Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
Jew of Malta
is 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.
Performance and Year of Publication
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.
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.
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
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 who—according
to accounts in the New Testament—was released instead of Jesus during Passover.
For a full account of this story see Matthew
of Malta. He confiscates the possessions of Barabas to raise money demanded
by extortionate Turks.
daughter of Barabas. After he uses her in his schemes, she turns against
him and becomes a nun.
Young gentleman of Malta. He and Abigail are in love.
Lodowick: Son of
Ferneze. Barabas inflames Lodowick and Mathias with hatred for each other,
and they die in a duel he arranged.
Calymath: Son of
the the Grand Seignior, the ruler of Turkey.
Ithamore: Slave purchased
Martin del Bosco:
Spanish vice admiral.
Jacomo: Roman Catholic
Jewish merchants and friends of Barabas.
Merchants Who Announce
the Arrival of Ships
Knights, Guard, Government
Officials, Messenger, Carpenters
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
iambs—or five iambic feet—in each line, the metric format is called iambic
pentameter. (The prefix ''pent'' means ''five.'')
first six lines of Act 1 demonstrate this verse format.
This format does not apply to
dialogue with short lines, such as the following:
ABIGAIL. Who's that?
BARABAS. Peace, Abigail!
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..
arrive to announce that ships owned by Barabas have arrived safely in the
port of Malta. Their valuable cargo will fatten Barabas's coffers. An argosy
from Alexandria, for example, carries gold, precious gems, and Persian
his visitors leave, Barabas observes to himself, “These are the blessings
promis'd to the Jews." He then says he prefers to be a hated but wealthy
Jew than a pitied Christian who lives in poverty. Besides, the only fruits
of the Christian faith are “malice, falsehood, and excessive pride," he
are skilled at generating wealth, he notes, and cites as examples successful
Jewish businessmen from Greece, Portugal, Italy, France, and elsewhere.
Though he himself has accumulated great riches, he says, his most prized
possession is his daughter, to whom he will pass on his property.
Turks from a fleet of war galleys arrive in Malta to meet in the senate
with Ferneze, the governor of Malta. All Jews have been summoned to appear
there also. The Turkish leader, Calymuth—accompanied by Bassoes (high-ranking
officials)—tells Ferneze he has come to collect ten years of tribute that
the Maltese have failed to pay the Turks as part of a protection agreement.
Ferneze asks for a month to raise the money Calymath grants the request,
saying a representative will return to collect the tribute when the time
is up. To raise the money to pay the Turks, the governor orders all Jews
to turn over half of their possessions. Any Jew who refuses to pay must
become a Christian. Three Jews with Barabas quickly agree to meet the demands,
but Barabas resists. The governor then orders him to yield all his wealth.
everyone except Barabas leaves the senate, his daughter Abigail enters
and commiserates with him. Barabas tells her not to worry, for he has hidden
a cache of jewels and gold in his house. But Abigail says he will never
see these riches again. When she left home, she says, the governor and
his men claimed the house and turned it into a convent. Only nuns may enter
then asks Abigail to pose as a nun in order to retrieve the cache from
its hiding place—a space beneath a marked board on an upper floor. After
instructing her on the details of his plan, Abigail returns to her father's
house—now a nunnery—just as the abbess (the mother superior of the nuns)
arrives to take charge of the property. With her are Friar Jacomo, Friar
Barnardine, and another nun. Abigail first identifies herself as a Jew
and the daughter of the former owner of the nunnery. She then says her
father's misfortune apparently resulted from the failure of Jews to embrace
Christianity. Because she is a Jew and is therefore sinful, she says, she
wishes to convert to Christianity, become a nun, and atone for her sinfulness.
Her petition impresses the friars and the abbess, and they admit her to
a gentleman of Malta who has an eye for Abigail, happens by. Upon seeing
Abigail with the nuns, he concludes that she has renounced her religion
to join the convent. When Lodowick, the son of Ferneze, comes by, Mathias
informs him that he has just witnessed a strange sight: a Jewish maid,
the daughter of Barabas, changed into a nun. Mathias describes her as “matchless
beautiful." His interest aroused, Lodowick proposes that they visit her.
the convent, Abigail finds the cache. Just before midnight, she drops the
bags of gold and gems out a window. Her father is waiting below, as planned.
Barabas says, "O my girl, / My gold, my fortune, my felicity" (2.1).
next day, Martin del Bosco, vice admiral to the king of Spain, arrives
in Malta in his ship, The Flying Dragon, and meets with Ferneze.
Del Bosco has a shipload of Greeks, Turks, and Moors that he captured in
sea battles and wishes to sell as slaves. Ferneze welcomes del Bosco and
approves the sale of Greeks and Moors but not Turks, pointing out that
he has a tributary alliance with the Turks. Del Bosco then persuades him
to abandon his agreement with the Turks and pledge allegiance to Spain,
which will protect Malta instead. Ferneze agrees to do so, calling Calymath
and his men "barbarous misbelieving Turks" (2.2), then allows the Spanish
to sell all the slaves.
he appears at the sale and encounters Lodowick, Barabas decides to gain
revenge against Ferneze through Lodowick. He tells the youth that he is
not yet penniless, for he has one jewel left that outshines all the others.
His curiosity piqued, Lodowick wishes to see this wonder. While Lodowick
waits for Barabas nearby, the latter buys a slave named Ithamore, who was
born in Thrace but brought up in Arabia. Barabas instructs him to “Be mov'd
at nothing, see thou pity none, / But to thyself smile when the Christians
moan" (2.3). This advice pleases Ithamore, who also despises Christians
and has burned Christian villages, slit the throats of Christian travelers
while they slept at an inn, and worked mischief against Christian pilgrims
Lodowick comes over and asks Barabas to show him the jewel he spoke of,
Barabas takes him to the new home he purchased and shows him Abigail. In
a private conversation with her, he orders her to pretend that she loves
Lodowick even though she and Mathias are in love. When Mathias comes by
looking for Abigail, Barabas tells him Lodowick has been wooing her. “He
sends her letters, bracelets, jewels, rings" (2.3), Barabas says. Although
she returns the gifts, Barabas says, Lodowick persists in his suit. After
Mathias sees Abigail and Lodowick together, Barabas forges two letters—one
in the name of Lodowick and one in the name of Mathias—in which the young
men challenge each other to a duel. Ithamore delivers the letters.
on his way back from delivering the letter to Mathias, Ithamore sees the
prostitute Bellamira and immediately wants her. But she hies away with
Pillia-Borza, her attendant, who has a bag of silver for her that he stole
from Barabas's counting house.
the meantime, Mathias and Lodowick duel with swords and kill each other.
When mourning the loss of their children, Ferneze and Katharine, Mathias's
mother, note that the young men had been friends and vow to find
out who set them against each other. Ithamore informs Abigail of their
deaths, believing that she will be pleased. Her father, he says, was the
one who caused them to hate each other. The death of Mathias devastates
Abigail. She sends Ithamore to fetch friars to speak with her.
perceive there is no love on earth, / Pity in Jews, nor piety in Turks"
(3.3), she says. When Ithamore returns with Friar Jacomo, Abigail now pleads
in earnest to become a nun, and he accepts her. Barabas later receives
a letter in which she informs him of her decision. Barabas then tells Ithamore,
Ne'er shall she
live to inherit aught of mine,
He also tells Ithamore that
he is now his heir. Moreover, while he lives, Barabas says, he will share
with Ithamore his remaining possessions.
Be bless'd of me, nor come
within my gates,
But perish underneath my
Like Cain by Adam for his
brother's death. (3.4)
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.
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.
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
he learns that his plan has worked, Barabas rejoices—even 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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
is, of course, poisoned. When they ask Barabas for music, he excuses himself,
saying he does not feel well.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
'twas I that slew thy son,—
I fram'd the challenge that
did make them meet:
Know, Calymath, I aim'd
And, had I but escap'd this
I would have brought confusion
on you all,
Damn'd Christian dogs, and
Turkish infidels! (5.5)
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.
climax occurs when Barabas falls through the trap door and into cauldron.
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.
lays out the theme of coldhearted expediency and opportunism in the prologue
of the play.
offenses Barabas endures—including anti-Semitism and confiscation of his
wealth—turn the already mean-spirited Jewish merchant into a juggernaut
of revenge against the world. In Act 2, Barabas acknowledges—and seems
to revel in—his forays against his enemies.
abroad o' nights,
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,
And kill sick people groaning
Sometimes I go about and
And now and then, to cherish
I am content to lose some
of my crowns,
That I may, walking in my
See 'em go pinion'd along
by my door.
Being young, I studied physic,
To practice first upon the
There I enrich'd the priests
And always kept the sexton's
arms in ure 
With digging graves and
ringing dead men's knells:
And, after that, was I an
And in the wars 'twixt France
Under pretence of helping
Charles the Fifth,
Slew friend and enemy with
Then, after that, was I
And with extorting, cozening,
And tricks belonging unto
I fill'd the gaols with
bankrupts in a year,
And with young orphans planted
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
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
And, rowing in a galley,
whipt to death. (5.1)
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.
was commonplace in Europe since ancient times. In England, where Marlowe
wrote and presented the play, prejudice against Jews increased around 1190
after non-Jews borrowed heavily from Jewish moneylenders, becoming deeply
indebted to them. In York, about one hundred fifty Jews committed suicide
to avoid being captured by an angry mob. King Richard I (reign: 1189-1199)
put a stop to Jewish persecution, but it returned in the following century
during King Edward I's reign from 1272 to 1307. The government required
Jews to wear strips of yellow cloth as identification and taxed them heavily.
in 1290 Edward banished them from England. Only a few Jews remained behind,
either because they had converted to Christianity or because they enjoyed
special protection for the services they provided. France, Spain, and Portugal
had all expelled Jews between 1390 and 1500. In Marlowe's time, anti-Semitism
was still widespread in England even though almost no Jews lived in the
The Love of Money
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.
are examples of figures of speech in the play.
steel-barr'd coffers are cramm'd
the merchants of the Indian mines
like pebble-stones (1.1)
stand you thus unmov'd with my laments?
weep you not to think upon my wrongs?
pine not I, and die in this distress? (1.2)
shall she grieve me more with her disgrace;
shall she live to inherit aught of mine (3.4)
sooner shall they drink
the ocean dry,
Than conquer Malta (5.5)
A fair young maid,
scarce fourteen years of age,
The sweetest flower in Cytherea's
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)
Ithamore compares himself
to the mythological figure, Jason, and
Bellamira to the golden
Admir'd I am of
those that hate me most (Prologue) Simile
now I think on't,
going to the
With an Allusion
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,
And neither gets him friends
nor fills his bags,
Lives like the ass that Aesop
speaketh of (5.2)
Comparison of a human to
uses an allusion to a Greek myth in order to foreshadow the death of Abigail.
I have no charge,
nor many children,
Agamemnon—King of Argos, Greece—was
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.
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)
Questions and Writing Topics
1. Was Marlowe an anti-Semite?
Or was he using his play to arouse opposition to anti-Semitism?
2. The Jew of Malta
is classified as a tragedy. Do you agree that it should instead by called
a tragicomedy? Explain your answer.
3. The Ottoman Empire and
Spain vied to control Malta. Write an essay explaining why Malta was considered
a valuable possession.
4. In The Jew of Malta,
is Marlowe satirizing the ideas in Machiavelli's The
Prince? Write an essay presenting your answer.