Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 821
Barabas, a Christian-hating merchant of Malta, receives in his countinghouse a party of merchants who report the arrival of several vessels laden with wealth from the East. At the same time three Jews arrive to announce an important meeting at the senate. The import of the meeting is that the Turkish masters of Malta demand tribute long overdue. The Turkish grand seignior purposely lets the payment lapse over a period of years so that the Maltese will find it impossible to raise the sum demanded. The Maltese have a choice of payment or surrender. The Christian governor of the island, attempting to collect the tribute within a month, decrees that the Jews will have to give over half of their estates or become Christians. All of the Jewish community except Barabas submits to the decree of the governor. The governor seizes all of Barabas’s wealth as punishment and has the Jew’s house turned into a Christian convent.
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Barabas, to avoid complete ruin, purposely fails to report part of his treasure hidden in the foundation of his house. Then he persuades his daughter, Abigail, to pretend that she has converted to Christianity so that she might enter the convent and recover the treasure. Abigail dutifully enters the nunnery as a convert and subsequently throws the bags of money out of the window at night to her waiting father.
Martin Del Bosco, vice-admiral of Spain, sails into the harbor of Malta for the purpose of selling some Turkish slaves he has aboard his ship. The governor is reluctant to allow the sale because of the difficulties he is having with the grand seignior. Del Bosco, by promising military aid from Spain, persuades the governor to defy the Turks and to permit the sale.
Barabas buys one of the slaves, an Arabian named Ithamore. During the sale, Barabas fawns upon Don Lodowick, the governor’s son, and Don Mathias. He invites the two young men to his house and orders Abigail, now returned from the convent, to show favor to both. In his desire for revenge, Barabas arranges with each young man, separately, to marry his daughter. He then sends forged letters to Don Lodowick and Don Mathias and provokes a duel in which the young men are killed. Meanwhile, Barabas trains his slave, Ithamore, to be his aide in his plot against the governor and the Christians of Malta.
As a result of her father’s evil intentions, Abigail returns to the convent. Barabas, enraged, sends poisoned porridge to the convent as his gesture of thanks on the Eve of St. Jacques, the patron saint of Malta. All in the convent are poisoned, and Abigail, before she dies, confesses to Friar Jacomo, disclosing to him all that Barabas did and all that he plans to do. When the Turks return to Malta to collect the tribute, the governor defies them and prepares for a siege of the island.
Meanwhile the friars, in violation of canon law, reveal the information they gained from Abigail’s confession. Barabas, again threatened, pretends a desire to become a convert and promises all of his worldly wealth to the friars who will receive him into the Christian faith. The greediness of the friars causes differences to arise among them; Barabas takes advantage of this situation and with the help of Ithamore strangles a friar named Bernardine. He then props up Bernardine’s body in such a way that Friar Jacomo knocks it down. Observed in this act, Friar Jacomo is accused of the murder of one of his clerical brothers.
Ithamore meets a strumpet, Bellamira, who, playing upon the slave’s pride and viciousness, persuades him to extort money from his master by threatening to expose Barabas. His master, alarmed by threats of blackmail, disguises himself as a French musician, goes to the strumpet’s house, and poisons Bellamira and Ithamore with a bouquet of flowers. Before their deaths, they manage to communicate all they know to the governor, who, despite his preoccupation with the fortifications of Malta, throws Barabas into prison. By drinking poppy essence and cold mandrake juice, Barabas fakes death. His body is placed outside the city. Reviving, he joins the Turks and leads them into the city. As a reward for his betraying Malta, Barabas is made governor. He now turns to the conquered Maltese, offering to put the Turks into their hands for a substantial price. The Maltese accept the deal.
Under the direction of Barabas, explosives are set beneath the barracks of the Turkish troops. Then Barabas invites the Turkish leaders to a banquet in the governor’s palace, after arranging to have them fall through a false floor into cauldrons of boiling liquid beneath. The Turkish troops are blown sky-high, but the Christian governor, who prefers to seize the Turkish leaders alive, exposes Barabas’s scheme. The Jew of Malta perishes in the trap he set for the Turks.