The Jew of Malta : Essay Q&A
1. What is the religious and political background of Elizabethan England?
Christopher Marlowe was writing in the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603), the period when England became an important world power. The English had won an important battle against the Spanish Armada in 1588 with its superior naval fleet and was proud of its growing political and cultural influence. It was the time of global exploration and colonization as well as the Renaissance of English literature and letters. Marlowe was contemporary with Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Edmund Spenser, and Sir Phillip Sidney, the founders of the modern English classics.
Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, cut off the English Church from Rome, making an English church answerable only to him. When he died, his descendents were embroiled in religious turmoil by changing the English church from Protestant to Catholic and back again. Protestant Elizabeth was celebrated for her pragmatic religious tolerance with the via media, the Anglican Church, or middle way between radical Puritan Protestantism and Catholicism. Yet both Catholics and Protestant Puritans sought to overthrow Elizabeth. Catholic Spain continued to be a threat, and the English Puritans pressed for reform. They disapproved of the theater and were always trying to close it down, which they succeeded in doing in 1642.
The theater reflected all this political tension and was considered a dangerous institution because it could reach large audiences and shape public opinion. Plays were censored, or cancelled, and the playhouses closed at any time by the government, with playwrights often jailed for sedition or heresy. Marlowe’s play The Jew of Malta treats of the religious hypocrisy of various sects. This was a hot topic in Elizabethan England since religion was so closely tied to politics. There are no Protestants represented in the play, who would have been the “good guys” to an Elizabethan audience. Marlowe’s audience would have enjoyed seeing, however, the satiric stereotypes of Jews, Turks (Muslims), and Catholics.
2. What was Marlowe’s part in Elizabethan theater?
English Renaissance theatre was based primarily in London. Companies of players sponsored by noblemen became the foundation for the professional players that performed on the Elizabethan stage. The City of London authorities did not approve of public performances because of the danger of the plague and what they saw as the subversive political ideas expressed in plays, but Queen Elizabeth’s love of theater and the Privy Council’s support led to the establishment of theaters in London suburbs. These were beyond the city’s control but close enough for Londoners to attend. In 1580 London theatre could accommodate 5,000 spectators, and this expanded to 10,000 after 1600. The performances were dedicated to the Queen, but they were commercial ventures, like the film industry today, with investors and patrons. The establishment of profitable public theatres made drama a fixed institution. The construction of The Theatre by James Burbage and John Brayne in Shoreditch in 1576 was the first commercial success, followed by the Curtain Theatre, the Rose, and the Globe.
The acting companies functioned on a repertory system, with the troupes changing the bill every day, often working six days a week. The actors had little rehearsal time and had to know a vast number of plays. Most of the plays were not printed or preserved at the time and many were lost or changed from the original, because, like Marlowe’s plays, they were printed later from actors’ memories. Playwrights did not earn much from their writings, unless, like Shakespeare, they had an interest in the company’s profits. Ben Jonson and Shakespeare began as actors, but most playwrights did not. The theatre business was politically dangerous; both Marlowe and Ben Jonson were jailed for various offenses. The plays often dealt with contemporary issues, even if they were set in other places, like Malta.
The popular genres included the history play, depicting English or European history, such as Shakespeare’s Richard III and Henry V, and Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II. Marlowe’s tragedies were especially loved, such as Dr. Faustus and The Jew of Malta. Comedies and satires were also popular.
The stage was a fluid profession with dramatists borrowing themes and ideas freely from one another. Marlowe achieved a greater fame in the English theater before Shakespeare arrived at his. His plays were performed constantly and held up as an example. He was the first to establish the importance of blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) in English drama, which Shakespeare was to develop after him. Marlowe’s “mighty line” as Ben Jonson put it, refers to the power of his blank verse, especially as it was declaimed by famous actors like Edward Alleyn, for whom many of Marlowe’s strong characters were written. Marlowe’s plays were the foundation of the repertoire of Alleyn’s company, the Admiral’s Men, throughout the 1590s.
In six short years, from 1587 to 1593, Marlowe wrote all his great plays. His Tamburlaine (1587) is considered the beginning of the mature Elizabethan theatre. George Peele, Michael Drayton, Thomas Nashe, Ben Jonson, and Shakespeare all wrote warm and professional tributes to Marlowe as a mentor.
3. The Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice
Much has been said about the fact that both Marlowe and Shakespeare wrote anti-Semitic plays. The fact is that the Jew was a stock villain in English theatre, although there were few Jews in England during this time. As a group they had been expelled from England in 1290 and not readmitted until 1655. Those who remained were not citizens. They were barred from many professions because of their religion. Christians could not lend money with interest, and many Jews earned a living as usurers, or moneylenders charging interest. Some Jews in England, known as Marranos or Conversos, converted to Christianity from Judaism but kept their Jewish heritage. Elizabeth’s physician Roderigo Lopez, a Marrano, had been accused of trying to poison her and was executed in 1594.
As a stereotype, Jews were considered greedy and heartless as they collected their debt money. On stage they wore a long false nose and a red wig, denoting a traitor to Jesus. They were portrayed often, like Marlowe’s Jew, as Machiavellian opportunists. They had the reputation of being responsible for Christ’s death, since the Jewish priest Caiaphas, when asked which prisoner should be released at the crucifixion, replied that the thief Barabas should be let go instead of Christ. Barabas’s name thus bears that reference and that guilt. Other myths about the Jews appear in the undertone of Marlowe’s play. They were thought to perform ritual murder, sometimes kidnapping children to use their blood for Passover ceremonies. Barabas is a skilled poisoner and kills all the nuns in the nunnery at once. He believes in the superiority of the Jews, and that it is no sin to deceive or kill a Christian.
The Jew of Malta was written in 1589, a decade before Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Both Barabas and Shylock (Shakespeare’s Jew) are heartless moneylenders with virtuous daughters. They use asides to the audience to insult the other characters. Barabas, however, is relentlessly evil and one-dimensional. He kills everyone in sight and then falls into his own trap. Shakespeare’s Shylock, on the other hand, is complex, with a carefully explained psychological motivation. Shylock hates Antonio for competing with his business and threatening his means of support. His asking for a pound of Antonio’s flesh refers to the legends about ritual murder, but Shylock is clearly represented as oppressed by the Christians until he reaches a breaking point. He gets the audience’s compassion as Barabas never does.
In a recent New York production of both Shakespeare’s and Marlowe’s Jewish plays in 2007, F. Murray Abraham played both Barabas and Shylock. He played Shylock as a tragic character but ended up playing Barabas as a sort of camped up humorous take-off, because the evil is so relentless, it cannot be taken seriously. The audience ends up cheering for Barabas to some extent because as critic Jeremy McCarter says in New York Theater (Feb. 11, 2007), “In Marlowe’s dirty world, Barabas excels at a game everybody’s playing.”
4. What was the importance of Machiavelli in Elizabethan thought?
Marlowe associates the Jewish villain Barabas with NiccolÚ di Bernardo dei Machiavelli, the political theorist who inspired horror in the hearts of Elizabethans. A Machiavellian in the popular sense is a person who deceives and manipulates others for gain. One of the most famous Renaissance political treatises of the time was Machiavelli’s The Prince (1532). He had learned the humanist ideals of Florence but became its leader during the turbulent wars. He wrote a pragmatic manual on how a ruler should keep power using “force combined with prudence.” Many were repelled by his cynical approach to power, though today, historians credit Machiavelli as the first political scientist. The Prince does not dismiss morality; instead, it politically redefines morality. It states the criteria for acceptable cruel action—it must be decisive, swift, effective, and short-lived. Machiavelli justified rule by force rather than by law. The Prince outlines a number of actions done solely to perpetuate power. The bottom line for Machiavelli was political stability. The main criterion for political action for him was expediency, or what is practical at the moment to achieve one’s ends, rather than idealism, or what is right. His philosophy was believed to justify torture, murder, or any other strategy for the ruler to maintain control.
As the speaker of the Prologue to the Jew of Malta, Machiavelli says he has been transplanted from Italy, his home, and after helping the Duke de Guise in the persecution of Protestants in France (St. Bartholomew Day’s Massacre in 1572), he has come to England to find his friends there. Though people revile him, they read him, he says, especially those who aspire to power. By Act V, when Barabas has been appointed Governor of Malta by the Turks, it is clear he will be a Machiavellian ruler, “purchas[ing] towns by treachery, and sell[ing] ‘em by deceit” (V,v, ll.47-48). He plays one faction against another, justified by Machiavelli’s prologue: “Might first made kings, and laws were then most sure/ When, like the Draco’s, they were writ in blood” (ll. 20-21). Machiavelli introduces Barabas as a man who made money through his means. This is evidenced throughout the play, but even the evil Ithamore is surprised at the lengths Barabas will go to, such as murdering his own daughter.
5. What is the significance of Malta as a setting for the play?
Elizabethan playwrights often set their dramas in foreign settings so they could discuss more openly the concerns of their own nation without political repercussions. Italy, France, Greece, and Spain were popular settings in Elizabethan drama. Malta is an important Mediterranean country south of Sicily and north of Tunisia. It has always been an historic crossroads, with the strait of Gibraltar to the west and Alexandria to the east, Europe to the north, and Africa to the south, thus making it important for trade or for a military post. It stood between the Christian and Muslim worlds. The Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Sicilians, Knights of St. John, the Spanish, French, Germans, and the British ruled this island nation in turn. Consequently, it is a country where many religions have resided, including Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, all represented in Marlowe’s play. In one place, then, the Elizabethan audience could confront their worst fears: Catholics, Jews, Muslim Turks, and the Spanish.
The Siege of Malta in 1565 is the basis for the plot, when the Knights of Malta, a Catholic military organization, freed the island from the slavery of Barbary pirates and the Turkish Ottoman Empire. It was a famous event, and The Knights of Malta were heroes, because they kept the Ottoman Empire from penetrating European territory. The Knights won the war, but Malta lost one third of its inhabitants and the Knights also lost a third of their number. Even Queen Elizabeth I recognized the importance of the Christians winning the Battle of Malta, though the English did not like the militant Catholic order of the Knights of Malta and their control of Mediterranean trade. The character of Ferneze represents this double feeling towards the Knights, as Ferneze is very crafty.
Marlowe is only suggestive in his use of historical fact concerning Malta. He uses the different national groups and their conflicts for symbolic purposes. Some critics find the play a brilliant parable of imperialism and oppression : Calymath’s Turkish threats to the Christian Maltese are then converted to persecution of the Maltese Jews by Ferneze. Always hovering in the background is the Spanish Vice-Admiral , Martin Del Bosco, who claims the island belongs to the Spanish. The appearance of the Spanish would have enraged Marlow’s English audience as they had just won a battle defeating the Spanish invasion of 1588.