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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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...

(This entire section contains 773 words.)

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intended to become a Catholic priest and join a group of expatriate Roman Catholic priests who had taken refuge at Rheims, where, with the Pope's assistance, they were plotting an overthrow of Elizabeth I and the Church of England. All of this plotting, whether real or imagined, left the average English citizen distrustful of any Catholic and convinced that they were all dishonest thieves.

The Jewish World
The stereotyping of Jews in Elizabethan England is not as easily explained. There had been massacres of the Jews earlier in England's history. In 1189, Jews were massacred to celebrate the coronation of Richard I, and in the following year, more than five hundred Jewish men, women, and children were massacred by people indebted to Jewish moneylenders. Officially, Jews had been banished by English law since 1290, when Edward I ordered all Jews to leave England. That decision, however, did not reflect anti-Semitism as much as a business choice. Italian banks were interested in handling English banking and commerce and insisted that all the Jews be banished to eliminate competition. The expulsion in 1290 cleared England almost completely of all Jews. After that period, and until the middle of the seventeenth century, only a few Jews entered the country, and these were largely physicians invited for their professional abilities. There was a small group of crypto-Jews (people forced to embrace Christianity who secretly held on to their Jewish faith) living in London during the late sixteenth-century, but few of Marlowe's contemporaries knew of their existence. At the time that Marlowe was writing the The Jew of Malta his audience had no firsthand knowledge of Jews. What the depiction of Jews in Marlowe's play illustrates is the pervasiveness of anti-Semitism, even in a country where people had no experience with Jews. Marlowe was an educated man, with knowledge of the world. It is obvious that he would have known about anti-Semitic stereotyping, and he was also aware that his largely uneducated audience would be adept at recognizing his stereotypes. Like those involving the Catholic Church, the stereotyping of Jews played well to an audience trying to survive in a tension-filled world. Elizabeth had defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588, only a year before Marlowe began writing his play. Consequently, the threat from outside forces was a very real part of English life. When people feel threatened, they often respond with attacks on anyone who seems different or threatening. In this case, both the Catholics and the Jews appeared to be available subjects for stereotyping.

Literary Style

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ActsThe Jew of Malta is a five-act play. The exposition occurs in the first act when the audience learns of the injury done to Barabas. By the end of Act II, the complication, the audience has learned that Barabas will not be satisfied with the money he has recovered. He wants revenge on all the Christians in the city and is plotting to have the two young men, Lodowick and Mathias, murder one another. The climax occurs in the third act when these young men die, Abigail converts to Christianity, joins the convent, and is subsequently murdered. The murder of the friars and Ithamore's betrayal of his master provide the falling action in Act IV, and the catastrophe occurs in the last act when Barabas overreaches his goal and finally dies in his own trap.

Characterization is the process of creating a life-like person from an author's imagination. To accomplish this the author provides the character with personality traits that help define who he will be and how he will behave in a given situation. The Jew of Malta moves away from this strict definition, since the characters are not well-defined. The audience does not really know or understand the character as an individual. For instance, Barabas is a stereotype, a caricature of a greedy Jew, the usurer who was well-known to the audience.

This term refers to types of literature such as mystery, science fiction, comedy or romance. The Jew of Malta is officially a tragic drama, according to its title page, but many scholars now refer to it as an example of extreme satiric or black comedy.

The plot provides the author with the means to explore primary themes. Students are often confused between the two terms; but themes explore ideas, and plots simply relate what happens in a very obvious manner. Thus the plot of The Jew of Malta is the story of how Barabas was wronged by the Catholic governor and so vows revenge upon the entire city, even sacrificing his own daughter. But the theme is that of greed, corruption, and religious depravity.

The location for Marlowe's play is Malta, which is important, since the English audience considered almost any location outside England to be suspect and filled with corrupting forces This was especially true of any location that was controlled by Catholics.

Compare and Contrast

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Sixteenth Century: The Anglican Church is initially established in England in 1534, by Henry VII, who establishes Protestantism as the official church. In effect, Henry's decree also outlaws the Roman Catholic Church, and Henry seizes all church property, liquidating it as a source of revenue for his reign. The seizure of church property is supported by many people, who feel that Catholicism is all about performance and ornamentation and that it lacks substance and piety. This emphasis on performance and an assumed lack of piety is evident in Marlowe's depiction of the friars as greedy men who care more about Barabas' money than they do about his soul.

Late Twentieth Century: In many ways, the English still view the Catholic Church with suspicion. There are still laws that prohibit a member of the monarchy from marrying a Catholic, and the Anglican Church remains the official church of England. No Catholic can inherit the throne.

Sixteenth Century: Catholic Mary Stuart, queen of Scots, is beheaded February 8, 1587, by order of her cousin, Elizabeth I (sister of Mary Tudor). Mary Stuart provided an impetus for continued plotting among the Catholics (who wanted to restore England to the Pope) against the Protestants (who saw all Catholics as a threat to their safety). Marlowe's audience would be expecting to see negative depictions of Catholics in his work. These are easily seen in the greed of the Catholic officials in Malta.

Late Twentieth Century: The conflict between Protestants and Catholics continues, accounting for bombings and deaths in both London and Ireland. Each side still views the other as evil and destructive.

Sixteenth Century: This period begins the golden age of theatre in England. Thomas Kyd, John Lyly, and William Shakespeare as well as Marlowe are writing plays. However, Marlowe and Shakespeare dominate the English theatre at the end of the century, leading to a period of great theatrical production in the early seventeenth-century by playwrights such as Ben Jonson, Thomas Middleton, Francis Beaumont, John Fletcher, Cyril Tourneur, John Webster, and John Ford.

Late Twentieth Century: While many of the late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century playwrights continue to have their works produced, only Shakespeare still dominates the stage and film, illustrating that many of the ideas that Marlowe explored, and which Shakespeare so liberally borrowed, have remained compelling and topical.

Sixteenth Century: English explorers, including Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh, seek to glorify England through conquests of new lands. They return to England with riches for their queen and establish colonies in the new world that honor England's greatness. Drake is particularly successful as a naval captain, capturing Spanish ships and seizing their riches for his queen. The English are not at war with Spain, but stealing from Catholic Spain is easily celebrated. In Marlowe's play, Malta's governor sees nothing wrong with stealing from the Jews, who have done no wrong.

Twentieth Century: Throughout history, religion has been used to justify many violent acts. Adolf Hitler uses religious intolerance to justify the genocide of European Jews. Religious issues are at the core of Israeli and Palestinian differences, and the Catholic Irish and the Protestant English still continue a guerilla war begun three hundred years earlier.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Clapp, Susannah, "The Jew of Malta," in Guardian Unlimited, October 10, 1999.

Meyers, William, "Shakespeare, Shylock, and the Jews," in Commentary, Vol. 101, No. 4, April 1996, pp. 32-37.

Nightingale, Benedict, "The Big Play: The Jew of Malta," in Times (London), October 16, 1999.

Perrett, Manon D., "Shakespeare's Jew: Preconception and Performance," in Shakespeare Studies, Vol. 20, 1987, pp. 261-68.

Spencer, Charles, "The Arts: Portrait of a Psycho As Comic As It Is Chilling," in Daily Telegraph (London), October 7, 1999.

Williams, Carloyn D., "Interview Given by Stevie Simkin, Director of Marlowe's Jew of Malta, to Carolyn D. Williams," in Cahiers Elisabethains: Late Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Vol. 55, April 1999, pp. 65-73.

Further Reading
Brown, John Russell, ed., Marlowe: Tamburlaine The Great; Edward The Second and The Jew of Malta: A Casebook, Macmillan, 1982. This text offers a collection of critical essays on Marlowe's plays.

Cole, Douglas, Christopher Marlowe and the Renaissance of Tragedy, Praeger, 1995. Cole's book examines the major literary traditions of Marlowe's era and how he transformed them into themes fitting his purpose.

Hammill, Graham L., Sexuality and Form: Carvaggio, Marlowe, and Bacon, University of Chicago Press, 2000. This author uses Caravaggio's paintings, Marlowe's plays, and Bacon's scientific treatises to explore the interdisciplinary connections between sexuality and violence.

MacLure, Millar, ed., Christopher Marlowe, Routledge, 1995. This text provides a compilation of critical essays, presenting contemporary responses to the author's work.

Marlowe, Christopher, The Complete Plays, edited by J.B. Steane, Penguin, 1972. This work is a collection of all of Marlowe's plays, fully restored by recent scholarship.

Shapiro, James C., Rival Playwrights - Marlowe, Jonson, Shakespeare, Columbia University Press, 1991. Shapiro examines three of the greatest of the Renaissance playwrights, comparing their work within a historical context. Although Shapiro is occasionally forced into conjecture about his three subjects, much of what he says is grounded in historical fact.

Thomas, Vivian, and William Tydman, eds., Christopher Marlowe: The Plays and Their Sources, Routledge, 1994. This book, a compilation of forty-two texts, includes all the major sources for Marlowe's plays.


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Bartels, Emily C. “Malta, the Jew, and the Fictions of Difference: Colonialist Discourse in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta.” English Literary Renaissance 20 (1990): 1-16. An excellent Marxist reading of the text that posits imperialism as the controlling discourse and Malta as the object of the colonizer’s lust.

Bowers, Fredson Thayer. Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy: 1587-1642. Gloucester, Mass.: P. Smith, 1959. Asserts that Barabas fails as a tragic hero because he avenges a material wrong with murder, because his motives are petty and treacherous, and because his demise is unconnected to his revenge.

Danson, Lawrence. “Christopher Marlowe: The Questioner.” English LiteraryRenaissance 12 (1982): 3-29. Argues that the play is written in an interrogative mode. Characters ask questions without pausing for answers. These rhetorical questions draw the audience into the answering process.

Deats, Sara Munson, and Lisa S. Starks. “‘So neatly plotted, and so well perform’d’: Villain as Playwright in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta.” Theatre Journal 44, no. 3 (October, 1992): 375-389. Examines the significance of the play’s metadramatic elements, its ambivalent attitude toward the theater and toward role-playing, arguing that these elements are a reflection of the violent debate raging in Shakespeare’s time about the moral worth of the theater, and that they shed new light on Barabas’ motives.

Rothstein, Eric. “Structure as Meaning in The Jew of Malta.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 65 (1966): 260-273. Views the play as ironic parody and demonstrates this reading through an analysis of language and action. The play parodies the Bible, the pastoral, the code of friendship, and Catholicism, using Barabas to expose the weaknesses of other characters.




Critical Essays