Warning! Dangerous spoilers ahead!
Renaissance drama certainly packs a punch. And Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta is no exception. If you’re ready for scheming, thieving, poisoning, blackmail, more poisoning, and Death By Cauldron, then you’ve certainly come to the right place. It’s hardly surprising that this play was so popular with the Elizabethans – and it’s amazing that Marlowe managed to stuff so much murder and mayhem into just one play.
The Jew of Malta, unsurprisingly, is set on the tiny Mediterranean island, which is being besieged by Turkish troops. The slippery governor of the island decides that in order to pay a tribute demanded by the Turks, he will take the money of Malta’s wealthiest citizen, a Jewish merchant called Barabas. As you can probably imagine, Barabas doesn’t take too kindly to being robbed blind, and sets out to take his revenge on the unscrupulous Christians. With the help of a Turkish slave called Ithamore, Barabas does any number of nasty things, including poisoning an entire nunnery (including his own daughter, Abigail), and tricking his daughter’s suitors into killing one another. As might be expected, the whole situation quickly deteriorates, and double-crossings and murders ensue by the bucketload.
Marlowe’s play is hugely entertaining, and not just because Barabas’ revenges, despite their cruelty, are fabulously theatrical and clever (at one point there’s a thing with him dressed as a Frenchman and a poisoned flower, but I won’t spoil the whole thing). And although the play contains many contemporary stereotypes about Jews, Barabas refuses to be neatly categorised as simply the ‘scheming Jew’. Betrayed by the state he calls home, and by his family (his daughter converts to Christianity; this is before Barabas poisons her, of course), there is scope for audiences to sympathise with this at times confusing character. In teaming up with Ithamore, his Turkish slave, Barabas’ character may be expressing Elizabethan anxieties about cultural outsiders, and the fact that a shared sense of alienation may inspire them to rise up against the dominant culture.
Sadly, Ithamore quickly turns into a stereotypical villain; he double-crosses his master, teaming up with a prostitute and her pimp to blackmail Barabas. Surprisingly, however, the invading Turks, led by Selim-Calymath, bear little resemblance to Ithamore; in fact, they appear to be the only people in the entire play who adhere to common law and order. Calymath is well-spoken, even courtly, and provides a contrast to the devious and unlikeable Farneze, the governor of Malta. This characterisation is quite unusual, given that the Ottoman Empire was considered a very powerful force in the Eastern Mediterranean at this time, and that the real-life siege of Malta in 1565 reawakened England to the danger the Ottomans could present if they continued to conquer lands closer and closer to the British Isles.
Finally, the characterisation of Abigail, Barabas’ daughter, is quite interesting. Her story follows the plot of many medieval romances, where ‘exotic’ Eastern women fall in love with Christian men. Throughout the play, Abigail is upheld as a symbol of purity, and her conversion to Christianity indulges a common European fantasy of conversion, whereby the exotic foreign woman is ‘tamed’, neutralising any threat she might have posed with her ‘otherness’. In this process, she willingly abandons her father, and his brutal response to the news might well have added to the stereotyping apparent throughout the play.
But Abigail’s death also takes place at the same time as the poisoning of an entire nunnery, a scene which is both terribly disturbing and a little bit funny (or was that just me?). This blending of violence, humour, and a constant questioning of types and stereotypes is part of what makes this play so compelling. Like Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (which was inspired by, and at times borrows heavily from, Marlowe’s play*), the play offers actors and viewers the chance to sympathise with characters who are socially marginalised and often abused. The large number of recent productions suggests that apart from being hugely entertaining, The Jew of Malta offers us fascinating material with which to consider the position of cultural outsiders in society, both in Elizabethan England and today.
Rating: 4.5 Stars
*Just one example that I picked up on: Barabas’ speech, “O my girl / My gold, my fortune, my felicity … / O girl! O gold! O beauty! O my bliss!” (II: i ll. 48-55) is echoed in the famous lines Shylock is reported to have cried out in the streets of Venice: “‘My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter! / Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!'” (The Merchant of Venice, II: viii ll. 15-16).