By Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2010
Type of Work
.......The Jew of Maltais a tragedy and revenge play that satirizes the willingness of people to put aside moral and ethical principles to achieve their goals. Because the play is darkly comic and contains elements of burlesque, one may also characterize it as a tragicomedy. The full title of the play is The Famous Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta.
.......Christopher Marlowe wrote the play between 1588 and 1592. The first documented performance of it was in February 1592. In 1633, more than three decades after Marlowe's death, Nicholas Vavasour published the play in London.
.......In the prologue of The Jew of Malta, Machiavel addresses the audience as part of the stage performance in London in 1592. The five acts of the play are set in Malta in 1565, the year that the Ottoman Turks besieged the tiny Mediterranean nation. Malta is about sixty miles south of Sicily and one hundred eighty miles north of Libya. Besides the main island of Malta, the nation includes four other islands.
Machiavel: Presenter of the prologue. He is the literary reincarnation of Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), the Italian author of the influential and highly controversial treatise The Prince. Machiavel is the anglicized form of Machiavelli. The Prince argued that a sovereign from time to time must resort to unethical and immoral policies and practices in order to maintain control of his domain and maximize its safety and welfare. In other words, a ruler needs to lie, cheat, break promises, and so on to strengthen or maintain his control while promoting the welfare of the people. The end justifies the means. After the publication of The Prince, English speakers coined the term Machiavellian to describe unscrupulous political or social activity.
The Five Acts
Barabas: The main character in the play. He is a wealthy Jewish merchant who is unrelenting in his efforts to gain revenge against his enemies. In a traitorous plot against Christian defenders of Malta, he says, "I'll help to slay their children and their wives, / To fire the churches, pull their houses down." As the prime malefactor in the
play, Barabas resorts to deceit, betrayal, sedition, usury, extortion, and murder as means toward his ends. He is such a thoroughgoing scoundrel, in fact, that he is really a caricature of reality, a chimera from a fantasy world. Barabas is a variant spelling of Barabbas, the name of the convicted criminal whoaccording to accounts in the New Testamentwas released instead of Jesus
during Passover. For a full account of this story see Matthew 27:15-26.
.......Marlowe wrote most of The Jew of Malta in unrhymed iambic pentameter, often referred to as blank verse. A line of iambic pentameter has five pairs of syllables, or five feet. Each foot consists of an iamb (an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable). Because there are five iambsor five
iambic feetin each line, the metric format is called iambic pentameter. (The prefix ''pent'' means ''five.'')
BARABAS. Peace, Abigail! 'tis I.
.......Sitting in his counting house before piles of gold, Barabas figures up his profits from the sale of Spanish oils, Greek wines, and other goods. He bemoans the tightfistedness of Samnite businessmen and traders from Uz but delights in the generosity of the Arabians..
Be bless'd of me, nor come within my gates,
But perish underneath my bitter curse,
Like Cain by Adam for his brother's death. (3.4)He also tells Ithamore that he is now his heir. Moreover, while he lives, Barabas says, he will share with Ithamore his remaining possessions.
.......So disgusted is Barabas with his daughter that he plots to poison her. He sends Ithamore to the nunnery with a pot of rice laced with a deadly powder, the effects of which take hold forty hours after the powder is consumed. Ithamore sets the pot at a door where the nuns receive alms.
.......In the meantime, Turkish representatives return to Malta and insist on receiving the promised tribute. Ferneze, who now has an agreement with the Spanish, refuses to provide it. The Turks then say their leader, Calymath, will come to Malta himself with a force that will reduce Malta to ashes. Ferneze orders Malta to prepare for war.
.......At the convent, all the nuns have died except Abigail, who is near death. She confesses to Friar Barnardine her role in her father's plot against Mathias and Lodowick. Then, with her last breath, she asks him to convert her father.
.......When he learns that his plan has worked, Barabas rejoiceseven at the death of his own daughter. Friars Jacomo and Barnardine visit Barabas to carry out Abigail's dying request, asking him to repent for setting Mathias and Ithamore against each other. Barabas and Ithamore mistakenly think he wants them to repent for poisoning the rice. Barabas then pretends to convert, saying he will repent by wearing a shirt of hair / And on my knees creep to Jerusalem (4.1). In addition, he says, he will give all the gold he has to the friar who takes him in. The friars argue over who will receive Barabas (and his gold), and they fight. Barabas parts them and chooses Jacomo as his priest. After Jacomo leaves, Barabas and Ithamore strangle Friar Barnardine and stand him against a wall with his staff.
.......When Friar Jacomo returns to accept the gold from Barabas, he encounters the dead Barnardine, still upright against the wall. Believing Barnardine is blocking his way and means to harm him, Jacomo grabs the staff and strikes him. The body falls. When Barabas and Ithamore return, they accuse Jacomo of killing Barnardine, take him in hand, and turn him over to the law. Friar Jacomo is found guilty of the crime and hanged.
.......Bellamira, meanwhile, sends Ithamore a letter saying she fell in love with him when she first she saw him. It's a lie, of course; she just wants to use Ithamore to get Barabas's gold. Ithamore, who remembers how beautiful she was when he caught a glimpse of her, is delighted. When he goes to her house, Pillia-Borza says Ithamore
can prove that he is worthy of Bellamira by bringing her Barabas's gold. He can get it, Pillia-Borza says, by telling Barabas that he will reveal evil deeds committed by the merchant unless he turns over the gold.
.......Ithamore immediately writes a letter to Barabas, saying he will tell all unless Barabas gives the bearer of the letter, Pillia-Borza, three hundred crowns. While Bellamira keeps Ithamore company, Pillia-Borza delivers the letter and returns with the money. However, he pockets two hundred ninety crowns and gives Ithamore the remaining ten crowns, saying that was all that Barabas would part with. Ithamore sends him back, this time demanding five hundred crowns.
.......After Pillia-Borza returns, Bellamira questions Ithamore about Barabas. He tells her about the plot against Mathias and Lodowick, the poisoning of the nuns, and the strangling of Jacomo. Barabas enters, disguised as a French lute player. In his hat is a beautiful flower that Bellamira fancies. When he gives it to her, she, Ithamore, and Pillia-Borza all take a whiff of it. It is, of course, poisoned. When they ask Barabas for music, he excuses himself, saying he does not feel well.
.......As Ferneze instructs his knights on how to defend Malta from Calymath, Bellamira intrudes to inform him that Barabas caused the death of his son and Mathias. Pillia-Borza adds that Barabas also poisoned the nuns and strangled a friar. Bellamira says his slave, Ithamore, can testify to the evil deeds of Barabas.
.......Ferneze's officers round up Barabas and Ithamore. When Ferneze orders his men to prepare to torture the captives, Ithamore immediately accuses Barabas of arranging the deaths of Lodowick and Mathias by forging letters. Ferneze's officers take Barabas and Ithamore away. Not long afterward, an officer enters and tells the governor that Mirabella, Pillia-Borza, and Ithamore are all dead. (The poison from the flower killed them.) He also announces the death of Barabas, and several men bring in his body. (Barabas has taken a potion that put him in trance.) Ferneze says justice has been done and decrees that the body of Barabas be thrown over the walls after the battle with the Turks.
.......After Ferneze and the officers leave, Barabas awakens, rises, and swears vengeance against everyone in town. Calymath comes upon him with several officers. Seeing an opportunity, Barabas says he knows how Calymath can easily conquer Malta. While Calymath assaults the walls, Barabas will lead five hundred of his Turks through a drainage conduit to the center of town. There, he will emerge from the conduit and open the gates for Calymath. The Turkish leader likes the plan, saying he will make Barabas the governor if it works.
.......A short while later, the town falls. Calymath makes Barabas governor, as promised, and gives him a team of bodyguards. Barabas imprisons the captured Ferneze and his officers. But Barabas is not happy. Because the people of Malta hate him, being their governor will only provoke them. He would rather rule money than Malta. So he summons Ferneze and tells him of a plan to rid Malta of Calymath and the Turks so that Ferneze can again become the governor. For his part, Ferneze must go about the town and raise money for Barabas. Ferneze agrees to the plan.
.......Barabas then invites Calymath and his officers to dine with him in a monastery big enough to accommodate everyone. Beneath a trap door constructed by carpenters, he places a cauldron in which Calymath is to be boiled alive. When Calymath steps on the trap door, a cord attached to it will be cut, dropping him into the cauldron. Calymath's men will be taken by surprise and slaughtered. Barabas informs Ferneze of his scheme.
.......After all the guests enter the monastery, Ferneze turns the tables on Barabas and cuts the cord when the merchant is on the trap door. He falls into the cauldron. At first Barabas begs for help. But when no one responds, he becomes defiant, saying,Know, governor, 'twas I that slew thy son,
I fram'd the challenge that did make them meet:
Know, Calymath, I aim'd thy overthrow:
And, had I but escap'd this stratagem,
I would have brought confusion on you all,
Damn'd Christian dogs, and Turkish infidels! (5.5)Barabas dies.
.......At the same time, the Maltese surprise and defeat Calymath and his men. Ferneze orders the Turks to repair all the damage to Malta so that it may continue as a free nation. Until the Turks make reparations, Calymath will be held in Malta as a prisoner.
.......The climax occurs when Barabas falls through the trap door and into cauldron.
.......Characters in the play espouse the high moral principles of Judaism, Catholicism, or Islam but are only too willing to sidestep their spiritual ideals to achieve wealth, power, revenge, and sexual gratification. Herein lies the purpose of the play: to call attention to the human tendency to ignore the dictates of
morality in favor of satisfying perverse desires.
.......The offenses Barabas enduresincluding anti-Semitism and confiscation of his wealthturn the already mean-spirited Jewish merchant into a juggernaut of revenge against the world. In Act 2, Barabas acknowledgesand seems to revel inhis forays against his enemies...........I walk abroad o' nights,
And kill sick people groaning under walls:
Sometimes I go about and poison wells;
And now and then, to cherish Christian thieves,
I am content to lose some of my crowns,
That I may, walking in my gallery,
See 'em go pinion'd along by my door.
Being young, I studied physic, and began
To practice first upon the Italian;
There I enrich'd the priests with burials,
And always kept the sexton's arms in ure 
With digging graves and ringing dead men's knells:
And, after that, was I an engineer,
And in the wars 'twixt France and Germany,
Under pretence of helping Charles the Fifth,
Slew friend and enemy with my stratagems:
Then, after that, was I an usurer,
And with extorting, cozening, forfeiting,
And tricks belonging unto brokery,
I fill'd the gaols with bankrupts in a year,
And with young orphans planted hospitals;
And every moon made some or other mad,
And now and then one hang himself for grief,
Pinning upon his breast a long great scroll
How I with interest tormented him. (2.3)Barabas even kills his own daughter after accusing her of betraying him. Near the end of the play, he is ready to take on everybody, saying, I'll be reveng'd on this accursed town;
For by my means Calymath shall enter in:
I'll help to slay their children and their wives,
To fire the churches, pull their houses down,
Take my goods too, and seize upon my lands.
I hope to see the governor a slave,
And, rowing in a galley, whipt to death. (5.1)Anti-Semitism
.......Marlowe staged The Jew of Malta before audiences that were generally anti-Semitic. Whether his intention in developing the theme of anti-Semitism was to play to the prejudice of his audiences or simply to hold a mirror to society is arguable. Of course, he ridicules Catholics and Muslims in the play, as
well as Jews. However, his depiction of Barabas as unremittingly grasping and vengeful suggests that Marlowe deliberately intended to capitalize on Jewish stereotypes and excoriate Jews as the more reprehensible wrongdoers.
The Love of Money
.......The love of money is the root of all evil, the Bible says. In Marlowe's play, "The wind that bloweth all the world [is] gold," says a Turkish Basso. Barabas dotes on money, as if each of his coins is a child he fathered. Calymath demands gold from Governor Ferneze. Ferneze, in turn, demands gold from the Jewish
merchants to pay Calymath. When Barabas resists, Ferneze orders his men to expropriate all of Barabas's assets. When Ithamore, Mirabella, Pillia-Borza, Friar Jacomo, and Friar Barnardine learn that Barabas has a considerable fortune remaining even after Ferneze confiscates his assets, they all scheme to get some of it.
Figures of Speech
.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the play.
Alliterationhe whose steel-barr'd coffers are cramm'd full, (1.1)
Give me the merchants of the Indian mines (1.1)
in his house heap pearl like pebble-stones (1.1)AnaphoraWhy stand you thus unmov'd with my laments?
Why weep you not to think upon my wrongs?
Why pine not I, and die in this distress? (1.2)
Ne'er shall she grieve me more with her disgrace;
Than conquer Malta (5.5)MetaphorA fair young maid, scarce fourteen years of age,
The sweetest flower in Cytherea's field,
Cropt from the pleasures of the fruitful earth (1.2)
Comparison of Abigail to a flower
I'll be thy Jason, thou my golden fleece (4.2)
execution, a fellow met me with a muschatoes [bushy mustache] like a raven's
wing, and a dagger with a hilt like a warming pan (4.2)
Comparison of the mustache to a raven's wing and the dagger to a pan
he that liveth in authority,
.......Marlowe uses an allusion to a Greek myth in order to foreshadow the death of Abigail.I have no charge, nor many children,
But one sole daughter, whom I hold as dear
As Agamemnon did his Iphigen;
And all I have is hers.But who comes here? (1.1)AgamemnonKing of Argos, Greecewas the commanding general of the Greek forces in the Trojan War. When he and his fleet gathered at the port city of Aulis to sail to Troy for the war, the winds were still. In petitioning the gods to favor him with wind, he sacrificed his own daughter, Iphigenia. In The Jew of Malta, Barabas murders his daughter to feed his thirst for revenge. For additional information about Agamemnon, click here.
1. Was Marlowe an anti-Semite? Or was he using his play to arouse opposition to anti-Semitism?
Share this page:
More To Explore