The Jew of Malta is considered by many to be one of Marlowe's most accomplished plays. T.S. Eliot called it a tragic farce, and of all of his works, it is the closest to a comedy1 - if a very black comedy more in keeping with the grand tradition of Monty Python or the BBC's television series Blackadder than with the romance oriented comedies of Shakespeare - Shakespeare didn't tend to cook his comic protagonists alive in cauldrons of boiling oil. Violent endings aside, for a modern audience The Jew of Malta is also one of Marlowe's most controversial plays; making it one of the most discussed, and least performed, of all his works.
Sympathy for the Devil
The Holocaust changed forever the way this play will and can be seen. In this post-Holocaust world, tolerance for anti-Semitism (or any other kind of prejudice) is no longer acceptable to the vast majority of people. The sensitivity of the subject has lead more than once to proposed productions of The Jew of Malta being abandoned before a single line has been rehearsed. As with Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice (a play that owes much to this one), The Jew of Malta is often condemned sight unseen and unread because of the prejudice perceived to be an inherent part of it. Indeed, the play does make uncomfortable viewing today; its main protagonist is the ancient stereotype of Jewish villainy, an immoral and treacherous usurer who loves his money far more than even his daughter, Abigail. Moreover, the original Elizabethan production had the actor, Edward Alleyn, play the part while wearing a large fake nose - the ultimate Jewish caricature. The only redeeming feature (if indeed it can be termed as such) of this character might seem to be his sheer theatricality and its entertainment value to the audience; as a man, Barabas, the titular Jew, is little more than a grotesque.
But Marlowe was not a playwright who was ever overly concerned with making his audiences feel comfortable, and though The Jew of Malta presents us with many stereotypes, it is difficult to believe that Marlowe's intention was for these to be taken at face value. Jews were officially expelled from England in 1290, but by Marlowe’s time some were unofficially ‘tolerated’, though forced to practise their religion in secret. So this is a play that revolves around a figure who would normally be consigned to the margins of society; a figure to be despised and mocked as he is almost universally by other characters throughout the play. Yet in order for this demonization of Barabas to be effective, the characters around him should have presented positive images, which would have emphasised and reinforced his villainy. These other characters, however, are themselves revealed to be no better (and in many cases, are worse) than Barabas - they are selfish and self-serving hypocrites with no morals, ethics or honour. Though the audience may not at first realise it, this is a play without a hero. Into that dramatic vacuum steps Barabas, the anti-hero.
A Plain Dealing Villain
Marlowe's Barabas is a grotesque villain who makes no apologies for his many crimes. Indeed Barabas revels (and encourages the audience to revel) in his own badness. Recruiting an assistant to aid him with his wicked schemes, Barabas gleefully outlines the monstrous excessiveness of his immoral nature. He boasts to new sidekick, Ithamore, that he spends his spare time wandering around town to kill the odd invalid or poison a well, though stressing these are purely recreational acts of evil. Not counting the results of such hobbies, by the end of his play Barabas has amassed a body count of 12, poisoned a convent full of nuns and a collection of carpenters, and blown up a monastery. The Elizabethans loved a blood-bath, and the play’s success indicates they must have delighted in the exuberant inventiveness with which Barabas dispatches his many victims.
Don Mathias and Lodowick, the son of Ferneze (governor of Malta), are the first to suffer at the hands of Barabas. Using his daughter Abigail as a lure, Barabas orchestrates a fatal duel between the two men and so achieves a measure of revenge on Ferneze for depriving him of his gold at the start of the play. Abigail, made to betray her lover, Mathias and play an integral part in his death, is heartbroken, and retreats to the nunnery that Ferneze has established in Barabas’s own house. Despite her involvement in Barabas’s schemes, Abigail has, up to this point, been the only truly noble or good character in the play, and as such has been a positive representation of Jews, to balance the negative stereotypes that dominate. With her conversion, however, Abigail shuns her Jewish identity and embraces Christianity, an act that ultimately seals her fate. Barabas has previously declared that he holds Abigail ‘as dear as Agamemnon did his Iphigen’, but this was an ominous statement given that Agamemnon is best remembered for sacrificing his daughter Iphigeneia to the goddess Artemis.
Barabas’s revenge on Abigail for her betrayal is swift and terrible - a gift of poisoned food to the nunnery kills his daughter along with every one of the nuns. This act is soon followed by the strangulation of one friar who hears Abigail’s dying confession, and the framing of another friar for that murder. Barabas continues to plot against and murder assorted members of the Maltese community until an uncharacteristic mistake (he had miscalculated the amount of poison needed for a quick kill) leads to his arrest. Even this does not stop him, though, as a faked death and a hasty alliance with the Turks results in the temporary restoration of his fortune. Ironically, however, it is at this point that Barabas is out-Machiavelli’d by the smooth-talking Ferneze. Barabas’s act of leniency towards Ferneze when he has him at his mercy is, in this world of villains, a mistake. Ferneze proves he is the better statesman by seizing the first available opportunity to finish Barabas off, once and for all.
The Nasty Slave
Barabas's recruit, Ithamore, is another stereotype presented to the audience. A direct descendent of the slaves and servants in the plays of Roman dramatists such as Terence and Plautus, Ithamore, like his master, boasts of his evil deeds and is honest only in his loyalty to himself. Like his Roman ancestors, Ithamore changes his allegiances more often than his shirt and almost as soon as he is signed up by Barabas is seduced into betraying him by the courtesan Bellamira and her henchman Pilia-Borza2. Despite being a villain, Ithamore is perhaps the most gullible of characters. He is duped first of all by Barabas, who convinces him, after the death of Abigail, that he will make Ithamore his heir. Ithamore falls for this despite having helped Barabas arrange the death of Abigail with a pot of poisoned porridge; an act which would have convinced most people that being Barabas’ heir was not necessarily a good thing.
The hapless Ithamore then falls deeply in lust with the prostitute Bellamira, and large amounts of alcohol soon convince him that his feelings are reciprocated. The alcohol also leads him to attempt a grand, romantic speech, with promises to whisk Bellamira away to an idyllic life in Greece, along the lines of Marlowe’s own (and most famous) poem, The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.
Content: but we will leave this paltry land,
And sail from hence to Greece, to lovely Greece.
I’ll be thy Jason, thou my golden fleece;
Where painted carpets o’er the meads are hurl’d,
And Bacchus’ vineyards overspread the world;
…Thou in those groves, by Dis above,
Shalt live with me and be my love
Ithamore, act IV, scene ii
This doesn’t exactly sweep Bellamira off her feet. Although Jason of the Argonauts might be a suitably heroic figure to liken himself to, he is not, given a history of abandoning lovers, really romantic; besides which, few women would like to be told they will be anyone’s sheepskin, ‘golden’ or not. Pledging his promise to ‘Dis above’ probably didn’t help Ithamore much either; Dis is another name for Pluto or Hades, god of the underworld, which makes him a strange choice of god for lovers and unlikely to be lurking ‘above’ anywhere. Ithamore is no match for Bellamira or Pilia-Borza, and if Barabas hadn’t managed to kill all three of them with a poisoned posy3, he would certainly have come to a sticky (and probably bloody) end at their hands.
Given that this play features an overabundance of villainous characters, it should come as no surprise that its sponsor is the most potent symbol of Renaissance villainy, Niccolò Machiavelli. The play opens with the entrance of Machevill (or Make-Evil), the ghost of Machiavelli, who delivers the prologue to the play with the declaration:
…I come not, I,
to read a lecture here in Britain,
But to present the tragedy of a Jew,
Who smiles to see how full his bags are cramm’d;
Which money was not got without my means.
Barabas is claimed as his disciple, and the play as a product of Machiavelli’s philosophy. There is an implication in his words that he does not come to expound on this philosophy simply because there is no need - it is already well known and practiced in Britain:
Admir’d I am of those that hate me most.
Though some speak openly against my books,
Yet will they read me…
Although Barabas is the only character named by Machevill, there are others, both on stage and, it is implied, in the audience itself, who follow his teachings. Flaunting his philosophy at the audience, he touches on the most notorious of his doctrines: murder by poisoning (Barabas’s method of choice), atheism, might over right, ruthlessness and the belief that the ends justifying the means. In the drama that unfolds once Machevill has quit the stage, all of these are put into practice with varying degrees of success. By the end of the play, the characters who followed Machiavellian state-craft most closely are those that achieved the most, and it is only when Barabas ignores key parts of Machiavellian doctrine that he fails. Because of this, at the close of the tragedy of the Jew of Malta, it is not Barabas who is revealed as Machiavelli’s heir, but the Christian governor and knight, Ferneze.
The theme of alien identity is at the heart of 'The Jew of Malta'. Its title advertises the fact that the main character, Barabas, is an 'other' and distances the action by placing the location far away on the island of Malta. Since 1522 Malta had been governed by the Knights Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem, an international
religious order founded by aristocrats of a crusading turn of mind. They had beaten overwhelming odds to hold Malta against the Turks in 1565, and so to the average Elizabethan the Knights of Malta represented heroes of Christendom. They are not, however, the heroes of Marlowe’s play. Barabas the Jew has been criticised for being unremittingly evil. He has no redeeming features and is immoral to the core. As such, he lives up to the audience’s expectations of a Jewish villain - avaricious, cunning and treacherous. But Marlowe’s portrait of the Christian knights paints no better picture of these chivalric would-be saints. Solemn (some might say to the point of pomposity) and serious, they provide a startling contrast to the boisterous depravity of Barabas. Yet this ceremonious piety masks natures just as Machiavellian as their Jewish enemy.
The leader of the Knights is Ferneze, the governor of Malta, and at the start of the play he finds himself in a difficult position. The Turkish emperor has sent his son, Calymath, to demand payment of the overdue tribute owed by Malta. Ferneze requests a month’s grace to pay this debt, asking that we may have time to make collection amongst the inhabitants of Malta for’t. Calymath graciously grants the request, stilling the protests of his men by declaring
‘Tis more kingly to obtain by peace
Than to inforce conditions by constraint.
Act I, scene ii (lines 25-26)
Though Turks were commonly held in as much contempt by the average Elizabethan as Jews at this time, Calymath’s words and actions show him to be a noble and generous character, far more so, in fact, than the Christian knights whom the audience would have expected to embody these traits. Indeed, the cowardly and despicable Turks of Marlowe’s play Tamburlaine are much more in keeping with the national stereotype Elizabethan audiences were accustomed to. By turning the prejudiced view of Turks on its head, and undermining the idealisation of Christian heroes, this play begins to call into question the validity of any racism.
Barabas and the Bible
Ferneze adds to the confusion of identity when he meets with the Maltese Jews. Having summoned all the Jews of Malta to his chambers, Ferneze requests their aid to raise the money needed to pay the Turks. This request is soon revealed to be an order, as he declares to the Jews To be short, amongst you’t must be had (I, II, line 58). The Jews are ordered to surrender half their estate, and if they refuse they face enforced conversion to Christianity and the loss of everything they possess. That Ferneze had always intended to impose this tax is clear from the fact his summons to the Jews is sent well before his meeting with the Turks. Barabas, a man who possesses infinite riches in a little room (I, ii, line 37), protests against the injustice of such a tax, levied only on Jews, and initially refuses to obey. Though Barabas tries to retract his protest a little later, Ferneze confiscates everything, with the words:
No, Jew; we take particularly thine,
To save the ruin of a multitude.
And better one want for a common good,
Than many perish for a private man.
Act I, scene ii (lines 100-103)
The words of justification from this defender of Christendom are an uncomfortable echo of the Biblical Jewish high priest, Caiaphas, when he excused Christ’s crucifixion by saying:
It is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.
St. John, XI.50
There is additional irony in this, since Barabas’s biblical namesake is the criminal who was freed by the Jews in place of Christ, when Herod offered them the choice. Ferneze the upholder of Christianity has taken on the identity of the Jew; forcing Barabas the archetypal Jewish villain into the role of an unlikely Christ. This paradox is reinforced later in the play when Barabas declares in an aside to the audience
Now will I show myself to have more of the serpent than the dove;
that is, more knave than fool.
Act II, iii (lines 36-38)
This is a subversion of Christ’s instructions to his disciples:
Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.
St. Matthew, X.16
Barabas remains true to the spirit of the teachings of his own mentor, Machiavelli, even as he borrows from the imagery of Christ. But it is Ferneze, who has no asides to the audience and no extravagant displays of language, who in the end proves himself to be the truest disciple of Machiavelli. It is Ferneze, in a final act of showmanship and treachery, who sends Barabas tumbling to his doom and seizes the reigns of power once more.
The Virtues of Vice
With the legacy of a few hundred years of empire-building, twenty-first century Britain is a cosmopolitan place. Its cities, especially, are populated by people who can trace their origins all over the globe and who have retained much or all of their original culture. England of Christopher Marlowe's day was, however, very different. Though even then London had attracted many immigrants from overseas, most of the population would have had little contact with foreigners and foreign ways, and none at all with Jews, who had been expelled from England in 1290 by Edward I.
It would be easy, then, to dismiss Marlowe’s Jew as a crude representative of Elizabethan prejudice; a fusion of Jewish and Machiavellian caricatures that create a theatrical Frankenstein, both unloved and unlovable. And yet the subject of this play is that prejudice. This is a play about challenging social stereotypes and cultural assumptions; it is a play where the centralisation of marginal characters, the powerless becoming powerful, becomes a major theme in the drama. Though Barabas is almost a 'cartoon' villain, he is still the most entertaining and even sympathetic character on stage. Like Shakespeare's Richard III, he seduces the audience with his metatheatrical delight in his own cunning, and his cheeky asides. Unlike Ferneze, who cloaks his villainy in a cloak of pious respectability, Barabas flaunts his crimes to a world that is itself revealed to be inherently corrupt. Barabas is the antihero of the play; the only character with whom the audience can relate. If the play is to be viewed simply as an exercise in prejudice, then such complicity between the ostensible object of hate and the audience is a curious thing for the playwright to evoke.
The Jew of Malta in Performance
Secret History looks at the History of Prejudice against Jews in Britain
Christopher Marlowe: Life and Death, Poetry and Plays
Have a look at other entries on Marlowe's life and work:
- Dido, Queen of Carthage
- Edward II
- The Jew of Malta
- Tamburlaine the Great
- A Biography of Christopher Marlowe
- Conspiracy Theories and Christopher Marlowe
- Blank Verse and Iambic Pentameter
or go to
Marlowe: The Complete Texts
for online editions of Marlowe's plays and poems.