The Jew of Malta

"The Jew of Malta" is a play by Christopher Marlowe, probably written in 1589 or 1590.

The title character, Barabas the Jew, is a complex character likely to provoke mixed reactions in an audience. Like Marlowe's other protagonists, such as Tamburlaine and Doctor Faustus, he dominates the play's action. There has been extensive debate about the play's portrayal of Jews and how Elizabethan audiences would have viewed it.

The plot is an original story of religious conflict, intrigue, and revenge, set against a backdrop of the struggle for supremacy between Spain and the Ottoman Empire in the Mediterranean that takes place on the island of Malta. "The Jew of Malta" is considered to have been a major influence on William Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice".

Performance and Publication

The first recorded performance was in 1592; the play was acted by Lord Strange's Men seventeen times between Feb. 26, 1592 and Feb. 1, 1593. It was performed by Sussex's Men on Feb. 4, 1594, and by a combination of Sussex's and Queen Elizabeth's Men on the 3rd and 8th of April, 1594. More than a dozen performances by the Admiral's Men occurred between May 1594 and June 1596. (The play apparently belonged to impresario Philip Henslowe, since the cited performances occurred when the companies mentioned were acting for Henslowe.) In 1601 Henslowe's Diary notes payments to the Admiral's company for props for a revival of the play. [Chambers, Vol. 3, pp. 424-5.]

The play was entered in the Stationer's Register on May 17, 1594, but the earliest surviving edition was printed in 1633 by the bookseller Nicholas Vavasour. This edition contains prologues and epilogues written by Thomas Heywood for a revival in that year. Heywood is also sometimes thought to have revised the play. Corruption and inconsistencies in the 1633 quarto, particularly in the second half, may be evidence of revision or alteration of the text. [Bevington & Rasmussen, pp. xxviii-xxix.]

"The Jew of Malta" was a success in its first recorded performance at the Rose theatre in early 1592, when Edward Alleyn played the lead role. The play remained popular for the next fifty years, until England's theatres were closed in 1642 (see English Renaissance theatre). In the Caroline era, actor Richard Perkins was noted for his performances as Barabas when the play was revived in 1633 by Queen Henrietta's Men. The title page of the 1633 quarto refers to this revival, performed at the Cockpit Theatre. [Chambers, Vol. 3, p. 424.]

There have been a number of modern productions: in recent years, Barabas has been played by Alun Armstrong at the Royal Shakespeare Company and by Ian McDiarmid at the Almeida Theatre.

F. Murray Abraham performed as both Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice" and Barabas in "The Jew of Malta" at the Theatre for a New Audience in February and March 2007.


The play contains a prologue in which the character Machiavel, a Senecan ghost based on Nicholas Machiavelli, introduces "the tragedy of a Jew." The Jewish merchant in question, Barabas, is introduced as a man owning more wealth than all of Malta. When Turkish ships arrive to demand tribute, however, Barabas's wealth is seized and he is left penniless. Incensed, he begins a campaign to engineer the downfall of the Maltese governor who robbed him. With the aid of his daughter, Abigail, he recovers some of his former assets and buys a Turkish slave, Ithamore, who appears to hate Christians as much as Barabas. Barabas then, in revenge for the robbery, uses his daughter's beauty to embitter the governor's son and his friend against each other, leading to a duel in which they both die. When Abigail learns of Barabas's role in the plot, she consigns herself to a nunnery, only to be poisoned (along with all of the nuns) by Barabas and Ithamore for becoming a Christian. The two go on to kill a couple of friars who threaten to divulge their previous crimes. Ithamore himself, however, is lured into disclosing his secrets and blackmailing Barabas by a beautiful prostitute and her criminal friend. Barabas poisons all of them in revenge, but not before the governor is apprised of his deeds. Barabas escapes execution by feigning death, and then helps an advancing Turkish army to sack Malta, for which he is awarded governorship of the city.He then turns on the Turks, allowing the Knights of Malta to kill the Turkish army. The Maltese, however, turn on Barabas and kill him as they regain control of Malta.


Due to the religious conflict within the play, as with Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice," the unremitting evil of "The Jew of Malta's" anti-hero leaves the play open to accusations of anti-Semitism. However, like Shakespeare's Shylock, Barabas also shows evidence of humanity (albeit rarely), particularly when he protests against the blatant unfairness of the governor's edict that the Turkish tribute will be paid entirely by Malta's Jewish population. It is because of Barabas's protests that he is stripped of all he has and consequently becomes a sort of monster. He has more asides than any other character, making his isolation from the other characters, including his fellow Jews, all the more evident, and he constantly has to operate in what he does alone: even his daughter becomes detached from him before long, and Ithamore, too, soon loses interest in his former loyalty towards his master. In his first meeting with Ithamore he has his most famous speech that begins: "I walk abroad a-nights/ And kill sick people groaning under walls," and follows this with over twenty more lines about various murders and robberies he has apparently performed. Nothing in his personality implies that so underhand a character would suddenly come out with the truth as he does, and it is highly possible that he is not even speaking the truth at all: in a sense it is a play about his transforming into, rather than actually being from the very beginning, the very thing that anti-Semites all around him portray him as. Indeed, it could be for this reason that Machievelli, in the Prologue, describes it as the "tragedy" of a Jew.

Like Shylock, he makes it clear that, in his continual acts of treachery, he is only following the Christian example, as according to Catholic teaching "Faith is not to be kept with heretics", to which he adds "And all are heretics that are not Jews".

Meanwhile, very few of the play's other characters show significant redeeming qualities. The play ridicules Christian monks and nuns for engaging in forbidden sexual practices, and portrays a pair of friars trying to outbid each other to bring Barabas (and his wealth) into their order. Malta's Christian governor, in addition to his unfair treatment of the city's Jews, is revealed to be a grasping opportunist who seizes any chance to get an advantage. The Turkish slave Ithamore is somewhat idiotic and has no qualms about getting drunk when offered wine (and sex) by a prostitute (quite apart from his role in multiple murder), and aside from him there are the Turkish invaders who plan to make the city's defenders (the Knights of Malta) into galley slaves.

The play portrays characters of three religious groups—Christians, Jews, and the Turks, who are Muslim—and portrays them in constant enmity with one another. It satirizes self-contented morality and suggests that, in the end, all religious groups are equally likely to engage in violent and selfish acts, regardless of their professed moral teachings. This irony comes to a head when Barabas, falling into his own boiling cauldron, cries out to the Christian and Turkish onlookers for mercy. Barabas, of course, would have shown the Turks no mercy had they fallen prey to his trap, and yet expects help from his erstwhile Christian victims and intended Turkish ones. Meanwhile, though, he has been derided throughout the play by Christians for not showing proper Christian charity, and yet the play's Christians show him no mercy when he is in need of help. The hypocrisy is made all the more potent, when, after the Turkish leader's galley-slaves and soldiers have all been massacred in an explosion of gunpowder (also created by Barabas), the Christians then take the remaining Turks prisoner in Malta, just as the murderous Barabas they formerly berated would have done—and the governor states that they should give thanks to Heaven as a result. The ending refuses to allow any group in the play to emerge blameless.


Partial evidence for the play's date of composition comes from its reference to the death of the Duke of Guise, which occurred on December 23, 1588.

The name Barabas comes from the Biblical figure of Barabbas, a notorious bandit and murderer. Barabbas, rather than Jesus Christ, was released by Pontius Pilate at the behest of a mob (Matt. 27: 16-26).

It is possible that the plot of the play was in some part inspired by the role of Joseph Nasi in the transfer of Cyprus from Venetian to Ottoman control.

T. S. Eliot's poem "The Portrait of a Lady" has an excerpt from The Jew of Malta:

"Thou hast committed/Fornication: but that was in another country,/And besides, the wench is dead."


Barabas the Jew

Barabas is named after "Barabbas", the thief and murderer who was released from prison and pardoned from crucifixion in place of Jesus in the Bible (Matthew 27 v. 16-21, 26, Mark 16 v. 7-15). Described in the play's prologue as "a sound Machiavil" (meaning he is extremely Machiavellian), Barabas is interesting as a character in that he is possibly the first ever stage-portrayed psychopath (at least within English literature), taking people into confidence by playing on their desires and then killing them. Like Shakespeare's Shylock—the idea of whom may have been inspired by Barabas—he is open to interpretation as a symbol of anti-Semitism. However, also like Shylock, he occasionally shows evidence of humanity (albeit very rarely).

Barabas begins the play in his counting-house—perhaps already playing on the stereotypical view of Jews' being misers. However, it is when his money is stolen from him that he really lives up to the anti-Semitic stereotype, turning into, rather than already existing as, the very sort of monster people all around him accuse him of being simply for having different beliefs. Stripped of all he has for protesting at the Governor of Malta's seizing on the wealth of the country's whole Jewish population to pay off the warring Turks, he develops a murderous streak by, with the help of his slave Ithamore, tricking the Governor's son and his friend into fighting over the affections of his daughter, Abigail. When they both die in a duel, he becomes further incensed when Abigail, horrified at what her father has done, runs away to become a Christian nun. In retribution, Barabas then goes on to poison her along with the whole of the nunnery, strangles an old friar (Barnadine) who tries to make him repent for his sins and then frames another friar (Jacomo) for the first friar's murder. He then, after Ithamore falls in love with a prostitute who conspires with her criminal friend to blackmail and expose him after Ithamore drunkenly tells them everything his master has done, poisons all three of them, and when he is caught, drinks "of poppy and cold mandrake juice" so that he will be left for dead and then plots with the enemy Turks to besiege the city.

When at last Barabas is pronounced governor, he switches sides with the Christians once again. After devising a trap for the Turks' galley slaves and soldiers in which they will all be demolished by gunpowder, he then secures a trap for the Turkish prince himself and his men, hoping to boil them alive in a hidden cauldron. Just at the right moment, however, the former governor emerges and causes Barabas to fall into his own trap. He dies, but not before the Turkish army has indeed been demolished according to his plans, thus delivering the Turkish prince into the hands of the Christians and revealing them to be every bit as scheming and hypocritical as the Jew they had condemned.



*Bevington, David, and Eric Rasmussen, eds. "Doctor Faustus and Other Plays". Oxford University Press, 1995. ISBN 0-19-283445-2.
* Chambers, E. K. "The Elizabethan Stage." 4 Volumes, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1923.
*Marlowe, Christopher. "The Jew of Malta". David Bevington, ed. Revels Student Editions. New York, Manchester University Press, 1997.

External links

* [ The Jew of Malta] - Complete play (plain text) at Project Gutenberg
*"The Lopez Plot."

See also

*Other works by Marlowe
*The Merchant of Venice

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