Anti-Semitism in The Jew of Malta

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2075

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.

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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.

None 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...

(The entire section contains 12775 words.)

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