290. The Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe, c. 1589.

Surely one of the great villains of literature, in perhaps the greatest of Marlowe’s plays. And at the same time, as pointed an anti-Semitic attack as possible.

Barabas, the wealthiest Jew in Malta, is stricken penniless by the Governor who needs to raise a huge sum to pay the tribute demanded by the Turks. But Barabas has some treasure hidden under the floorboards of his house, which has now been handed over to become a convent, so he enlists his daughter Abigail’s aid to pretend to be converted to Christianity, so she can retrieve the cache. But Barabas is not satisfied with this fraction of his wealth, and goes on a murderous trail of revenge, arranging deaths to all he feels have wronged him, including Abigail. But his final act, betraying the besieged Maltese to the Turks, and then double-crossing them in turn, does not go quite as he planned.

Thoughts : While Barabas is the victim of abuse and thievery to start, his reaction and revenge is so monstrous that he becomes a symbol of the very worst stereotypical Jewish villain that must have surely helped to continue fuelling anti-Semitism in Elizabethan England. He cares nothing for anyone but himself, and is a master at manipulating people with promises of wealth, only to lure them into traps, and blinks not at plotting mass murders with poisons and explosives.

Having the ghost of Machiavelli deliver the play’s prologue sets up the audience to expect political intrigue or base cruelty. They will not be disappointed for the latter.

I felt this was Marlowe’s strongest play so far, more intricate than Tamburlaine and more interesting and tightly woven than Doctor Faustus. There are many asides to the audience delivered, particularly by Barabas to explain his villainy while talking sweetly to his gulled victims.

Source :  from the Complete Plays of Christopher Marlowe, published by Penguin Classics, edited by J. B. Steane, 1969.

Favourite quotes/scenes:

Barabas bemoans the loss of his extreme wealth

“The incertain pleasures of swift-footed time

Have ta’en their flight, and left me in despair;

And of my former riches rests no more

But bare remembrance, like a soldier’s scar …”   

Act II, Scene i, lines 7-10

And his malevolence and madness in celebrating the poisoning of his own daughter:

Ithamore : “Do you not sorrow for your daugther’s death?”

Barabas : “No, but I grieve because she liv’d so long … “

Act IV, Scene i, lines 18-19

Personal rating:  7/10

2 comments

  1. One I’ve never read or seen – a big omission! I guess it’s tricky to do productions of it these days, given the anti-Semitism. Although they still do The Merchant of Venice quite often.

    Like

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