Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Malta. Small Mediterranean island group south of Sicily on which the entire play is set. Because of its strategic location in the Mediterranean, Malta was occupied by a succession of foreign powers, including the Ottoman Turks, who are besieging the island at the time in which the play is set, when the island has a Christian government ruled by the Knights of St. John.
Barabas’s house. Home of the wealthy merchant of the play’s title, Barabas, who alienates Malta’s governor by refusing to convert to Christianity or to give the government half of his property. The governor seizes his property to punish him, and transforms his home into a Roman Catholic convent, in which Barabas’s daughter Abigail is entered as a novice. Much of the play’s plot revolves around Barabas’s efforts to retrieve sacks of gold he has hidden under his house’s floor and to exact his revenge.
The convent’s upper and lower levels make for an effective scene on the stage with two voices in the dark. Barabas is on the lower level eulogizing his gold; Abigail is above eulogizing her father. Like the island itself, this protective enclosure is vulnerable; Barabas poisons everyone within his house, including his own daughter.
Barabas also has a second house, which he uses as a secret center for plotting against the city, its officers, and the nuns who occupy his first house.
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The Catholic World
In the course of Marlowe's play, the author manages to provide a negative depiction of two major religious groups, the Roman Catholics and the Jews. In both cases, these depictions reflect the general attitude of his English audience toward these two entities. Much of the religious rhetoric in Marlowe's The Jew of Malta reflects the real-life tensions between the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England, which was formally established by Elizabeth I in 1559. After the formal establishment of the Church of England, some of the tension of the past twenty-five years dissipated, primarily because the queen was more tolerant of religious choice and less likely to endorse the extreme prosecution that Mary I favored. During the brief years of Mary Tudor's reign, 1553-1558, religious intolerance and religiously-inspired murder became commonplace. Mary, who was a Roman Catholic, immediately reinstated Catholicism as the official religion in England; she also reestablished the Pope's dominion over the English. Moving quickly, she outlawed Protestantism to please her new bridegroom, Philip of Spain. Protestants were persecuted, and hundreds were burned at the stake when they refused to convert to Catholicism. Mary's ruthlessness earned her the nickname, "Bloody Mary." In contrast to Mary's rule, Elizabeth seemed a refreshing new breath in the kingdom. She was young and beautiful, full of energy, and vibrant. And although she quickly...
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The Jew of Malta is a five-act play. The exposition occurs in the first act when the audience learns of the injury done to Barabas. By the end of Act II, the complication, the audience has learned that Barabas will not be satisfied with the money he has recovered. He wants revenge on all the Christians in the city and is plotting to have the two young men, Lodowick and Mathias, murder one another. The climax occurs in the third act when these young men die, Abigail converts to Christianity, joins the convent, and is subsequently murdered. The murder of the friars and Ithamore's betrayal of his master provide the falling action in Act IV, and the catastrophe occurs in the last act when Barabas overreaches his goal and finally dies in his own trap.
Characterization is the process of creating a life-like person from an author's imagination. To accomplish this the author provides the character with personality traits that help define who he will be and how he will behave in a given situation. The Jew of Malta moves away from this strict definition, since the characters are not well-defined. The audience does not really know or understand the character as an individual. For instance, Barabas is a stereotype, a caricature of a greedy Jew, the usurer who was well-known to the audience.
This term refers to types of literature such as mystery, science fiction, comedy or romance....
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Compare and Contrast
Sixteenth Century: The Anglican Church is initially established in England in 1534, by Henry VII, who establishes Protestantism as the official church. In effect, Henry's decree also outlaws the Roman Catholic Church, and Henry seizes all church property, liquidating it as a source of revenue for his reign. The seizure of church property is supported by many people, who feel that Catholicism is all about performance and ornamentation and that it lacks substance and piety. This emphasis on performance and an assumed lack of piety is evident in Marlowe's depiction of the friars as greedy men who care more about Barabas' money than they do about his soul.
Late Twentieth Century: In many ways, the English still view the Catholic Church with suspicion. There are still laws that prohibit a member of the monarchy from marrying a Catholic, and the Anglican Church remains the official church of England. No Catholic can inherit the throne.
Sixteenth Century: Catholic Mary Stuart, queen of Scots, is beheaded February 8, 1587, by order of her cousin, Elizabeth I (sister of Mary Tudor). Mary Stuart provided an impetus for continued plotting among the Catholics (who wanted to restore England to the Pope) against the Protestants (who saw all Catholics as a threat to their safety). Marlowe's audience would be expecting to see negative depictions of Catholics in his work. These are easily seen in the greed of the Catholic officials in...
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Topics for Further Study
Try to imagine that the Nazis had staged The Jew of Malta during World War II. Discuss some of the reasons why they might have done so, and consider how the performance might have been staged.
Compare Marlowe's play with Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice. In what ways are Shylock and Barabas similar? How are they different?
Consider the historical events in England in the last half of the sixteenth-century. In what ways do these events influence Marlowe's play, especially the violence of the action?
Marlowe's primary theme is that of the corruption of man, especially with regard to religion. Discuss the negative depictions of religion in The Jew of Malta.
Marlowe sets up two distinct groupings of people in The Jew of Malta. One group consists of the innocent younger generation: Abigail, Mathias, and Lodowick. On the other side, the older and more corrupt generation plots against one another. Ultimately, the innocents are destroyed. Many modern psychologists argue that the younger generation is constantly motivated to eliminate the older group. But Marlowe's play works in exactly the opposite manner. Discuss these two groupings and what an understanding of the inter-generational conflict can reveal about the late sixteenth-century.
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What Do I Read Next?
Doctor Faustusf (1593) is Marlowe's best known and most frequently performed play. This play focuses on a doctor who sells his soul to the devil in an attempt to learn all the knowledge known to man.
A Dead Man in Deptford (1996), by Anthony Burgess, is a fictionalized account of Marlowe's life that emphasizes the dramatic events, including the accusations of murder and spying that circulated while Marlowe was still alive. Burgess also explores the rumors of assassination and political intrigue that surrounded Marlowe.
The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe (1995), by Charles Nicholl, is a fictionalized account of Marlowe's murder. There is little emphasis on Marlowe as a writer, but Nicholl does a nice job of recreating the world of Elizabethan spies and conspiracies.
The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare, was first presented in 1596. This play likewise involves betrayal and deceit, but it is interesting in another respect because the ending creates many questions about the definition of comedy. A complete moral resolution is missing, but in the case of this Shakespearean play, the plot raises many complicated questions about prejudice and honesty.
Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Miller's Tale" is a parable about greed. As he did elsewhere in his Canterbury Tales, written in 1387, Chaucer uses an old man's greed and lust to reveal the vulnerability of men.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Clapp, Susannah, "The Jew of Malta," in Guardian Unlimited, October 10, 1999.
Meyers, William, "Shakespeare, Shylock, and the Jews," in Commentary, Vol. 101, No. 4, April 1996, pp. 32-37.
Nightingale, Benedict, "The Big Play: The Jew of Malta," in Times (London), October 16, 1999.
Perrett, Manon D., "Shakespeare's Jew: Preconception and Performance," in Shakespeare Studies, Vol. 20, 1987, pp. 261-68.
Spencer, Charles, "The Arts: Portrait of a Psycho As Comic As It Is Chilling," in Daily Telegraph (London), October 7, 1999.
Williams, Carloyn D., "Interview Given by Stevie Simkin, Director of Marlowe's Jew of Malta, to Carolyn D. Williams," in Cahiers Elisabethains: Late Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Vol. 55, April 1999, pp. 65-73.
Brown, John Russell, ed., Marlowe: Tamburlaine The Great; Edward The Second and The Jew of Malta: A Casebook, Macmillan, 1982. This text offers a collection of critical essays on Marlowe's plays.
Cole, Douglas, Christopher Marlowe and the Renaissance of Tragedy, Praeger, 1995. Cole's book examines the major literary traditions of Marlowe's era and how he transformed them into themes fitting his purpose.
Hammill, Graham L., Sexuality and Form: Carvaggio, Marlowe, and Bacon, University of Chicago Press, 2000. This...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Bartels, Emily C. “Malta, the Jew, and the Fictions of Difference: Colonialist Discourse in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta.” English Literary Renaissance 20 (1990): 1-16. An excellent Marxist reading of the text that posits imperialism as the controlling discourse and Malta as the object of the colonizer’s lust.
Bowers, Fredson Thayer. Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy: 1587-1642. Gloucester, Mass.: P. Smith, 1959. Asserts that Barabas fails as a tragic hero because he avenges a material wrong with murder, because his motives are petty and treacherous, and because his demise is unconnected to his revenge.
Danson, Lawrence. “Christopher Marlowe: The Questioner.” English Literary Renaissance 12 (1982): 3-29. Argues that the play is written in an interrogative mode. Characters ask questions without pausing for answers. These rhetorical questions draw the audience into the answering process.
Deats, Sara Munson, and Lisa S. Starks. “‘So neatly plotted, and so well perform’d’: Villain as Playwright in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta.” Theatre Journal 44, no. 3 (October, 1992): 375-389. Examines the significance of the play’s metadramatic elements, its ambivalent attitude toward the theater and toward role-playing, arguing that these elements are a reflection of the...
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