De casibus tragedy
Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great
in The genres of Renaissance tragedy
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The de casibus tradition derives both its name and its central concerns from a collection of didactic quasi-historical narratives by the fourteenth-century Italian poet Giovanni Boccaccio, entitled De Casibus Virorum Illustrium. Boccaccio depicts the fall of prominent figures, from Adam to King Arthur, who have previously enjoyed the benefit of great fortune, in the process demonstrating both the arbitrariness of earthly success and the fortitude which one should demonstrate in the face of inevitable misfortune. This chapter traces the assimilation of this tradition into English writing, via Chaucer, Lydgate and A Mirror for Magistrates, and considers the ways in which de casibus writings explore the tension between fickle fortune and the divine plan, asserting the arbitrariness of earthly life while also implying that people always ultimately get what they deserve. The chapter identifies the tradition’s subversive potential; as it deals in stories about prominent historical leaders and politicians, de casibus literature provides a rich opportunity for writers to pass veiled political comment on the vagaries of their age. The chapter shows how the de casibus tradition facilitates for Marlowe the imagining of a play-world in which the arbitrariness of earthly success and power obfuscates the notion of a divine order.

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