The Jew of Malta: Novel Summary:Act one
Summary of Act One, scene one
Barabas is in his counting house, complaining how laborious it is to count all his wealth by hand. There are too many coins. He speaks of the riches of his commerce, the Spanish oils and Greek wines. He likes the idea of the Arabians who do not have coins but use wedges of gold for their accounting. It would be better to have bags of sapphires and emeralds and pearls to weigh, instead of having to count. He awaits his ships arriving in Malta.
A merchant enters and tells him his ships are safe and in port. Will Barabas come and inspect them? Barabas tells him to bring the goods and the bills of entry directly. He has credit in the customhouse and does not need to be present. He asks the merchant if his credit is enough to pay the bill for him. The merchant says that the custom on the goods comes to more than most merchants in Malta are worth. Barabas tells him that he should use the name of Barabas to get the goods out of customs: say that the Jew of Malta sent him.
He asks the merchant if he saw his other ship at Alexandria since he would have had to come that way. The merchant says he did not see it, but he did hear the seamen wonder how Barabas with his wealth dared to trust such a vessel so far and unprotected. Barabas answers that he knows the strength of his ships.
A second merchant comes to tell him his argosy (merchant ship) from Alexandria has arrived in Malta laden with riches. Barabas questions him about why they did not see his other ships that came by way of Egypt? The merchant says they were escorted safely by a Spanish fleet that chased off the Turkish enemy.
Barabas sends the merchant off and then contemplates his wealth and how good fortune such as his is the promise of the Jews. Heaven makes the sea and winds their servants. People may hate him for his happiness, but he would rather be a rich Jew than a poor Christian. Christians are full of falsehood and pride. The Jews are a scattered nation but they are the wealthy ones in every country. Let the Christians rule; he does not care for political power. He has only one daughter who will inherit all his goods.
A group of Jews approach Barabas, telling him that a warlike fleet of Turkish ships is harbored in Malta, and the Turks are in the council house now with the governor. Barabas acts unconcerned at first. The Jews are required to come to the senate house. Once alone Barabas speculates what could be the meaning of this. He knows that Malta pays tribute to the Turks, and imagines the Turks have increased the tribute money. He decides to fear the worst and do something quickly to protect his money.
Commentary on Act One, scene one
This introduction to Barabas as the richest man of Malta shows him to be a shrewd merchant. We get his value system and thinking in this first scene. He believes Jews superior to Christians; they have been promised success and wealth as the descendents of Abraham. Most Christians are false and arrogant; any genuine Christian seems to be poor. Although Barabas claims to be uninterested in politics, he knows enough to stay afloat in difficult times. He has to manipulate huge resources and commands a small navy of ships to accumulate his wealth. His ships are in constant danger of being attacked by the Turks and by pirates. Luckily, the Spanish fleet protected one of his argosies, foreshadowing the role that the Spanish will play in the defense of Malta.
Around his fellow Jews, Barabas seems crafty and wary, rather than brotherly with his own kind. He downplays their fears, while he himself is worried about the arrival of the Turks; so worried, he runs off to save his money. Whatever plan he has in mind, he does not share with the other Jews. This shows him to be a lone wolf. He mentions his daughter as his heir but no other reference is made to any other loyalty of his.
Summary of Act One, scene two
The Governor of Malta, Ferneze, enters with the Knights of Malta, Officers, the Turkish Bashaws, and Calymath. A Bashaw (basso, or pasha or military officer) tells Ferneze that they came by way of Rhodes, Cyprus, Candy (Crete) and all the other islands of the Mediterranean.
Ferneze says he doesn’t care about the other islands and wants to know what they demand of him? Calymath, the son of the Emperor of Turkey, replies that there is the matter of ten years’ worth of unpaid tribute. Ferneze says the amount is exorbitant. Calymath is collecting the money for his father and cannot wait. Ferneze says he needs time to collect the amount from the citizens, at least a month. Calymath agrees and goes back to his ships, saying he will send a messenger for the money.
Ferneze orders the Jews be called to him. He explains the tribute money is due, and they must help pay it. One Jew says that most of them are poor. Ferneze replies that the rich should help them out then. Barabas objects that they are strangers in the land and should not have to pay the tax. One of the Knights replies that they are allowed to make money in the land, so they should pay tax. Barabas wants to know if the Jews are to be taxed like everyone else.
Ferneze says the Jews will be taxed like infidels, because they are accursed in the sight of heaven. An officer reads out the decree: only the Jews are to pay the tribute money, and each Jew has to pay half his wealth. Anyone denying this decree will have to become a Christian. Any Jew refusing to pay or become Christian will lose all he has.
The other Jews all volunteer to give up half their wealth. Barabas, however, criticizes them. Ferneze asks Barabas if he will be converted? Barabas says no. Ferneze demands half his estate. When Barabas continues to make trouble, Ferneze says he will take all of Barabas’s money. Barabas accuses Ferneze of robbery, but Ferneze makes the excuse that one person’s fortune does not count in a common cause. He will not banish Barabas, who is free to make more money in Malta, if he can. Barabas continues arguing with the Knights, but Ferneze refers to Barabas’s occupation as moneylender, a great sin since he charges interest.
The Knights seize Barabas’s house and make it into a nunnery. Barabas cries out they have taken all from him and perhaps they want his life too! Ferneze says they will not stain their hands with blood. When Ferneze and the Knights leave, Barabas falls on his knees and curses them. The other Jews exhort him to be patient, and to remember Job. Barabas says he was richer than Job, and the other Jews can afford to be patient because they were not rich like he was. The other Jews leave.
Barabas insults the other Jews as slaves. He himself is better than the common man. He will think of the future. Just then Abigail, Barabas’s daughter enters. She laments for her father’s sake, not for her own, and vows to go to the senate and reprimand them for what they have done. Barabas tells her to content herself, for time will give him another chance. He has hidden half his wealth, and they did not get it. He hid it in his house. Abigail says the house has already been turned into a nunnery, and he cannot get in there now.
Barabas begins to lament, “My gold, my gold” (l. 258). He speaks of hanging himself but decides he will rouse himself and will fight. He asks his daughter to obey him. She must go to the nunnery and ask to be admitted as a nun. She objects to lying, but he says in extremity it is all right to do such things. Friar Jacomo, Friar Barnardine, the Abbess and nuns enter.
Abigail addresses the Abbess, explaining she is the Jew’s daughter, and believing their affliction due to sin, wants to become a nun. The Abbess agrees. Abigail asks to sleep in her old room in the house, now the nunnery. Barabas enters and pretends to upbraid his daughter for joining the convent, but meanwhile he whispers to her how the board is marked that hides the wealth under the floor of her old bedroom. As this group exits, Mathias enters.
Mathias sees the scene from a distance and is dismayed that Abigail whom he loves is becoming a nun because of her father’s misfortune. His friend Lodowick enters and asks why he is so forlorn. Mathias says that fair Abigail, not fourteen years of age, is taken from life and from him and made a nun. Lodowick and Mathias discuss her beauty. Lodowick thinks they should go visit her. They agree to do so.
Commentary on Act One, scene two
The Mediterranean sea was a territory fought over by Christians, Muslims, and pirates, for religious and trade reasons. Malta is a Mediterranean island in a strategic situation. The Knights of Malta (The Order of St. John of Jerusalem) were established in 1085 as a community of monks but later became a military order defending the routes taken by crusaders to Jerusalem. They had ruled other Mediterranean islands such as Rhodes, trying to keep the Mediterranean in Christian hands, until they were ousted by the Turks in 1522. This is why Calymath’s Turks sneer that they came by Rhodes and Crete (Candy) to Malta. They are referring to the previous defeats of the Knights by the Turks. The Turks control these islands now and want Malta as well.
The Knights came to Malta in 1530, given the land to defend by Charles V of Spain, the Holy Roman Emperor. The Turks are trying to oust them. The historical event of the Great Siege of Malta took place in 1565 in which the Turks attacked with 180 warships and 30,000 men. They were miraculously defeated by 600 Maltese Knights and 6000 soldiers. Assistance came from Europe (suggested in the play by Martin Del Bosco and the Spanish).
Marlowe does not depict all this history exactly, but merely suggests the forces at work. He does not make the Knights look heroic. In this play, they are paying tribute to the Turks to keep the Turks away. They also bully the Jews. Ferneze is bigoted and ruthless. The English Protestant audience would not be sympathetic to any of the groups on Malta.
Calymath the Turk is actually not the cruelest of the leaders. He gives Ferneze time to round up the tribute, saying it is more kingly to be peaceful. Ferneze, on the other hand, persecutes the Jews, taking their money by force and telling them it is justified because they are sinful people. Barabas challenges their logic, accusing them of using religion and scripture to steal from Jews. Barabas accuses the Christians of being Machiavellian, using political expediency rather than their professed Christian values of forgiveness and mercy.
So far Barabas is somewhat sympathetic. Ferneze is unjust to him. However, Barabas makes it plain he will never forget an injury. The other Jews evoke the image of Job, who was tested by God when all his wealth was taken away. Barabas does not want to be patient as Job. He is not going to lie down for all this persecution; he is continually plotting until his death how to outdo his enemies.
We begin to lose a little sympathy with Barabas when we watch him turn around and use his own daughter. He tells her it is all right to lie and pretend she wants to be a nun because they are in extreme circumstances. He articulates a Machiavellian principle: the ends justify the means. He tells her religion hides many things, and it is better for her to counterfeit to help him get back his money, than to be a hypocrite like the Christians. In essence, Barabas’s argument throughout the play is that he does not have to play fair because the Christians don’t.
The introduction of Lodowick and Mathias, two young Gentile men in love with the beautiful Jewish maiden, Abigail, is an interesting parable of love and tolerance in the middle of a story of racial hatred, but it will turn tragic. It is reminiscent of the theme of Romeo and Juliet as Mathias speaks of the beautiful fourteen-year-old Abigail. Mathias, a Christian, and Abigail, a Jew, are lovers from two enemy groups. Mathias has to hide his love from his mother.