The Jew of Malta
The Other as a Mirror in Marlowe’s Jew of Malta and Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice
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
Sympathy and Objectification in the Revenge Tragedy Genre
The genre of revenge tragedy has been both popular and unique in its ability to simultaneously arouse feelings that appear to be unrelated in its audience: vengeance and sympathy. What makes this genre vary from play to play, however, is the author’s ability to either gain the audiences’ identification with the “revenger,” and his actions, or isolate him from readers in doing so. In addition, by keeping an audience either aligned with the protagonist-revenger or by objectifying him, the overall effectiveness of the play is also affected. In analyzing this trend, one can examine two revenge tragedies in which the protagonist’s actions have opposite effects on the audience. In Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, for example, readers see the protagonist immediately wronged and actively seek revenge throughout the play; however in doing so he goes too far and ultimately commits heinous acts that lead to his overall isolation from readers, as by they can no longer sympathize or identify with him as the character he originally was. However, in Thomas Middleton’s Revenger’s Tragedy, the protagonist, also wronged at the onset, actively seeks revenge throughout the play; yet in staying his personal course of revenge readers are able to identify and sympathize with him until his death in the end. This pattern of either objectification or identification with the revenger-protagonist ultimately proves to be critical in the overall effectiveness of the works as both a revenge play and a tragedy, as garnering these duel emotions from reads proves to be a challenge that is not always met within the genre.Though The Revenger’s Tragedy and The Jew of Malta end with two different effects on its readers, both works start out similarly, pursuant to the revenge tragedy form, as the protagonists are wrongly injured by corrupt characters in positions of greater social status. For example, in Malta, the play begins with authorities telling the protagonist, Barabas, that they must seize his money because he is a Jew. As readers at this point in the play, the sympathy is automatically with Barabas, a man having done no harm, yet being taken advantage of by a figure higher up than he. It is hard not to identify with Barabas, who having committed no foul, claims that he simply wants to live in peace and keep his money to provide it for his daughter. Barabas states, “Give us peaceful rule; . . . I have no charge, nor many children, But one sole daughter, whom I hold dear . . . And all I have is hers” (Marlowe I.i. 132-137). Readers are exposed to the original foul against Barabas, as Ferenze, the governor of Malta, says to him,. . . Jew, like infidels, for through our sufferance of your hateful lives, Who stand accursed in the sight of heaven, These taxes and afflictions are befall’n, And therefore thus we are determined. Read the article of our decrees . . . ‘First. . . each of them to pay one half of his estate. . . Secondly, he that denies to pay shall straight become a Christian. . . Lastly, he that denies this shall absolutely lose all he has’” (Marlowe I.ii. 63-77). Again, at this point in the play readers witness the protagonist deprived of his money for no warrantable reason, which makes sympathizing with him as the Other quite easy for an audience who likewise has probably felt alienated as an Other himself before as well. Barabas’s poignant reaction to being wronged by these authorities also assists in readers’ identification with him as he cries ,“You have my wealth, the labour of my life, The comfort of mine age, my children’s hope; And therefore ne’er distinguish of the wrong . . . Your extreme right does me exceeding wrong” (Marlowe I.ii. 150-155). At this point in the play, Marlowe has made it quite easy for readers to sympathize and identify with Barabas, a man seemingly robbed by society and a man that readers can likely see themselves in as well.This sympathy originally garnered for Barabas in turn works to align readers with the notion that Barabas deserves to be avenged for the unwarranted crime against him. Barabas later swears to seek this revenge on Ferenze, the man who took his money, “Whose heart [he] will have,” claiming that he cannot “so soon forget an injury” (Marlowe II.iii. 15-19). At this point in the play, this need to have revenge for the wrongful act readers previously witnessed appears both warranted and just, demonstrating both the sympathy readers have acquired for the injured protagonist and the identification felt in the necessity of a “just” retribution. Additionally, in Middleton’s Revenger’s Tragedy readers also see the protagonist immediately victimized in the beginning by a corrupt social force, an act that similarly works to gain the sympathy of readers and as well as their identification with the wronged protagonist. For example, within the first scene of the play readers witness the protagonist, Vindice, longingly speaking to his late wife’s skull as he states the crime against her and promises to make up for it saying, The old Duke poison’d, Because thy purer part would not consent Unto his palsy-lust; for old men lustful Outbid like their limited performances. Age, as in gold, in lust is covetous. Vengeance, thou Murder’s quit-rent, and whereby Thou show’st thyself tenant to Tragedy . . . Hum, who e’er knew Murder unpaid? Faith, give Revenge her due. . . (Middleton I.i. 32-41). Through readers learning of the atrocious crime committed against Vindice’s wife for an even more atrocious reason in her failure to consent to his lust for her, Middleton immediately puts readers on the side of the protagonist-revenger, as viewing such a crime committed against the innocent, as in Barabas’s case, makes revenge not a crime, but an act of justice and rightful retribution, again a feeling that is easily identified with as audiences have the tendency to identify with the downtrodden Other—in this case two innocent men wronged by corrupt authoritative figures. Additionally, it is this tendency which goes into making the sympathy for the protagonist-revenger and his future acts a force that, when properly utilized, makes the play effective as a revenge tragedy as well.As both plays continue, readers remain on the side of the protagonist-revengers and their mission to attain revenge for the suffering they wrongfully incurred. As each play hits its climax, readers eventually experience this shared catharsis in the protagonists’ success in enacting their revenge. For example, in Malta, Barabas coyly arranges a duel in which Ferenze’s son, Lodowick, will meet his death in. Barabas, before the duel, eagerly speaks of his eagerness in “seeing [Lodowick’s] death” and excitedly tells his slave Ithamore about the plans, as Ithamore responds, “As meet they will, and fighting die. Brave sport!” (Marlowe III.i. 31). During the duel itself, Barabas witnesses the death of Lodowick first-hand, sarcastically noting afterwards, “Ay, part ’em now they are dead. Farewell, farewell” (Marlowe III.ii. 9). At this point readers can simultaneously breathe a ‘sigh of relief’ as Barabas has successfully avenged his persecutor. Even after witnessing a character’s death one cannot help but feel that it was justified under the “eye for an eye” mentality present in this genre; again illustrating that the sympathy in the play has remained with the protagonist, because of the notion that ‘justice’ has finally been served after the original act committed against Barabas.Readers experience this similar catharsis in the justified act of revenge in Revenger’s Tragedy as Vindice also arranges and accomplishes his act of revenge on the Duke in his elaborate scheme in which he poisons him using the very skull of his late wife. Vindice states his plan saying, “This very skull Whose mistress the Duke poison’d with this drug, The mortal curse of the earth, shall be reveng’d In the like strain and kiss his lips to death. As much as the dumb thing can, he shall feel: What fails in poison we’ll supply in steel” (Middleton III.v. 101-107). Even during the act itself, readers remain on Vindice’s side, as an “innocent villain,” as he says to the Duke before his death, “Tis I, ‘tis Vindice, ‘tis I” and “Mark me, Duke” (Middleton III.v. 165,175). The readers’ steadfast sympathy with Vindice at this point in the play makes this act of revenge interpreted as perfectly justifiable under the circumstances of the play and the Duke’s original crime at the beginning. Furthermore, identification with the protagonist-revenger is again not broken with the ‘lex talionis’ mentality that an audience is both capable understanding in the situation, and has more likely than not, used before. Though both protagonists appear to be successfully avenged after these incidents all while simultaneously holding the sympathy of the reader, the events that occur hereafter serve to highlight the marked differences in the ability of the plays’ audiences to remain identified with the protagonists. In The Jew of Malta, Barabas’s future actions indicate that he had become too wrapped up in the notion of revenge, and in overstepping his boundaries his continued heinous offenses ultimately serve to objectify him in the eyes of readers, as the original sympathy for a once innocent man wronged by a corrupt figure turns to apathy for a sociopath that readers simply can no longer identify with. For example, Barabas’s first transgression that serves to commence this objectification by readers occurs when he plans to murder his own daughter for her decision to convert to Christianity. It is at this point in the play where readers can no longer sympathize with an innocent victim who simply wants to seek his own form of social justice, and instead begin to see a lone character so obsessed with revenge that it is hard to determine what he is even seeking to accomplish in doing so. Barabas appears to experience no remorse after killing his only daughter, and rather than stopping there, this alienation of him as a character soars even higher with Barabas’s plan to kill again. According to the protagonist, “For he that [converted his daughter] is within my house. What if I murdered him ere Jacomo comes? Now I have such a plot for both their lives . . . One turned my daughter, therefore he shall die; The other knows enough to have my life; Therefore ‘tis not requisite he should live” (Marlowe IV.i. 119-124). Through these lines, it is clear that Barabas is no longer seeking to mitigate his own suffering he originally incurred; rather he has simply taken on a new obsession with killing for any reason he can find. Later in the play, Barabas hatches an additional plan to kill his slave, the slave’s mistress and the mistress’s pimp as well, again illustrating not a sympathetic man that a reader can see himself in, but a blood-hungry sociopath—a man in which readers can no longer identify with—and thus the sympathy originally felt for him ultimately plummets with each subsequent mindless act of murder that Barabas commits. By the end of the play, Barabas, as with all tragic figures, eventually meets his demise at his own hands as he ends up getting tangled in his own murderous plot, burning to death in the very cauldron he had designed to kill others. By this point in the play, all sympathy for Barabas is lost and his death appears justified and in accordance with his actions and plans previously committed. The eventual death of Barabas, as he dies cursing those around him, screaming “Damned Christians, dogs, and Turkish infidels!” (Marlowe V.v. 85) officially marks the long transition from a man readers could identify and sympathize with—having been victimized by society and by which an act of revenge appeared justified—to a deranged tragic figure that became so obsessed with the idea of revenge that became objectified in the eyes of readers dying as a man who got what he deserved for his. The impossibility to sympathize with Barabas by the end of Malta proves that the play itself, though effective in accomplishing the theme of revenge and one’s fall in seeking it, was not so effective in garnering the sympathy of its audience as the protagonist became completely alienated through this, making him a tragic figure in theory, yet markedly less tragic to readers in practice.In opposition to this gradual loss of sympathy and eventual objectification of Barabas, the audience of The Revenger’s Tragedy never appears to lose identification with Vindice, as he remains focused on the corrupt Duke and his family and does not appear overstep his boundaries in revenge as Barabas had. After the Duke’s death at the hands of Vindice, his court turns into a circus as his sons, each eager to make their way to the throne by any means possible, prove to exemplify the very corrupt traits that ran in their father, stipulating that perhaps this corrupt force Vindice looked to avenge and eliminate had not in fact been accomplished yet. By the end of the play, with all four of the sons fighting over who will become Duke, a bizarre string of events leads Vindice to complete his revenge, with the help of these doomed sons, as all four end up stabbed fighting for the throne. By the end, with each of the four sons dead, Vindice whispers to Lussuriouso, “. . . ‘twas Vindice murder’d thee — . . . murder’d thy father—and I am he. Tell nobody…” (Middleton V.iii. 74-78). At this point, however, the sympathy is still with Vindice, as the play has nearly reached its conclusion, and he appears to have finally avenged his wife’s murder and eliminate the corrupt courtship that was the cause to it. Unlike Barabas, Vindice did not get carried away and remained focused on the corrupt Italian court, which is the precise reason readers both sympathize and identify with him until the end, as a part of them as human beings additionally wishes to see this corruption eliminated as well. By the end of the play, Vindice realizes he too must die for his actions, but unlike Barabas’s cursing of those around as he died, Vindice realizes that his goal had been accomplished and is accepting of what is to come, stating, “Is there one enemy left alive amongst those? ‘Tis time to die when we are ourselves our foes” (Middleton V.iii. 109-110). Vindice’s valiant death to complete the vengeance he sought after mercilessly the entire play ultimately serves to keep readers aligned with the tragic hero, as sympathy for him and his mission of a ‘just revenge,’ plays to the sympathies of an audience who likewise, wished to see the corrupt Italian court suffer justice. Unlike Marlowe’s Barabas, who took his revenge quite too far, readers sympathize with the death of Vindice, seeing it as a tragic event, rather than a fate that he undoubtedly deserved as Barabas had.The genre of revenge tragedy is unique in that it leaves room for a variance in the audience’s acceptance or rejection of a character who must pull off an evil act without also becoming evil himself. As witnessed in Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, the protagonist-revenger Barabas fails in doing this, as his obsession with revenge ultimately leads to his complete objectification in the eyes of an audience that was originally aligned with him and his plight. Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy, however, proves to accomplish this difficult feat through its own protagonist-revenger, Vindice. Through Vindice’s commitment to avenge his wife’s murder without getting too involved in the corrupt world of Italian politics himself, he not only succeeds in his vengeance, but also remains in favor with the audience, who both sympathize with his suffering and can agree with his “justified act of revenge,” which ultimately makes the play succeed as both a revenge drama and as a tragedy in readers’ shared sympathy for his eventual death. Though the Chinese proverb placed at the beginning of Alan Cox’s Revenger’s Tragedy film, “Let the one who seeks revenge remember to dig two graves,” undoubtedly holds true in both of these plays and in the revenge tragedy genre in general, it remains up to the reader to determine whether or not the revenger deserves to lie in his grave, which, as evidenced by the two places discussed, inevitably leads to this unique variance in character identification that can be found within the revenge tragedy genre itself.
Know Your Place: Divine Intervention in The Jew of Malta
The issue of religion is a prominent theme throughout Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta. It is the driving force of the events of the play, as Barabas’s quest for total revenge is kicked off with the Christian governor Ferneze singling out all of the Jews in Malta. Throughout the play, though, it is unclear which religion is going to come out on top, whether it be Barabas and the Jews, Calymath and the Turkish Muslims, or against all odds, Ferneze and the Christians. But by and throughout the final act, it becomes more clear that the Ferneze and the Christians will inevitably come out on top.Barabas’s ultimate downfall begins in act 5, scene 1, as he begins to lose sights of his original driving motivation of getting revenge on Ferneze for taking all of his possessions. He has gone from wanting a simple revenge, which he got earlier in the play with the death of Lodowick, to revenge on the entire island of Malta. He has escalated this situation from being a man vs. man conflict, to a man vs. entire Christian community conflict (albeit, with the help of a Turkish army). This is a situation far too big for him to deal with, but Barabas does not immediately recognize the hot water he is in quite yet.Act 5, scene 2 is when the Christian’s ultimate victory is beginning to be seen. Despite the heavy religious themes, most of the action in the play is clearly moved along by the actions of men, and seemingly by purely the decisions of men. Many of the characters speak in asides to the audience, showing their inner thought process and motivations, in an attempt to prove that there is no divine force causing these events to play out. But here we get the hint that this may not be the case. For the first time the Christian god is addressed by Ferneze at line 14 of the scene. Here he says “What greater misery could heaven inflict?” For the first time in the play, a character makes the suggestion that the events are subjected to divine influence. Ferneze then addresses the heavens a second time, just 11 lines later, with “O villain, heaven will be revenged on thee!” and almost immediately, heaven begins to take revenge.
Following these declarations to and about heaven, Barabas begins to go back on his own decision, seemingly realizing that he is already hated as a Jew and becoming governor through the power of the Turks will only make things worse. So he calls upon Ferneze to help him. Thus, Barabas seemingly flips his entire character around, as he questions Ferneze on Malta’s wellbeing and the potential happiness of the island. Unlike before, there seems to be no hints of deception coming from Barabas. He does not give away any ulterior motives in asides, and seems to genuinely care about Malta. Ferneze, of course, is wary of Barabas’s motivations. After all, the man’s entire characterization has been flipped on its head within one scene. And it seems, too, that Barabas was not trying to deceive Ferneze, as he states in a short soliloquy following Ferneze’s departure, stating in lines 110-115:
And thus far roundly goes the business:Thus, loving neither, will I live with both,Making a profit of my policy;And he from whom my most advantage comes,Shall be my friend. This is the life we Jews are used to lead,
Thus showing that Barabas’s sole motivation for this switch is to ally himself with the most profitable person, a tactic that “Jews are used to lead.” He has come back to focusing on his religion as a motivation, rather than simple revenge. In the course of one scene, the Christian god has been called on and Barabas is put back on a track of religious focus, separated from his bloody revenge quest. Act 5 scene 3 is a short scene in which Calymath has let his guard down enough to accept a feast from Barabas. He is easily lured to a trap, and has no qualms about sending his soldiers to eat in a former monastery outside the city. This shows a bit of irony, as these Turkish soldiers are going to feast and relish in their victory in what was recently a holy Christian building. Thus they are basically committing sacrilege against the Christian god, and as such, meet their fate there as well. Scene 4 is also short, as Ferenze readies his men to take back the city. The true religious and personal victory comes in the final scene.
At the start of the final scene, Barabas has seemingly returned to his normal, paranoid and poison-happy self, as he sends the carpenters who have helped him build his trap to go drink poisoned wine. Here, Barabas has a peculiar line, “For, so I live, perish may all the world.” With this, it becomes clear that he is still nefarious, and may be planning something else, should his plan to take out all the Turkish soldiers succeed. He then makes a deal with Ferneze, who has brought him one hundred thousand pounds as compensation for taking the town back. Once the plan is fully explained and Ferneze is hidden, Barabas gives a line that almost suggests he has distanced himself from the Jews. He calls the whole ordeal “a kingly kind of trade” as he has acquired and is essentially reselling Malta to it’s former owners. This relates directly back to the first scene of Act 1. Here he says:
I must confess we come not to be kings:That’s not our fault: alas, our number’s few!And crowns come either by succession,Or urg’d by force; and nothing violent,Oft have I heard tell, can be permanent. (Act 1, scene 1, lines 127-131)
In this section, he claims that Jews are not kings, and on top of that, any power acquired by force is not permanent. And now in the final scene, Barabas himself has come into power not meant to be had by Jews, and he came into it through violent means. Thus, his fate is sealed by his own word and by taking up a mantle not meant to be held by his religion.
With this, Ferneze pulls some deception of his own, and Barabas is now in truly hot water as he falls into his own trap. But the soldiers still face their sacrileges consequences and Calymath has no choice but to surrender to Ferneze. Of course, with the final lines of the play, Ferneze suggests that the events played out in this way because of the heavens and nothing else. Both Barabas and the Turks, in their final acts, slipped into Christian places where they did not belong, and ultimately saw their downfalls because of it.