Critical Overview

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When Marlowe's play The Jew of Malta first appeared on stage during the winter season of 1589-90, it was evidently very popular with the theatergoing public. Scholars only know this because it was performed many times during the coming years. In many ways, Marlowe's own notoriety probably added to the audience's interest. But then, a few years later, when the queen's Jewish physician was accused of trying to poison her (generally regarded as a false accusation), Marlowe's depiction of the Jew engendered even more interest. Performances of Marlowe's play continued for the next several years right up until the closing of the theatres in London in 1642. When the theatres reopened, after the Restoration in 1660, tastes had changed and the "blood tragedies" of earlier years were no long as popular.

There is little information about specific performances in the period following The Jew of Malta's initial success until the twentieth-century, during which there have been few productions. Because of the Holocaust, staging Marlowe's play before a modern audience has become a problem. The overt anti-Semitism present in the play cannot be ignored, nor can audiences ignore the implications of how effectively Adolf Hitler played upon Europe's tradition of anti-Semitism to destroy six million Jewish citizens. One recent production, in October 1999, was staged at the Almeida Theatre in London and met with some success, in large part because the actor playing Barabas made the character so sympathetic and so enjoyable to watch. In his review for the Times (London), Benedict Nightingale points out that the audience finds itself "rooting for the villain, especially as the Jew is played by an infectiously gleeful Ian McDiarmid." Clearly this performance succeeds because the play is performed as "farce and melodrama." Nightingale also notes the differences between The Jew of Malta and Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, which is more subtle in its anti-Semitic depiction of a Jew. Nightingale states that the audience is more likely to feel sympathy for Shylock, who loses out to "contemptuous Christians," than for Barabas, who, by the conclusion of Marlowe's play, has become a monster.

In another review, Susannah Clapp, writing for the Guardian Unlimited, also notes the comic touches, calling them "grotesque," but labeling the play a "vibrant cartoon, not a work of reflection." Part of the difficulty, according to Clapp, is that "Marlowe's play is repugnant to modern taste." This is because the word Jew is a "synonym for a wheedler, a schemer, a miserly accumulator of vast wealth and a cheater on his fellows ... [with ultimately the Jew taking] to arranging myriad murders, including that of his own daughter." Clapp does admit that the play is about more than anti-Semitism, with almost all the characters portrayed as "rampant hypocrites." Yet in spite of this, Clapp argues that the anti-Semitism "taints" the play. Clapp also calls McDiarmid's acting a "triumph," and observes that the set design is also very effective.

In one other review of this production, Charles Spencer, writing for The Daily Telegraph (London), asks, "Has there ever been a funnier account of a psychopathic killer than The Jew of Malta! This play," according to Spencer, cannot be labeled a tragedy, since it "is not a work that arouses pity or terror." Citing the "loud bursts of discomfited laughter" from the audience, Spencer labels the play black comedy, which he supposes might have been closer to Marlowe's intent, since he had "an irresistible urge to cause outrage." Spencer also agrees with other reviews in citing McDiarmid's performance as Barabas as particularly strong. This especially well-received production succeeds, though, because it is played as a comedy, as all three reviewers note. Few of the revenge tragedies of the late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century are produced for the enjoyment of modern audiences. As Nightingale observes, tastes change, and as the most recent production of The Jew of Malta suggests, this play only succeeds as modern entertainment if it is played for laughs.

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Critical Evaluation


Essays and Criticism