Tamburlaine's footstool, part 1

Footstool by David Scher
Footstool by David Scher

Marlowe was fascinated by the image of a man stepping on another man’s back to climb into a chair. The short scene from Faustus revises and condenses a relationship that Marlowe explores more thoroughly in two acts of Tamburlaine the Great, Part 1. Here is a relevant sample.

Tamburlaine: Bring out my footstool.

. . .

Fall prostrate on the low, disdainful earth

And be the footstool of great Tamburlaine,

That I may rise into my royal throne.

Bajazeth: First thou shalt rip my bowels with thy sword

And sacrifice my heart to death and hell

Before I yield to such a slavery.

Tamburlaine: Base villain, vassal, slave to Tamburlaine,

Unworthy to embrace or touch the ground

That bears the honor of my royal weight,

Stoop, villain, stoop, stoop, for so he bids

That may command thee piecemeal to be torn

Or scattered like the lofty cedar trees

Struck with the voice of thund’ring Jupiter.

Bajazeth: Then, as I look down to the damnèd fiends,

Fiends, look on me, and, thou dread god of hell,

With ebon scepter strike this hateful earth

And make it swallow both of us at once!

Tamburlaine: Now clear the triple region of the air

And let the majesty of heaven behold

Their scourge and terror tread on emperors.


Adrian’s footstool and Tamburlaine’s footstool are the only footstools in Marlowe’s theater. This means that they are, in a sense, normal. Marlowe never writes about stools made of wood — neither discrete pieces nailed to one another by a carpenter, nor interlocking pieces fitted together by a joiner, nor a single piece shaped on a turner’s lathe. Instead, a great ruler, a pope or a king, makes a footstool out of another great ruler, a pope or a king. He does it with his voice.

Think of it this way. When Adrian calls for a footstool, he wants a unique object, Bruno. When Tamburlaine calls for a footstool, he wants a unique object, Bajazeth. Comparing the two passages, I learn something about footstools as a species. When Marlowe calls for a footstool, he wants a living man’s body.

In today’s post and in the one that follows it, I am going to argue that the footstools in these scenes are normal in two other senses, political and dramaturgical. The argument will take me far beyond a consideration of Marlowe’s imagination. However, I don’t want to lose sight of the special (that is to say, not normal) meaning that footstools have for Marlowe. The image of the human footstool fascinated and delighted him. This is a fact about him, and not about all people or all poets. (He was a major influence on the generations of poets and playwrights who followed him, and they repeated many of his discoveries, but they left the footstools alone, for the most part.)



In the section on “Aspects of Power” in Crowds and Power, Elias Canetti discerns a secret project in the careers of all soft chairs.

An upholstered chair is not only soft, but also obscurely gives the sitter the feeling that he is sitting on something living. The give of the cushions, their springiness and tension, has something of the quality of living flesh and may conceivably be the cause both of the aversion which many people feel for chairs that are too soft, and of the extraordinary importance which others, not generally self-indulgent, attach to this form of comfort.

(Canetti, trans. Carol Stewart [Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1984], 390)

When you sit in a chair, you are sitting on a person. Actually, you are a king, so you are sitting on a lot of people. You can pretend that this is not so by sitting in a hard chair. Or you can remind yourself of this relationship, luxuriate in your power over others, by using an especially comfy chair. Or you can make the point clear to everyone by making use of a person’s actual body. Even the body of an extraordinary person, such as the Ottoman emperor!

If Canetti is right, everyone wants to do what Tamburlaine does to Bajazeth.  Tamburlaine’s footstool is an unnecessarily graphic representation of what people always want from furniture, which is majesty. Tamburlaine seems to agree that his treatment (he calls it his “handling”) of Bajazeth responds to a basic, universal, unspoken desire. At first he is uncharacteristically laconic in announcing what he is going to do with Bajazeth after defeating him, inevitably, in battle: “I will not tell thee,” he tells Bajazeth, “how I’ll handle thee” (3.3.84), because the idea is so good that he doesn’t want to ruin it by anticipation. Everyone will appreciate it, though.  They will ”smile to see thy miserable state” (3.3.86). Even the stars in the sky will “Smile . . ./ And dim the brightness of their neighbor lamps” (4.1.33-34). Tamburlaine’s soldiers and the stars above are smiling because they have unexpectedly satisfied a desire they did not know they had. They wouldn’t have imagined it, but when they see it, they like it. Maybe the spectators in Marlowe’s theater (the seated ones, at least) wear the same smile.

Footstool by David Scher

Canetti’s account of the majesty of sitting is inadequate to Tamburlaine’s handling of his footstool in at least one way. Tamburlaine talks to his footstool. What’s more, the footstool talks back. It does not consent to its use as a footstool. Canetti could not have imagined that.

The thing sat on is no longer even animate. Its function is settled forever and it has less volition even than a slave; its state is the quintessence of slavery. Its user is free to do exactly as he likes with it. He can come and sit down and remain sitting for as long as he pleases, or he can get up and go away without giving it a thought.

(Canetti, 389)

There is some trouble in this account even before I test it against the example from Tamburlaine. A chair has “less volition than a slave,” but is nonetheless ”the quintessence of slavery.” These two forceful statements do not go together. Canetti seems to say that the chair typifies slavery — that is its symbolic meaning, which the sitter either unconsciously relishes or unconsciously avoids — without being an example of slavery. Because it’s impossible to enslave a piece of wood. You can’t even enslave a horse. The wood can be property, and the horse can be tamed, but enslavement only happens when people are treated as property.

According to Canetti, people are naturally free. They have a special gift of self-transformation, which “is clearly expressed in the mobility of the face. . . . It is inconceivable how many changes a face can undergo in the course of a single hour” (374). Objects, on the other hand, are governed by necessity. Treating a person as property, a slave, violates human freedom. Treating a person as an object cancels human freedom entirely.

(Since he does not particularly value human freedom, Canetti is undisturbed by its loss. Both enslavement and objectification appear as relatively benign modes of violence in an account of human civilization in which power relationships more frequently look like one person eating another. For example, Canetti defines “family” not in terms of genealogy, but rather as an occasional, exceptional grouping: people eating together, but not eating one another [221].)

The first thing Canetti notices about a chair is that it is “not even animate.” By contrast, Julia Reinhard Lupton views mobility as the essential fact in a chair’s existence. She is commenting on a passage from Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew.

Kate: . . . I knew you at the first

You were a movable.

Petruchio: Why, what’s a movable?

Kate: A joint-stool.

Petruchio: Thou hast hit it. Come, sit on me.

(2.1. 192-196)

Kate calls Petruchio “a movable” (a piece of furniture, or meuble), which she then specifies as a “joint-stool,” the lowest form of seating in medieval and Renaissance houses. Denying him the dignity of a chair, she reduces him to an object designed to bear the rump of anyone in the house, and to be moved about at will for the frequent rezonings of shared space that characterized the minimalist choreography of Renaissance furnishing. Joint-stools afford sitting; they also afford rapid transport from one space to another; and they can, under certain circumstances, afford hurling.

(Lupton, Thinking with Shakespeare [Chicago: 2011], 55)

So. Another stool. A joint-stool, to be precise, but not interlocking pieces of wood: rather, Petruchio’s human limbs. Like all furnishings, this footstool with human joints is a ”movable,” and therefore not attached to a place as a house or a rooted tree would be. It moves around the room, and into other rooms, and can be carted away to other buildings. Different people can sit on it, step from it to a higher seat, play cards on it, lay out tomorrow’s shirt on it.

Lupton calls these various options “affordances.” The term, which comes from design, is strategic. Designers talk about the affordances of objects and environments, whereas engineers talk about uses and abuses. A tool has a use, which is the activity for which its engineer intended it. The stool’s use is sitting, and anything else, such as hurling, would be tool abuse. (See Luke Wilson, “Renaissance Tool Abuse and the Legal History of the Sudden,” in Erica Sheen and Lorna Hutson, eds., Literature, Politics, and Law in Renaissance England [Palgrave, 2005], 121-45. Wilson’s examples are limited to tools used as weapons, but the concept has a broader application.) But designers don’t necessarily intend just one use. They design for living, which is to say, for freedom.

Affordances are the measure of freedom available to furniture. You can’t restrict the possible uses of a piece of furniture any more than you can design a perfectly safe piece of furniture. Anything a footstool can do is an affordance. Because it has options, the footstool is not entirely subject to necessity.

What about Bajazeth? He does not have “less volition than a slave.” While acting as a footstool, his will to rule empires remains intact. His volition is exactly that of a slave: he wants something, and meanwhile he is being used for something else. ”Slavery” is his name for this condition, and “slave” is one of Tamburlaine’s names for him, along with “villain,” “vassal,” and “footstool.”

Maybe he would rather have less volition. Unlike Petruchio, who declares a mildly obscene wish to be used as an object, he does not say, “Sit on me.” Instead he says, “Rip my bowels with thy sword/ And sacrifice my heart to death and hell.” In other words: kill me and make furniture out of my skeleton. The bowels and heart are crucial elements of a human organism that make no difference in a footstool’s menu of affordances. In asking to have them eliminated, Bajazeth, who really wants to be emperor, prefers objecthood to slavery.

Should he prefer it? There is some question as to whether being “the footstool of great Tamburlaine” is an honor or a degradation. The very ground that Tamburlaine walks on is honored to receive his ”royal weight.” He calls the same ground ”the low, disdainful earth,” and Bajazeth calls it ”this hateful earth,” which I take to be names for the same feeling at greater and lesser degrees of intensity. The disdain that the ground feels for Bajazeth may be compared to that of the washroom attendant who notes the unfashionable appearance and poor fit of your clothes, and icily calls you sir.

The ground’s affordances include bearing Tamburlaine’s weight and receiving Bajazeth’s embrace, but it experiences the former as an honor and the latter as a kind of abuse. Bajazeth does not even deserve the ground’s support, and is therefore doubly unworthy of the honor of stooping to insert his body between the ground and Tamburlaine’s foot.

If Bajazeth’s nomination as footstool — but royal footstool — is simultaneously insult and honorific, Tamburlaine’s position is similarly ambivalent. I do not so much mean that his glory in this exchange depends on the neck of the emperor on whom he treads. Rather, that his power derives from a different source of which he is the honored but undeserving instrument. In the formula that he repeats obsessively throughout both five-act plays, he is the “scourge of heaven” or “scourge of God.” Just as the footstool has its own majesty, the king has his own objecthood.

Isn’t the Pope also conceived as a similar kind of instrument -- in the traditional motto, “Servant of the servants of God”?

Next: how to talk to a footstool.

[Thanks to David Scher for the images.]