The last time I wrote about Christopher Marlowe I talked about Gaveston, sodomy, and Twilight. Today I’m going to talk about The Jew of Malta, a play about a Jew who lives in Malta. The plot is this:
The play opens with a prologue by Machevil, a caricature based on the author Machiavelli, so basically Marlowe is making it blatantly obvious that Machiavellianism is going to be a re-occuring theme in the play. After the prologue the real action begins. Ferneze, the governor of Malta, demands of all the Jews to give half of their estate to the government to pay tribute to the Turks who threaten to invade Malta. Unfair? It is, but wait until you hear what happens next: Barabas refuses to obey and, as punishment, Ferneze takes ALL of his wealth. To add more insult to his punishment, Ferneze decides to turn the Jew’s house into a convent. Barabas vows for revenge and that’s how a supervillain is born. He finds his much-needed sidekick when he buys Ithamore, a slave who hates Christians and wants to help Barabas. Barabas has another ally, his daughter Abigail, who later in the play becomes a nun when she finds out that her father is responsible for the death of the man she loved, Mathias, and Ferneze’s son Lodowick, after Barabas staged a duel between the two. Enraged, Barabas poison the nunnery and Abigail dies. Ithamore falls in love with the prostitute Bellamira, but she doesn’t really love him, she’s just using him to rob Barabas. Ithamore betrays Barabas to Bellamira and her pimp, Barabas of course finds out, disguises himself as a French lute player and poisons all three of them. In the final act of the play, Barabas fakes his own death and helps the Turk Calymath to invade Malta. The Turks take over Malta and Barabas is made governor of Malta, but tells Ferneze that he knows how to defeat the Turks and will help Ferneze take back Malta. Ferneze agrees to side with Barabas. Barabas constructs a last plan that backfires: Barabas falls in the trap he made for Calymath and dies. Ferneze then imprisons Calymath and order is restored after half of Malta has been poisoned by Barabas.
What are we, contemporary readers, supposed to keep from this play? First of all, Barabas has really strong poison game. Most importantly though, in The Jew of Malta Marlowe addresses three main themes: Machiavellian conspiracies, religious hypocrisy and racial tension. The plot of the play moves forward because of the need for revenge. Barabas started as an avenger (not the fun kind of an Avenger…), but liked it so much he kept going. He is a majorly flawed character, he is evil, greedy and a blasphemer. Here’s the catch though, Marlowe deliberately wrote Barabas in an ambiguous way. Barabas is evil, but he is also incredibly smart, perceptive, charismatic, his plotting knows no limits and he is able to improvise whenever his original plans somehow fail. We don’t root for him, but we want to see what he does next.
Every Renaissance play needs to have an “other” and this otherness needs to be defined religiously, racially, socially or even gender-wise. In this play, Barabas is the religious “other”, a Jew among the Christians. Ferneze, the governor of Malta and Barabas’s main rival, appears to be moral, but his actions prove otherwise. He wrongs Barabas and humiliates him. Marlowe repeatedly constructs and deconstructs the Jew-Christian dichotomy and he’s having fun while doing it. For instance, the Christian Ferneze does not hesitate to abuse his power and confiscate all the wealth and estate Barabas owns. The Turks are the racial and religious”others”, both to Malta and Marlowe’s England. Also, Marlowe really enjoys toying with the racial binary between Barabas and Ithamore. Barabas sees Ithamore as a lesser being and continually insults him, but Ithamore isn’t written in a stereotypical way. He is smart, capable of love, but also very easy to manipulate.
Marlowe is notorious for the way he uses religious irony, take for instance Doctor Faustus (we will come to Doctor Faustus, I promise). It is no wonder that The Jew of Malta doesn’t hesitate to mock religion and point out how sometimes blind faith can be as bad as deliberately evil actions are. It is a risky play as Marlowe doesn’t hold back. Barabas poisons an entire nunnery and his only daughter along with it! Marlowe was either too brave or too careless to write such subversive things. Remember, his reputation is stained, he is accused of being a spy and many people want to see him punished.
There is no sense of traditional morality in this play as every character has his own morality that chooses to follow. The only moral character is Abigail and, surprise surprise, she dies! Speaking of Abigail, she and Bellamira are each other’s opposite and also the only notable female characters of the play. Abigail is virtuous and her will to help her father can be translated as loyalty. When she becomes a Christian, Christian Renaissance audiences did not think of her as a traitor, but as a new believer who finally found God. Abigail is used by her father who treats her as another pawn in his plan, and she is strong enough to defy him. It goes without saying that she never gets rewarded and dies a miserable death.
The Jew of Malta is violent, too violent for Renaissance audiences. It’s totally subversive and critical of established notions of faith and Christian superiority. By moving the action of the play to a distant island (Malta), Marlowe allows himself to have all the creative freedom he wanted. Think about it: it would be too shocking and repulsive to have all the terrible things in the play happen in England. When all the violence and chaos happen in Malta, it’s too far away for the audience to enjoy the play and yet be respectably frightened by it. It actually is a pretty funny play when performed, mostly because the physical comedy of some scenes (for instance, Barabas with a French accent, playing the lute) conceals the homicidal tone. The play is comical on purpose. It’s a technique to alleviate the general aura of murder, but it is also used to show how good of a showman Barabas actually is. The blatant similarities to William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice should not be ignored, but they shouldn’t be overstated either.
Academically speaking, The Jew of Malta is an excellent case of meta-narrative. Barabas is the director, actor, playwright, producer and costume director of the multiple micro-plays he carries out throughout the play. Barabas is Marlowe. I’m not implying that Marlowe was a maniacal, terrorizing, blood-thirsty psychopath—although, to be honest, I wouldn’t put anything past him—but that Barabas has the same agency in the play that Marlowe has in real life. Barabas is the creator of everyone’s fate, the same way that Marlowe decides what happens when he dips his quill in ink and scratches his paper. Ironically, Barabas is responsible for his death as he fell into the trap he constructed for Calymath.
Does the play have a happy ending? If mass murder is your thing then yes…
Is it worth your time? If you liked The Merchant of Venice but thought “I wish Shakespeare had put more murder in it!”, then The Jew of Malta is the play for you!
Can we get proper fan fiction out of it? If you seriously desire some Jew of Malta fan fiction then you should take a long, hard look at your life and question all of your choices…
Dinosaurs, vampires or zombies? Aliens, mostly because I’m really curious to see how Marlowe would handle Barabas as an alien overlord.
Dream cast in a movie? Jeremy Irons as Barabas (duh!). That’s it. Jeremy Irons as Barabas.