Places Discussed

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*Malta. Small Mediterranean island group south of Sicily on which the entire play is set. Because of its strategic location in the Mediterranean, Malta was occupied by a succession of foreign powers, including the Ottoman Turks, who are besieging the island at the time in which the play is set, when the island has a Christian government ruled by the Knights of St. John.

Barabas’s house

Barabas’s house. Home of the wealthy merchant of the play’s title, Barabas, who alienates Malta’s governor by refusing to convert to Christianity or to give the government half of his property. The governor seizes his property to punish him, and transforms his home into a Roman Catholic convent, in which Barabas’s daughter Abigail is entered as a novice. Much of the play’s plot revolves around Barabas’s efforts to retrieve sacks of gold he has hidden under his house’s floor and to exact his revenge.

The convent’s upper and lower levels make for an effective scene on the stage with two voices in the dark. Barabas is on the lower level eulogizing his gold; Abigail is above eulogizing her father. Like the island itself, this protective enclosure is vulnerable; Barabas poisons everyone within his house, including his own daughter.

Barabas also has a second house, which he uses as a secret center for plotting against the city, its officers, and the nuns who occupy his first house.

Historical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 773

The Catholic World
In the course of Marlowe's play, the author manages to provide a negative depiction of two major religious groups, the Roman Catholics and the Jews. In both cases, these depictions reflect the general attitude of his English audience toward these two entities. Much of the religious rhetoric in Marlowe's The Jew of Malta reflects the real-life tensions between the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England, which was formally established by Elizabeth I in 1559. After the formal establishment of the Church of England, some of the tension of the past twenty-five years dissipated, primarily because the queen was more tolerant of religious choice and less likely to endorse the extreme prosecution that Mary I favored. During the brief years of Mary Tudor's reign, 1553-1558, religious intolerance and religiously-inspired murder became commonplace. Mary, who was a Roman Catholic, immediately reinstated Catholicism as the official religion in England; she also reestablished the Pope's dominion over the English. Moving quickly, she outlawed Protestantism to please her new bridegroom, Philip of Spain. Protestants were persecuted, and hundreds were burned at the stake when they refused to convert to Catholicism. Mary's ruthlessness earned her the nickname, "Bloody Mary." In contrast to Mary's rule, Elizabeth seemed a refreshing new breath in the kingdom. She was young and beautiful, full of energy, and vibrant. And although she quickly established Protestantism as the official religion, she manifested none of the intolerance of her older sister, Mary. The legacy of Mary's reign was a fear of Catholicism and a determination to permit no Roman Catholic in government, or in power. The immediate effect of Mary's reign was that any plotting that was discovered, any subversion that was detected, any unexpected crisis, could well be credited to Catholic sympathizers. Even nearly forty years after her death, the people were still afraid of the Catholic Church and convinced that the Pope might at any time reappear to claim their country in the name of the Roman Catholic Church. This distrust of Catholics was evident in Marlowe's own life, when his final degree from Cambridge was held up after university officials became concerned that Marlowe intended to become a...

(The entire section contains 2523 words.)

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