A Cabalistic and Numerological Subtext to Tamburlaine



An academic paper in two parts. The first part examines the background to Marlowe’s use of Cabala and esoteric numerology. The Christian Kabbalah has been shown to have had a considerable influence on the other major writers of his generation and is likely to have been particularly well known to the author of Doctor Faustus, as this is a play in which two of the key exponents of Cabalistic philosophy, Giordano Bruno and Henry Cornelius Agrippa, exert a powerful presence. The second part examines Tamburlaine the Great from a cabalistic perspective. The analysis reveals a significant philosophical subtext to the play. The contention that the author may have incorporated further such symbolism by the related numerical means of gematria and notarikon is investigated and found to be well supported. An analysis of the numerological patterns emerging by these techniques sheds new light on the play.

(This is an expanded version of a paper I presented to the Fifth International Marlowe Conference, held at St. Catherine’s College, Cambridge, 30th June 2003).


Part A – Numerology and Cabala for Marlowe?


Introduction – Literature and Esoterism

One of the most striking differences between the Renaissance worldview and that of the present day lies in a shift from a richly subjective to a purely objective conceptualisation of numbers and mathematics. In the Renaissance numbers were held in a regard so high they were believed to provide the secret key to the deepest mysteries of God and man. Pico della Mirandola spoke for his age when he wrote (in John Dee’s inimitable translation):

“By Numbers, a way is had, to the searchyng out, and
understandyng of every thyng, hable to be knowen.” (1)

Examples of similar numerical enthusiasm could be cited from a great many of the leading figures of the Renaissance. It is scarcely surprising therefore that the writers of that age took numerical symbolism extremely seriously too.

The profound role of numerology in the literature of the period has been appreciated for many years now. Prominent among those who have initiated this revelation is Professor Alastair Fowler, and he has described the scope of the movement thus:

“Numerology . . . was widely used by Latin authors, common to the
best medieval and renaissance poets and almost universal in the
period 1580 to 1680, when it reached its greatest height of
sophistication.” (2)

The work of Fowler and others has revealed that subtle but complex numerical patterns are to be found in the major works of Marlowe’s immediate peers, including Sidney, Spenser, Chapman and Shakespeare. It is a fact, however, that this body of numerical criticism has focussed almost exclusively on poetry and has all but ignored the prime technique of literary numerology, which is the interplay of words, names and numbers found in the Cabala.

There are several possible reasons for this, but key among them must be the fact that Literary Cabala has always been a matter steeped in secrecy. This reflects the fact that Cabala is a technique originally devised as a means of transmitting, yet at the same time concealing, the most sacred and portentous mysteries of the ancient world (3). This pervasive aura of secrecy has ensured the Cabala’s status as something of a perennial lost art; however it is one that was temporarily rediscovered and very highly regarded by those, like Pico and Dee, at the cutting edge of the Renaissance.

For Henry Reynolds, Literary Cabala represented the most sublime and desirable application of numerology that an author could aspire too. He referred to the way – ‘enigmaticall and figurative’ – that Pythagoras, the Hebrews, the Egyptians and the ancient Poets communicated their occult doctrines so that only ‘sacred and sublime wits’ could understand them. He then specified what this technique was:

That Art of mysticall writing by Numbers, wherin they couched under a
fabulous attire those their verball Instructions, was after called Scientia
Cabalae, or the Science of reception,- . . . A learning by the auncients
held in high estimation and reverence, and not without great reason; (4)

This ‘art of mystical writing by numbers’ that Reynolds sought to encourage is a cryptographic technique with a provenance extending back to ancient Greece and beyond. The basic technique is gematria: the assigning of a numerical value is the letters of the alphabet. At its simplest level of operation, a concordance in numerical value between two verbal units portends an equivalence of meaning. In practice, there is a deeper level of sophistication in the way the numerical results are interpreted and the manner of this is indicated by the name, ‘gematria’. The word is not Hebrew but derived from the Greek ‘Γεωμετρια’ – and is explained by the fact that the rules of geometry play a central role in cabalistic cryptography.

The most basic manifestation of Scientia Cabalae pertains to the naming of names. In the Hebrew of the Pentateuch the various names of God and those of Adam and Eve were no accident; nor, indeed, was that of Jesus Christ in the Greek of the New Testament. The naming of these figures was entirely underlain by numerical considerations. In Hebrew ‘IHVH’ (Jahweh) has a gematria value of 26 (see Hebrew Gematria): this relates him to the first man, created in his likeness, by the proportion of the width to the height of the sacred vesica piscis (a ratio of the square root of three), because ‘ADM’ (Adam) has a value of 45. The difference between these two is 19 – which is the value of ‘ChVH’ (Eve). Dividing 45 by 19 makes 2.368 – and 2368 is the value by Greek gematria of Ιησοθς Χριστος (Jesus Christ) (see Greek Gematria). Adding 45 to 19 makes 64: and 64 times 37 is 2368 (37 being the numerical key to both New and Old Testaments) (5).

The numerical inter-relationships of such names were of absorbing interest to the cabalists of the Renaissance. They were especially preoccupied with finding indications in the Old Testament apparently referring forward to the advent of the Son of God in the New (6). When they found what they were looking for – that God, the creator of the universe and ‘author’ of the Scriptures, had certainly used cabalistic numeration in this way – they saw no reason why they should not emulate the technique in their own literature. This would give it both greater philosophical depth and higher artistic value. It would also provide a chance to incorporate covert symbolism and ‘sub rosa’ messages for the reception of a select audience of fellow initiates.


Marlowe and the Cabala

In a way it would be stranger to find that Marlowe eschewed the Cabala rather than used it, for he is an ideal candidate. On a philosophical level the Cabala offered questing minds a direct route to the most profound mysteries of existence. These we may take to be of personal interest to the author who penned Tamburlaine’s famous soliloquy:

Nature, that fram’d us of four elements
Warring within our breasts for regiment,
Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds;
Our souls, whose faculties can comprehend
The wondrous architecture of the world,
And measure every wandering planet’s course,
Still climbing after knowledge infinite,
And always moving as the restless spheres, (1 Tam., II, vii, 18-25) (7)

For a writer like Marlowe, who we know to have held dangerously unorthodox views on religion and politics, the covert and cryptographic aspect of literary Cabala would have had an immediate appeal, too. This is especially important when we consider that Marlowe’s professional writing career began at the same time that John Whitgift, the reactionary Archbishop of Canterbury, gained unprecedented powers of censorship over all published works in the land. Radical thinkers and writers could not openly express controversial ideas in print and therefore were impelled to find subtle ways of doing so covertly. The cryptographic techniques of Literary Cabala would have been especially congenial for Marlowe because he worked in intelligence whilst at university and therefore would have had professional training as a cryptographer.

The cultural background was also favourable, for he was writing at a time when the likes of John Dee and Giordano Bruno were exerting a profound influence on the literary scene, especially through the writers in Sir Philip Sidney’s circle. Both Dee and Bruno espoused Cabala (8) and drew heavily for their knowledge of this subject on Agrippa and in particular on his Three Books of Occult Philosophy – a work then considered as a definitive source of cabalistic knowledge (9).

Bruno’s sensational assault on Oxford University and subsequent stay in England occurred while Marlowe was a student at Cambridge and at an impressionable age. It’s possible, even, that Marlowe witnessed the lectures and met Bruno at this time, for he was curiously absent from Cambridge during the exact period of the Oxford lectures, from April to June of 1583 (10). Whether or not this was the case, it is likely that he hero worshipped Bruno – a fellow iconoclast and purveyor of forbidden philosophical fruits – for we find long sections of Doctor Faustus devoted to magical fantasies of liberating Bruno from the dungeons beneath the Vatican.

Many scholars have been perplexed by the fact that the Bruno of the play is called Saxon Bruno. There may be a cabalistic solution to this conundrum. In the Saxon (or German) tongue, Bruno translates to ‘Braun’ and this version of his name equates with that of ‘Lucifer’ by gematria, for they both share a value of 323 (see Latin/English Gematria). Bruno styled himself as a light-bringer and rebel angel; he also named his brilliant and highly influential comedy, Il Candelaio – The Torch Bearer. Thus there is a reasonable chance that the nickname of Lucifer was one appropriated by Bruno.

The Nolan also creeps in, by stealth, to the famous speech that links Faustus to the supposed conjurer Agrippa:

And I, that have with subtle syllogisms
Gravelled the pastors of the German Church
And made the flowering pride of Wittenberg
Swarm to my problems as the infernal spirits
On sweet Musaeus when he came to hell,
Will be as cunning as Agrippa was,
Whose shadow made all Europe honour him. (Fau. I, i, 111-117)

The connection here to Bruno stems not merely from the fact that he had done famous battle with the pastors of Wittenburg during his time as a teacher there (11), but recalls the actual words Bruno used when reporting his lecturing debacle at Oxford in La Cena de le Ceneri:

“. . . things that befell the Nolan, when he publicly disputed with those Doctors of
Theology in the presence of Prince Albert Laski, the Polish nobleman, and other
gentlemen of the English nobility. Have them tell you how we were able to answer
their arguments, how that poor doctor on fifteen occasions, during the argumentation
of fifteen syllogisms, remained confused like a chick caught in hemp . . .” (12)

Thus a boast of flooring reverent doctors with subtle syllogisms would bring Bruno readily to the minds of Marlowe’s better read auditors and reinforce the clue that the recalcitrant John Faustus had a living role model (13).

Amongst his contemporaries, the author’s enthusiasm for Bruno seems to have been well known; there is even a chance that the influence of Bruno was perceived in Tamburlaine. In 1588 Robert Greene seems to have been very miffed that his own play writing talents were being eclipsed by those of Marlowe, especially in regard to Tamburlaine. In the preface to his pamphlet Perimedes the Blacksmith (31st March 1588) he wrote:

. . . for that I could not make my verses jet upon the stage in tragical buskins, every word
filling the mouth like the faburden of Bow Bell, daring God out of heaven with that
atheist Tamburlan, or blaspheming with the mad priest of the sun.

The latter phrase, as Charles Nicholl has pointed out (14), is undoubtedly a reference to Bruno. Bruno had been ordained as a Dominician monk, was a proselytiser of ‘divine madness’ (frenzy) and had stoutly defended Copernican views of heliocentricity at Oxford as well as in La Cena de le Ceneri. Greene’s word and the evidence in Faustus make it more than likely that Marlowe was one who ‘lived and died in Bruno’s works’. If so, he would have been strongly drawn to the Cabala and especially to the, ‘Lines, circles, scenes, letters and characters,’ found in Agrippa’s three ‘heavenly’ books of Occult Philosophy.

Another source of cabalistic information in the Elizabethan age, and one which Frances Yates identified as being particularly influential on the whole generation of Dee, Sidney, Spenser, Marlowe and Shakespeare, was Giorgio’s De Harmonia Mundi (15). This long, philosophical poem aimed to demonstrate the unity of all true philosophies, but particularly focused on Pythagoreanism and the Cabala. It was widely read and extremely influential among the literary elite of the time. For Philip Beitchman it constituted, ‘ . . . a work of incalculable importance for the dissemination of Christian Cabala in the Renaissance.’ (16)

Marlowe’s other cabalistic sources are not yet known. However there is no reason why his knowledge need have been limited to Agrippa and Giorgi as all the major cabalistic texts had been translated into Latin by the time he was writing. It is also certain that with friends like the Earl of Northumberland, Sir Walter Raleigh and the Walsingham family Marlowe would have had access to a very wide range of books.


Evidence of Cabalistic Writing Among His Peers

In regard to evidence of cabalistic writing by Marlowe’s friends and rivals, some studies have been made, however the approach has been piecemeal and the findings rather generalised. There has been no attempt to trace the sort of cabalistic numerology described by Agrippa and urged upon fellow writers by Henry Reynolds.

Denis Saurat found significant cabalistic elements in Spenser’s work, particularly relating to the Shekinah like figure of Sapience appearing in Hymn To Heavenlie Beauty (17). James Nohrnberg detected a Zoharic reference in the dream of the Redcrosse Knight in the The Faerie Queene (18). Frances Yates viewed The Faerie Queene as a major work of Christian cabalism, although she stressed Giorgi’s Harmonia Mundi as the main influence on it (19). Sir Philip Sidney, whose tutor in the occult sciences was none other than John Dee and whose esoteric friend none other than Giordano Bruno, thought it worthwhile to devote his attentions to translating Philip de Mornay’s Trewness of the Christian Religion (1587), which included a whole chapter on Pico’s influential theories of Cabala. There is also evidence for identifying his use of gematria in Astrophel and Stella (20). Muriel Bradbrook examined William Warner’s poem Albion’s England and found the God image to be closely modelled on the Ain Soph of the Cabala (21). Daniel Banes argued that in The Merchant of Venice Shylock represents the sephira Geburah – Judgment/ Severity, and Antonio stands for Chesed – Love. He also believed he could trace the entire Tree of the Sephiroth in this play (22). Frances Yates found a number of other quite generalised cabalistic allusions in Shakespeare’s work (23).

There are, therefore, good grounds for believing that cabalistic philosophy circulated among the writers of Marlowe’s generation and that it was practically employed by many of them in their work.



We can now trace Marlowe’s probable route to the Cabala: it would have been an interest inspired by Bruno, informed by Agrippa, bolstered by Giorgi, stimulated by the example of his rivals and encouraged by his circle of brilliant and learned friends.

All that remains is for us to turn to the evidence of Marlowe’s pen and to see if we can convert a likelihood of cabalistic involvement into proof of it. The play we will examine is his two part masterpiece Tamburlaine the Great.


Part B – Cabala in Tamburlaine The Great


Tamburlaine – Cabalistic Themes

Tamburlaine the Great is a disconcerting play for both audiences and critics alike. The main reason for this is that the protagonist of the play is a barbaric and bloodthirsty tyrant – and yet the author uses various means to elicit audience sympathy with him. Like Milton’s Lucifer, his heroic stature is built up by giving him more lines and better poetry than his adversaries; he is also shown to be wiser than them, more constant to his friends, truer to himself and very much the master of his own destiny. Even in death he remains resolute and un-humbled.

This moral ambivalence in the central character, combined with his super-human invincibility, has led to interpretive controversy amongst critics and there is little consensus as to the author’s precise purpose. However, a cabalistic explanation is at hand when we recognise that Tamburlaine stands as the perfect living embodiment of the sephira Geburah. This role he fulfils in a far more graphic and unambiguous manner than Shakespeare’s Shylock.

The Hebrew word ‘GBVRH’ means strength, power or might – and as the fifth sephira it stands at the centre of the Pillar of Severity. Two alternative names of this sephira are ‘DIN’, which means punitive justice, and ‘PChD’, which means fear (24). The divine name attributed the sephira is ‘ALHIM GIBR’, meaning the ‘God of Battles’, or, in Agrippa’s words, ‘He who punishes by slaughter and wars’ (25). In chapter 22 of The Lesser Holy Assembly we find that, ‘ . . . the left arm of God is Geburah and Death’ (26)>. The celestial correspondence is with the planet Mars. It follows that the metal associated with Geburah is iron, and its symbols are the sword, the spear, chains and the scourge (27).

It is hardly necessary to quote from Marlowe’s text to show how extraordinarily close is the identification between Tamburlaine and Geburah: there are so many lines one could cite that it is hard to chose between them. A neat and succinct example occurs in Tamburlaine’s famous claim:

I that am term’d the Scourge and Wrath of God,
The only fear and terror of the world, (1 Tam., III, iii, 44-45)

A chilling example of his inhuman severity comes two acts later when the virgins of Damascus come out from their besieged city, all dressed in white, to plead with the warrior for mercy:

Tamb. Virgins, in vain you labour to prevent
That which mine honour swears shall be perform’d.
Drawing his sword
Behold my sword; what see you at the point?
1st Virgin Nothing but fear and fatal steel, my lord.
Tamb. Your fearful minds are thick and misty then,
For there sits death; there sits imperious Death,
Keeping his circuit by the slicing edge. (1 Tam., V, ii, 43-49)

The character courted by Tamburlaine in Part 1 and wedded to him, until her death, in Part 2, is Zenocrate. We would expect her to represent ‘Chesed’, the Sephira opposite Geburah on the Tree of Life. The word ‘ChSD’ literally means love, kindness or beauty. In the Cabala it is representative of Mercy: it therefore serves to counterbalance the Severity of Geburah. The alternative title of this sephira is ‘GDVLH’, which means majesty or greatness (28). In Agrippa’s words it, ‘signifieth grace, mercy, piety and magnificence’. This is the right arm of God, ‘that bestows clemency and passifying justice on all.’ (29). The magical image associated with Chesed is actually a king, but this is a king on his throne, rather than the king of Geburah who is mounted on a chariot, and thus he portends a peaceful ruler and a lawgiver rather than a warrior (30).

Zenocrate is undoubtedly emblematic of love in the play and she conquers Tamburlaine’s heart in a way that no opposing foe could conquer his military might. Tamburlaine is truly swept away by her charms:

Zenocrate, the loveliest maid alive,
Fairer than rocks of pearl and precious stone,
The only paragon of Tamburlaine;
Whose eyes are brighter than the lamps of heaven,
And speech more pleasant than sweet harmony;
That with thy looks can clear the darkn’d sky,
And calm the rage of thundering Jupiter; (1 Tam., III, iii, 117-123)

Not only does Zenocrate have a deep love for Tamburlaine, she also loves her father the Soldan, her three sons and her old suitor the King of Arabia. Her loving heart is also full of compassion and pity for the victims of her lover’s excesses. Initially she pleads with Tamburlaine for pity before the assault on Damascus; and when this doesn’t work, she is deeply moved by the slaughter of the virgins and also the grisly suicides that Bajazeth and Zabina have been driven to:

But see, another bloody spectacle!
Ah, wretched eyes, the enemies of my heart,
How are ye glutted with these grievous objects,
And tell my soul more tales of bleeding ruth! (1 Tam., V, ii, 278-281)

Zenocrate’s ruthful soul contrasts strongly with that of her pitiless paramour. However, this doesn’t prevent love from blossoming and it doesn’t stop her exerting a powerfully benign influence over him. Tamburlaine speaks of Zenocrate as, ‘She that hath calm’d the fury of my sword’ (1 Tam., V, ii, 376). He even comes to the troubling realisation that his martial nature and terrifying reputation are becoming subsumed by, ‘thoughts effeminate and faint’ (1 Tam., V, ii, 114) on account of his love for her and his concern for her sorrows.

The play originally ended with Tamburlaine’s prenuptial speech at the end of Part 1: here he makes an unambiguous statement revealing the effect that Zenocrate’s Chesed – the lawgiver – has made on his Gevurah – the warrior:

And now, my lords and loving followers,
That purchas’d kingdoms by your martial deeds,
Cast off your armour, put on scarlet robes,
Mount up your royal places of estate,
Environed with troops of noblemen,
And there make laws to rule your provinces.
Hang up your weapons on Alcides’ post;
For Tamburlaine takes truce with all the world. (1 Tam., V, ii, 461-468)

This is the end of the play – as originally conceived. The marital union of Tamburlaine and Zenocrate leads to harmony and an end of war. The chilling severity that has characterised the action until this point is now gone and we can expect that a period of peace and prosperity will ensue.

The only disturbing factor was that the popularity of the play forced the poet to write a second part. A contented Tamburlaine justly ruling a peaceful empire would not have provided much of a sequel, so it was necessary for him to return to the warpath. However, it is significant that he doesn’t draw blood again until after Zenocrate’s sudden death. It seems that only when the union is broken, and the restraining presence of Chesed is no longer bound to him, that he can descend once more into cruel and barbarous tyranny.


Cabalistic Numerology

Having recognised a strong cabalistic subtext to the play, it is natural to wonder if there might be further evidence of this theme hidden within the script by the numerological techniques of gematria and notarikon. In order to investigate this we need first to consider two very important questions.

The first of these concerns the method of coding employed. How do we know the numerical valuation of the letters? Or, put another way, ‘What is the gematria code of English?’ The greatest authority on Renaissance cabala and magical numerology was Agrippa, so it is to him, and his Occult Philosophy, that we must go for the answer. In chapter twenty of book two Agrippa supplies the gematria code for Latin and all the modern European languages employing the Roman script.

The second question is of even greater importance, and concerns the issue of accuracy. If gematria and notarikon are employed, then correct numerical computation will depend on the precise orthography devised by the author. If the text is faulty, or even if words have been misspelt, then the numerical results that emerge will be worthless and potentially misleading. There is no question but that this is a very serious handicap, and, in view of the fact that we have no authorial manuscripts from which to compile a definitive text, it is an inescapable one. In view of this drawback, it seems wise to focus attention to the textual features which have the greatest likelihood of having been accurately recorded by the printers: these are the names of the main characters.

Numerical Evidence:


488 – Tamburlaine

The orthography chosen for the protagonist’s name ensures that Tamburlaine himself attains a value of 488 by gematria. This number has two significations which seem particularly apposite to the play. Firstly, it equates the hero with the evocative title, ‘The Great Dragon’. Aside from the purely poetic identification of Tamburlaine with a fiery dragon (31), this creature has a host of cabalistic connotations. We find, in particular, that there is mention of a great dragon in the Zohar. It is described here that, ‘in him is the extremity of judgments and severities, whence wrath is the attribute of his forms’ (32). This dragon is described as a king of the demons which rule in the material world. One important aspect of this cabalistic dragon is described as follows:

But his head is broken by the waters of the great sea. (The great sea is
wisdom, the fountain of mercy and loving-kindness . . .) (33)

Therefore the dragon is open to pacification by the feminine influence of Binah (the waters) and is thus a figure ultimately ruled by wisdom.

This latter factor ties in with a very important aspect of the play. All Tamburlaine’s enemies, with the possible exception of Callapine, lack wisdom and are inferior to him in that respect. This theme of wisdom is introduced right at the beginning of the play with the buffoonery of Mycetes, the witless King of Persia, and continues to the asinine intransigence of the Governor of Babylon. Tamburlaine’s own son Caliphas, too, imagines that his wisdom will excuse his cowardice (2 Tam., 4, 1, 50), but turns out to be no match for the wisdom of his father’s sinister hand. The play’s preoccupation with wisdom probably takes as its cue the famous line in Psalms 111, 10, ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’. Therefore we have to understand that wisdom starts with respect for the left hand of God, the wrath of God.

The second important signification of the gematria value 488 comes via a geometric permutation. We have to remember that geometric interrelationships form an integral component of cabalistic operations. A pentacle, the form of a man, with sides of 488 has a total perimeter of 2440. This is the value of ‘Φωσφορος’ (Phosphoros), the Light-bringer, or Lucifer. The pentacle is also the occult symbol of the morning star.

There is considerable support in the text for an identification of Tamburlaine with the Light-bringer. Lucifer’s traditional description of Prince of the Orient is mirrored in Tamburlaine’s efforts to become the Monarch of the East, or ‘commander of this eastern world’ (1 Tam., II, vii, 62). Like Lucifer, Tamburlaine is seen to control and be assisted by legions of spirits. He says that they, ‘Direct our bullets and our weapons’ points, And make your strokes to wound the senseless air’ (1 Tam., III, iii, 157-8). Also, Zabina’s description of him as a great Tartarian thief can be taken to indicate that he is a thief of Tartarus as much as a Mongol or Tartar.

More importantly, we find him described, in the final two scenes of Act 2 (Pt.1), as some inhuman being of ‘fearful pride’ and ‘giantly presumption’ that dares to challenge God from his heavenly throne. This is an explicit allusion to Lucifer and to his eternally unforgivable and damnable sin.

If we wish to gain a contemporary understanding of Lucifer’s character we can do worse than go to the Faust book (34), which we know Marlowe was drawn to. Here we find that, ‘ . . . so soone as my Lorde Lucifer fell from heauen, he became a mortall enemie both to God and man, and hath vsed (as now he doth) all manner of tyranny to the destruction of man.’ A little later Mephistophiles states, ‘ . . . we rule the hearts of Kings and Princes, stirring them vp to warre and blood-shed’. On this account we can see that Lucifer and Tamburlaine share a very similar function. In the Faust book we are also reminded that while Christ stands in the heavenly light at the right hand of God, Lucifer stands in the material darkness at God’s left hand.

The latter fact may also be alluded to in the play by the constant reference to Tamburlaine’s ambition to conquer and rule Asia – for in the Cabala the material world (the world of action) is called in the Hebrew ‘AaShIH’, which is commonly transliterated as ‘Asia’.


794 – Tamburlaine the Great

Tamburlaine’s epithet, apart from associating him with the heroic Alexander, provides him with a notarikon value of 207 (35). This is the value of the Hebrew word, ‘AVR’, meaning light, fire or flame. Obviously this supports the Luciferian interpretation. It also seems to be significant that the value of 207 provides for the name of the play an association with the ‘AIN SVPh’ (also 207): the limitless and unknowable deity from which the ten Sephiroth emanate.

The epithet ‘The Great’ has a more personal significance for Tamburlaine if we count its gematria value. This is 306 (36) and as such it is interesting for a student of Agrippa. In his chapter describing the Sephiroth, Agrippa gives the fifth Sephira the slightly idiosyncratic spelling of ‘Geburach’ (37). The effect of this is to give the word a gematria value of 306. Therefore Marlowe’s play may also be considered to carry the alternative, cabalistic, title of ‘Tamburlaine Geburach’.


665 – The Scourge of God

Tamburlaine’s self-proclamation as ‘The Scourge of God’ has a gematria value of 665 and it is thereby exactly equated with the Greek expression, ‘Οργη Θεου’ (Orge theou) – the Wrath of God. Obviously this concurs very well with his fuller boast, ‘I that am term’d the Scourge and Wrath of God’. Also, through the addition of colel (38), it brings us to the important solar and draconian number 666 (39).

Tamburlaine is explicitly likened to the sun in many lines, not as the sun itself, but an earthly sun, or a son of the sun. For example:

For I, the chiefest lamp of all the earth,
First rising in the east with mild aspect,
But fixed now in the meridian line,
Will send up fire to your burning spheres,
And cause the sun to borrow light of you. (1 Tam., IV, ii, 36-40)

Further cabalistic evidence for this solar identification appears in his longer title ‘Tamburlaine, the scourge of God’. The gematria value of this name is 1153, which is the height of a vesica piscis with a width of 666. It is also worth pointing out that Tamburlaine’s gematria number of 488 is the same as the old English spelling ‘The Sunne’.

The fact that Tamburlaine calls himself here ‘the chiefest lamp of all the earth’ can also be very easily seen as a reference to his light-bringing role as a Lucifer. Supporting this view, we find that when Tamburlaine is mortally struck down, Theridamas laments the extinction of the light on earth that will ensue:

Fall, stars that govern his nativity,
And summon all the shining lamps of heaven
To cast their bootless fires to the earth,
And shed their feeble influence in the air;
Muffle your beauties with eternal clouds,
For Hell and Darkness pitch their pitchy tents,
And Death, with armies of Cimmerian spirits,
Gives battle ‘gainst the heart of Tamburlaine. (2 Tam., V, iii, 2-9)


784 – Zenocrate

This number has female and lunar associations which complement the solar characterisation of Tamburlaine. 784 is 28 squared – and 28 is both the number of days in the lunar month and the number of days of a woman’s menstrual cycle. 28 is also a ‘perfect number’. 784 additionally comprises the sum of the first seven cubes – and hence can refer, cabalistically, to the ‘Seven Paths of the Queen’ (the lower seven Sephiroth).


Tamburlaine and Zenocrate

The combination of ‘Tamburlaine the Great’ and ‘Zenocrate’ makes 1578. This number has significance for coming within colel of both 1577 and 1579. The lower figure is the value of ‘AIN SVPh’ when its terminal letters are counted at their higher values. It therefore shows that the union of the two leads to completeness. The higher figure amounts to an authorial identification, because 1579 is the value of ‘Christopher Marlowe’.
Another significant point arises from the observation that 784 and 794 form a very well matched pair of numbers. Exactly bifurcating the two is the number 789: by Greek gematria this is the value of ‘Η Σοφια ‘ (Η Sophia) – The Wisdom (40). It seems obvious that wisdom is what prevails when Tamburlaine and Zenocrate, or Geburah and Chesed, are united and balanced.

On his own Tamburlaine does have a form of wisdom, but this is cruel and worldly; together with Zenocrate the pair have harmonious, heavenly wisdom.

If one applies notarikon to the names of Tamburlaine and Zenocrate, they have a combined value of 100 + 500 = 600, which leads to the Greek ‘Κοσμος’ (Kosmos). This is a word speaking of auspicious harmony, for its original meaning signified order, arrangement, decency, good behaviour, constitution and honour – as well as representing the harmonious body of the universe. We can extend this technique of notarikon by counting the first and last letters of the names ‘Tamburlaine the Great’ and ‘Zenocrate’ – 317 + 505 = 822. Adding 822 to their gematria total of 1578 makes 2400 – or a square with sides of 600. The fourfold repetition of the cosmic number adds to the harmonious symbolism because, according to Fowler, ‘In Renaissance arithmology the quadrate was regarded . . . as a principle of harmony in nature;’ (41).

The harmonious and regulated pattern breaks down if Tamburlaine is left in isolation. Adding 317 to 794 makes 1111 – a profoundly symbolic number. This is the value of the Greek letter ‘Ιωτα’ (Iota), which is the equivalent of the Hebrew Yod and the modern ‘I’: this letter is a masculine symbol, signifying for the cabalists the phallus and the rod of power. 1111 is also cabalistically significant as the value of the Greek word ‘Τυραννις’ (Tyrannis) meaning absolute power or tyranny.

Applying the same counting technique to Zenocrate, we find 784 + 505 = 1289. This number was probably significant for the author by being the value of the phrase, ‘MI KMIK BALIM IHVH’, from Exodus xv, ii, which is translated in the King James Bible as, ‘Who is like unto thee, O Lord?’ This is a key phrase in a passage illustrating the mercy of God in sparing the Children of Israel from Pharoah’s chariots and swordsmen. The notarikon value of the phrase is 72, which is the value of the merciful Sephira Chesed, with which Zenocrate is associated.

The frequently used appellation ‘Faire Zenocrate’ has a gematria value of 885 and so derives a lunar association from numerical equivalence with the Hebrew ‘HKSPh’ (the silver/moon). By notarikon her title is valued at 506 and so may speak of ‘Πολιτεια’ (Politeia), the Greek word meaning ruler-ship, or governance, which is the role of Chesed. The addition of 885 and 506 makes 1391, and hence, ‘Φιλοσοφια’ (Philosophia).

Very similar patterns emerge with the name ‘Divine Zenocrate’. The gematria value of this is 1551 and so signifying the ruler or magistrate in ancient Greece, ‘Αρχον’ (Archon). In notarikon the name scores 504, hence ‘Το Αγαθον’ (To agathon) – The good, the wise. Adding 1551 to 504 makes 2055: here we have the sum of the two most gnomic of all philosophical injunctions, ‘Γνωθι Σαυτον’ (Gnothi sauton) and ‘Μηδεν Αγαν’ (Meden agan) – ‘Know thyself’ & ‘Avoid extremes’ (1893 + 162). The former Tamburlaine could not be faulted for, but in respect of the latter he was sorely in need of his wife’s mollifying influence.

The numbers of her name confirm Zenocrate’s identity as Chesed and illuminate another role, as a personification of Sophia.


216 – ‘GBVRH’

It might seem a pity that Tamburlaine’s name has a value of 488 rather than 216, for then it would be equated with ‘GBVRH’ (Geburah). However, there is a character in the play whose name does have this value – and as such it is very revealing. For this is none other than the ‘King of Arabia’, who throughout the whole of the first part of the play, until his death in the final scene, is betrothed to Zenocrate. The numerical signature gives extra significance to Arabia’s role of waiting in the wings.

If we add Zenocrate’s gematria value of 784 to the 216 of Arabia, then their union achieves the profoundly symbolic total number of 1000. This, as ten cubed, symbolises the deity and completeness (42). On Arabia’s death we may assume that Tamburlaine takes his title as King of Arabia and therefore the perfect 1000 symbolises his new union with Zenocrate.

A further piece of numerical symbolism may also be intended by this union. If we construct a new title for the pair at the end of the play, we find that ‘Tamburlaine the Great, King of Arabia’ and ‘Zenocrate, Queen of Arabia’ have a combined gematria value of 2264. This is the precise value of ‘GBVRH’ and ‘ChSD’ by a combinatory method of Hebrew gematria. Normally their values of 216 and 72 combine to make 288; however if we use the method of filling (43), by which we count not the letters but the names of the letters, then they sum (as 1004 + 972) to 1976. Adding together 288 and 1976 gives the exact figure of 2264.


The Three Sons

We find Tamburlaine’s three sons, in Part Two of the play, named as, ‘Calyphas’, ‘Amyras’ and ‘Celebinus’. There are cabalistic grounds for thinking, though, that Marlowe’s original manuscript spelling of the first may have been, ‘Callyphas’. Accepting this hypothesis, we find that the gematria values of the three sons are 603, 602 and 374. This is interesting in that it equates the indolent ‘Callyphas’ with his polar opposite brother Amyras, who wishes to emulate his father in being, ‘. . . the scourge and terror of the world’ (2 Tam., I, iv, 62). Marlowe seems to be presenting them as two sides of the same coin, or possibly as two equally likely outcomes for a given family background. What is especially noteworthy is that the addition of 603 and 602 makes 1205 – this is the value of the author’s name, ‘Kit Marlowe’. The two boys are therefore, like their parents, indicative of the author himself.

The level of personal identification is further increased if we add the value of the third brother Celebinus, which is 374, to 1205, because this makes 1579 – which is the value of ‘Christopher Marlowe’. The possibility that this pattern could have arisen in these three names by chance is remote. It becomes even more remote when we sum the values of the two aggressive sons – 602 + 374 = 976 – for the ratio between 976 and 603 is that of Phi, the Golden Section (44). This division seems to reveal another significant authorial statement.

The notarikon values of the sons help to confirm the picture. We first notice that their initial letters ‘C’, ‘A’ & ‘C’ give a value of 7. This is the number of mortality and mutability (45) and is appropriate because the number of the sons decreases when Tamburlaine murders Callyphas. The final letters of the names have a total value of 270, and when this is added to 7 make 277, which is the gematria value of the Hebrew word ‘ZRAa’ meaning ‘issue’, or ‘family’ – clearly this is apposite. If we then add 277 to the gematria total of 1579 a new total of 1856 appears. This geometrically relates 1579 to Phi because a right angled triangle with a horizontal of 1579 and a vertical of 976 has a hypotenuse of 1856. (46)


Tamburlaine and Sons

A new factor comes into play when we recognise that the value of the two aggressive sons, at 976, is exactly double Tamburlaine’s value of 488. Therefore the three ‘scourges’ have a total value of 488 x 3. This can be represented graphically as an equilateral triangle. If we enclose this in a circle, the circumference will be 1770: this seems to be an intentional construction, for 1770 is the value of ‘Tamburlaine the Great’ + ‘Amyras’ + ‘Celebinus’.

1770 is also the value of ‘Bajazeth’ and ‘Zabina’, the Turkish emperor and his wife (1217 + 553). The significance of this construction may be predicated by the diameter of the circle, which is 563.5, and thus speaks of ‘Σκληροκαρδια’ (Sklerokardia – 564) – Hardness of heart. All five characters are notable in this respect: the Turkish couple betray the state of their hearts in the following lines:

Bajazeth Ye Furies, that can mask invisible,
Dive to the bottom of Avernus’ pool,
And in your hands bring hellish poison up,
And squeeze it in the cup of Tamburlaine!
Or, winged snakes of Lerna, cast your stings,
And leave your venoms in this tyrant’s dish!
Zabina And may this banquet prove as ominous
As Progne’s to th’adulterous Thracian king
That fed upon the substance of his child! (1 Tam., IV, iv, 17-25)


Gematria Properties of the Text

Until now we have examined only the numbers derived from names – this on account of the fact that the accuracy of the text can not be guaranteed. It is highly probable, however, that a great many strategic lines and speeches were also constructed by the author with numerical and cabalistic considerations in mind. I will give just two examples that demonstrate, in all likelihood, something of what the author intended. In both of these the orthography is consistent within the four original octavo editions (1590, 1593, 1597, 1605/6).


Zenocrate’s Epitaph

At the burial of Zenocrate her son Calyphas produces a four line speech pregnant with interest for the cabalist:

This Piller plac’d in memorie of her,
Where in Arabian, Hebrew, Greek, is writ
This towne being burnt by Tamburlaine the great,
Forbids the world to build it up againe. (2 Tam., III, ii, 15-18)

The words on the pillar are signalled to have been chosen with care and the reference to the three exotic languages hints at cabalistic significance. As printed in the original octavos, the two line written epitaph (in blue) has a gematria total of 5208. This is a particularly significant number, as it gives the value of the four elements in Hebrew, Greek, Latin and English:

Heb. ASh, MIM, RVCh, AaPhR 301 + 90 + 214 + 350 955
Gk. Πυρ, Υδωρ, Αηρ, Γη 580 + 1304 + 109 + 11 2004
Latin Ignis, Aqua, Aer, Terra 155 + 272 + 86 + 266 779
Eng. Fire, Water, Air, Earth 100 + 1086 + 90 + 194 1470
= 5208

Aside from the remarkable coincidence of values, the notarikon scores also support the identification. The first and last letters of the sixteen (4 x 4) words have values of 1731 + 1030 = 2761. If we reduce this by the digit of colel (47), we have the value of the four elements in Greek (with definite articles): ‘Το Πυρ, Το Υδωρ, Η Αηρ, Η Γη’ (950 + 1674 + 117 + 19 = 2760). Then, if we increase our total by colel, to 2762, we have the value of the following words in 1 Corinthians 15, 42, ‘Σπειρεται εν φθορα εγειρεται εν αφθαρσια’ – It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption. This, of course, refers to the resurrection of the dead – sown in the corruption of the four elements.

The actual words for this phenomenon in Corinthians 15, 42, ‘Η αναστασις των νεκρων ‘ (the resurrection of the dead), have a gematria value of 3146. This number is pointed to by the second line of the epitaph (Forbids the world to build it up againe), whose gematria value is 2225. The diagonal, symbolically rising, from a 2225 sided square is 3146 in length.

The number 5208 also suggests the nature of the resurrection. The fact that Calyphas refers to three languages rather than four encourages us to divide 5208 by three: in geometric terms we can imagine the total as the perimeter of an equilateral triangle. Such a figure will have sides of 1736. We seem to be on the right track with this triangle because the circle that may be drawn around it has a 2004 diameter – and we saw above that 2004 is the value of the Greek elements. The 1736 sides suggest the three Hebrew letter names, ‘KPh, ThV, RISh’ (820 + 406 + 510 = 1736). These denote the expansion of the word KThR (Kether): this is the first sephira, otherwise known as the heavenly crown. Therefore we are led to believe that Zenocrate, having left her body behind, is raised with a spiritual crown. It seems to be a fitting epitaph.

The wording of the epitaph, specifying Tamburlaine’s forbiddance that the town be raised again, is interesting as it is perhaps indicative of Marlowe’s ‘atheistic’ rejection of the church dogma of the resurrection of the body.


The Death of Tamburlaine

If Zenocrate merits a heavenly crown in death, what about barbarous Tamburlaine? What sort of fate does he deserve? Tamburlaine’s dying line has great strategic significance and ought to carry some sort of numerical clue:

‘For Tamburlaine the scourge of God must die’ (2 Tam., V, iii, 249)

The gematria value of this line is 1727. This is extremely interesting, for it is effectively no different from the 1736 awarded to Zenocrate. The reason is that the letter Resh has two alternative spellings in Hebrew either ‘RISh’ or ‘RASh’. Therefore the alternative expansion of ‘KThR’ (Kether) is ‘KPh, ThV, RASh’ and has a value of 820 + 406 + 501 = 1727. Thus the author grants Tamburlaine, too, a heavenly crown in death.
In a way it seems fitting, because Tamburlaine’s pursuit of crowns has been a lifelong ambition; it formed the motivation driving him ever onwards to conquer new lands and defeat more kings. At the end of the notably cabalistic speech cited earlier (‘Nature . . .Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds,’), he waxed lyrical about the joys of an earthly crown:

. . . the ripest fruit of all,
That perfect bliss and sole felicity,
The sweet fruition of an earthly crown. (1 Tam., II, vii, 27-29)

Now, in death, the author indicates that Tamburlaine achieves a permanent crown, and, like Zenocrate, his spirit is raised up to heaven.



The evidence for reading Tamburlaine the Great as a cabalistic play is very good. The close correlation between Tamburlaine and Geburah, the punitive, left hand of God, leads us on into deeper levels of cabalistic philosophy and analogy. It also opens the door to a Gnostic interpretation of the play where Lucifer plays an ambiguous role and finds virtue through union with Sophia.

The numerical features of the text, uncovered by the techniques of gematria and notarikon, significantly enhance the literal meaning and constitute a whole new dimension to the play. The text is thus revealed to be deeper, richer and more subtle than it appears on a surface reading. The same is perhaps true for its creator, Christopher Marlowe.


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