Although Marlowe is considered one of the great Elizabethan playwrights to emerge from the Renaissance, only one of his plays, Doctor Faustus, is still produced frequently before modern audiences. Unlike William Shakespeare's plays, which have been very popular in their many film adaptations, Marlowe's plays have not found a home in Hollywood. During the Elizabethan period, however, his plays were very popular, ushering in a great theatrical renaissance in England. The Jew of Malta, in particular, was very successful with audiences. Because of several severe outbreaks of the plague, the London theatres were closed frequently in the period following the initial production of the The Jew of Malta, but the actors took the play out of town for a successful tour, and when the theatres again reopened, Marlowe's drama again played to enthusiastic London audiences, as it would continue to do for many years until the closing of all the theatres in 1642. Now, more than 350 years later, little is heard of Marlowe's The Jew of Malta. Because of modern sensitivities concerning anti-Semitism, most directors have a difficult time finding an approach to this play. One approach is to stage the play as farce, but even comedy cannot erase the message in the text. In her review of a 1997 performance of The Jew of Malta, in which the play was presented as a black comedy, Susannah Clapp states that "Marlowe's play is repugnant to modern taste." This is often the opinion of both modern reviewers and audiences. Plays are not meant to be read; they are designed to be seen and heard, and so it is worth considering whether any approach to this play might make it palatable to a modern audience.
In presenting The Jew of Malta before a contemporary audience, the most significant problem is the depiction of Barabas. Marlowe paints the Jew so vilely that he becomes almost a comic figure, but that is not how Marlowe intended the audience to view his Jew. The title page of his play makes clear that for Marlowe, at least, his play is "A Famous Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta." It is a tragedy because Barabas cannot be redeemed. The depiction of the Christians in this play is equally unsympathetic, and thus, Marlowe's anti-Catholic audience might have forgiven Barabas any number of sins. But there are two sins they could not overlook. The first problem is Barabas' refusal to be converted to Christianity. For the Elizabethan audience, conversion was one way to eliminate the image of the Jew as the crucifier of Christ. In Elizabethan England, anti-Semitism was not racism. Unlike Adolph Hitler, who believed that blood determined an individual's Jewishness, the Elizabethans correctly understood that Judaism was a religious choice, and one that conversion would cure. The second problem is Barabas' lack of loyalty to his own country. In the final act, Barabas is rewarded with the governorship of Malta. He has his riches, and he has the ultimate revenge on Ferneze: his job. But Barabas chooses to betray Calymath and destroy the city. For Marlowe's audience, devoutly supportive of their queen and country, the Jew's actions are heinous. But Barabas has no loyalty to Malta because he belongs to no country. By the late sixteenth-century, the Jews had been exiled from many of the countries in which they had settled, and they could claim no allegiance to any one country. Marlowe's Jew, then, correctly depicts two historical problems that confronted the Jews: refusal to convert to Christianity and the absence of any loyalty to a country of origin.
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of these problems would concern a modern audience, who would not be offended by Barabas' lack of loyalty to an adopted country; nor would a modern audience care that Barabas refuses to be converted. Current events could either enhance these problems or mitigate them. In the year following Marlowe's death, the queen's physician, Roderigo Lopez, was accused of trying to poison the queen and was quickly executed. This event, coupled with Marlowe's own grisly murder, made his gruesome and bloody play even more popular with audiences, and anti-Semitism, which is frequently hidden away and awaiting an excuse to emerge, reappeared. In the Elizabethan world, Jews were automatically assumed guilty of any heinous crime, and in the case of Lopez's execution, the anti-Semitic hysteria reflects the fears of the people regarding the possible death of a queen who had no heirs and who had designated none. For Marlowe's play, current events only exacerbated the anti-Semitism of the play. But, just as Marlowe's audience could be swayed by current events, so too, is a modern audience influenced by contemporary events. Today's audience cannot view Marlowe's play without the specter of the Holocaust haunting the production. But a modern staging must confront its own political and social realities. Reviews of recent performances ofThe Jew of Malta reveal the difficulties in staging any modern production of this play. Anti-Semitism made people uncomfortable even before the Holocaust, especially when it is as blatant as it is in Marlowe's play, and in a post-Holocaust world, it becomes nearly unthinkable.
When scholars discuss The Jew of Malta, they most often discuss it within the context of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, which has its own problems mounting a successful modern production. Many of the problems that William Meyers observes in Shakespeare's play are applicable to Marlowe's. In his essay, "Shakespeare, Shylock, and the Jews," Meyers discusses the problem of anti-Semitism and declares that "[c]ertain cultural constructs take on the force of myth and become indestructible; they are proof against reality." Thus it does not matter what an audience might actually know about Jews. Neither Marlowe's nor Shakespeare's audience had any firsthand experience with Jews. The myth of the Jew was kept alive in England long after the Jews were expelled, first through the mystery plays of the Middle Ages and then through these Elizabethan plays that depicted Jews as greedy usurers who valued their wealth more than any individual's life. According to Meyers, it does not matter if the popular depiction of the Jews is incorrect; the people will believe what they see and hear on stage because it is reinforced by popular myth. Meyers also argues that the Lopez trial and his execution in 1594 were influenced by Marlowe's play, of which Meyers says, "[t]he Jew of Malta became the biggest theatrical hit until that time, and fed the anti-Jewish hysteria that prompted the mob to laugh so heartily at Lopez on the gallows." So rather than merely benefiting from the execution's publicity, Marlowe's play fed anti-Semitic opinion, and perhaps, even led to the execution of an innocent man. This belief that Marlowe's play can still feed anti-Semitism is one reason why it is rarely produced today.
Marion D. Perret's discussion of the problems that plague a staging of The Merchant of Venice is also applicable to any staging of The Jew of Malta. In her essay, "Shakespeare's Jew: Preconception and Performance," Perrett suggests that "most in his [Shakespeare's] audience thought Jews cold-hearted usurers and crucifiers of Christ" and so "playgoers would take for granted ways in which the presentation of the Jew fit their preconceived image." Thus, if the audience expects to see Shylock (or by extension Barabas) as representing an anti-Semitic reality, then the production will reinforce that view. Accordingly, the struggle for the director is how to make a modern production of Shakespeare's Jew more palatable to the audience. The problem, Perret suggests, in staging a modern production of The Merchant of Venice is to create sympathy for Shylock. As a result, productions "are often shaped defensively" to deal with the audience's "assumption of fear that the play is anti-Semitic." This is the same issue that any modern production of The Jew of Malta must face. Perret suggests that a twentieth-century audience is "scarred by modern persecution of the Jews, [which] encourages a stubborn tendency to see this Jew [Shylock] as symbolic of all Jews." It is, therefore, impossible to separate the tragedy of anti-Semitism from the depiction of Jews in plays taken from a sixteenth-century world and transported into a modern world. The result of this trend is that Barabas becomes more than an evil man who does evil things, but becomes evil because he is a Jew. This may, in fact, be true of Marlowe's play, since Barabas is essentially a one-dimensional caricature of a Jew. This concern, says Perrett, "strikes a sensitive spot in playgoers haunted by memories of the Holocaust."
An additional problem, according to Perrett, is the tendency of theatergoers to view all characters on stage as representative of a group. Thus, "playgoers may perceive an unflattering representation of this particular Jew as an unflattering representation of all Jews and mistreatment of the Jew by other characters as mistreatment by the playwright." Modern productions of Shakespeare's play cut dialogue to eliminate anti-Semitism and make Shylock more tragic and sympathetic. In other cases, modern productions have made the Christians more evil, to mitigate the Jewish portrait of evil. Neither of these approaches would work well with The Jew of Malta. Barabas' dialogue is too frequently anti-Semitic to eliminate, since it encompasses a significant amount of the play. And Marlowe has already cast the Christians as evil; however, against the greater evil of Barabas, the negative depiction of the Christians is almost negated.
One different approach to staging Marlowe's play was a 1997 attempt to cast the play as a way to create meaningful dialogue about anti-Semitism. In an interview with Carolyn D. Williams, Stevie Simkin discusses her attempts to force the audience to rethink the anti-Semitism in The Jew of Malta. Williams relates that this 1997 production of Marlowe's play was situated in 1939 Warsaw as a play-within-a-play. The premise is that the Nazis are presenting The Jew of Malta as Nazi propaganda. In staging the play, Simkin decided one way to counter the play's anti-Semitism was to confront it openly and so, "the Marlowe play was placed inside that 1939 context, as a performance initiated by the Nazi authorities, with the roles of the Christians ... performed by German soldiers and the Jewish roles by Jewish interns." With this setting, the play-within-a-play concept would force the audience to see anti-Semitism at its most destructive. Simkin suggests that "The reconfiguration of the play in these terms was designed to open up the text in performance so that it could be used to explore issues of ethnic identity and oppression. In addition, it invited a reappraisal of the implications of reviving ideologically fraught texts such as The Jew of Malta in our time." Simkin uses Marlowe's play to create a meaningful dialogue about anti-Semitism that suggests the importance of change, rather than to just ignore the play as an anti-Semitic production that is somehow too antiquated for the modern stage. By using this format, Simkin offers a way to fight back against the anti-Semitism of the play. For instance, the actors portraying Jewish prisoners were given the means to fight their oppressors. In the section containing Marlowe's satire on the Catholic cleric, "we appropriated it as a satire improvised by the Jews, a joke at the expense of the Christians who had forced them to perform in this anti-Semitic play." She adds a line to the play, spoken by one of the Jewish prisoners: "We are your prisoners, and we shall play. But you cannot make us be what you think we are." In this case, the Jewish prisoners are empowered, rather than diminished by their experience.
Simkin's model for this production was an actual Nazi performance of The Merchant of Venice, in Vienna in the 1940s that including a racist caricature of Shylock. This Nazi production was to be used as anti-Semitic propaganda. However, in adding her own purpose to Marlowe's play, Simkin rewrites the ending to "confront the play with its own anti-Semitism." She denies Ferneze the play's final lines, which seem to give God credit for the death of Barabas. Instead, the actors reject their roles, and the audience is given an opportunity to reject the anti-Semitism of the play. Clearly, any attempt at a modern production of The Jew of Malta is handicapped by the destructive force of anti-Semitism in the twentieth-century. But perhaps Simkin's production also teaches that there is a way to use this material to teach important lessons about this topic.
Source: Sheri E. Metzger, Critical Essay on The Jew of Malta, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
When the London theatergoers of the 1590s made the short river trip to the South Bank, they left behind them a place which displayed certain fixed features (infrastructure, Protestant Christian ideology), and a place where the lives of the lawmakers and law-followers were affected by the political machinations of international relations and historical placement (tension between London and Spain, proximity to the economically and ideologically important Netherlands). Where they went, to the Rose or the Globe, were places with fixed features (the walls, the stage, the galleries, Protestant Christian ideology) and where the lives of those who performed, those who were portrayed, and those who watched were affected by the political and religious machinations in England and abroad (the sensitivity of the Master of the Revels, dramatic fashion). They left the city of London and reconvened in a "second city," the theater.
In this paper I shall show how one of the satirical political dramatist's most cunning weapons was put to work in this "second city," and how the location of the amphitheaters—geographical, social, and ideological—paradoxically both intensified the potentiality of the damage this weapon could inflict, yet also cushioned the city of London from the influential power of the drama. This weapon was simply one of the dramatist's characters, the figure of the male Jew—an outsider, a stranger, an objective commentator and subversive critic, willing to fight against the socio-political system represented on the stage. Robert Wilson, Shakespeare, Chapman, William Haughton, and Marston all wrote plays in which a Jewish or Jew-like character played a leading role; and in all these cases, the Jew carries out the function of social critic, sometimes passive and meek, often angry and loud. My familiar example will be The Jew of Malta, Barabas, and his slave, Ithamore.
As an outsider, in terms of religion, nationality, and (often enforced) professional occupation, the Jew on the late-sixteenth-century stage becomes the center of a larger critique. He becomes the criticizer of the state of the city and of the ruling classes at large, and also the target of the audience's—both on stage and off—judgment against him. I will go on to investigate how such an alien figure can resemble a "hero," and in order to justify the suggestions of analogy and transference from stage representation to the "real world" that I will make, we should consider a little further the theater/audience/city relationship at the Rose in 1592.
That the amphitheaters were divided from the city, at a distance outside the walls, meant that the theatergoers could physically exit the contained city ideologies of London. Steven Mullaney blurs something of this simple yet important concept when he terms the suburbs "Liberties" as well as the real Liberties of the city. What happened during the migration of persons between the two cities, London and amphitheater, is this: knowing themselves to be the very definition of the city (cities are described by population figures), and the subjects and therefore very perpetuators of ideology, the playgoers deconstruct the city of London without destroying it. The city of London as an ideological concept in the minds of the theatergoers is kept in limbo. Once in the South Bank theater these subjects, pieces of the city structure, possess a vital distance from the city, and the subsequent reconstruction of their community is an affirmation of this group's own identity as different from the city, but inextricably of the city, they are able to leave London, reconvene, and avoid the city authorities, but their points of reference in play-making, then-judgmental forces, will continually refer back to their conditioning as Londoners.
The very idea of the Jew on the late-sixteenth-century stage makes the use of this figure as an associate of the Christian audience alarming, cunning, and subversive. What is set up in The Jew of Malta is something that will be far less certain in The Merchant of Venice when it appears several years later. Barabas is a villain precisely because he is a Jew, and therefore the term "Jew" will suffice to presuppose all other villainous attributes. Something of the status of the appellation might be gleaned from the episode in which Pilia-Borza and Bellamira arrange with Ithamore to get money from Barabas. Ithamore begins the demand letter "Master/Barabas—'' Pilia-Borza tells him, "Write not so submissively, but threatening him" and so Ithamore restarts, "Sirrah Barabas." When Pilia-Borza returns with the news that Barabas has supposedly only given him ten crowns instead of the demanded three hundred, Ithamore thinks of the most contemptuous way to demand more money. His letter begins "Sirrah Jew."
Shylock, on the other hand, has reason for what he does. Whether it is good reason or not, it is certainly logical, and the Christians find themselves in need of a good (non-Venetian) mouthpiece to argue for their side. This mouthpiece, Portia, is another example of a figure from without who critiques the State she or he enters into, a State that to a greater or lesser extent marginalizes that character. Note that this critic is not impartial, not in the least objective, simply, that critic-figure must engage the audience, so that the audience effectively "sees" through her or his eyes. This figure acts as a kind of guide to lead the audience through the stage world. This is the role played by Barabas. But Marlowe's weapon is so much more powerful, the relativity of the grievances so much more intriguing because, unlike Portia, Barabas is a hateful character, a Jew; yet he wins an audience's empathy.
Marlowe gives nothing away at the beginning. We surely cannot guess that soon we will consider seriously the appropriateness of the Jew's subversive message and methods. The introduction of Barabas is a blatant taunting device—"in his counting-house, with heaps of gold before him," Barabas laments "what a trouble 'tis to count this trash!". He may signal to the audience in the yard as he says "The needy groom that never fingered groat / Would make a miracle of thus much coin," and goes on to lament the money-counting chore a second time. In his little counting-house, rich and bitter, wealthy and boasting, perhaps wearing "the artificiall Jewe of Maltae's nose" and traditional red wig denoting a traitor against Jesus, he is the archetypal villain.
If the audience knows only that he is a Jew at this point, they know by line 49 that he is not just any Jew, but Barabas, aurally the same as the robber and murderer who was freed in Christ's place. That the audience is aware of this name's relevance is confirmed by Barabas's instruction and ironic question to the merchant in the opening scene, "Go tell 'em The Jew of Malta sent thee, man; / Tush, who amongst 'em knows not Barabas?" (my emphasis). We should make a distinction here between the use of the Jew as a representative of Barabas, and the use of the Jew as a representative of Judas. Although standing for the anti-Christian race, this Jew of Malta does not stand for the specific betrayer, the damned Antichrist. A similar effect upon the audience of anti-Christianism, but not "Antichrist-ism," may occur when Shylock says of his daughter "Would any of the stock of Barabbas / Had been her husband rather than a Christian!—."
Barabas names himself here, then, but that naming paradoxically takes away from specific identity, rather than adding to it. It only places him in a category. Stephen Greenblatt has spotted a conflict of identity in Barabas, a tug-of-war between hidden psychology and what is openly declared. While plying an individuality through his self-alienating, and his exemplary "self-fashioning" behavior, Barabas is also falling into the trap of becoming a personification of a concept, not of a human being. "Most dramatic characters—Shylock would be an appropriate example—accumulate identity in the course of their play; Barabas desperately tries to dispossess himself of such identity. But this steady erosion of himself is precisely what he has pledged himself to resist; his career, then, is in its very essence suicidal."
The erosion of identity of the antagonists is an ancient requirement for tragedy. Rene Girard seems absolutely correct when he writes that "violence invariably effaces the differences between antagonists." Barabas erodes his own identity through paradoxical self-nomenclature, disguises (apparel, drugs), and association (Ithamore, the Turks, the Maltese), and through violence he and his enemies are made all but indistinguishable. The audience will be left in a quandary: whether to support the admirable efforts of the disgusting Jew or the saving grace of the popish Catholics.
How the identity of Barabas is seemingly "fattened out," made particular, is by teaming him up with a partner in crime, who will shadow Barabas and imitate his evil. Ithamore is from "Thrace; brought up in Arabia." Barabas puts aside the slave he specifically terms "Moor" to choose one who will be credited with the traditional viciousness of a Turk, but with a punning name that reminds the audience of his region of upbringing, neighbor land to the Moorish North Africa; he is a double villain. And Ithamore, like Barabas, is a critical outsider and a stranger in so far as he was not brought up where he was born and is now taken to a foreign land against his will. The Turk and the Jew are on England's stage, under the censuring eyes of the recreated "second city" spectators.
Ithamore possesses no loyalties in the conflicts that will occur, but is a pawn, a death-messenger. We could say that we are, ultimately, left with an infidel threat from a rich stranger and his servant, to a Christian strategic stronghold, the city of Malta. This viewpoint estranges the Jew, makes foreign the compact Barabas-Ithamore army, and instructs the audience to take the evil natures of the Jew and the Turk for granted. In doing so the fact of their strangeness becomes at least as important as their specific nationality or religion; or rather their equal status as infidels puts to one side the apparently foregrounded scorn for "the Jew," per se. Marlowe gives the audience a fascinating choice over how to view the relationships here: either critical outsiders versus followers of anti-Christ or evil infidels versus Christians.
It is difficult to guess just how much the general theatergoing public knew or cared about the history of Malta and the legacy of the Knights of St. John. If reports of the situation in Malta were reaching England in the 1580s, as Godfrey Wettinger claims, the concern of the English that the strategically located island be sufficiently protected from the Turk must have been mixed. Malta had not seen significant military action since the Turkish attack of 1565, the great Turkish invasions of Byzantium, Serbia, Morea, and elsewhere occurring in the fifteenth century. But the association of the Jew and the Turk was still a frightening anti-Christian force and the existence of a rich Jew in Malta was a horrendous thought, if we assume that to be rich is to be powerful.
Of course, it is also ideologically incorrect to cheer for the Spaniards represented on stage in 1592, and it is in the final act of The Jew of Malta that the audience's sympathies are tried. We may not expect an Elizabethan audience to be converted to the cause of Barabas; and neither should our modern sensitivities mislead us on the question of whether we expect them to object to the ferocity of Barabas's punishment when his entire estate was taken from him, for Barabas responds with disgusting verve.
To be sure, his murder of a friar and poisoning of a whole convent involve the comedy of the assassin set upon popish victims, and play with the tradition of the corrupt or suspect figure of the friar, but this part of the drama remains within the secure realm of the "play world." Where the audience's "real world" understanding of the figure will come from is the fact that the audience possesses a specific, analogical situation. It is located historically in 1592 and spatially outside the city walls. Steven Mullaney notes the parallel of the theatrical fictional and physical situation—Barabas outside Malta's walls, and the theater outside London's walls.
As I engage now with the analysis of a particular dramatic moment to put these proposals of place, relationship, and effect into practice, I should call a character witness to support my isolation of a scene for use as illustrative material. Yurim Lotman has said that "the analogy between painting and theatre was manifested above all in the organization of the spectacle through conspicuously pictorial means of artistic modelling, in that the stage text tended to unfold not as a continuous flux (non 'discrete') imitating the passage of time in the extra-artistic world, but as a whole clearly broken up into single 'stills' organized synchronically, each of which is set within the decor like a picture in a frame." The time-abstracted picture on which Mullaney, and now I, dwell is presented to the audience in the theater's frame, and shows Barabas thrown "o'er the walls." He wakes from the drugs he has taken to feign death and stands alone, the single unheard middle-ranking professional. He is at this moment both physically and socially (as a Jew and a foreigner) an outsider. As such he is free to begin to decide on a way to reenter the city on his own terms, using the double level of identity that each audience member possesses—that of individual subject to the city, and ideological reinventor when outside the city boundary. He must use his knowledge of the city (his "inextricable link") and also his distance (outside of the walls) to create the critical act—the player attempting a "re-semblance" of the personal character that exists without the structure and stricture of the city law.
This display of potentially subversive originality can be seen by an ideology locked within a city only as acting an unnatural part. In the South Bank theater the concept of the suburbs and of the danger of individual mental and physical liberty at this point becomes most highly charged. The whole purpose of creating a text of laws and proclamations within a jurisdiction is to ensure conformity and equal behavioral acts from its subjects. If the subject leaves that jurisdiction, she or he is free to reassess laws. Exiting an ideology (or even more simply exiting a safe, if oppressive community) to create such an original, de-legalized character produces a being who must in the end, like Barabas, be "all alone"; alone but with a charismatic power that dissatisfied Londoners might yearn for in this dark economic period. This character's deconstruction of the city body (by the removal of himself) is a way to reanalysis and affirmation of his self as potential whole thinker and act-er; it is an analogue of the audience's deconstruction of the city structure and reestablishment in the theater.
Multiple or en masse recognition of the place of the oppressed individual subject, possible only in the theater, is the beginning of the route to a common effective reaction against the city from without. It is the first step on a subversive path that leads right to the lawmakers and monarchs of the city or realm being critiqued.
It appears at first, then, that individuality is encouraged through the subjects' exiting from London, that we are seeing individuals in the audience being excited by the strongly individual character of Barabas. But in fact the theater creates a world in which the playgoers are homogenous analogues to the Jew. They may have a personal reaction to Barabas's display, but this reaction is a product of communal fashioning—it is the theater audience's reaction as a whole. This is not an encouraging concept for the human narcissistic and independence-loving psyche, but it would be, for many critics, the quintessential metamorphosis of the audience, allowing a common reception to dramatic stimuli, and so creating a serious anti-authoritarian, united force. Paul Yachnin, in his useful essay, "The Powerless Theater," denies this possibility:
In the theater of the period, political meaning was depoliticized, either by being contained within the aesthetic form as merely the indeterminate subject of imaginative representation or by being made the product of the audience's reception of the text rather than the product of the text itself. The stage's representation of the operations of power was normally not allowed to coalesce in the kind of univocal and authorized meaning which might be seen as an attempt to intervene in the real world.
Like Barabas's naming of himself at the beginning of the play, the playgoers' renaming of themselves as a theater crowd does not create specific identity; it only shifts their membership affiliation between two related categories, London city and theater city.
It is this two-fold, interdependent audience identity, I would argue, and not the weakness of drama and theater itself, which lessens dramatic political power. For in 1592 the stage was still potentially dangerous. In the theater of Marlowe, the aesthetic form of political action is not embellished or softened into an "indeterminate object of imaginative representation," but is cold, rapid display—the siege of the town cannot even be shown on the stage, it is so factual and real; the scaffold of Barabas's death is built and mastered as a new stage of death—simple, clean, quick, deadly, subversive, political.
We must reconsider the widespread concern among critics to try to prove power inherent within the theater and dramatic performance, to find a "univocal and authorized meaning which might be seen as an attempt to intervene in the real world." The play is all power game, all control mechanism, manipulating the audience; the play world is already in the real world, and should affect it. Where the problem lies, why the should is not a will, is in the fact that the audience in London city and the audience in theater city cannot entirely dislocate themselves, and a univocal meaning (or even an oversimplified authorization: to fight, to overturn, to die) falls however potently onto the ears of an audience fashioned too much by just that real world and ultimately unable to go out of the theater and act against it. It is not "the audience's reception" that we should be concerned with, but audience retention, necessary for audience action.
Thomas Cartelli's proposal that "in The Jew of Malta Marlowe provokes only minimal resistance to the enjoyment his version of burlesque affords" does not matter. It is not enough for the play to be "a collective fantasy getting out of hand." The play can assume all the powerful roles in the world. But for the play-goers to accept Barabas as their permanent hero, their subversive role model, they must reject London's ideology wholesale—not only its suppression of domestic protest, but also the long-assumed hatred for the "infidel." It is with such an ideologically cleared mind that the theatergoers subsequently would have to return to London, if they were to effect change in their personal situations as a result of the play. But such a reaction against what have largely become accepted, even if questioned, ideological norms is a lot to ask.
We must investigate further how Marlowe wheedles his critical Jew into the favor of the audience, and moreover how this can only remain a local effect, one that disintegrates with the breaking-up of the audience at the end of the play. Calymath enters to the wakened and vengeful Barabas, who proclaims "My name is Barabas; I am a Jew." The dramatic irony of the line is hilarious, for the audience can see that he is a Jew; even in the fictional image Calymath should be able to see that he is a Jew. Barabas even reveals his name before the obvious statement. And finally, as if teasing, as if he knew all along, Calymath recognizes Barabas's fame: "Art thou that Jew whose goods we heard were sold / For tribute-money?" "The very same, my lord," Barabas replies. Barabas, now outside the walls, now alone in a personal quest for revenge against the city, appears through this irony to be rebuilding the identity that he falsely set up at the beginning, a shield of nomenclature from behind which to fight. This self-reintroduction by Barabas so late in the play, rapidly followed by his plan for taking the city, should be the ultimate piece of effective "self-fashioning." But as Stephen Greenblatt reminds us, "Naming oneself is not enough; one must also name and pursue a goal. [Marlowe's] heroes do so with a splendid energy that distinguishes their words as well as their actions from the surrounding society. The Turks, friars, and Christian knights may all be driven by 'The wind that bloweth all the world besides, / Desire of gold', but only Barabas can speak of 'infinite riches in a little roome.'" But even this is not good enough. Barabas is talking in riddles. His "infinite riches" are, of course, unattainable, and this will be proven at the end of the play—at the end of all life.
As Cartelli insists, this scene certainly "provokes" the audience. The niggling fact that the Maltese city that wronged Barabas is one governed by Spanish-ruled Catholics makes its undermining—in the fiction of this play—a not unattractive proposal for the London audience. And undermining is literally what the Turks and Barabas do. They reenter the city via its sewers; they take revenge on the city emblematically in that they return through the channels that should only allow effluent to leave the jurisdiction—they are therefore dangerous excess to the city's safety, the city's political filth infecting the city structure.
Back inside the Maltese city, Barabas and the Turks avenge as iconoclasts, usurping the figures of supposed justice, rising up "dirtily" from physically—and by metaphor socially—"below" the city. The actor on stage is setting an example for the audience, but the message is not stable. As Michael Goldman has said, "We are made sharply aware of the actor both activating an icon and altering it"; manipulation is the name of the game.
Scene ii of the final act opens with the assault having succeeded. Magically, off-stage, in the "theatrical space without," the city of the Spanish crusaders is violated. Hanna Scolnicov writes:
The founding of Rome [in Ovid's Fasti] is described as a cutting-off and consecrating of a particular space. According to Eliade, city walls were originally erected not for military protection but as a magical defence, for they marked out from the midst of a "chaotic" space, peopled with demons and phantoms, an enclosure, a place that was organised, provided with a "centre."
The sacred circle, cut off and delimited, consecrated and imbued with strength and significance, is highly suggestive in relation to the theatrical space.
If the theater is its own "organised" space, it is truly a "second city": a walled, organized location of life-stories, parts of which others experience, relate, or miss completely. There is more. The idea of magical defense reflects the reliance of the theater on illusion—the illusion of protection (that the Essex conspirators trusted to), of autonomy, and of power within the theatrical (architectural) space. The theater is an alternative not only to the geographical city space but also to the city ideology. It is a "sacred" alternative to the religious requirement of the official ideological apparatus; the trend to contrast the theater with a church or with schools, theaters being places of ungodly learning, was perhaps a more profound observation than many contemporary writers realized.
We are shown that Barabas's method of entry has left the city walls physically intact. His self-enclosure in the city is his suicidal version of "the constant attempt by characters within the plays to control, imprison, and wall up one another, while maintaining to themselves the fiction of breaking boundaries down." Intention-success (performance of the intended action) is possible, but purpose-success (achievement of the desired end) is ultimately not. The overthrow of the oppressor does not result in finality; revolution is not a stable condition. So, ultimately, despite all the promise, the theatergoers are not given a way to hold the city from within. The Machiavellian element may be involved in the successful siege, but is really confirmed with typical Marlovian sleight-of-hand in the successful princehood and protection of the fortress by Ferneze. The power of drama gulls the audience. Barabas's victory is temporary, even illusory. His greed will cause a final self-destructive attempt at gain and glory and the Catholic Christians will regain the city; their sacred wall—the Religious State Apparatus—remains intact, too. The two enclosures, city and theater, remain discrete and undamaged.
Rebecca W. Bushnell is near to the mark with her summary of Tamburlaine I and II and The Jew of Malta as "plays that explore the craving for power and the strategies of usurpation. None of these plays concerns the exercise of power as tyranny; instead, each play displays the Spectacle of ambition." She continues:
In The Jew of Malta, when Barabas is installed as governor, he seems momentarily confused; like Tamburlaine, he understands only need and not its fulfillment, so when he seeks "for much, but [can] not compass it," it is because he cannot bear to be "compassed." Having achieved authority, Barabas almost immediately collapses, and one of his own "engines" backfires on him. In the logic of representing ambition in these plays, the conclusion is not morally motivated, the action just grinds to a halt when desire is exhausted.
Stephen Greenblatt has blamed Barabas's failure on "his desire to avoid the actual possession of power." Indeed, by keeping the horizon of his power struggle exactly that—an ever-escaping sight ("infinite riches")—Barabas avoids having to hold on to the reality of power, avoids the inevitability of having to impose limits on his power (hence the dreadful mistake inherent in walling himself in the city). Tamburlaine similarly sees infinite space left to conquer as he peruses a map in his final hours of life. Peter S. Donaldson says of Tamburlaine's reception of the tactile crown:
The crown is necessary here not because Tamburlaine has any real sense of the earthly fruition he claims it represents, but because one must turn to something from the chaotic reflection of man's essence in nature, from warring elements, wandering planets, reflecting inner weariness and aimless oscillation. Marlowe mentions the "wondrous architecture" of the world, but what he presents is not an ordered universe, but rather one that mirrors the disorder of a fragmented self. To aim at the crown is really to turn away from the chaos of nature to a realm of willed coherence. The speech passes from images of fragmenting "natural" energies to the stable but ironic self-icon of the crown.
Barabas is the alternative power seeker. His "willed coherence" is strong, but his "aimless oscillation" is revealed in his final fall into the cauldron. Barabas does have a real sense of the earthly fruition that he claims his power signifier—money—represents, but he cannot grasp the reality of power itself. The chase is more thrilling—and less tiresome—than holding on to the struggling catch called the power of rule. His ordered intention is reflected in his carefully constructed execution scaffold upon the stage; but his desire for avoidance of final power—the purpose-success—makes this scaffold another "self-icon," the rebuilt ("revolutionary," reinstating, return to the original) power structure.
What is provided for the audience is only the suggestion that from without the city can be challenged. There is no dramatic force that can scale the walls and overturn this "real world." In the end political subversion is within the power of the theater, but it cannot be converted to revolution inside the city by the audience, who must be the agents of any such process. But we may not like this ending. It is depressing. So we come back at it with dramatic subversion like the Isle of Dogs affair, or the incidents surrounding The Play of Sir Thomas More. Or we cite the Dutch Church libel, with its "Machiavellian Marchant," its "Paris massacre" and its marginal "Tamburlaine," a prime example of a political text born of social and political dissatisfaction, of the force of knowledge of foreign affairs, and of the power of Marlowe's particular seminar in subversion at the "schoole of abuse" called the Rose.
But the Dutch Church Libel was a sheet pinned up in the primary city (London), that having stated its dramatic influences from the second city of performance (the Rose), remains a text that hints at revolutionary, subversive, individualistic possibility, yet in reality confirms only nationalistic and xenophobic homogeneity. Full of plans and threats—like Barabas—the text has lost its ability to turn into action somewhere in the "passage" between the theater and the streets of London.
Source: Lloyd E. Kermode, "Marlowe's Second City: The Jew as Critic at the Rose in 1592," in Studies in English Literature, Vol. 35, No. 2, Spring 1995, pp 215-26.
Whenever The Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice are staged in close juxtaposition (as in the 1965 summer season at Stratford-upon-Avon, the role of the great Jew in both being superbly taken by Eric Porter), the audience is vividly provoked to reflect on two radically differing sorts of dramatic mind. The plays, it is true, have much in common. In both, riches and the power they confer are a theme to be explored. In both, the traffic of the world and the excitement of exotic places offer imaginative enlargement far beyond what is actually seen; this is an instance of that "emotion of multitude" which W. B. Yeats defined as "the rich, far-wandering, many-imaged life of the half-seen world [beyond] the little limited life of the fable"—a sense of mysterious range essential, Yeats thought, to all great men. In both plays a victimized Jew seeks bloody revenge against a professedly but questionably "Christian" world (each man, in E. M. W. Tillyard's phrase, "utterly and irretrievably the alien") and in so doing is felt to have a case. In both, a virtuous daughter abandons her grasping father for a "Christian" allegiance and is execrated; and in both, in a sensational coup de theatre, the villain falls on the threshold of triumph. Shakespeare owes Marlowe much, both in the choice of material and in the many echoes which show how his assimilative ear had taken the rich suggestiveness of his contemporary's style.
Yet the differences are profound. Marlowe cuts a singleminded and powerful cleft through his startling material. Shakespeare, myriad-minded and richly humane, explores the varying shades and colors which make up human nature. Marlowe, in a play impelled by the dynamism of duplicities, rivets us to the intense theme of vengeful outwitting. Shakespeare, with seemingly nonchalant daring, interweaves two plots, the one a fairytale romance of quick courtship wherein, for once, the course of true love does run smooth, the other a drama of hatred on a time scale of slow, increasing danger, and so skillfully does he relate the quick romance and the slow potential tragedy that instead of incoherence he offers a rich experience of love and suffering together, the love enhanced by heartfelt concern, the danger stunningly averted by love's skill, while, like a musical composition, the play extends our feelings widely by its interrelationship of contrasts. A telling comment is that of John Russell Brown, in Shakespeare and his Comedies, reminding us how flexibly we must adjust to what Shakespeare sets before us;
Shakespeare does not simply contrive a contrast of black and white, a measured interplay of abstract figures with every detail tilting into a predetermined pattern. The lovers are not all paragons, and Shylock's cry for revenge is not without "a kind of wild justice". Judged against Shakespeare's ideal of love's wealth we cannot doubt on which side our sympathies should rest, but such final harmony is only established after we have judged, as in life, between mixed motives and imperfect responses. Even when the central theme has been recognized, The Merchant of Venice is not an 'easy' play; it presents a plot to which we must respond as to a golden ideal, and also as to a human action.
The difference between the two dramatists is analogous to that which, in Table Talk of 12 May 1830, Coleridge defined as between Shakespeare and Milton—Shakespeare the creator working from within his material, letting it grow seemingly by laws of its own origination (and so, as critics observe, akin to Nature herself), Milton the creator imposing on his material his own mind and temper, dominating the artifact by his personality. Shakespeare, Coleridge observed,
is the Spinozistic deity, an omnipresent creativeness. Milton is the deity of prescience; he stands ab extra and drives a fiery chariot and four, making the horses feel the iron curb which holds them in.
Marlowe would stand with Milton, as he does too in magniloquence and in daring and grandeur of idea. His nature urged him to project his own reading of life, and the personality stamped on the artifact is demonstrative and willfull. Tamburlaine, the Guise, Faustus, Barabas confront us in the strongest way, head-on. As a heterodox thinker Marlowe has affinities with Herman Melville—restless in enquiry, free-thinking, convinced that the universe has meaning, however ambiguous it may be, and noting with grim and sardonic zest the difference between what men profess and what they do. T. S. Eliot called Marlowe "the most thoughtful, the most blasphemous (and therefore probably the most Christian) of his contemporaries." Marlowe was no more a moral anarchist than Melville was. Both were given to rebellious extravagance, yet both were bound by deep intuitions to show rebels destroyed by the very anarchy of rebelliousness. They ultimately assert—not the hypocrisies of orthodoxy but the humanist sense of moral law. In The Jew of Malta the virtue of Barabas' daughter Abigail shines like a good deed in a naughty world; it had been the mission of the original Abigail (of 1 Samuel, chapter 25) to turn David from vengeance to a heaven-blessed peace (though Marlowe's Abigail signally fails to soften her vindictive parent).
Yet what corresponded most profoundly to Marlowe's instincts was not the retributive doom which smites Tamburlaine, or the divinity which condemns Faustus, or the critique of Machiavellism (as sensationalized by the Elizabethans) which lies behind The Jew of Malta, but the excitement of rebellious unorthodoxy. As with Shakespeare over Richard of Gloucester, or Jonson over Volpone, or Melville over Ahab, it is defiant individualism which exerts the supreme spell. Tamburlaine invokes Zeus' rebellion against Kronos/Saturn to prove that Nature "doth teach us all to have aspiring minds." Marlowe's enemies reported his blasphemies with horror—blasphemies such as that "the first beginning of religion was only to keep men in awe," or that "Christ deserved better to die than Barabas." "Almost into every company he com-eth," Richard Baines testified, "he persuades men to atheism." Allowance being made for bravado, Marlowe looks less an atheist than a deist or libertin (not that the distinction would have mollified Baines). Barabas has his God, of sorts, and calls on him as First Mover, Primus Motor. But it is of the nature of Primus Motor that, having set things going, he withdraws himself: in The Jew Marlowe offers a world wound up as by clockwork to go through its cycle of amoralities. And even when the play ends with specious piety—
Come, march away, and let due praise be given Neither to Fate nor Fortune, but to Heaven—
this figures only as satire on hypocritical "Christianity."
Marlowe's hero owes something, though only as rollicking travesty, to a princely and famous Jewish merchant-banker-diplomat, Joao Miquez or Mendez, Portuguese by birth, a handsome and brilliant man whose financial power was felt throughout the Mediterranean world and who, setting up in the Jewish community of Constantinople, exerted a central influence on the Sultan's diplomacy. His renown spread through Europe and the Near East; rumors of almost superhuman subtlety and adroitness ran through the sixteenth-century corridors of power. The size of his fleets, the power of his wealth, and the complications of his diplomacy fascinated the imagination as far away from Constantinople as London, where Marlowe could have heard about him in the circles of politics and business. Mendez differs from Barabas as much as a merchant-prince-diplomat might be expected to differ from an Elizabethan dramatic bogeyman-Machiavellian; yet the notion of politic trickery in the context of Mediterranean traffic and war set Marlowe's invention excitedly at work. So also did the notion of Machiavellism, the idea that man could control his circumstances provided he operated without moral limitation. The Machiavelli who speaks Marlowe's prologue may have been prompted by a Latin epigram by Gabriel Harvey, supposedly spoken by Machiavelli himself, which, translated, melodramatically concludes:
Alone I scheme, live, triumph for myself. Who knows not the rest? Fraud is my chiefest quality: The next, Force; I know no other gods. Peruse The Prince, that monument of my spirit, No longer will you ask who Machiavelli was.
With respect to Elizabethan drama, what Machiavelli was really after has little to do with the case. What he was thought to be after was political diabolism, and what appealed to popular taste was the thrill of gleeful and imperious villainy, the motive of Lorenzo in The Spanish Tragedy, Aaron in Titus Andronicus, Edmund in King Lear, and that Richard of Gloucester who, knowing "neither pity, love, nor fear," professes that he can:
Deceive more slily than Ulysses could Change shapes with Proteus for advantages, And set the murderous Machiavel to school
Like Lorenzo in The Spanish Tragedy—
I'll trust myself; myself shall be my friend—
and like Richard of Gloucester—
I have no brother, I am like no brother, And this word 'love', which greybeards call divine, Be resident in men like one another And not in me! I am myself alone—
Barabas stands for himself—"Ego mihimet sum semper proximus"—soliloquizing that
Barabas is born to better chance, And framed of finer mould than common men That measure naught but by the present time A reaching thought will search his deepest wits, And cast with cunning for the time to come.
Renaissance Man came in various models—Calvinistic (depraved, unless redeemed by divine grace), temperate and orthodox (the Spenserian model), the prodigious (l'uomo singulare), and so on. The prodigious was the type Marlowe went for, and since prodigies cannot be moderate, violence went with them, in flings of primitive and heroic ruthlessness. This is the spirit in which one of the greatest of Marlowe's individualists expresses himself, the Guise of The Massacre at Paris:
Oft have I levelled, and at last have learned That peril is the chiefest way to happiness, And resolution honour's fairest aim. What glory is there in a common good That hangs for every peasant to achieve? That like I best that flies beyond my reach Set me to scale the high Pyramides And thereon set the diadem of France, I'll either rend it with my nails to naught, Or mount the top with my aspiring wings, Although my downfall be the deepest hell.
Burckhardt, in his Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, evokes the Renaissance individualist in terms that define this conception, and Barabas in particular:
The fundamental vice of his character was at the same time a condition of its greatness, namely, excessive individualism. The individual first inwardly casts off the authority of the state which, in fact, is in most cases tyrannical and illegitimate, and what he thinks and does is, rightly or wrongly, now called treason. The sight of victorious egotism in others drives him to defend his own right by his own arm. And, while thinking to restore his inward equilibrium, he falls, through the vengeance which he executes, into the hands of the powers of darkness. He retains the feeling of his own sovereignty and forms his decision independently, according as honour or interest, passion or calculation, revenge or renunciation, gain the upper hand in his own mind.
This conception, at a time when outrage was rife, when torture was the order of the day, when poisoners—a precedent for Barabas' fate—might be boiled alive (there are striking pages on this in Leon Radzinowicz's History of Criminal Law), and when assassination was not the act of hate-crazed maniacs but a recognized weapon of state policy—this conception, when worked out in Tamburlaine or The Jew of Malta, need not be attributed, as Mario Praz once did, to Marlowe's "cold, gloating lust" for cruelty. Indeed, there is a rich quarry of colorful violences in the medieval romances which the Elizabethans read, and the popularity of which Louis Wright amply demonstrated in Middle-Class Culture in Elizabethan England. Barabas' outrageous and farcical crimes in pursuit of vengeance engrossed the fancy at a time when the supposed diabolism of Machiavellian policy and Mediterranean villainy were implicitly believed in, and shocking brutalities officially practiced.
But first Barabas appears not as the ingenious villain but as the prince of riches. A crown, he admits, is beyond his grasp; that must be left to Christians, "That thirst so much for principality." Instead, Machiavelli informs us, he smiles
to see how full his bags are crammed, Which money was not got without my means.
Piling up gold, exasperated with counting-house minutiae, avid for endless accumulation, he lets his mind range the world to dwell on those dignitaries—Arabian, Moorish, East Indian—whose wealth comes not in individual coins but in wedges and masses of gold, and jewels so uncountable that, rare and precious though they be, they are sold in gross. Moving his piles of gold in his counting-house he relates them to his Persian ventures, to traders of Italy and Palestine bringing Spanish oils and Grecian wines, and then, his spirits soaring, he rates gold and jewels as means to glory and power, resources "To ransom great kings from captivity," "Infinite riches in a little room." Marlowe's verse retains the swing, the opulence, and the melodies of Tamburlaine's "mighty line," in, for instance,
Give me the merchants of the Indian mines, That trade in metal of the purest mould, The wealthy Moor, that in the eastern rocks Without control can pick his riches up, And in his house heap pearl like pebble-stones.
But a greater dramatic expressiveness breaks through, superior to the large magniloquence of Tamburlaine. (If Dr. Faustus preceded The Jew of Malta, then of course an enormous development in dramatic style had already taken place, outranging anything achieved in The Jew: the relative precedence is uncertain.) At any rate, Barabas pilots his way sensuously through his thoughts, rising to the exultancy in which he celebrates the beauty and power of his wealth:
Bags of fiery opals, sapphires, amethysts, Jacinths, hard topaz, grass-green emeralds, Beauteous rubies, sparkling diamonds, And seld-seen costly stones of so great price As one of them, indifferently rated, And of a carat of this quantity, May serve, in peril of calamity, To ransom great kings from captivity This is the ware wherein consists my wealth; And thus, methinks, should men of judgment frame Their means of traffic from the vulgar trade, And, as their wealth increaseth, so inclose Infinite riches in a little room.
His soliloquy ending, his mind flows in a sweep of enchanted geography through the melodies of exotic names and luxurious textures:
I hope my ships I sent for Egypt and the bordering isles Are gotten up by Nilus' winding banks Mine argosy from Alexandria, Loaden with spice and silks, now under sail, Are smoothly gliding down by Candy shore To Malta, through our Mediterranean sea.
Behind Barabas' wide-stretching imagination there ranges the mercantile zest of Elizabethan England; as Harry Levin comments, "Marlowe has grasped what is truly imaginative, what in his time was almost heroic, about business enterprise." English navigation, Hakluyt observes,
made for the parts of Africa, and either within or without the straits of Gibraltar, within, to Constantinople in Romania, to Alexandria and Cairo in Egypt, and to Tripoli in Barbary, without, to Santa Cruz, to Asafi, to the city of Morocco, to the River of Senegal, to the isles of Cape Verde, to Guinea, to Benin, and round about the dreadful Cape of Bona Speranza as far as Goa.
In The Jew of Malta wealth figures in a single aspect. "The wind that bloweth all the world besides, /Desire of gold"—thus does the Basso of the Turks sum up all human motives, as he demands Malta's tribute, a theme already heard from Lorenzo in The Spanish Tragedy:
Where words prevail not, violence prevails, But gold doth more than either of them both.
Desire of gold, on the symbolical and almost metaphysical level of Barabas' fantasy, on the political level which makes Maltese and Turks negotiate over tribute, on the economic level which makes the Spaniards put in to market their slaves (and so brings to Barabas his ame damnee, Ithamore), or on the hypocritical religious level which makes two friars compete to enrich then: respective houses by seeking to convert Barabas—this is the mainspring of the participants, with "policy" and revenge as variants. Marlowe's exhilarated concentration on man as predator gives the play its comic-horrific force. Primus Motor gives his creation the motive of self-interest and then leaves it to the interaction of the forces which that motive provokes. If gold is the world's desire, policy is the world's practice, the rods and cranks of the Machiavellian machine. Quickly the sweep and verve of Barabas' opening monologue, envisioning endless and deserved enrichment—
Thus trolls our fortune in by land and sea, And thus are we on every side enriched These are the blessings promised to the Jews, And herein was old Abram's happiness What more may heaven do for earthly man Than thus to pour out plenty in their laps, Ripping the bowels of the earth for them, Making the seas their servant, and the winds To drive their substance with successful blasts—
quickly this language of prosperity validated by Heaven's bounty to its chosen race turns to anger and revenge under the tyranny and hypocrisy with which the Governor mulcts Barabas of his wealth. Plays of "policy" must have tricky plots—The Spanish Tragedy, Titus Andronicus, Hamlet, Volpone, The Revenger's Tragedy—and must work for sensation; men stand or fall by their wits in a treacherous world. Whether as great merchant or ingenious avenger Barabas is the supreme operator. Yet the professed Christians are—like Richard of Gloucester's cronies and most of his enemies—no better, and act by act Marlowe's inventive gusto shows them up for the double-dealers they are, in a ruthless assessment of society's motives projected through a drama designed to display them with lusty and enjoyable cynicism and great dramatic vitality; it all tells, and tells to a single, definable, critical end.
How differently, in The Merchant of Venice, does Shakespeare conduct material which, superficially, offers a general resemblance. He lets his reading of life (a far richer reading than Marlowe's) reveal itself not in manifestos but in valuations we are moved to make imaginatively within ourselves. If affirmation is Marlowe's habit, Shakespeare—to vary a little the sense of Sidney's phrase in the Apologie—"never affirmeth," never, even when Portia discourses on mercy, imposes fixed ideas. Marlowe opens his play with Machiavelli and then at once presents his masterful Jew to stamp his play with the theme of cupidity, as Richard III's opening monologue announces scheming ambition and that of Volpone announces blasphemous exorbitance. Shakespeare too at once presents his rich man, but in this case as the soul of beneficence. Antonio never registers with the force of Barabas, let alone of Shylock, but it is not his function to do so. He is the center on which the lines of force converge, not (like Barabas) that from which they originate. Love and generosity are the prevailing values of Shakespeare's world of comedy, but he presents The Merchant of Venice's moral scheme in a teasingly ambivalent way, while leaving no ultimate doubt of his fundamental valuation. He idealizes goodness in Belmont (yet not without some unideal causticity over the unwanted suitors), varies Venice's predominant geniality with half-understandable harshness to the alien usurer, and concentrates malignancy into one overwhelming figure while yet deeply humanizing that figure. The love and idealism, though conceived in a spirit of romantic idealism, are not sentimental; they recognize antipathy, and Antonio has spat upon Shylock's Jewish gaberdine. But characteristically it is the love of friends which first manifests itself (and Shakespeare's opening themes are often significant), a love strangely shadowed, for Antonio is oppressed by a melancholy which puzzles himself and his acquaintance, a melancholy which, if a logical reason is to be sought for it, seems an unconscious premonition of threatening doom, Antonio's function being to serve selflessly and suffer with a strange submissiveness. But I prefer to think that the melancholy is not to be logically explained but arises from Shakespeare's intuitions about the world of comedy, that beauty and happiness, if unalloyed by something of grief, lose the full complex richness they should have, Portia, too, is afflicted with a weariness which Nerissa seeks to jest away. The love stories which, as the moonlight sleeps on the garden of Belmont, the happy Lorenzo and Jessica recall—those of Troilus, Thisbe, Dido, and Medea—have all a cast of lyrical grief. In contrast to Marlowe, this is that haunting complexity of mood which makes mature Shakespearean comedy so subtle an experience. How suggestive are Jessica's words to Lorenzo—"I am never merry when I hear sweet music." With these reflective shadowings, yet lightening them all with kindliness and gaiety, Shakespeare reveals his two embodiments of goodness, Antonio in the first scene, Portia in the second. It is with these two also that the exotic and romantic wonders so richly announced in The Jew of Malta but so soon withdrawn are realized. It is Antonio's, not Shylock's, "argosies with portly sail, / Like signiors and rich burgers flood," which express the magical traffic of the great city. It is Antonio, not Shylock, who, as the distrustful usurer warns Bassanio, "hath an argosy bound to Tripolis, another to the Indies; I understand, moreover, upon the Rialto, he hath a third at Mexico, a fourth for England—and other ventures he hath, squandered abroad." It is Portia whose beauty, wealth, and virtue bring suitors whom "the four winds blow in from every coast," drawn as Jason was to Colchos by the Golden Fleece of her sunny locks. There are critics, seduced perhaps by an economic Zeitgeist, or perhaps by the semantics of "fleece," who take all this for the merest fortune-hunting, and it is true that Bassanio, touching Antonio for the wherewithal to get to Belmont, explains that by spotting the right casket he will "get clear of all the debts I owe." There is a long tradition which judges all Venice to be ruled by Pecunia, to be the Venice of Volpone, and all Venetians to be out for what they can get, so that the imposition of' 'Christianity'' on the beaten Shylock is nauseating cynicism. It has been argued that by courtship Bassanio repairs his fortunes, that Portia lacks compassion for her baffled suitors, that Antonio has spurned Shylock like a dog, that Lorenzo takes Shylock's ducats along with his daughter, and that Gratiano—hitherto a harmless minor Mercutio—gloats venomously over the fallen enemy. Human nature certainly has its blemishes, and Elizabethan laughter is often unsentimental. But the realism of these human imperfections is not the code for unlocking the play's meaning. "Logic," Harley Granville-Barker remarked with the experienced producer's insight, "can turn Bassanio into a heartless adventurer.... But the actor will find he simply cannot play Bassanio as a humbug." C. S. Lewis spoke excellently on the point when in his British Academy lecture "Hamlet, the Prince or the Poem?'" he touched on The Merchant of Venice, finding it
a good example of the kind of play which can be twisted out of recognition by character criticism ... Nothing is easier than to disengage and condemn the mercenary elements in Bassanio's original suit to Portia, to point out that Jessica was a bad daughter, and by dwelling on Shylock's wrongs to turn him into a tragic figure. The hero thus becomes a scamp, the heroine's love for him a disaster, the villain a hero, the last act an irrelevance, and the casket story a monstrosity. What is not explained is why anyone should enjoy such a depressing and confused piece of work.
Fortunately, much more generous views of the play have been offered in recent years, not only by Granville-Barker and C. S. Lewis but by Bertrand Evans, John Russell Brown, E. M. W. Tillyard, and others. Tillyard, in his posthumously-published Shakespeare's Early Comedies, asked for "a renewed simplicity of vision, and renewed attention to what the text tells us." If Antonio's friends are, as Quiller-Couch thought, "a circle of wasters, born to consume the fruits of the earth," the play would lack moral form. "A renewed simplicity of vision'' is indeed to be desired in many areas of Shakespeare criticism, and applied to The Merchant of Venice it would reveal, from the words of the text, that Shakespeare has done all he can to present a company of friendly, lively youths, speaking unaffectedly of love and honor, "argosies themselves" (as Granville-Barker calls them) "of high-flowing speech," affectionate to one another, and deeply concerned for Antonio in the strange mood that overshadows him, and the mortal danger that impends over him. If Portia's sunny locks are the Golden Fleece, Bassanio's adventure for her is aimed not at her gold but at herself, her charm and beauty. Her wealth is the bounty to her virtues, and all—wealth, charm, beauty, and virtues together—are destined to the right suitor by a father so holy that his device of the caskets must infallibly bring her to bliss. So Shakespeare tunes a Marlovian eloquence to celebrate her world-compelling beauty:
All the world desires her From the four corners of the world they come To kiss this shrine, this mortal-breathing saint The Hyrcanian deserts and the vasty wilds Of wide Arabia are as throughfares now For princes come to view fair Portia. The watery kingdom, whose ambitious head Spits in the face of heaven, is no bar To stop the foreign spirits, but they come As o'er a brook to see fair Portia.
Portia, the center of the world's homage, and Antonio, the soul of self-sacrificing friendship—these have a providential right to their sway. It was a happy decision which prompted John Russell Brown to treat the play under the title of "ove's Wealth": before Shakespeare ever lets us see Shylock he establishes the themes of generosity among friends and of wealth as goodness. Antonio's prosperity is as much a fairytale matter as is Portia's; his argosies come and go without his raising a finger or opening a ledger—they are cast away as if by witchcraft, and brought to port again as if by miracle. It is Shylock who works for his ducats, reckoning terms, estimating risks, drawing up bonds, keeping strict conditions, and answering the plea for mercy with "What justice shall I fear, doing no wrong?"
The Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice are both about the motives of society. Marlowe sees these, apart from some redeeming gleams in minor characters, as the manipulation of power, wealth being its sinews and intrigue its method. Shakespeare's interpretation is quite different. The Merchant of Venice celebrates human goodness, not uncritically, for no unblemished world exists, yet responding movingly to what goodness can be among men and women. Bassanio and Portia have loved at first sight and have kept their love fresh during absence; Bassanio courts her for the grace of body and spirit she so eminently expresses; Lorenzo adores Jessica for being wise, fair, and true; Bassanio offers his life for his friend's; and Antonio, with grave and tender dignity, will sacrifice his life for Bassanio's happiness.
At three points, however, we are brought up sharply. Antonio admits he has spat on Shylock and is like to do so again: Gratiano gloats over the beaten enemy: and Christianity is imposed on Shylock as a condition for the "mercy" that is shown him. At these points we need to recognize how strongly Elizabethan assumptions could prevail in popular taste. There were deep-rooted traditions about the morality of money-lending, deep-rooted antipathies against intriguing aliens (especially murderously intriguing ones, like Shylock), and deep-rooted beliefs that Christian baptism was essential for salvation.
Shakespeare's "ideas" are generally conventional, and his sense of economics (if one may term it thus) is not less so than other regions of his thought. One may query how, in any practical way, trade can be carried on without money-lending for profit, but the play is not about practical ways of carrying on trade; it is about generosity and avarice. In Thomas Wilson's Discourse of Usury (1572) occur words which might express Shakespeare's own assumptions:
To lend freely is a kind of liberality and bountifulness, when a man departeth from his own to help his neighbour's want, without any hope of lucre or gain at all, for he is benefited that borroweth and feeleth great comfort in his great need. Whereas lending for gain is a chief branch of covetousness, and makes him, that might before have been accounted bountiful, to be now reckoned a greedy gainer for himself, seeking his own welfare upon good assurance, without any care at all what becometh of his neighbour ... God ordaineth lending for maintenance of amity, and declaration of love, betwixt man and man, whereas now lending is used for private benefit and oppression, and so no charity is used at all.
When generosity itself, as in the play, is within an ace of being the victim of legal murder committed against
the kindest man, The best conditioned and unwearied spirit In doing courtesies, and one in whom The ancient Roman honour more appears Than any that draws breath in Italy,
Gratiano's almost hysterical taunts must have provided a safety-valve for an audience ill-disposed both to Jews and to usury. For Thomas Wilson, usury is clearly the road to Hell, and those who practice it are the devil's servants. And Shylock's enforced conversion from both usury and Judaism would be, for an Elizabethan, a major benefit bestowed on him.
The play is, in fact, finely devised to set "maintenance of amity and declaration of love" above "private benefit and oppression." But the problem is to prevent its being monopolized in our attentions by Shylock. Shylock cannot possibly be played down; in every phrase he reveals a mind governed by the fatal conditioning to which it has been subjected. Harry Levin thought that "in rounding off the angles and mitigating the harshness of Marlowe's caricature Shakespeare loses something of its intensity." But surely this is not so. Barabas, hurling his play through its farrago of excitements, remains a series of formulas—Dives, libertin, revenger. Shylock is a man in whom cohere, full and unmitigated, tragic and terrible alienations.
In Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil Bernard Spivack defined the violences such men undergo, racked by their inner evil:
They all reflect the suffering that appetite experiences m an environment that resists it Revenge, ambition, lust, are in all of them a fever .. They have, as it were, a career of illness inside the dramatic action that contains their lives, and all their words and deeds are consistent symptoms of its course towards crisis
The finest Shylock I have seen, that of Sir Michael Redgrave, left one in no doubt about the humiliations which have made him what he is, but equally in no doubt about the fanatic and frenetic evil those humiliations have engendered. Fearful and grand as this is, there must be set up against it such a countervailing morality as will make valid the play's fundamental belief that goodness and love are what life is really about. Hazlitt (and others have done likewise) found his sympathies much more with Shylock than with Shylock's opponents. "He ishonestinhis vices," Hazlitt observed, "they are hypocrites in their virtues." But this would make The Merchant of Venice much more like The Jew of Malta than it is. We now lack the Christian conditioning which, behind whatever shortfallings the "Christians" reveal, gave a deep valuation to the play's controlling intuitions. Recently in the criticism for instance of Bertrand Evans and E. M. W. Tillyard there has been a renewed sense that these values support the drama. Portia's confrontation of Shylock is not, as often supposed, an exercise in legalistic outwitting. First, the Duke has tried his persuasion; surely, he urges, at the last moment Shylock, "Touched with human gentleness and love," will be merciful. This plea signally failing, Bassamo offers double repayment, to be likewise refused. Finally, Portia tries three lines of appeal.
First, in her speech on the quality of mercy a speech so familiar that we may overlook the passion with which it relates mercy to the Christian tradition she pleads with Shylock to show that he shares in the religious nature of man. But for him the nature of man amounts to moral self-sufficiency ' 'My deeds upon my head!'' Then she offers ample repayment and again pleads for mercy, only to be met with that "oath in heaven" which signifies what Shylock's idea of "heaven" stands for vengeance on racial and personal enemies. At last she pleads for a surgeon, "for charity"; but that is not in the bond. And only then, when Shylock is merciless both to his victim and to himself, does she enforce the legal trap quibble though it may be which allows goodness to triumph over evil.
Aspects of Shylock do indeed move us; aspects of Venice do indeed disturb us. Hatred breeds hatred; so much the play says, and The Jew of Malta had said it too, the practice of the world bearing them both out. But love breeds love; this the play also says, and The Jew of Malta had not said it. The values set up against the corrosions of hatred are wonderfully rendered in the poetry, in the grace, tenderness, and eloquence with which it conveys its themes of love and honor. It does not strain after conceits or intricate logic; its quality is rather a confident and beautiful clarity, tender with humor and sympathy between Antonio and his friends, courtly and sweet-natured between Bassanio and Portia, measured and poignant in Antonio's peril, and climaxed with lyrical harmony in the moonlit gardens of Belmont:
How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank! Here will we sit and let the sounds of music Creep in our ears, soft stillness and the night Become the touches of sweet harmony. Sit, Jessica Look how the floor of heaven Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold, There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st But in his motion like an angel sings, Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubms Such harmony is in immortal souls, But whilst this muddy vesture of decay Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it Come, ho' [to the Musicians] and wake Diana with a hymn, With sweetest touches pierce your mistress' ear, And draw her home with music
It is through such poetry of grace and goodness that the play achieves a strength positive enough to contain the explosive force of Shylock. Marlowe offers audacity as life's value. Shakespeare intends no overt message, yet from his fantasy of enchanted princess and dangerous ogre there rises such truth of humanity and such beauty of valuation as, in Shelleyan phrase, "minister to the effect by acting upon the cause," affecting us not as "the deity of prescience" but as that "omnipresent creativeness" by which we realize in our own imaginative and moral natures the humanity Shakespeare so movmgly interprets in the play.
Source: Arthur Humphreys, "The Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice Two Readings of Life," in The HuntmgtonLibrary Quarterly, Vol. 50, No 3, Summer 1987, pp 279-92.