The Jew of Malta
- AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY
- PLOT SUMMARY
- HISTORICAL CONTEXT
- CRITICAL OVERVIEW
- FURTHER READING
CHRISTOPHER MARLOWE 1589
Christopher Marlowe’s fourth play, The Jew of Malta, is thought to have been performed as early as 1590, although the first recorded performance was in February of 1592. This play was probably written in 1589; however, it was not actually published until 1633, long after Marlowe’s death. The title page describes the play as the “Famous Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta,” but it is also often described as black or satiric comedy, and so, any indication of tragedy is eclipsed. And indeed, Barabas does not elicit the audience’s sympathy as a tragic hero, as might be expected. However, in spite of this lack of a tragic hero, the play was very popular in Renaissance England, encompassing as it did attacks on both Roman Catholics and Jews, two favorite objects of distrust. The Jew of Malta was performed many times, both at court and in the theatres of London, prior to the theatres’ closing in 1642. The play is filled with blood and murder, also favorite topics of the Elizabethan audience, who embraced the bloody revenge tragedies of the period. Marlowe’s own reputation for violence and an unconventional lifestyle probably added to the play’s attraction. Three years later, Marlowe’s own bloody death would make the violence of the play even more attractive. There is no known source for Marlowe’s play, although the image of the Jew as a greedy usurer was a common image in the English theatre. Marlowe was interested in depicting the differences between what men professed and what their actions revealed. Thus the dangers of Catholicism, Page 93 | Top of Articlethe corrupting force of the Jews, and the characters’ own greed proved to be important themes when the play was first produced. For a modern audience, however, the visible stereotyping of Jews, with its accompanying images of the destructive force of anti-Semitism, often offends the audience, thereby limiting its production.
Many scholars believe that had Christopher Marlowe lived longer, he might have become a greater dramatist than William Shakespeare. Marlowe was born a few months before Shakespeare, in 1564, to John and Catherine Marlowe of Canterbury, where the senior Marlowe was a shoemaker. Marlowe attended Cambridge University, where he received a bachelor of arts degree. Marlowe continued on at Cambridge, using a clergyman’s scholarship to fund his studies. Scholars generally agree that Marlowe probably never had any intention of joining the clergy, but he was willing to say that he might be so inclined, in order to continue with his studies. When he was finally awarded his master’s degree in 1587, after a great deal of controversy and amid charges that he was secretly planning on becoming a Catholic priest (Catholics could not receive degrees from Cambridge during this time, and priests were widely suspected of plots to overthrow the queen), he was ranked 199 out of 231 students. After leaving Cambridge, Marlowe moved to London, where he is reported to have had frequent problems with the authorities. He was briefly jailed for murder, although later he was found to have acted in self-defense. He was also charged with atheism and blasphemy and was awaiting trial for these offenses when he was killed in a brawl, supposedly over an unpaid dinner bill, in 1593. Marlowe’s death, from a stab wound to his forehead, remains controversial, however, since some scholars argue that his death was not really the result of a dispute but was more likely an assassination of a disreputable public figure.
Marlowe’s first play to be produced was Tamburlaine, Part I (1587). Though it was produced shortly after he left Cambridge, scholars now think that Marlowe probably wrote Dido Queen of Carthage (first published in 1594) as early as 1586.
His first production was so popular with the public that Marlowe soon followed with a sequel, Tamburlaine, Part II, a year later. Marlowe was the first to use blank verse in a play; previously, the standard had been for rhyming verse, which Marlowe condemns in the prologue to Tamburlaine, Part I. Another play, The Jew of Malta, followed in about 1589-1590 (although it was not published until 1633), with The Massacre of Paris following in 1593. This last play was never published, and the only known copies are based on an undated and unreliable edition. Marlowe’s next play, Edward II (1592), is considered to be the first great English history play. However, most scholars consider Doctor Faustus to be Marlowe’s greatest work. This last play was not performed until after Marlowe’s death and was probably unfinished when the playwright died. Marlowe also wrote many poems during his short life, many of them inspiring later poets to match his talent and wit. Marlowe was a compelling dramatist on the scale of Shakespeare; however, Shakespeare would live another twenty-three productive years after Marlowe’s death. Shakespeare’s greatest works were composed after 1600, more than seven years after Marlowe died. Had he lived longer, Marlowe’s work might well have matched the work of the greatest playwright England ever produced.
The The Jew of Malta opens with Barabas in his counting house, busily counting his most recent earnings and hoping that his vessels will do well on their current journey. Soon, several merchants enter to tell Barabas that his ships are in the port, each laden with wealth. Barabas is pleased that his ships have arrived safely, in spite of the many risks that his wealth-laden ships face on the sea. When he is alone, he credits God with making him rich, saying that Abraham and his descendents were promised much happiness. He would rather be an envied and hated Jew than a poor Christian, with only his faith to sustain him. Barabas soliloquizes that he is content not to be a ruler but would rather profit from rulers. At that moment, three Jews enter to tell Barabas of the arrival of a delegation from Turkey. Barabas is unconcerned, since he does not care for his adopted country and cares only for the well-being of his daughter and his wealth. But the Jews also bring word of a meeting in the Senate House, at which all Jews must be present.
The next scene takes place in the Senate House. The Turks have arrived to demand that a tribute, long overdue these past ten years, be paid. The governor of Malta requests a month so that he can try and collect the money. After the Turks leave, Governor Ferneze calls the Jews in to tell them of the demand. He relates the information that Malta lacks the money for the tribute because of the expensive wars just passed. But more importantly, he intends to assess the Jews for the cost of the tribute. Each Jew is to pay one half of his estate or become a Christian. If any Jew refuses, he will lose all that he has. The three Jews who accompany Barabas willingly agree to give half their money, but Barabas complains, and the governor claims all of his estate. When Barabas tries to retract and submit only half, he is denied. After all has been seized, and he is left alone, Barabas’ daughter Abigail enters, sincerely mourning her father’s pain. She tells her father that their home has been turned into a convent, and he may never enter there again. But Barabas has hidden wealth in the house, and he needs to retrieve it, and so he hatches a plot to force Abigail to pretend to be a nun, so that she might enter into the house and retrieve his money.
The act opens with Abigail throwing jewels and gold out of a window to her father, waiting below. In the next scene, Martin Del Bosco, a vice-admiral from Spain, arrives in Malta to conduct a sale of slaves that were rescued after the sinking of some Turkish ships. Ferneze, though, is frightened of the Turks, who will oppose the sale. However, Del Bosco convinces the governor not to pay the tribute previously assessed by the Turks, claiming instead that Spain will become Malta’s protector. At the slave sale, Barabas buys Ithamore, whose price is cheaper than the first slave that Barabas encounters. As these two exchange their personal histories, it becomes apparent that Barabas and Ithamore have very similar personalities. At the same time, Barabas manages to entice both Lodowick and Mathias with promises about his daughter. When Lodowick arrives at his home, Barabas instructs a reluctant Abigail to entice Lodowick into making love to her. When Mathias arrives, Barabas suggests to him that Lodowick is a persistent and unwanted suitor. But when Mathias leaves, Barabas has Lodowick betrothed to Abigail, even though she protests that she loves Mathias. Barabas next gives Abigail to Mathias, who is further incited to kill Lodowick. The act ends with Ithamore carrying a false challenge from Lodowick to Mathias.
The act opens with a brief scene, in which Ithamore sees a courtesan, Bellamira, and desires her. The action then shifts to Lodowick and Mathias who meet near Barabas’ house, duel, and each man kills the other. Ferneze and Katherine arrive, and each one mourns the death of a beloved son. The scene next shifts to Ithamore who is laughing at the cleverness of Barabas’ revenge. Abigail soon enters, and Ithamore explains the simple plot that resulted in the deaths of Lodowick and Mathias. Abigail is shaken by her father’s treachery and by the deliberate pain that he has caused her, and in response, she once again enters the convent, intending to become a nun. This time she is sincere in her desires and even writes to her father that he should repent his sins. When Barabas learns of Abigail’s decision, he is enraged and promises to disinherit her. In her place, Barabas makes Ithamore his heir, adopting him as a son and giving him access to his wealth. To assuage his anger, Barabas next sends a pot of poisoned rice porridge to the convent, which all the nuns eat and are poisoned. Abigail also eats it, but before she dies she implicates her father in the deaths of Lodowick and Mathias and begs the priest to convert her father and save him. Her implication is given as a confession, and the priest is obligated to hold the account sacred. Meanwhile, the Turks Page 95 | Top of Articlehave arrived to demand their tribute, but Ferneze, supported by Del Bosco, refuses to pay. When the Turks leave, Ferneze prepares for war.
As the act opens, Barabas and Ithamore celebrate their success at poisoning the nuns. Barabas only grieves that his daughter lived long enough to become a Christian. When the friars arrive to convert Barabas, he is angry that Abigail has betrayed him and promises to be converted. However, his promise sets the two friars to fighting over which one will have the privilege of claiming the conversion and Barabas’ wealth, which will go to the winning friar. Barabas is able to send Friar Barnardine off with Ithamore; later, Barabas and Ithamore strangle him. The two conspirators prop the murdered friar up, and when Friar Jacomo arrives, he strikes the body of Friar Barnardine, which topples over, convincing Jacomo that he has killed Barnardine. Barabas and Ithamore promise to turn Jacomo over to the authorities, so that he can be punished. Meanwhile, Ithamore has become enraptured with Bellamira, who is plotting with Pilia-Borza to steal Barabas’ money. In his desire for this woman, Ithamore is enticed to blackmail Barabas in an attempt to gain money. More importantly, Ithamore tells Bellamira and Pilia-Borza of the crimes that he and Barabas have committed. Later, Barabas disguises himself as a musician and gains entrance to Bellamira’s house, where he poisons the courtesan, Ithamore, and Pilia-Borza with flowers, which are laced with a slow-acting poison.
The act opens with Bellamira and Pilia-Borza confronting Ferneze with their information. The governor orders that Ithamore and Barabas be arrested, and the two are quickly brought in. Ithamore immediately confesses, and Ferneze orders Barabas taken away to prison. Within a few moments, Bellamira, Ithamore, and Pilia-Borza succumb to the poison that Barabas had earlier given them, and word arrives that Barabas is also dead; however, he is feigning death. Ferneze orders that Barabas’ body be thrown over the wall, outside the city. The rest of the dead are to be buried. Barabas quickly awakes from the potion that he had consumed earlier and decides that he will help the Turks enter the city and seize it. Calymath promises to make Barabas governor if the siege is successful. The Turks are successful and Ferneze and his men are captured. Barabas is given charge of the prisoners, but he is still not satisfied with his revenge. Barabas next tells Ferneze that for the proper price, he will help him destroy the Turks and have his city returned. Accordingly, Barabas devises a plot to get Calymath and his men to a monastery outside the city walls, where he will then have them killed. Soon, Barabas is busying himself with building a trap that will destroy all the Turks. The men will be blown up, and Calymath and his officers will be cast into a pit of boiling liquid. But at the last minute, Ferneze betrays his coconspirator, and cuts the cord, throwing Barabas into the boiling pit. Before he dies, Barabas confesses to all his crimes. At the play’s conclusion, Calymath is Ferneze’s prisoner, and all his men are dead.
Abigail is Barabas’ beautiful daughter. She is in love with Mathias, but is forced by her father to agree to a betrothal to Lodowick. She knows that the two young men will now hate one another but hopes that she will be able to reconcile them after she explains what has occurred. Before she can rectify things, Lodowick and Mathias kill one another, and Abigail enters a convent. When she is near death, Abigail implicates her father in the two men’s deaths and asks a friar to help her father repent and be converted to Christianity. Abigail’s actions in the opening scene of the play illustrate how much she loves her father. She is an obedient and loving daughter, an innocent who is not deserving of death. Like the death of Mathias, Abigail’s death proves how corrupt Barabas is and how far he will go to seek revenge.
The soliloquy that opens the first act reveals a greedy merchant, busily counting his money and complaining about the lack of financial reward from his recent dealings. Moreover, he also complains of how tiring it is to count such small change and wishes he could be like merchants in other countries who can deal with gold without all the restrictions under which he must deal. Barabas is an elitist, who views himself as superior to those who surround him. He is also clever, hatching a plot to retrieve the wealth that he has hidden in the foundation of his house. When Abigail throws the bags of jewels and gold to her father, he scarcely notices her or even acknowledges her. All he can do is embrace his Page 96 | Top of Articlemoney, proving that he loves wealth more than his own child. Although he has, once again, bought a large home and amassed a fortune, Barabas is angry and vengeful, plotting ways to destroy the governor who sought to destroy him. To gain revenge, Barabas plots to have the governor’s son killed. Barabas sees no inequity in killing the governor’s son and thinks it an even trade for the loss of his money. Even though his daughter is in love with Mathias, Barabas uses her to entrap both young men, happily offering his own chaste daughter to seduce a man she does not love. Mathias’ only fault lies in his Christianity. Barabas does not want his daughter to marry a non-Jew, and so he can easily justify killing the young man. Barabas sees no crime in killing Christians. After Abigail converts to Christianity, Barabas readily plans her murder. His only regret at her death is that she did not die sooner, before she betrayed her Jewish ancestors and became a Christian. The two friars are also easily disposed of since they too are Christian and so have no value to Barabas. And even though Ithamore has been an able assistant in all these plots, Barabas also poisons him when it becomes necessary. Barabas is a caricature, embodying many sixteenth-century stereotypes of Jews. He is ruthless and has no conscience, caring for little except his money and revenge. In the end, Barabas is killed through his own plotting, leaving no one to mourn his passing.
When Abigail needs to make her last confession, it is Friar Barnardine who is available. When she tells him that her father needs to be converted and must repent for the murders of Mathias and Lodowick, the friar betrays his vows and divulges the information to Friar Jacomo. Barnardine sees the conversion of Barabas as a way to get all the Jew’s money for his monastery. He is motivated less by religious zeal and more by greed. In the end, Barabas and Ithamore also murder him. But more importantly, his actions suggest that Catholic priests are corrupt, something that reflected much of the public’s opinion in Renaissance England.
Bellamira is a prostitute who has fallen on hard times. She has few customers now, and only Pilia-Borza gives her money. The slave, Ithamore, finds her attractive and thinks that if only he had money, he could possess her. Bellamira entices Ithamore to blackmail Barabas for money, promising him favors in return. As a result of her greed, she dies of poisoning, another victim of Barabas’ thirst for revenge.
Calymath is a Turkish prince, the son of the Grand Seignior. Calymath comes to Malta to demand that a long overdue tribute be paid to his father. He wants to be reasonable, and when the governor asks for time to collect the money, he is inclined to allow them time. When the governor later refuses to pay, Calymath returns to attack the city. He trusts Barabas and even awards the Jew the governorship of the city. He very nearly dies at Barabas’ hands and is imprisoned by Ferneze.
Martin Del Bosco
Del Bosco is the vice-admiral of the Spanish king. He convinces Ferneze not to pay the tribute, promising Spain’s help in defending Malta from the Turks. But he is easily overwhelmed by Calymath’s forces and is of little help to Ferneze.
Ferneze is the governor of Malta. Since he does not have the money to pay the Turks, he decides to force the Jews to pay it. His seizure of Barabas’ wealth is absolute and without further consideration. Ferneze points out that coveting money is a sin, and so he uses religion and Christianity as an excuse for his actions. Ferneze has little compassion for Barabas, whom he thinks can always make more money. Ferneze is more than willing to keep the tribute that he has collected and so accepts the Spanish offer for assistance. He grieves over his son’s death and promises revenge but is easily duped by Barabas. However, in the end, Ferneze proves himself as devious as his enemy. He manages to kill Barabas, imprison his enemy, Calymath, and restore peace to his city.
Ithamore is a slave, purchased by Barabas. Like his master, Ithamore is happy to destroy people and to create intrigue. He happily joins in the plots, and when all the nuns are dead, Ithamore even suggests poisoning all the priests. He has one weakness, a courtesan, Bellamira. She entices him to blackmail Barabas, though he must realize this would be very dangerous, having assisted the ruthless Barabas with many murders. Ithamore is either incredibly stupid, or he is so enamoured of this woman that he Page 97 | Top of Articleceases to think. Perhaps it is both, since in the end, he too is poisoned by his former master.
Friar Jacomo first appears when Abigail is initially admitted to the convent. This first time, she is deceiving the friar and the nuns, doing only her father’s bidding. But Friar Jacomo cannot detect this deception. He again interviews Abigail, when, after Mathias and Lodowick die, she again seeks sanctuary in the convent. He is absent when Abigail dies and so does not hear her confession, but he is eager to earn the financial rewards that would accompany Barabas’ confession and conversion. Like Friar Barnardine, Friar Jacomo is greedy, thinking of money first, but he also illustrates an important concept for the anti-Catholic movement in England: that priests are themselves so corrupt that they cannot recognize insincerity in others. Friar Jacomo’s inability to detect Abigail’s lies casts doubt on the friar’s own piousness. This is born out when he strikes Friar Barnardine. Although he does not actually murder the friar (Barabas does this), his hanging for the crime, then, seems to be the deserved punishment of a corrupt priest.
The widowed mother of Mathias, she distrusts Barabas and warns her son to stay away from him. After Mathias is murdered, she vows that his murderer will be punished, never believing that Mathias’ best friend, Lodowick, is guilty of the murder.
Lodowick is the governor’s son and a friend of Mathias. He has heard much about Abigail’s beauty and wants to see her. He mistakenly believes that Barabas wants him to be a suitor for Abigail. Lodowick sees Abigail and wants to marry her. He agrees to a betrothal, not knowing that Abigail loves Mathias, nor understanding that Barabas is using him to gain revenge against his father. After he is tricked into meeting Mathias for a duel, Lodowick is killed, although not before killing his good friend. Lodowick is himself an innocent victim, serving only as a way for Barabas to gain some revenge against the young man’s father.
Machiavel speaks the prologue to the play and is meant to represent a reincarnation of Machiavelli. In the prologue, he speaks of the Machiavellian ideal of ruthlessness as a means to ensure great political and financial success.
Mathias is a young gentleman who has seen Abigail and who admires her beauty. He becomes her suitor, and she returns his love. He is tricked by Barabas into believing that Lodowick is an unwelcome suitor who would steal Abigail. After Barabas tricks Mathias into meeting Lodowick for a duel, the two young men kill one another. Mathias is guilty of no crime, nor is there any reason for Barabas to have him killed. He is expendable because he is a Christian and because he dares to love Abigail. Mathias’ death serves as the first symbol of Barabas’ depravity.
Pilia-Borza is a thief who tries unsuccessfully to steal Barabas’ money. Together with Bellamira, Pilia-Borza devises a plot to seduce Ithamore into helping them blackmail Barabas. After he learns from Ithamore that Barabas is responsible for the deaths of Lodowick and Mathias, Pilia-Borza tells Ferneze, hoping to earn a reward. In the end, Barabas poisons this traitor, just as he has so many others.
Appearances and Reality
One of the central themes in The Jew of Malta is the differences between what is real and what only appears real. For instance, Ferneze suggests that in taking all of Barabas’ wealth, he is not at fault, but only fulfilling the curse of the Jews’ inherited sin (Matthew 27:25). But Ferneze uses religion when it is convenient. He ignores the Christian admonition of kindness toward all men, and he lacks any compassion for the Jews. When he needs money, the Jews are suddenly outsiders, although there is every evidence that the governor has made use of the Jews when he needed their financial assistance. But Ferneze is not alone in his deception. The friars pretend to be pious when all they really want is Barabas’ money. But Barabas is the most accomplished at deception, pretending to be outraged and destitute at the governor’s confiscation of his property, but when alone, dealing matter-of-factly with the events, since he still has plenty of money hidden away. Barabas also pretends to both Lodowick and
Mathias that Abigail shall belong to both young men. He pretends to befriend them, when he is really plotting their deaths. He also pretends to the friars that he will convert, setting them against one another, and he even pretends to the Turks that he is their friend, when he plans to murder them all. Barabas is a master at deception, but in reality, he is little different than the other characters—only more willing to kill his victims, rather than rob them.
The most significant betrayal in this play is found within the relationship between father and daughter. Abigail loves her father enough that she consents to a deception of the nuns, so that she can retrieve his hidden wealth. But Barabas betrays his daughter when he plots to destroy the man she loves. Mathias has done nothing to injure Barabas, but he is useful because he is both Lodowick’s friend and Abigail’s suitor. Barabas thinks that Mathias can be sacrificed because he is a Christian and so has no value to Barabas. But in murdering the young man, he betrays his daughter’s implied trust that a father would not deliberately injure his daughter. When Abigail is dying, she thinks only of saving her father. She tells a friar of her father’s murder of the young men—not to injure him, since the priest is obligated to keep the secret by the sanctity of his office—but to try and save him. She still loves her father, not knowing that he has deliberately poisoned her. There are lesser betrayals, such as that of Ithamore, who betrays his master because of lust for Bellamira, but none of the other betrayals are as significant as Barabas’ betrayal of his daughter’s love.
Almost every character in The Jew of Malta is motivated by greed. Barabas has more than enough money. He could easily have given half his estate to the governor and still had more than enough, but he wanted all that he had and even more. Ferneze, too, wants even more money. He is not willing to sacrifice to pay the tribute to the Turks, but, instead, wants to take the money from the Jews, and not content with half, he demands all of Barabas’ wealth. Calymath’s father has waited ten years to demand his tribute, not because he had forgotten about the money, but because he felt that by letting the tribute accumulate, the citizens of Malta would be unable to pay the tribute, and he could seize everything. Page 99 | Top of ArticleIthamore is promised one half of Barabas’ estate, as his heir, but he is not content to wait and keeps increasing his blackmail demands for more and more money. Pilia-Borza and Bellamira are also motivated by greed to try first to steal and then later to blackmail money from Barabas. The friars, too, are motivated more by greed than piety in their attempt to convert Barabas. The need for more and more money has infected almost everyone in Malta.
Marlowe’s Elizabethan audience would have automatically expected the Catholics to be depicted as corrupt. Corrupt friars have a long-standing literary tradition going back to Geoffrey Chaucer, and Marlowe’s friars fit neatly into this tradition. The two squabble about who will have the privilege of saving Barabas’ soul, but neither one is really interested in the Jew’s eternal salvation. Barabas’ repentance will come with his wealth, and each sees this wealth as a benefit to his own order. By the end of the play, Barabas has himself become corrupt. Throughout most of the play, he has been guided by revenge, dispatching most of his victims because they threaten him. But in the final act, he has achieved nearly everything he set out to do. Ferneze has been imprisoned; the rest of Barabas’ enemies are all dead; and Barabas is the governor of the island. But then he sets out to methodically kill all the Turks, who have helped him accomplish all that he desired. Barabas has won, but he has enjoyed all the intrigue and the murder, and he does not wish to stop. He betrays his own motives in this final onslaught and is himself killed, corrupted by his own lack of moral guidance.
The stereotyping of Barabas and his general treatment by the Christians of Malta reflect Elizabethan ideas about Jews. There are references to Barabas’ nose (evidently the actor playing this role wore a large false nose) and to Christian myths about Jews: they poison wells, kill sick people, murder at will, and cheat honest Christians out of their money. But there are also stereotypes about Catholics included in the text: their piety is false, nuns and priests engage in illicit sexual affairs, and they care more about money than the souls of their flock. As is the case with the Jews, the stereotypes about Catholics reflect the general Elizabethan fears about Catholics, whom they suspect of constantly trying to sell their country to the Pope in Rome.
The Jew of Malta is a five-act play. The exposition occurs in the first act when the audience learns of the injury done to Barabas. By the end of act 2, the complication, the audience has learned that Barabas will not be satisfied with the money he has recovered. He wants revenge on all the Christians in the city and is plotting to have the two young men, Lodowick and Mathias, murder one another. The climax occurs in the third act when these young men die, Abigail converts to Christianity, joins the convent, and is subsequently murdered. The murder of the friars and Ithamore’s betrayal of his master provide the falling action in act 4, and the catastrophe occurs in the last act when Barabas overreaches his goal and finally dies in his own trap.
Characterization is the process of creating a lifelike person from an author’s imagination. To accomplish this the author provides the character with personality traits that help define who he will be and how he will behave in a given situation. The Jew of Malta moves away from this strict definition, since the characters are not well-defined. The audience does not really know or understand the character as an individual. For instance, Barabas is a stereotype, a caricature of a greedy Jew, the usurer who was well known to the audience.
This term refers to types of literature such as mystery, science fiction, comedy or romance. The Jew of Malta is officially a tragic drama, according to its title page, but many scholars now refer to it as an example of extreme satiric or black comedy.
The plot provides the author with the means to explore primary themes. Students are often confused between the two terms; but themes explore ideas, and plots simply relate what happens in a very obvious manner. Thus the plot of The Jew of Malta is the story of how Barabas was wronged by the Catholic governor and so vows revenge upon the entire city, even sacrificing his own daughter. But the theme is that of greed, corruption, and religious depravity.
The location for Marlowe’s play is Malta, which is important, since the English audience considered almost any location outside England to be suspect and filled with corrupting forces. This was especially true of any location that was controlled by Catholics.
The Catholic World
In the course of Marlowe’s play, the author manages to provide a negative depiction of two major religious groups, the Roman Catholics and the Jews. In both cases, these depictions reflect the general attitude of his English audience toward these two entities. Much of the religious rhetoric in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta reflects the real-life tensions between the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England, which was formally established by Elizabeth I in 1559. After the formal establishment of the Church of England, some of the tension of the past twenty-five years dissipated, primarily because the queen was more tolerant of religious choice and less likely to endorse the extreme prosecution that Mary I favored. During the brief years of Mary Tudor’s reign, 1553-1558, religious intolerance and religiously-inspired murder became commonplace. Mary, who was a Roman Catholic, immediately reinstated Catholicism as the official religion in England; she also reestablished the Pope’s dominion over the English. Moving quickly, she outlawed Protestantism to please her new bridegroom, Philip of Spain. Protestants were persecuted, and hundreds were burned at the stake when they refused to convert to Catholicism. Mary’s ruthlessness earned her the nickname, “Bloody Mary.” In contrast to Mary’s rule, Elizabeth seemed a refreshing new breath in the kingdom. She was young and beautiful, full of energy, and vibrant. And although she quickly established Protestantism as the official religion, she manifested none of the intolerance of her older sister, Mary. The legacy of Mary’s reign was a fear of Catholicism and a determination to permit no Roman Catholic in government, or in power. The immediate effect of Mary’s reign was that any plotting that was discovered, any subversion that was detected, any unexpected crisis, could well be credited to Catholic sympathizers. Even nearly forty years after her death, the people were still afraid of the Catholic Church and convinced that the Pope might at any time reappear to claim their country in the name of the Roman Catholic Church. This distrust of Catholics was evident in Marlowe’s own life, when his final degree from Cambridge was held up after university officials became concerned that Marlowe intended to become a Catholic priest and join a group of expatriate Roman Catholic priests who had taken refuge at Rheims, where, with the Pope’s assistance, they were plotting an overthrow of Elizabeth I and the Church of England. All of this plotting, whether real or imagined, left the average English citizen distrustful of any Catholic and convinced that they were all dishonest thieves.
The Jewish World
The stereotyping of Jews in Elizabethan England is not as easily explained. There had been massacres of the Jews earlier in England’s history. In 1189, Jews were massacred to celebrate the coronation of Richard I, and in the following year, more than five hundred Jewish men, women, and children were massacred by people indebted to Jewish moneylenders. Officially, Jews had been banished by English law since 1290, when Edward I ordered all Jews to leave England. That decision, however, did not reflect anti-Semitism as much as a business choice. Italian banks were interested in handling English banking and commerce and insisted that all the Jews be banished to eliminate competition. The expulsion in 1290 cleared England almost completely of all Jews. After that period, and until the middle of the seventeenth century, only a few Jews entered the country, and these were largely physicians invited for their professional abilities. There was a small group of crypto-Jews (people forced to embrace Christianity who secretly held on to their Jewish faith) living in London during the late sixteenth century, but few of Marlowe’s contemporaries knew of their existence. At the time that Marlowe was writing the The Jew of Malta his audience had no firsthand knowledge of Jews. What the depiction of Jews in Marlowe’s play illustrates is the pervasiveness of anti-Semitism, even in a country where people had no experience with Jews. Marlowe was an educated man, with knowledge of the world. It is obvious that he would have known about anti-Semitic stereotyping, and he was also aware that his largely uneducated audience would be adept at recognizing his stereotypes. Like those involving the Catholic Church, the stereotyping of Jews played well to an audience trying to survive in a tension-filled world. Elizabeth had defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588, only a year before Marlowe began writing his play. Consequently,
the threat from outside forces was a very real part of English life. When people feel threatened, they often respond with attacks on anyone who seems different or threatening. In this case, both the Catholics and the Jews appeared to be available subjects for stereotyping.
When Marlowe’s play The Jew of Malta first appeared on stage during the winter season of 1589-90, it was evidently very popular with the theatergoing public. Scholars only know this because it was performed many times during the coming years. In many ways, Marlowe’s own notoriety probably added to the audience’s interest. But then, a few years later, when the queen’s Jewish physician was accused of trying to poison her (generally regarded as a false accusation), Marlowe’s depiction of the Jew engendered even more interest. Performances of Marlowe’s play continued for the next several years right up until the closing of the theatres in London in 1642. When the theatres reopened, after the Restoration in 1660, tastes had changed and the “blood tragedies” of earlier years were no long as popular.
There is little information about specific performances in the period following The Jew of Malta’s initial success until the twentieth century, during which there have been few productions. Because of the Holocaust, staging Marlowe’s play before a modern audience has become a problem. The overt anti-Semitism present in the play cannot be ignored, nor can audiences ignore the implications of how effectively Adolf Hitler played upon Europe’s tradition of anti-Semitism to destroy six million Jewish citizens. One recent production, in October 1999, was staged at the Almeida Theatre in London and met with some success, in large part because the actor playing Barabas made the character so sympathetic and so enjoyable to watch. In his review for the Times (London), Benedict Nightingale points out that the audience finds itself “rooting for the villain, especially as the Jew is played by an infectiously gleeful Ian McDiarmid.” Clearly this performance succeeds because the play is performed as “farce and melodrama.” Nightingale also notes the differences between The Jew of Malta and Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, which is more subtle in its anti-Semitic depiction of a Jew. Nightingale states that the audience is more likely to feel sympathy for Shy lock, who loses out to “contemptuous Christians,” than for Barabas, who, by the conclusion of Marlowe’s play, has become a monster.
In another review, Susannah Clapp, writing for the Guardian Unlimited, also notes the comic touches, calling them “grotesque,” but labeling the play a “vibrant cartoon, not a work of reflection.” Part of the difficulty, according to Clapp, is that “Marlowe’s play is repugnant to modern taste.” This is because the word Jew is a “synonym for a wheedler, a schemer, a miserly accumulator of vast wealth and a cheater on his fellows . .. [with ultimately the Jew taking] to arranging myriad murders, including that of his own daughter.” Clapp does admit that the play is about more than anti-Semitism, with almost all the characters portrayed as “rampant hypocrites.” Yet in spite of this, Clapp argues that the anti-Semitism “taints” the play. Clapp also calls McDiarmid’s acting a “triumph,” and observes that the set design is also very effective.
In one other review of this production, Charles Spencer, writing for The Daily Telegraph (London), asks, “Has there ever been a funnier account of a psychopathic killer than The Jew of Malta? This play, according to Spencer, cannot be labeled a tragedy, since it “is not a work that arouses pity or terror.” Citing the “loud bursts of discomfited laughter” from the audience, Spencer labels the play black comedy, which he supposes might have been closer to Marlowe’s intent, since he had “an irresistible urge to cause outrage.” Spencer also agrees with other reviews in citing McDiarmid’s performance as Barabas as particularly strong. This especially well-received production succeeds, though, because it is played as a comedy, as all three reviewers note. Few of the revenge tragedies of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century are produced for the enjoyment of modern audiences. As Nightingale observes, tastes change, and as the most recent production of The Jew of Malta suggests, this play only succeeds as modern entertainment if it is played for laughs.
Sheri E. Metzger
Metzger is a Ph.D., specializing in literature and drama at The University of New Mexico, where she is a lecturer in the English Department and an adjunct professor in the University Honors Program. Metzger is also a professional writer and the
author of several reference texts on literature. In this essay, she discusses the problem of anti-Semitism in The Jew of Malta and the difficulties in staging a modern performance.
Although Marlowe is considered one of the great Elizabethan playwrights to emerge from the Renaissance, only one of his plays, Doctor Faustus, is still produced frequently before modern audiences. Unlike William Shakespeare’s plays, which have been very popular in their many film adaptations, Marlowe’s plays have not found a home in Hollywood. During the Elizabethan period, however, his plays were very popular, ushering in a great theatrical renaissance in England. The Jew of Malta, in particular, was very successful with audiences. Because of several severe outbreaks of the plague, the London theatres were closed frequently in the period following the initial production of the The Jew of Malta, but the actors took the play out of town for a successful tour, and when the theatres again reopened, Marlowe’s drama again played to enthusiastic London audiences, as it would continue to do for many years until the closing of all the theatres in 1642. Now, more than 350 years later, little is heard of Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta. Because of modern sensitivities concerning anti-Semitism, most directors have a difficult time finding an approach to this play. One approach is to stage the play as farce, but even comedy cannot erase the message in the text. In her review of a 1997 performance of The Jew of Malta, in which the play was presented as a black comedy, Susannah Clapp states that “Marlowe’s play is repugnant to modern taste.” This is often the opinion of both modern reviewers and audiences. Plays are not meant to be read; they are designed to be seen and heard, and so it is worth considering whether any approach to this play might make it palatable to a modern audience.
In presenting The Jew of Malta before a contemporary audience, the most significant problem is the depiction of Barabas. Marlowe paints the Jew so vilely that he becomes almost a comic figure, but that is not how Marlowe intended the audience to view his Jew. The title page of his play makes clear that for Marlowe, at least, his play is “A Famous Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta.” It is a tragedy because Barabas cannot be redeemed. The depiction of the Christians in this play is equally unsympathetic, and thus, Marlowe’s anti-Catholic audience might have forgiven Barabas any number of sins. But there are two sins they could not overlook. The first problem is Barabas’ refusal to be converted
to Christianity. For the Elizabethan audience, conversion was one way to eliminate the image of the Jew as the crucifier of Christ. In Elizabethan England, anti-Semitism was not racism. Unlike Adolph Hitler, who believed that blood determined an individual’s Jewishness, the Elizabethans correctly understood that Judaism was a religious choice, and one that conversion would cure. The second problem is Barabas’ lack of loyalty to his own country. In the final act, Barabas is rewarded with the governorship of Malta. He has his riches, and he has the ultimate revenge on Ferneze: his job. But Barabas chooses to betray Calymath and destroy the city. For Marlowe’s audience, devoutly supportive of their queen and country, the Jew’s actions are heinous. But Barabas has no loyalty to Malta because he belongs to no country. By the late sixteenth century, the Jews had been exiled from many of the countries, in which they had settled, and they could claim no allegiance to any one country. Marlowe’s Jew, then, correctly depicts two historical problems that confronted the Jews: refusal to convert to Christianity and the absence of any loyalty to a country of origin.
None of these problems would concern a modern audience, who would not be offended by Barabas’ lack of loyalty to an adopted country; nor would a modern audience care that Barabas refuses to be converted. Current events could either enhance these problems or mitigate them. In the year following Marlowe’s death, the queen’s physician, Roderigo Lopez, was accused of trying to poison the queen and was quickly executed. This event, coupled with Marlowe’s own grisly murder, made his gruesome and bloody play even more popular with audiences, and anti-Semitism, which is frequently hidden away and awaiting an excuse to emerge, reappeared. In the Elizabethan world, Jews were automatically assumed guilty of any heinous crime, and in the case of Lopez’s execution, the anti-Semitic hysteria reflects the fears of the people regarding the possible Page 105 | Top of Articledeath of a queen who had no heirs and who had designated none. For Marlowe’s play, current events only exacerbated the anti-Semitism of the play. But, just as Marlowe’s audience could be swayed by current events, so too, is a modern audience influenced by contemporary events. Today’s audience cannot view Marlowe’s play without the specter of the Holocaust haunting the production. But a modern staging must confront its own political and social realities. Reviews of recent performances of The Jew of Malta reveal the difficulties in staging any modern production of this play. Anti-Semitism made people uncomfortable even before the Holocaust, especially when it is as blatant as it is in Marlowe’s play, and in a post-Holocaust world, it becomes nearly unthinkable.
When scholars discuss The Jew of Malta, they most often discuss it within the context of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, which has its own problems mounting a successful modern production. Many of the problems that William Meyers observes in Shakespeare’s play are applicable to Marlowe’s. In his essay, “Shakespeare, Shylock, and the Jews,” Meyers discusses the problem of anti-Semitism and declares that “[cjertain cultural constructs take on the force of myth and become indestructible; they are proof against reality.” Thus it does not matter what an audience might actually know about Jews. Neither Marlowe’s nor Shakespeare’ s audience had any firsthand experience with Jews. The myth of the Jew was kept alive in England long after the Jews were expelled, first through the mystery plays of the Middle Ages and then through these Elizabethan plays that depicted Jews as greedy usurers who valued their wealth more than any individual’s life. According to Meyers, it does not matter if the popular depiction of the Jews is incorrect; the people will believe what they see and hear on stage because it is reinforced by popular myth. Meyers also argues that the Lopez trial and his execution in 1594 were influenced by Marlowe’s play, of which Meyers says, “[t]he Jew of Malta became the biggest theatrical hit until that time, and fed the anti-Jewish hysteria that prompted the mob to laugh so heartily at Lopez on the gallows.” So rather than merely benefiting from the execution’s publicity, Marlowe’s play fed anti-Semitic opinion, and perhaps, even led to the execution of an innocent man. This belief that Marlowe’s play can still feed anti-Semitism is one reason why it is rarely produced today.
Marion D. Perret’s discussion of the problems that plague a staging of The Merchant of Venice is
also applicable to any staging of The Jew of Malta. In her essay, “Shakespeare’s Jew: Preconception and Performance,” Perrett suggests that “most in his [Shakespeare’s] audience thought Jews cold-hearted usurers and crucifiers of Christ” and so “playgoers would take for granted ways in which the presentation of the Jew fit their preconceived image.” Thus, if the audience expects to see Shy-lock (or by extension Barabas) as representing an anti-Semitic reality, then the production will reinforce that view. Accordingly, the struggle for the director is how to make a modern production of Shakespeare’s Jew more palatable to the audience. The problem, Perret suggests, in staging a modern production of The Merchant of Venice is to create sympathy for Shylock. As a result, productions “are often shaped defensively” to deal with the audience’s “assumption of fear that the play is anti-Semitic.” This is the same issue that any modern production of The Jew of Malta must face. Perret suggests that a twentieth-century audience is “scarred by modern persecution of the Jews, [which] encourages a stubborn tendency to see this Jew [Shylock] as symbolic of all Jews.” It is, therefore, impossible to separate the tragedy of anti-Semitism from the depiction of Jews in plays taken from a sixteenth-century world and transported into a modern world. The result of this trend is that Barabas becomes more than an evil man who does evil things, but becomes evil because he is a Jew. This may, in fact, be true of Marlowe’s play, since Barabas is essentially a one-dimensional caricature of a Jew. This concern, says Perrett, “strikes a sensitive spot in playgoers haunted by memories of the Holocaust.”
An additional problem, according to Perrett, is the tendency of theatergoers to view all characters on stage as representative of a group. Thus, “playgoers may perceive an unflattering representation of this particular Jew as an unflattering representation of all Jews and mistreatment of the Jew by other characters as mistreatment by the playwright.” Modern productions of Shakespeare’s play cut dialogue to eliminate anti-Semitism and make Shylock more tragic and sympathetic. In other cases, modern productions have made the Christians more evil, to mitigate the Jewish portrait of evil. Neither of these approaches would work well with The Jew of Malta. Barabas’ dialogue is too frequently anti-Semitic to eliminate, since it encompasses a significant amount of the play. And Marlowe has already cast the Christians as evil; however, against the greater evil of Barabas, the negative depiction of the Christians is almost negated.
One different approach to staging Marlowe’s play was a 1997 attempt to cast the play as a way to create meaningful dialogue about anti-Semitism. In an interview with Carolyn D. Williams, Stevie Simkin discusses her attempts to force the audience to rethink the anti-Semitism in The Jew of Malta. Williams relates that this 1997 production of Marlowe’s play was situated in 1939 Warsaw as a play-within-a-play. The premise is that the Nazis are presenting The Jew of Malta as Nazi propaganda. In staging the play, Simkin decided one way to counter the play’s anti-Semitism was to confront it openly and so, “the Marlowe play was placed inside that 1939 context, as a performance initiated by the Nazi authorities, with the roles of the Christians . . . performed by German soldiers and the Jewish roles by Jewish interns.” With this setting, the play-within-a-play concept would force the audience to see anti-Semitism at its most destructive. Simkin suggests that “The reconfiguration of the play in these terms was designed to open up the text in performance so that it could be used to explore issues of ethnic identity and oppression. In addition, it invited a reappraisal of the implications of reviving ideologically fraught texts such as The Jew of Malta in our time.” Simkin uses Marlowe’s play to create a meaningful dialogue about anti-Semitism that suggests the importance of change, rather than to just ignore the play as an anti-Semitic production that is somehow too antiquated for the modern stage. By using this format, Simkin offers a way to fight back against the anti-Semitism of the play. For instance, the actors portraying Jewish prisoners were given the means to fight their oppressors. In the section containing Marlowe’s satire on the Catholic cleric,“we appropriated it as a satire improvised by the Jews, a joke at the expense of the Christians who had forced them to perform in this anti-Semitic play.” She adds a line to the play, spoken by one of the Jewish prisoners: “We are your prisoners, and we shall play. But you cannot make us be what you think we are.” In this case, the Jewish prisoners are empowered, rather than diminished by their experience.
Simkin’s model for this production was an actual Nazi performance of The Merchant of Venice, in Vienna in the 1940s that including a racist caricature of Shylock. This Nazi production was to be used as anti-Semitic propaganda. However, in adding her own purpose to Marlowe’s play, Simkin rewrites the ending to “confront the play with its own anti-Semitism.” She denies Ferneze the play’s final lines, which seem to give God credit for the death of Barabas. Instead, the actors reject their roles, and the audience is given an opportunity to reject the anti-Semitism of the play. Clearly, any attempt at a modern production of The Jew of Malta is handicapped by the destructive force of anti-Semitism in the twentieth century. But perhaps Simkin’s production also teaches that there is a way to use this material to teach important lessons about this topic.
Source: Sheri E. Metzger, Critical Essay on The Jew of Malta, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Lloyd E. Kermode
In the following essay, Kermode explores Marlowe ‘s and other playwrights’ Jewish characters as agents of social criticism in English theater in the late sixteenth century.
When the London theatergoers of the 1590s made the short river trip to the South Bank, they left behind them a place which displayed certain fixed features (infrastructure, Protestant Christian ideology), and a place where the lives of the lawmakers and law-followers were affected by the political machinations of international relations and historical placement (tension between London and Spain, proximity to the economically and ideologically important Netherlands). Where they went, to the Rose or the Globe, were places with fixed features (the walls, the stage, the galleries, Protestant Christian ideology) and where the lives of those who performed, those who were portrayed, and those who watched were affected by the political and religious machinations in England and abroad (the Page 107 | Top of Articlesensitivity of the Master of the Revels, dramatic fashion). They left the city of London and reconvened in a “second city,” the theater.
In this paper I shall show how one of the satirical political dramatist’s most cunning weapons was put to work in this “second city,” and how the location of the amphitheaters—geographical, social, and ideological—paradoxically both intensified the potentiality of the damage this weapon could inflict, yet also cushioned the city of London from the influential power of the drama. This weapon was simply one of the dramatist’s characters: the figure of the male Jew—an outsider, a stranger, an objective commentator and subversive critic, willing to fight against the sociopolitical system represented on the stage. Robert Wilson, Shakespeare, Chapman, William Haughton, and Marston all wrote plays in which a Jewish or Jew-like character played a leading role; and in all these cases, the Jew carries out the function of social critic, sometimes passive and meek, often angry and loud. My familiar example will be the Jew of Malta, Barabas, and his slave, Ithamore.
As an outsider, in terms of religion, nationality, and (often enforced) professional occupation, the Jew on the late-sixteenth-century stage becomes the center of a larger critique. He becomes the criticizer of the state of the city and of the ruling classes at large, and also the target of the audience’s—both on stage and off—judgment against him. I will go on to investigate how such an alien figure can resemble a “hero,” and in order to justify the suggestions of analogy and transference from stage representation to the “real world” that I will make, we should consider a little further the theater/audience/city relationship at the Rose in 1592.
That the amphitheaters were divided from the city, at a distance outside the walls, meant that the theatergoers could physically exit the contained city ideologies of London. Steven Mullaney blurs something of this simple yet important concept when he terms the suburbs “Liberties” as well as the real Liberties of the city. What happened during the migration of persons between the two cities, London and amphitheater, is this: knowing themselves to be the very definition of the city (cities are described by population figures), and the subjects and therefore very perpetuators of ideology, the playgoers deconstruct the city of London without destroying it. The city of London as an ideological concept in the minds of the theatergoers is kept in limbo. Once in the South Bank theater these subjects,
pieces of the city structure, possess a vital distance from the city, and the subsequent reconstruction of their community is an affirmation of this group’s own identity as different from the city, but inextricably of the city; they are able to leave London, reconvene, and avoid the city authorities, but their points of reference in play-making, their judgmental forces, will continually refer back to their conditioning as Londoners.
The very idea of the Jew on the late-sixteenth-century stage makes the use of this figure as an associate of the Christian audience alarming, cunning, and subversive. What is set up in The Jew of Malta is something that will be far less certain in The Merchant of Venice when it appears several years later. Barabas is a villain precisely because he is a Jew, and therefore the term “Jew” will suffice to presuppose all other villainous attributes. Something of the status of the appellation might be gleaned from the episode in which Pilia-Borza and Bellamira arrange with Ithamore to get money from Barabas. Ithamore begins the demand letter “Master/Barabas—.” Pilia-Borza tells him “Write not so submissively, but threatening him” and so Ithamore restarts, “Sirrah Barabas.” When Pilia-Borza returns with the news that Barabas has supposedly only given him ten crowns instead of the demanded Page 108 | Top of Articlethree hundred, Ithamore thinks of the most contemptuous way to demand more money. His letter begins “Sirrah Jew.”
Shylock, on the other hand, has reason for what he does. Whether it is good reason or not, it is certainly logical, and the Christians find themselves in need of a good (non-Venetian) mouthpiece to argue for their side. This mouthpiece, Portia, is another example of a figure from without who critiques the State she or he enters into, a State that to a greater or lesser extent marginalizes that character. Note that this critic is not impartial, not in the least objective; simply, that critic-figure must engage the audience, so that the audience effectively “sees” through her or his eyes. This figure acts as a kind of guide to lead the audience through the stage world. This is the role played by Barabas. But Marlowe’s weapon is so much more powerful, the relativity of the grievances so much more intriguing because, unlike Portia, Barabas is a hateful character, a Jew; yet he wins an audience’s empathy.
Marlowe gives nothing away at the beginning. We surely cannot guess that soon we will consider seriously the appropriateness of the Jew’s subversive message and methods. The introduction of Barabas is a blatant taunting device—“in his counting-house, with heaps of gold before him.” Barabas laments “what a trouble ‘tis to count this trash!”. He may signal to the audience in the yard as he says “The needy groom that never fingered groat / Would make a miracle of thus much coin,” and goes on to lament the money-counting chore a second time. In his little counting-house, rich and bitter, wealthy and boasting, perhaps wearing “the artificiall Jewe of Maltae’s nose” and traditional red wig denoting a traitor against Jesus, he is the archetypal villain.
If the audience knows only that he is a Jew at this point, they know by line 49 that he is not just any Jew, but Barabas, aurally the same as the robber and murderer who was freed in Christ’s place. That the audience is aware of this name’s relevance is confirmed by Barabas’s instruction and ironic question to the merchant in the opening scene, “Go tell ‘em the Jew of Malta sent thee, man; / Tush, who amongst ‘em knows not Barabas?” (my emphasis). We should make a distinction here between the use of the Jew as a representative of Barabas, and the use of the Jew as a representative of Judas. Although standing for the anti-Christian race, this Jew of Malta does not stand for the specific betrayer, the damned Antichrist. A similar effect upon the audience of anti-Christianism, but not “Antichrist-ism,” may occur when Shylock says of his daughter “Would any of the stock of Barabbas / Had been her husband rather than a Christian!—.”
Barabas names himself here, then, but that naming paradoxically takes away from specific identity, rather than adding to it. It only places him in a category. Stephen Greenblatt has spotted a conflict of identity in Barabas, a tug-of-war between hidden psychology and what is openly declared. While plying an individuality through his self-alienating, and his exemplary “self-fashioning” behavior, Barabas is also falling into the trap of becoming a personification of a concept, not of a human being. “Most dramatic characters—Shylock would be an appropriate example—accumulate identity in the course of their play; Barabas desperately tries to dispossess himself of such identity. But this steady erosion of himself is precisely what he has pledged himself to resist; his career, then, is in its very essence suicidal.”
The erosion of identity of the antagonists is an ancient requirement for tragedy. Rene Girard seems absolutely correct when he writes that “violence invariably effaces the differences between antagonists.” Barabas erodes his own identity through paradoxical self-nomenclature, disguises (apparel, drugs), and association (Ithamore, the Turks, the Maltese), and through violence he and his enemies are made all but indistinguishable. The audience will be left in a quandary: whether to support the admirable efforts of the disgusting Jew or the saving grace of the popish Catholics.
How the identity of Barabas is seemingly “fattened out,” made particular, is by teaming him up with a partner in crime, who will shadow Barabas and imitate his evil. Ithamore is from “Thrace; brought up in Arabia.” Barabas puts aside the slave he specifically terms “Moor” to choose one who will be credited with the traditional viciousness of a Turk, but with a punning name that reminds the audience of his region of upbringing, neighbor land to the Moorish North Africa; he is a double villain. And Ithamore, like Barabas, is a critical outsider and a stranger in so far as he was not brought up where he was born and is now taken to a foreign land against his will. The Turk and the Jew are on England’s stage, under the censuring eyes of the recreated “second city” spectators.
Ithamore possesses no loyalties in the conflicts that will occur, but is a pawn, a death-messenger. We could say that we are, ultimately, left with an Page 109 | Top of Articleinfidel threat from a rich stranger and his servant, to a Christian strategic stronghold, the city of Malta. This viewpoint estranges the Jew, makes foreign the compact Barabas-Ithamore army, and instructs the audience to take the evil natures of the Jew and the Turk for granted. In doing so the fact of their strangeness becomes at least as important as their specific nationality or religion; or rather their equal status as infidels puts to one side the apparently foregrounded scorn for “the Jew,” per se. Marlowe gives the audience a fascinating choice over how to view the relationships here: either critical outsiders versus followers of anti-Christ or evil infidels versus Christians.
It is difficult to guess just how much the general theatergoing public knew or cared about the history of Malta and the legacy of the Knights of St. John. If reports of the situation in Malta were reaching England in the 1580s, as Godfrey Wettinger claims, the concern of the English that the strategically located island be sufficiently protected from the Turk must have been mixed. Malta had not seen significant military action since the Turkish attack of 1565, the great Turkish invasions of Byzantium, Serbia, Morea, and elsewhere occurring in the fifteenth century. But the association of the Jew and the Turk was still a frightening anti-Christian force and the existence of a rich Jew in Malta was a horrendous thought, if we assume that to be rich is to be powerful.
Of course, it is also ideologically incorrect to cheer for the Spaniards represented on stage in 1592, and it is in the final act of The Jew of Malta that the audience’s sympathies are tried. We may not expect an Elizabethan audience to be converted to the cause of Barabas; and neither should our modern sensitivities mislead us on the question of whether we expect them to object to the ferocity of Barabas’s punishment when his entire estate was taken from him, for Barabas responds with disgusting verve.
To be sure, his murder of a friar and poisoning of a whole convent involve the comedy of the assassin set upon popish victims, and play with the tradition of the corrupt or suspect figure of the friar, but this part of the drama remains within the secure realm of the “play world.” Where the audience’s “real world” understanding of the figure will come from is the fact that the audience possesses a specific, analogical situation. It is located historically in 1592 and spatially outside the city walls. Steven Mullaney notes the parallel of the theatrical fictional and physical situation: Barabas outside Malta’s walls, and the theater outside London’s walls.
As I engage now with the analysis of a particular dramatic moment to put these proposals of place, relationship, and effect into practice, I should call a character witness to support my isolation of a scene for use as illustrative material. Yurim Lotman has said that “the analogy between painting and theatre was manifested above all in the organization of the spectacle through conspicuously pictorial means of artistic modelling, in that the stage text tended to unfold not as a continuous flux (non ‘discrete’) imitating the passage of time in the extra-artistic world, but as a whole clearly broken up into single ‘stills’ organized synchronically, each of which is set within the decor like a picture in a frame.” The time-abstracted picture on which Mullaney, and now I, dwell is presented to the audience in the theater’s frame, and shows Barabas thrown “o’er the walls.” He wakes from the drugs he has taken to feign death and stands alone, the single unheard middle-ranking professional. He is at this moment both physically and socially (as a Jew and a foreigner) an outsider. As such he is free to begin to decide on a way to reenter the city on his own terms, using the double level of identity that each audience member possesses—that of individual subject to the city, and ideological reinventor when outside the city boundary. He must use his knowledge of the city (his “inextricable link”) and also his distance (outside of the walls) to create the critical act—the player attempting a “re-semblance” of the personal character that exists without the structure and stricture of the city law.
This display of potentially subversive originality can be seen by an ideology locked within a city only as acting an unnatural part. In the South Bank theater the concept of the suburbs and of the danger of individual mental and physical liberty at this point becomes most highly charged. The whole purpose of creating a text of laws and proclamations within a jurisdiction is to ensure conformity and equal behavioral acts from its subjects. If the subject leaves that jurisdiction, she or he is free to reassess laws. Exiting an ideology (or even more simply exiting a safe, if oppressive community) to create such an original, de-legalized character produces a being who must in the end, like Barabas, be “all alone”; alone but with a charismatic power that dissatisfied Londoners might yearn for in this dark economic period. This character’s deconstruction of the city body (by the removal of himself) is a way to reanalysis and affirmation of his self as potential Page 110 | Top of Articlewhole thinker and act-er; it is an analogue of the audience’s deconstruction of the city structure and reestablishment in the theater.
Multiple or en masse recognition of the place of the oppressed individual subject, possible only in the theater, is the beginning of the route to a common effective reaction against the city from without. It is the first step on a subversive path that leads right to the lawmakers and monarchs of the city or realm being critiqued.
It appears at first, then, that individuality is encouraged through the subjects’ exiting from London, that we are seeing individuals in the audience being excited by the strongly individual character of Barabas. But in fact the theater creates a world in which the playgoers are homogenous analogues to the Jew. They may have a personal reaction to Barabas’s display, but this reaction is a product of communal fashioning—it is the theater audience’s reaction as a whole. This is not an encouraging concept for the human narcissistic and independence-loving psyche, but it would be, for many critics, the quintessential metamorphosis of the audience, allowing a common reception to dramatic stimuli, and so creating a serious anti-authoritarian, united force. Paul Yachnin, in his useful essay, “The Powerless Theater,” denies this possibility:
In the theater of the period, political meaning was depoliticized, either by being contained within the aesthetic form as merely the indeterminate subject of imaginative representation or by being made the product of the audience’s reception of the text rather than the product of the text itself. The stage’s representation of the operations of power was normally not allowed to coalesce in the kind of univocal and authorized meaning which might be seen as an attempt to intervene in the real world.
Like Barabas’s naming of himself at the beginning of the play, the playgoers’ renaming of themselves as a theater crowd does not create specific identity; it only shifts their membership affiliation between two related categories, London city and theater city.
It is this two-fold, interdependent audience identity, I would argue, and not the weakness of drama and theater itself, which lessens dramatic political power. For in 1592 the stage was still potentially dangerous. In the theater of Marlowe, the aesthetic form of political action is not embellished or softened into an “indeterminate object of imaginative representation,” but is cold, rapid display—the siege of the town cannot even be shown on the stage, it is so factual and real; the scaffold of Barabas’s death is built and mastered as a new stage of death—simple, clean, quick, deadly, subversive, political.
We must reconsider the widespread concern among critics to try to prove power inherent within the theater and dramatic performance, to find a “univocal and authorized meaning which might be seen as an attempt to intervene in the real world.” The play is all power game, all control mechanism, manipulating the audience; the play world is already in the real world, and should affect it. Where the problem lies, why the should is not a will, is in the fact that the audience in London city and the audience in theater city cannot entirely dislocate themselves, and a univocal meaning (or even an oversimplified authorization: to fight, to overturn, to die) falls however potently onto the ears of an audience fashioned too much by just that real world and ultimately unable to go out of the theater and act against it. It is not “the audience’s reception” that we should be concerned with, but audience retention, necessary for audience action.
Thomas Cartelli’s proposal that “in The Jew of Malta Marlowe provokes only minimal resistance to the enjoyment his version of burlesque affords” does not matter. It is not enough for the play to be “a collective fantasy getting out of hand.” The play can assume all the powerful roles in the world. But for the play-goers to accept Barabas as their permanent hero, their subversive role model, they must reject London’s ideology wholesale—not only its suppression of domestic protest, but also the long-assumed hatred for the “infidel.” It is with such an ideologically cleared mind that the theatergoers subsequently would have to return to London, if they were to effect change in their personal situations as a result of the play. But such a reaction against what have largely become accepted, even if questioned, ideological norms is a lot to ask.
We must investigate further how Marlowe wheedles his critical Jew into the favor of the audience, and moreover how this can only remain a local effect, one that disintegrates with the breaking-up of the audience at the end of the play. Calymath enters to the wakened and vengeful Barabas, who proclaims “My name is Barabas; I am a Jew.” The dramatic irony of the line is hilarious, for the audience can see that he is a Jew; even in the fictional image Calymath should be able to see that he is a Jew. Barabas even reveals his name before the obvious statement. And finally, as if teasing, as Page 111 | Top of Articleif he knew all along, Calymath recognizes Barabas’s fame: “Art thou that Jew whose goods we heard were sold / For tribute-money?” “The very same, my lord,” Barabas replies. Barabas, now outside the walls, now alone in a personal quest for revenge against the city, appears through this irony to be rebuilding the identity that he falsely set up at the beginning, a shield of nomenclature from behind which to fight. This self-reintroduction by Barabas so late in the play, rapidly followed by his plan for taking the city, should be the ultimate piece of effective “self-fashioning.” But as Stephen Greenblatt reminds us, “Naming oneself is not enough; one must also name and pursue a goal. [Marlowe’s] heroes do so with a splendid energy that distinguishes their words as well as their actions from the surrounding society. The Turks, friars, and Christian knights may all be driven by ‘The wind that bloweth all the world besides, / Desire of gold’, but only Barabas can speak of ‘infinite riches in a little roome.’” But even this is not good enough. Barabas is talking in riddle s. His “infinite riches” are, of course, unattainable, and this will be proven at the end of the play—at the end of all life.
As Cartelli insists, this scene certainly “provokes” the audience. The niggling fact that the Maltese city that wronged Barabas is one governed by Spanish-ruled Catholics makes its undermining—in the fiction of this play—a not unattractive proposal for the London audience. And undermining is literally what the Turks and Barabas do. They reenter the city via its sewers; they take revenge on the city emblematically in that they return through the channels that should only allow effluent to leave the jurisdiction—they are therefore dangerous excess to the city’s safety, the city’s political filth infecting the city structure.
Back inside the Maltese city, Barabas and the Turks avenge as iconoclasts, usurping the figures of supposed justice, rising up “dirtily” from physically—and by metaphor socially—“below” the city. The actor on stage is setting an example for the audience, but the message is not stable. As Michael Goldman has said, “We are made sharply aware of the actor both activating an icon and altering it”; manipulation is the name of the game.
Scene ii of the final act opens with the assault having succeeded. Magically, off-stage, in the “theatrical space without,” the city of the Spanish crusaders is violated. Hanna Scolnicov writes:
The founding of Rome [in Ovid’s Fasti] is described as a cutting-off and consecrating of a particular space. According to Eliade, city walls were originally erected not for military protection but as a magical defence,
for they marked out from the midst of a “chaotic” space, peopled with demons and phantoms, an enclosure, a place that was organised . . . provided with a “centre.”
The sacred circle, cut off and delimited, consecrated and imbued with strength and significance, is highly suggestive in relation to the theatrical space.
If the theater is its own “organised” space, it is truly a “second city”: a walled, organized location of life-stories, parts of which others experience, relate, or miss completely. There is more. The idea of magical defense reflects the reliance of the theater on illusion—the illusion of protection (that the Essex conspirators trusted to), of autonomy, and of power within the theatrical (architectural) space. The theater is an alternative not only to the geographical city space but also to the city ideology. It is a “sacred” alternative to the religious requirement of the official ideological apparatus; the trend to contrast the theater with a church or with schools, theaters being places of ungodly learning, was perhaps a more profound observation than many contemporary writers realized.
We are shown that Barabas’s method of entry has left the city walls physically intact. His self-enclosure in the city is his suicidal version of “the constant attempt by characters within the plays to control, imprison, and wall up one another, while maintaining to themselves the fiction of breaking boundaries down.” Intention-success (performance of the intended action) is possible, but purpose-success (achievement of the desired end) is ultimately not. The overthrow of the oppressor does not result in finality; revolution is not a stable condition. So, ultimately, despite all the promise, the theatergoers are not given a way to hold the city from within. The Machiavellian element may be involved in the successful siege, but is really confirmed with typical Marlovian sleight-of-hand in the successful princehood and protection of the fortress by Ferneze. The power of drama gulls the audience. Barabas’s victory is temporary, even illusory. His greed will cause a final self-destructive attempt at gain and glory and the Catholic Christians will regain the city; their sacred wall—the Religious State Apparatus—remains intact too. The two enclosures, city and theater, remain discrete and undamaged.
Rebecca W. Bushnell is near to the mark with her summary of Tamburlaine I and II and The Jew of Page 112 | Top of ArticleMalta as “plays that explore the craving for power and the strategies of usurpation. None of these plays concerns the exercise of power as tyranny; instead, each play displays the Spectacle of ambition.” She continues:
In The Jew of Malta, when Barabas is installed as governor, he seems momentarily confused; like Tamburlaine, he understands only need and not its fulfillment, so when he seeks “for much, but [can] not compass it,” it is because he cannot bear to be “compassed.” Having achieved authority, Barabas almost immediately collapses, and one of his own “engines” backfires on him. In the logic of representing ambition in these plays, the conclusion is not morally motivated; the action just grinds to a halt when desire is exhausted.
Stephen Greenblatt has blamed Barabas’s failure on “his desire to avoid the actual possession of power.” Indeed, by keeping the horizon of his power struggle exactly that—an ever-escaping sight (“infinite riches”)—Barabas avoids having to hold on to the reality of power, avoids the inevitability of having to impose limits on his power (hence the dreadful mistake inherent in walling himself in the city). Tamburlaine similarly sees infinite space left to conquer as he peruses a map in his final hours of life. Peter S. Donaldson says of Tamburlaine’s reception of the tactile crown:
The crown is necessary here not because Tamburlaine has any real sense of the earthly fruition he claims it represents, but because one must turn to something from the chaotic reflection of man’s essence in nature, from warring elements, wandering planets, reflecting inner weariness and aimless oscillation. Marlowe mentions the “wondrous architecture” of the world, but what he presents is not an ordered universe, but rather one that mirrors the disorder of a fragmented self. To aim at the crown is really to turn away from the chaos of nature to a realm of willed coherence. The speech passes from images of fragmenting “natural” energies to the stable but ironic self-icon of the crown.
Barabas is the alternative power seeker. His “willed coherence” is strong, but his “aimless oscillation” is revealed in his final fall into the cauldron. Barabas does have a real sense of the earthly fruition that he claims his power signifier—money—represents, but he cannot grasp the reality of power itself. The chase is more thrilling—and less tiresome—than holding on to the struggling catch called the power of rule. His ordered intention is reflected in his carefully constructed execution scaffold upon the stage; but his desire for avoidance of final power—the purpose-success—makes this scaffold another “self-icon,” the rebuilt (“revolutionary,” reinstating, return to the original) power structure.
What is provided for the audience is only the suggestion that from without the city can be challenged. There is no dramatic force that can scale the walls and overturn this “real world.” In the end political subversion is within the power of the theater, but it cannot be converted to revolution inside the city by the audience, who must be the agents of any such process. But we may not like this ending. It is depressing. So we come back at it with dramatic subversion like the Isle of Dogs affair, or the incidents surrounding The Play of Sir Thomas More. Or we cite the Dutch Church libel, with its “Machiavellian Marchant,” its “Paris massacre” and its marginal “Tamburlaine,” a prime example of a political text born of social and political dissatisfaction, of the force of knowledge of foreign affairs, and of the power of Marlowe’s particular seminar in subversion at the “schoole of abuse” called the Rose.
But the Dutch Church Libel was a sheet pinned up in the primary city (London), that having stated its dramatic influences from the second city of performance (the Rose), remains a text that hints at revolutionary, subversive, individualistic possibility, yet in reality confirms only nationalistic and xenophobic homogeneity. Full of plans and threats—like Barabas—the text has lost its ability to turn into action somewhere in the “passage” between the theater and the streets of London.
Source: Lloyd E. Kermode, “’Marlowe’s Second City’: The Jew as Critic at the Rose in 1592,” in Studies in English Literature, Vol. 35, No. 2, Spring 1995, pp. 215-26.
In the following essay, Humphreys contrasts The Jew of Malta with Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, focusing on the differing philosophies expressed in them.
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Source: Arthur Humphreys, “The Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice: Two Readings of Life,” in The Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. 50, No. 3, Summer 1987, pp. 279-92.
Clapp, Susannah, “The Jew of Malta,” in Guardian Unlimited, October 10, 1999.
Meyers, William, “Shakespeare, Shylock, and the Jews,” in Commentary, Vol. 101, No. 4, April 1996, pp. 32-37.
Nightingale, Benedict,“The Big Play: The Jew of Malta,” in Times (London), October 16, 1999.
Perrett, Marion D., “Shakespeare’s Jew: Preconception and Performance,” in Shakespeare Studies, Vol. 20, 1987, pp. 261-68.
Spencer, Charles, “The Arts: Portrait of a Psycho As Comic As It Is Chilling,” in Daily Telegraph (London), October 7, 1999.
Williams, Carloyn D., “Interview Given by Stevie Simkin, Director of Marlowe’s Jew of Malta, to Carolyn D. Williams,” in Cahiers Elisabethains: Late Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Vol. 55, April 1999, pp. 65-73.
Brown, John Russell, ed., Marlowe: Tamburlaine The Great; Edward The Second and The Jew Of Malta: A Casebook, Macmillan, 1982.
This text offers a collection of critical essays on Marlowe’s plays.
Cole, Douglas, Christopher Marlowe and the Renaissance of Tragedy, Praeger, 1995.
Cole’s book examines the major literary traditions of Marlowe’s era and how he transformed them into themes fitting his purpose.
Hammill, Graham L., Sexuality and Form: Carvaggio, Marlowe, and Bacon, University of Chicago Press, 2000.
This author uses Caravaggio’s paintings, Marlowe’s plays, and Bacon’s scientific treatises to explore the interdisciplinary connections between sexuality and violence.
MacLure, Millar, ed., Christopher Marlowe, Routledge, 1995.
This text provides a compilation of critical essays, presenting contemporary responses to the author’s work.
Marlowe, Christopher, The Complete Plays, edited by J. B. Steane, Penguin, 1972.
This work is a collection of all of Marlowe’s play, fully restored by recent scholarship.
Shapiro, James C, Rival Playwrights: Marlowe, Jonson, Shakespeare, Columbia University Press, 1991.
Shapiro examines three of the greatest of the Renaissance playwrights, comparing their work within a historical context. Although Shapiro is occasionally forced into conjecture about his three subjects, much of what he says is grounded in historical fact.
Thomas, Vivian, and William Tydman, eds., Christopher Marlowe: The Plays and Their Sources, Routledge, 1994.
This book, a compilation of forty-two texts, includes all the major sources for Marlowe’s plays.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2693800016