Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare wrote plays in England during a time when Jews were banned from the country, making it unlikely that Jewish characters in their plays would amount to more than anti-Semitic stereotypes. Both Marlowe’s Jew of Malta and Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice are easy to read as anti-Semitic plays due to their vengeful Jewish characters. The playwrights may, however, have been taking advantages of their audiences’ anti-Semitism to promote their own messages. While Marlowe’s antagonist Barabas is greedy and murderous, the play’s Christians are no different, suggesting that Marlowe uses Barabas as a mirror to reflect Christians’ greed and violence which they hide under the performance of religion. This commentary may, however, be lost on audiences due to the stereotypical nature of Barabas. Shakespeare, in his later play Merchant of Venice, parallels Marlowe’s play, but makes his Jewish antagonist Shylock more sympathetic. Shakespeare shows how Shylock’s vengeful nature is cultivated by the discrimination he faces in a Christian society, making Shylock not only a mirror reflecting Christian hypocrisy, but a mirror reflecting an image imposed onto him. This offers a better explanation of his and Barabas’ motives. Shakespeare also represents Christians in a better light, showing them to be hypocritical at times, but ultimately practicing what they preach, unlike in Marlowe’s play.
Marlowe did not design Barabas to be sympathetic. Barabas is first introduced by Machiavel in the prologue as “a Jew, / Who smiles to see how full his bags are crammed, / Which money was not got without my means” (Prologue 30-2). From the beginning, he is described in the stereotypical terms of a greedy Jew gaining money dishonestly. However, Marlowe leaves the way the audience should view Barabas ambiguous; Machiavel says “grace him as he deserves, / And let him not be entertained the worse / Because he favors me” (Prologue 33-5). This could either mean that he wishes the audience to have pity on Barabas and not judge him too harshly, or that Barabas deserves their judgement for more than following Machiavelli’s teachings. The rest of the play, though, makes it seem that Marlowe is suggesting the latter, as it becomes difficult to pity Barabas even when he is wronged by Christians. After poisoning an entire nunnery, killing most of its inhabitants including his daughter, for instance, he seems to deserve the painful death he gets in the end, even if he was wronged by Christians.
Barabas, however, is not the only greedy or murderous character. While the Christians in the play criticize the way Barabas acts, his actions mirror theirs. Barabas calls attention to Christian hypocrisy. “I can see no fruits in all their faith,” he says, “But malice, falsehood, and excessive pride, / Which methinks fits not their profession” (1.1.114-6). Barabas claims that Christians do not practice what they preach, and he accuses them of possessing traits which they criticize him for having. It is true that Barabas is guilty of covetousness, but the Christians in the play are guilty of the same sin, including Malta’s Christian clergy. Friar Jacomo, believing he is about to convert Barabas, says “O happy hour / Wherein I shall convert an infidel / And bring his gold into our treasury!” (4.1.166). For Jacomo, it appears that gaining Barabas’ gold is as important as saving Barabas’ soul. This is, as Barabas says of Christians, hypocritical, as he should not be coveting gold like this. This also explains why he and Friar Barnardine, another Christian after Barabas’ soul and perhaps gold, gets into a verbal and then physical fight over converting Barabas earlier in the scene; their covetousness drove them to violence.
Barabas, then, is also not the only violent or vengeful character. He mirrors Christians in these aspects as well. After Barnardine and Jacomo fight, Barabas and Ithamore murder Barnardine and set him outside the door. Jacomo sees the corpse, thinks he is still alive and trying to prevent him from reaching Barabas, and says “let me go by… No, wilt thou not? Nay then, I’ll force my way” (4.1.173-4). Subsequent stage directions have Jacomo strike the corpse with a staff. While Barnardine is already dead, Jacomo is ready to kill Barnardine himself for the sake of converting Barabas. He does not deny what he has done, saying “I have done’t,” suggesting that he struck with sufficient force that he is not surprised that Barnardine is dead (4.1.182). Barabas also brings forth the vengeful nature of Matias and Lodowick, two Christian men who are in love with his daughter Abigail. Barabas manipulates both of them, and they end up in a fight in which they both die. Audiences may blame Barabas for their deaths, and for Jacomo’s willingness to kill Barnardine, as they arguably would not have committed these actions if they had not been manipulated by Barabas. However, the fact that Barabas is able to manipulate them to kill suggests that Barabas was just helping awaken a drive that already existed in them. Had they been sincere in their Christianity, they should have been able to resist this temptation. Furthermore, Jacomo’s coveting of Barabas’ gold was not due to manipulation; it seems to be a large part of his initial motivation to convert Barabas.
When Barabas first meets the two friars, he says to them “the burden of my sins / Lie heavy on my soul. Then pray you tell me, / Is’t not too late now to turn Christian?” (4.1.51-3). Far from being interested in converting, Barabas is putting on a performance for the Christians to keep himself out of trouble and make things go his way. Marlowe wants his audience to see that the Christians, too, are performing their religion and are not as sincere as they claim to be. The Jewish character may be bad, but the Christian characters’ actions are mirrored in Barabas. Because of the audience’s bias, however, this commentary may be lost on them, particularly because Barabas’ cruelty outweighs that of the play’s Christians. At the end of the play, a trap Barabas sets backfires on him, and he ends up boiling in a cauldron that was meant for the Turkish general Calymath. To his cries for help, Ferneze replies “Should I, in pity of thy plaints or thee, / Accursèd Barabas, base Jew, relent? / No, thus I’ll see thy treachery repaid” (5.5.71-3). Ferneze refuses to give Barabas the mercy he requests, and because of everything Barabas has done, the audience would likely believe he deserves his fate, making them more likely to ignore how the Christians who brought him to justice were not as moral as they claimed to be.
Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, written not long after Marlowe’s play, also has a vengeful Jewish antagonist, but unlike Barabas, Shylock does not commit any crimes or engage in any deception; he does, however, demand that the Christian merchant Antonio forfeit a pound of his flesh if he fails to repay a loan, a sinister request which fulfills Shakespeare’s audiences’ negative perceptions of Jews. Shakespeare, though, gives more justification as to why Shylock is the way he is; Shylock is a mirror that reflects the roles society projects onto him while, like Barabas, reflecting the wrongs of the Christian society that surrounds him. Shakespeare, in fact, represents everyone in a better light than Marlowe does, including Christians and Muslims. Where Ithamore in Jew of Malta brags about “setting Christian villages on fire” (Marlowe 2.3.202), the presumably Muslim Moroccan prince that appears in Merchant of Venice is as much of a gentleman as any of Portia’s European suitors. “Mislike me not for my complexion,” he tells her, “The shadow’d livery of the burnish’d sun” (Shakespeare 2.2). He eloquently tries to convince her to like him and to see past his skin color, and does nothing to offend her, yet Portia keeps her prejudice. After he fails to pass the challenge required to marry her, she says “Let all of his complexion choose me so,” emphasizing the arbitrary nature of prejudice; her dislike of him is based purely on his skin color (2.7).
The prince, as a Moroccan, lives in a society in which he belongs to the majority and is therefore not constantly othered as he is by Portia. He can be himself and not be made to reflect any stereotypical images constantly cast onto him. In contrast, Shylock lives in Venice, a predominantly Christian society which oppresses him and treats him like a stereotype. Shakespeare suggests that it is this treatment that makes Shylock cruel and vengeful, not anything inherent in his Judaism. This is illustrated through his relationship with Antonio. Antonio initially appears to be friendly and generous through his interactions with his friend Bassanio, but this goes away when he interacts with Shylock. As Barabas says of Christians in Jew of Malta, Antonio believes that “faith is not to be held with heretics” (Marlowe 2.3.312). Not only does this display Antonio’s hypocrisy, but it gives a closer and more personal explanation for Shylock’s nature. Shylock tells Antonio “In the Rialto you have rated me / About my moneys and my usances… / You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog, / And spit upon my Jewish gabardine,” detailing the various ways in which Antonio has abused him in public for nothing other than being Jewish (Shakespeare 1.3). Nonetheless, Shylock is the first character to display anything resembling mercy; despite Antonio’s abuse, Shylock does not refuse to do business with him and in fact does not demand an interest payment. Bassanio says “This were kindness,” recognizing that Shylock is generous to offer this when it is in his power to refuse (1.3).
Shylock does, however, demand a pound of Antonio’s flesh in the event that he is unable to repay his loan, apparently for the sake of revenge. Antonio, however, agrees to this arrangement, fully aware of the consequences; no trickery is involved. When asked why he wants a pound of Antonio’s flesh, Shylock gives a speech that is surprisingly sympathetic for a Jewish character in an anti-Semitic society. He asks if Jews are not “fed with the same food… healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is?” (3.1). In contrast to everyone in the play who call him inhuman, Shylock suggests that aside from religious differences, there is nothing important separating a Jew from a Christian, that they are equally human. This being the case, he asks “If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me, I will execute” (3.1). He claims that he is entitled to his revenge because a Christian would be entitled to the same. In reference to Antonio’s insults, Shylock says “since I am a dog, beware my fangs” (3.3). Not only is he entitled to his revenge, but he has been made vengeful by the society that oppresses him; Antonio gave Shylock fangs when he made him a dog.
His assumption that Christians would desire revenge upon Jews, however, turns out to be wrong at the end of the play. Antonio ends up unable to repay his loan, not out of any trickery on Shylock’s part, but because his ships have wrecked. It is the Christians, in fact, who engage in trickery, not the Jew, when Portia disguises as a judge to defend Antonio. She says, in response to Shylock confirming that he entered into the bond with Antonio, “Then must the Jew be merciful,” and goes into a long speech praising the virtue of mercy, saying “It blesseth him that gives and him that takes” (4.1). Shylock, though, demands the law be followed. However, when Portia reveals, through several technicalities, that Shylock is in the wrong for plotting the death of Antonio by claiming a pound of his flesh, and that his life and estate are in the hands of the city, the Duke finally shows the mercy that Christians have lacked in both plays. He tells him “That thou shalt see the difference of our spirits, / I pardon thee thy life before thou ask it,” implying that because he is Christian, he will show mercy where the Jew refused (4.1). Antonio also shows mercy, allowing Shylock to keep the half of his estate owed to Antonio so Shylock’s daughter has something to inherit. They do not completely pardon him, as they force him to convert to Christianity, but they did not expect Shylock to be fully merciful either; they offered him a larger sum of money in exchange for sparing Antonio. While Antonio has treated Shylock cruelly throughout the play despite his Christianity, Shakespeare ends the play displaying Christians as merciful, in contrast to Ferneze’s refusal to show mercy to Barabas at the end of Marlowe’s play.
Due to the nature of Shakespeare’s society, it is unlikely that he wrote Merchant of Venice this way simply to suggest that Jewish stereotypes are inaccurate. Rather, he seems to make Shylock more sympathetic in order to suggest to Christian viewers that they should practice what they preach, as the play’s Christians ultimately do in their judgement of Shylock; that they should practice mercy in their lives. In response to Machiavel’s request to “grace Barabas as he deserves,” Shakespeare might be more likely to suggest that despite his greed and violence, the Christians of Malta should have graced him with more mercy at the end of Jew of Malta than they did.
Marlowe, Christopher. Jew of Malta. Doctor Faustus and Other Plays. Ed. David Bevington. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. 276-322. Print.
Shakespeare, William. Merchant of Venice. Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Ed. Jeremy Hylton. MIT: The Tech, 1993. http://shakespeare.mit.edu/merchant/full.html Accessed 22 March 2017