Barabas dominates The Jew of Malta; the other characters are merely sketched. The plot of the play seems to have come wholly from the fertile mind of Christopher Marlowe, whose exotic plots and romantic heroes set a pattern that was followed by subsequent Elizabethan playwrights, including William Shakespeare. The Jew of Malta begins well, but it degenerates into an orgy of blood after the second act. Although Marlowe may have found his initial inspiration for the story and its hero in the person of Juan Michesius, recorded in Philippus Lonicerus’s Chronicorum Turcicorum (1578) and in Sebastian Munster’s La Cosmographie Universelle (1575), it is clear from a comparison with the aforementioned works that the character of Barabas owes at least as much to the tradition of Italian revenge tragedy, to the English morality plays, and to Marlowe’s own preferences in characterization as demonstrated in Doctor Faustus (1588), in Tamburlaine the Great, Part I (1587), and in Tamburlaine the Great, Part II (1587). Considered the most important English dramatist before Shakespeare, Marlowe was of a social background similar to that of his illustrious successor, although Marlowe’s formal schooling was more extensive than Shakespeare’s. Marlowe’s theatrical career, however, was unfortunately much briefer. Marlowe constructed his greatest plays around characters obsessed with one thing or another; for them, the obsession itself is all-important, not particularly its object. Marlowe has been given credit for raising the formerly stilted and academic English theater to the level of both serious and entertaining art.
Although The Jew of Malta is written in Marlowe’s most masterful and fully developed style, it remains an enigmatic and difficult play because of the unevenness of its structural impact and emotional effect. Perhaps this is inevitable in the very combination of the morality drama with the drama of personality; it is hard to maintain Barabas as both a typical figure of evil and a sympathetic, understandable person in his own right. T. S. Eliot considered it a farce, characterized by “terribly serious even savage comic humor.” What is certain is its thematic resemblance to Marlowe’s other great plays. Marlowe’s plays share a concern with exploring the limits of human power. In The Jew of Malta, a self-made hero rises to power from lowly origins and brings about his own end by an obsessive passion. The play is unified by this hero’s personality alone. Moreover, The Jew of Malta is Marlowe’s first Machiavellian play, the first in which the word “policy” appears. As he speaks at the play’s opening, Niccolò Machiavelli embodies in...
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