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The Jew of Malta

by Christopher Marlowe

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446947,670 (3.55)32
'Tell me worldlings, underneath the sun, If greater falsehood ever has been done' The Jew of Malta, written around 1590, can present achallenge for modern audiences. Hugely popular in its day, the playswings wildly and rapidly in genre, from pointed satire, to bloodyrevenge tragedy, to melodrmatic intrigue, to dark farce and grotesquecomedy. Although set in the Mediterranean island of Malta, the playevokes contemporary Elizabethan social tensions, especially the highlycharged issue of London's much-resented community of resident merchantforeigners. Barabas, the enormously wealthy Jew of the play's title,appears initially victimized by Malta's Christian Governor, who quotesscripture to support the demand that Jews cede their wealth to payMalta's tribute to the Turks. When he protests, Barabas is deprived ofhis wealth, his means of livelihood, and his house, which is convertedto a nunnery. In response to this hypocritical extortion, Barabaslaunches a horrific (and sometimes hilarious) course of violence thatgoes well beyond revenge, using murderous tactics that includeeverything from deadly soup to poisoned flowers. The play's sometimescomplex treatment of anti-Semitism and its relationship toShakespeare's Merchant of Venice remain matters of continuing scholarly reflection. This student edition contains a lengthy Introduction with backgroundon the author, date and sources, theme, critical interpretation andstage history, as well as a fully annotated version of the playtext inmodern spelling. James R. Siemon is Professor of English at Boston University.… (more)
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Composed probably in 1589 this play accredited to Christopher Marlowe was a big hit on the Elizabethan stage. It is not difficult to see why it was so popular as it would have appealed to theatre goers on many levels and reading it today I found the underlying subversiveness of the text intriguing and led me to wonder how much of Marlowe's deeply pessimistic view of society would have registered with those early theatregoers; some of whom no doubt would be howling and braying at the evil Jew. Without a doubt this play is anti-Semetic but it is also anti-religious and because the focal point of the whole play is viewed from Barabas' (the Jew) point of view, we are encouraged to see the world through his eyes. The play is introduced by the ghost of Machiavelli adding another layer to the events that are about to pan out before us and he says:

............I come not, I,
To read a lecture here in Britainy
But to present the tragedy of a Jew
Who smiles to see how full his moneybags are crammed,
Which money was not got without my means,
I crave but this: grace him as he deserves,
And let him not be entertained the worse
Because he favours me.


The play switches to Barabas in his counting house in Malta, the den of this merchant prince who is interrupted from musing on the ships carrying his fortunes in trade around the world by his Jewish friends who warn that the Turkish fleet is moored in port. The Jews are summoned by Ferneze the Christian governor who informs them that if they do not convert to being Christians half of their wealth will be confiscated in order to pay off the Turks.
Barabas refuses and Ferneze reminds him that it is a penalty he must pay for being allowed on the Island and the short interchange between the two sums up their position

Ferneze -
No, Jew, thou hast denied the articles,
And now it cannot be recalled.

Barabas -
Will you then steal my goods?
Is theft the ground of your religion.


Ferneze replies by forcibly taking all of Barabas money and jewels and turning him out of his house which is converted into a nunnery. Barabas has a beautiful daughter: Abigail and he persuades her to say she wants to become a nun so that she can gain entrance into his old house and locate the riches he has buried there for a rainy day. Barabas visits the slave market and buys the Turkish slave Ithamore who proves to be the devil incarnate. Barabas and Ithamoe use Abigail to lure Ludoviko: Ferneze's son into a fight with another suiter of his daughter, the luckless Mathias. Barabas witnesses the fight and eggs on the protagonists to go for the kill, which proves to be successful because they kill each other. Barabas gets a taste for revenge and after he is deserted by Abigail he poisons her and all the nuns in the convent, next on his list are two friars who attempt to blackmail him and then the unholy trio of Bellamira a courtesan, the thief Pilia-Borza and Ithamore who has schemed with them to rob him. Finally he betrays the Christian rulers by showing the Turks a secret passage into their citadel stronghold. The final three acts of the play are an orgy of blackmail, double crossing and murder as Barabas' need for revenge seems to run away with him, it is a bit like Tamburlaine in Marlowe's previous play who never knew when to stop his conquests and cruelty to the Nations around him.

The play would have appealed to the London Public rather like a modern day horror film appeals to the mass market cinema audience. Marlowe chooses ever more inventive ways for Barabas to dispatch his victims; first he manages to encourage two duelists to dispatch each other, then he adds poison to the porridge eaten by the nuns which carries them all away including his daughter. He and Ithamore kill one of the friars by stringing him up with the rope around his cloak and pulling hard on it and then using the dead body to entice the other friar to bash out the brains of his rival and take the rap for the murder. The trio of Bellamira, Pilia-Borza and Ithamore are killed with a poison scented nosegay and finally an elaborate trap is set for the Turkish commander to fall into a vat of boiling water. All of this takes place onstage. The audience would have also enjoyed the easily identified villains of the piece, the hated Jew and the Turkish slave Ithamore.

The audience might however have an unease or even concern about the other characters in the play, very few of whom behave well, especially the christian fraternity. While they might have enjoyed the jew baiting that takes place they might have felt some sympathy for Barabas, especially as he takes the audience into his confidence in the first couple of acts with frequent asides. He is the one who loses everything because he is a Jew and has money. He is not portrayed as a usurer, but as a merchant prince and although his love of money is excessive there is no doubt he adds to the wealth of the Island of Malta and has some respect; at the end of the day it is his money that buys off the Turks. The Christians are shown to be more Machiavellian than the Jews, they attempt to double cross the Turks, their religious community in the shape of the friars and nuns are lecherous and as money grabbing as the Jews and their young princes Ludovik and Mathias are shown to be foolish and easily manipulated. The only person who behaves with any honour is Abigail, but she too allows herself to be manipulated by her father.

The subversive element to the play shows that everybody is in it for themselves. The Christians who control the politics are underhand and Machiavellian. They loathe and fear the Jews, but are happy to let them contribute to the wealth of the Island. Everything and everybody has a price in the society and this is shown in the slave market where the slaves literally have their price marked on their backs. There is little doubt that Marlowe is making a statement about the society that he is part of. It is the Elizabethans that are up on the stage.

The play for the most part is written in the now more familiar iambic pentameters for those parts where the characters have something important to say, prose is used for the low life characters such as Bellamira and Pilia-Borza. Barabas has the longest and best speeches and Marlowe uses much skill in demonstrating various shades of irony throughout the play. In fact the irony at times metamorphoses into black humour as the body count piles up.

Barabas -
There is no music to a Christian's Knell.
How sweet the bells ring, now the nuns are dead,
That sound at other times like tinkers' pans!
I was afraid the poison had not wrought,
Or thought it wrought, it would have done no good,
For every year they swell, and yet they live.
Now all are dead; not one remains alive.

Ithamore -
Good master, let me poison all the monks.

Barabas -
Thou shalt not need, for, now the nuns are dead,
They'll die with grief.


The Royal Shakespeare Company has made the most recent noteworthy production of Marlowe's classic, but it is a play that needs care when played before a modern audience. The anti-Semitism may nowadays cause offence and the elaborate murders happening on stage could bring the curtain down on a farce. Perhaps it is safer to read the text of the play in the privacy of ones own home. I did and would give it 5 stars ( )
1 vote baswood | Aug 2, 2019 |
Love me little, love me long; let music
rumble,
Whilst I in thy incony lap do tumble.


I blame Kalliope for this detour. It was her lengthy survey of Kit's bio that led me here. Maybe Derek Jarman gave a deserved shove as well. Bugger. I watched Jubilee last night. It shocked me and left me slightly listing. Perhaps that was simply Adam Ant. Later that night I crept upstairs and fetched this play before slipping into slumber. I awoke to a world gone white. It has snowed like mad all day. My wife and I have to leave shortly, business calls and we will brave the belabored roads north. It was thus a treat to read this tale, one so low, abject and vile. I loved it. Put me in the camp of blasphemy, if that summons malice to my door, then so be it. By the way, incony is slang for mysterious lady parts.
( )
  jonfaith | Feb 22, 2019 |
Not bad, but not great either. ( )
  DanielSTJ | Dec 18, 2018 |
http://nwhyte.livejournal.com/2715659.html

I just loved this. Barabbas, the Jew of the title, is screwed out of his substantial property by the Christian rulers of Malta, and exacts revenge upon his enemies - at great personal cost, in particular as regards his own beautiful daughter Abigail. I paused after reading the first act, rather hoping that Barabbas would find some way of delivering his Christian oppressors into the hands of the Turks; well, without undue spoilers, I was more than satisfied by the way it ended.

Despite the grim subject matter (large numbers of violent deaths on and off the stage) there's also a deadpan humour about it, and I felt Marlowe was satirising both the cliches of bloody revenge (which I think are accepted rather less sceptically in Tamburlaine) and the unquestioning anti-Semitism of his times - Barabbas does end up as a villain, sure, but it is very clearly the Christians who have pushed him into it through state-sanctioned theft and humiliation - and if any religious group is subjected to cliche, it is the monks and nuns who were of course a focus of fear and disgust in Marlowe's England. Machiavelli introduces the play by saying, "I count religion but a childish toy", and I don't think that Marlowe is necessarily agreeing with him but I do think he is stressing that Christians can be every bit as evil as non-Christians (Machiavelli was also of course a tremendously loaded figure in Marlowe's England).

I found Barabbas a better rounded character than Shylock, to whom he clearly is closely related. Of course the Merchant of Venice is probably better in the end - the plot is less linear and more interesting, the other characters apart from the lead better rounded out - but the dialogue between the two plays is more equal than I had realised. And Barabbas gets one of the best lines in the whole of Marlowe, brought up before a tribunal of Christian clerics and accused of all manner of sins:

FRIAR BARNARDINE. Thou hast committed--
BARABBAS. Fornication: but that was in another country;
And besides, the wench is dead.

I'd really love to see this, more perhaps than any other of Marlowe's plays. I think the resonances with our own time could be played out in a way that would make an audience of today justifiably uncomfortable. ( )
2 vote nwhyte | Dec 11, 2016 |
5
  kutheatre | Jun 7, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 8 (next | show all)
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'Tell me worldlings, underneath the sun, If greater falsehood ever has been done' The Jew of Malta, written around 1590, can present achallenge for modern audiences. Hugely popular in its day, the playswings wildly and rapidly in genre, from pointed satire, to bloodyrevenge tragedy, to melodrmatic intrigue, to dark farce and grotesquecomedy. Although set in the Mediterranean island of Malta, the playevokes contemporary Elizabethan social tensions, especially the highlycharged issue of London's much-resented community of resident merchantforeigners. Barabas, the enormously wealthy Jew of the play's title,appears initially victimized by Malta's Christian Governor, who quotesscripture to support the demand that Jews cede their wealth to payMalta's tribute to the Turks. When he protests, Barabas is deprived ofhis wealth, his means of livelihood, and his house, which is convertedto a nunnery. In response to this hypocritical extortion, Barabaslaunches a horrific (and sometimes hilarious) course of violence thatgoes well beyond revenge, using murderous tactics that includeeverything from deadly soup to poisoned flowers. The play's sometimescomplex treatment of anti-Semitism and its relationship toShakespeare's Merchant of Venice remain matters of continuing scholarly reflection. This student edition contains a lengthy Introduction with backgroundon the author, date and sources, theme, critical interpretation andstage history, as well as a fully annotated version of the playtext inmodern spelling. James R. Siemon is Professor of English at Boston University.

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