book got very mixed reviews and this mainly because of the language. Clearly Welsh tried to write 16th century English and might not have been 100% successful. I didn’t care or – because I’m not a native speaker – didn’t notice. I thought the language was beautiful.

In her novella Louise Welsh lets Christopher Marlowe, the famous playwright, tell his final ten days. Someone has written a libel in his name, imitating his writing, signing with the name of the main-protagonist of one of his plays, Tamburlaine. Welsh imgines how and why he must have been killed, how he spent his last days, sleeping with men and women, drinking too much, picking fights, putting himself in danger through his blasphemies.

I think Christopher Marlowe is one of the most fascinating figures of literature. An immensely gifted writer, a rake, a debauchee, a spy, a rough neck, a ruffian, an innovator and subversive man  and many other things. The book is atmospheric and evocative, you see the streets of London, the intrigue, the danger of a city afflicted by the plague, the violence of the times. Any sign of not following the Church, not being loyal to the Queen, being a homosexual were highly dangerous.

We know Marlowe escaped the dungeon but only to face death through an unknown enemy. His murder has never been solved and to this day there are many speculations.

I think I start to realize what type of historical novels I like. I like it when a writer manages to give a voice to historical figures, makes them come alive, imagines how they thought and felt.

One thing that has been criticized is that she didn’t depict a fear-ridden Marlowe although he knew he was going to be killed. I think from what I know of the man, he wasn’t too anxious, he threw himself into life until his last moment. He would have gladly gone on living, writing more plays but if this wasn’t to be, then it wasn’t. As simple as that.

The best about the book is that it sparked my imagination. I’m in the mood to read Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, The Great and Doctor Faustus which influenced Goethe and Thomas Mann and I would also be interested in reading about him.

Louise Welsh based her book to a large part on Charles Nicholl’s The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe but David Rigg’s The World of Christopher Marlowe sounds equally interesting.

Has anyone read any of these or other books about Tudor England?

24 thoughts on “Louise Welsh: Tamburlaine Must Die (2004)

    • I don’t in general, that’s why I said, I know now what kind I like. That’s why I liked L’allée du roi.It does focus on a real person too but historical fiction that either imitates the literature of the time or invents everything, just evokes the period… no thanks.

  1. This sounds really interesting. I have that Charles Nicholls book, I think, although I haven’t read it yet. The Renaissance isn’t a period I read in much (my interest wanes about 1830, and anything prior to that rarely gets my attention), so I really appreciate contemporary books that reconstruct that time. I’m intrigued by Walsh as a writer, too.

    • I studied French Medieval and Renaissance literature but have not read a lot of English literature of the period. Marlowe is mentioned extensively when you study German at school or uni as soon as you get to Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus or Goethe’s Faust. I would ike to know what you think of the language. It’s quite a short book, I wouldn’t have minded it to be longer. I might order the Nicholl.

  2. This sounds interesting, but then it would be difficult to write about Marlowe without arousing at least some interest. I do like the period, and I love novels that refer to real people in the world of the arts.

    • Marlowe is fascinating, I really like the period too and novels about writers or artists are something I enjoy often. The only point I could have criticized is that it is quite short but I thought it was evocative.

  3. I have not, but will be reading this. I’m interested to see what the language is like too. Hopefully I won’t need an Old English dictionary at my side. I share your opinion of historical fiction, Caroline.

    • It isn’t in any way difficult it’s just old fashioned. Some critics loved the language, some (who also write btw.) hated it. I think it is fascinating and I really thought I have an understanding of the time and the man.

    • I think I will read her first one, The Cutting Room, next. I understand your reservatiosn regarding the historical setting. I really think I’m reading slightly more historical fiction these days but still hate those bulky purely fictitious novels. What she did here is something I’m have been writing as well occasionally. I like to try and give a voice to someone long gone. Did you read one of Marlowe’s biographies or his plays?

  4. This is another book I have on hand and was so excited about it, but then I did read bad reviews, so I guess I was put off reading it right away. I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed it–I would have read it anyway at some point, but now will push it higher up the pile. I think I need to read one of her books sometime soon as I am accumulating them (maybe three now?…).

    • I was in the middle of reading it when I read a bad review and then I read a good one right after that and just thought it’s odd and I was feeling stupid because I hadn’t noticed anything about the language being odd. I liked it. One review was really nasty.
      I have authors like that, I keep on buying their books and never start reading them. Yeah well… Eventually I will and if I ike the first it will be great to have more than one at hand. I think you shouldn’t start with this one as her other books seem very different. If you’ve got The Cutting Room, it would be a good choice.

  5. a well made historical fiction is fun to read. I believe 47ronin can also be considered as historical fiction, real event, imaginative conversation.

    great review, Caroline

        • Yes, it’s an era. The time Marlowe was living in was also called Elizabethan as it was during the reign of Elizabeth I (the one in the movies with Cate Blanchett) . It refers specifically to English history. There is a TV series called “The Tudors”. I haven’t seen it but it is very popular. The Tudors was the name of the Royal family and the era ended with Elizabeth I.

  6. Thanks for the review. I don’t know much about him, but now I am intrigued. Also I’m going to London soon so this sounds like a good read for me.

    • You are welcome. Luckily London has changed a lot. There is a part in it in which she describes book sellers and that would be interesting to see how this looks today. They don’t exist anymore but the Cathedral still does.
      I ordered the book by Nicholl. If you are interested in the man, that might also be a good starting point. He really is fascinating. If he hadn’t dies s young maybe people would talk about him and not about Shakspeare.

  7. Wow, this sounds so interesting, since little is known about Marlowe and he is so shrouded in mystery. I’ve never read any historical fiction on purpose lol, but I think I’ll try now.

    • It’s not my favourite genre but once in a while you read something interesting. He is a very modern figure somehow, I can see why it was dangerous to be like him in the 16th century.

  8. I’m torn between the Nicholl book and one by Honan. Don’t really want to read two…

    One thing I noticed on the Nicholl book, there is apparently a 2002 updating. Amazon US has the 1997 version available, but according to one of the reviews Amazon UK has the 2002. So it’s a consideration if you have to mail-order.

    • I think I ordered the newer one. But after I ordered it I was woondering if a more general biography wouldn’t have been better. there is more to Marlowe than the fact that he was murdered. I’m interested in his translations of Ovid as I just bought the Metamorphoses.
      I wouldn’t want to read two either.

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