Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1126

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...

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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 general and final fashion the vices that Barabas’s history will reenact: unbounded greed, accompanied by a complete absence of conscience or moral scruples. In many senses, a major theme of the play is amorality rather than immorality—the amorality displayed by the governor as a representative of the political realm or by the friars as representative Catholics, as well as by Barabas himself as a type of the commercial sphere.

The Jew of Malta is critically difficult because of its apparent structural disjunction, as it moves from an emphasis on Barabas’s mind and motivations in the first part to a concentration solely upon his evil actions in the second. In the first part, familiar Marlovian themes are presented. Barabas’s Machiavellian egocentrism is apparently justified by the hypocrisy of his Christian enemies; the splendor of his wealth is delineated in appropriate mercantile detail. The scene between Barabas and the governor develops the satirical tone, as it seems to contrast the hypocrisy of the Maltese Christians with the Jew’s overt wickedness, their greed with his—an extension of the quarrel between Christians and infidels in Tamburlaine the Great, Part II. Barabas nearly captures the sympathies of the audience by making the audience believe that he will suffer from Ferneze’s decree; that decree is manifestly unjust.

In the second part, as the play moves from what the noted critic M. C. Bradbrook calls the “technique of verse” to the “technique of action,” the audience sees Barabas’s subterfuge more clearly; he appears as a completely villainous Machiavellian. Marlowe therefore no longer presents introspective revelations of Barabas’s mental and emotional processes but turns instead to concentrate on verbal and narrative reversals in the last three acts. The primary interest becomes clever stage situations and adroit manipulation of the narrative, as, for example, when Barabas constantly reverses his overt meaning by his tagged-on asides. The entrapment of Lodowick and Mathias, of the two friars, of Ithamore and Bellamira, and the final series of double-crosses among Ferneze; Calymath, the son of the grand seignior; and Barabas are obviously influenced by the revenge tragedy tradition. The plot of The Jew of Malta, then, is largely episodic, constructed through the “symmetrical pairing” of a series of figures around that of Barabas: the three Jews at the beginning, the abbess and the nun, Mathias and Lodowick, Friar Bernardine and Friar Jacomo, Bellamira and Ithamore, Calymath and Del Bosco.

The focus of the play is Barabas’s own character. He is at one and the same time, according to the critic David M. Bevington, the “lifelike Jewish merchant caught in a political feud,” an “embodiment of moral vice,” and the “unrepenting protagonist in [a] homiletic ’tragedy.’” Once the audience’s initial sympathies for Barabas have vanished, the audience sees him only as a heinous culprit who unintentionally fashions his own downfall. The complications of his evil schemes and his ultimate inability to control those around him who, in their own lesser ways, are also evil schemers, are what bring about his downfall. It would be a mistake to consider Barabas as an epitome of a race persecuted by prejudice; he shows, at the very beginning, that he himself has no more respect for Jews than he does for Christians or Turks. Abigail, before entering the convent for the second time, this time in earnest, makes this point when she says, “But I perceive there is no love on earth,/ Pity in Jews, nor piety in Turks.” Barabas, instead, proclaims himself “a sound Machiavell,” as the prologue predicts, when he instructs Ithamore in the ways of evil: “First, be thou void of these affections,/ Compassion, love, vain hope, and heartless fear.” It is supremely ironic that he calls Ithamore his “second self,” since in the end Barabas murders the slave, figuratively revealing the self-destructive bent of his evil. On a larger scale, the same irony pervading the entire play is proclaimed in the absurdly righteous closing words of Ferneze: “So, march away; and let due praise be given/ Neither to Fate nor Fortune, but to Heaven.” Heaven has little hand in this story; instead, the hand of the pessimistic atheist Marlowe leaves its prints everywhere.

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Critical Overview