This post will probably prove to be somewhat difficult for me since every play I read that was written earlier than the 20th century I end up relating to Shakespeare. Fortunately, that works out pretty well with Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta as it is considered to have been a major influence on Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. However, while The Merchant of Venice is more of a tragic comedy, there is not much that is at all funny or humorous about The Jew of Malta.
My knee-jerk reaction is to call this a tragedy, because almost everyone, including our main character and anti-hero, is dead at the end. But can it really be called a tragedy when the anti-hero was an evil, vengeful, and manipulative old man who would not even think twice about (spoiler alert!) killing his own daughter? I would say no, but then, what would we call it? Oddly enough, Aristotle would have called this a tragedy simply because there is a happy ending, so there you go.
There is some serious religious conflict going on in this play. At the beginning, in order to pay off a debt to the Turks (who are Muslim), the Christian governor of Malta demands that the debt be paid exclusively by the country’s Jewish population. And because Barabas protested, he has all of his money and property taken as opposed to just a portion of it. When his daughter runs off to be a nun, he then proceeds to poison the entire nunnery, thus all of the nuns and not just his daughter because she became a Christian (and she did so as a reaction to him orchestrating the death of the man she loved). In the end, Barabas first plots with the Turks to take over the city, but as soon as he is named governor, be plots with the Christians to devise a trap to destroy the Turks. While the trap works, the Christians also manage to have Barabas killed as he falls victim to one of his own traps, and then they proceed take hold of the Turkish prince, thus winning the city back for themselves. All in all, while it is tempting to accuse the play of anti-semitism, really none of the religious groups come out holy and blameless.
Also a running theme of revenge, mostly on the side of Barabas, but not exclusively. He seeks revenge against the governor for the seizure of his money and property; against his daughter for her conversion to Christianity; and also against his former servant Ithamore who has turned against him for the love of a prostitute. Of course, his daughters conversion was done as revenge against him for killing the man she loved, and he is killed in the end at the hands of the Christian governor since he first plotted with the enemy Turks to have Malta taken over. And this running theme of revenge fits nicely with another theme of greed. This whole mess starts because Barabas has all of his money and property unfairly seized so that Malta can pay off the Turks without taking money from their Christian inhabitants. Ithamore also falls prey to greed as he is persuaded by his prostitute lover to continually request money from Barabas in exchange for keeping his crimes a secret. Everyone is manipulating someone at some point and while alliances and agreements are made, everyone is ultimately proved to be out for themselves. “There is none righteous, no, not even one.” – Romans 3:10.
As I mentioned before, it is believed this play was an influence for Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. At one point Barabas explains his acts of treachery as his attempt to follow the Christian example. Shylock makes a similar speech in The Merchant of Venice (“Hath not a Jew eyes?”) in which he states he is simply doing what any Christian man would do.
Barabas’ name also comes from the thief and murderer “Barabbas” of the New Testament who was released instead of Jesus Christ by Pontius Pilate at the insistence of the crowd.
There has been much debate as to how an Elizabethan audience would have viewed the depiction of Barabas the Jew. The play does leave itself open to accusation of anti-semitism, but as I mentioned before, the characters of other religions don’t necessarily come off as great examples of their faith either. Plus, there are rare (as in extremely rare) instances where the audience can see Barabas’ humanity. However, having him as the main character and the one doing the most scheming and plotting will leave an audience with mixed emotions about his character in relation to his religion.
Next time I will cover the play that led me to choose Christopher Marlowe, and that is The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. It is the classic tale of a man selling his soul to the devil for power no human should have, and the ultimate (and only) result that comes from a decision like that.