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.
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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 […]