Faces and Figures of Fortune: Astrological Physiognomy in Tamburlaine Part 1

Vanessa Ivette Corredera


Critics have long noted the preponderance of astrological references in Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine Part 1 (c. 1587). They have found it difficult, however, to explain the stars’ centrality to this famous early modern play. At the same time, scholars have largely focused on Tamburlaine’s use of rhetoric to achieve his empery of Asia, and when they have attended to the role of his body in this project, they have turned their attention to the maimed, injured bodies within the play. In this article, I apply the largely overlooked context of astrological physiognomy to Tamburlaine Part 1 as a means of considering the relationship between and crucial role of the stars and the body in Tamburlaine’s rise to power. Astrological physiognomy is a specific subset of physiognomy (the practice of discerning a person’s nature through bodily features, especially the face) practiced in Renaissance England in which people examined signs and symbols inscribed by the stars upon the body, typically the face, in order to discern another’s fortune. While the language and concepts of astrological physiognomy do not appear in Renaissance drama as prevalently as astrological or physiognomic concepts on their own, astrological physiognomic discourse and tenets are notable and central in Tamburlaine Part 1. Exploring the significance of astrological physiognomy to the play provides an additional tool for understanding and clarifying the role of the unmaimed body in the negotiation of interpersonal relations for social advancement, the play’s engagement with concepts of fortune, and Tamburlaine’s at times seemingly contradictory rhetoric.


Marlowe, Tamburlaine, Literary Criticism

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