The Jew of Malta

The Jew of Malta Summary and Analysis of Act 5

Act 5, Scene 1

Ferneze enters with knights and Martin del Bosco, fortifying Malta against the Turkish invasion to come. (The Spanish navy is nowhere to be seen.) Bellamira enters with Pilia-Borza and informs Ferneze that it was Barabas who killed Lodowick. Bellamira also declares that Barabas strangled a friar and poisoned the nuns, including his own daughter. Ferneze asks for proof of her accusations, upon which Bellamira betrays Ithamore. Officers soon return with the accused master and slave.

Ithamore readily confesses the truth, revealing all of his own and Barabas's crimes. Barabas calls for the law and attempts to divert Ferneze's attention by pointing out that Bellamira is a courtesan and Pilia-Borza is a thief-all in vain. As he is carried off by the officers, Barabas says he hopes "the poisoned flowers will work anon"; the flowers that Ithamore, Bellamira, and Pilia-Borza smelled earlier were sprinkled with poison.

The lady Katherine enters and discusses the turn of events with Ferneze, whereupon an officer announces the deaths of all four: the accusers and the accused. Barabas's poison has finally taken effect--but Barabas's death was unexpected. Martin del Bosco remarks on the strangeness of Barabas's death, but Ferneze dismisses it as the justice of heaven and orders that the Jew's body be tossed over the city walls.

Alone outside the walls, Barabas quickly rises; he had merely taken a "sleepy drink" to feign death. While awaiting the arrival of the Turks, Barabas vows for vengeance-let them take even his fortune, so long as he sees the governor "whipped to death"! Calymath enters and notices the Jew. As a spy, Barabas informs the Turks how to gain entrance to the city, himself volunteering to lead five hundred men to open the city gates. Calymath then promises to make Barabas the governor, should his plan succeed.

Act 5, Scene 2

Calymath gloats over his easy victory and pronounces Barabas the new governor of Malta on the spot. Leaving the Jew with a number of Turkish janizaries, Calymath leaves to roam the town with his Bashaws. Barabas dismisses Ferneze and his officers and starts a monologue: although he is now governor, all of Malta hates him. Now his life is in constant danger. Besides, what good is authority without friends or profit? Barabas thus resolves to make the best of the situation. He summons Ferneze and describes his plan to recover Malta from the Turkish forces. In response to Ferneze's disbelief, the Jew demands what he can expect in return for his service to Malta, and Ferneze duly promises a great fortune. Not trusting Ferneze, Barabas sends Ferneze to visit the citizens personally to raise the money. With this agreement, Barabas releases him and makes provisions to surprise the Turks, declaring: "he from whom my most advantage comes, / Shall be my friend. / This is the life we Jews are us'd to lead; / And reason too, for Christians do the like."

Act 5, Scene 3

Calymath has ordered that the damage on the island be repaired. He roams about, admiring the geographical security of the island. A messenger enters with an invitation from Barabas, who offers to host a banquet for the Turks before they leave. He has even prepared a special pearl as a present. In response to Calymath's hesitation to dine within Malta, the messenger indicates that the banquet will take place in a monastery right outside the town. Calymath finally accepts, then retires to his tent to meditate before evening.

Act 5, Scene 4

Ferneze enters with his knights, giving out orders for the evening. None of the knights is to come forward until he hears a musket discharged. The knights swear their allegiance to Ferneze and leave the scene.

Act 5, Scene 5

Barabas supervises the carpenters as they finish up some construction at the monastery. He pays them and offers them wine from his cellar as they leave. The messenger then enters to confirm Calymath's presence for the festivities. Immediately afterwards, Ferneze arrives with the hundred thousand pounds that he has collected, but Barabas refuses to take the gold on the spot. The Jew then explains the contraption he has built, whereby Calymath's army will be instantly obliterated. As for getting rid of Calymath himself and his attendants, Ferneze need only cut a single rope at the right moment. Ferneze hides himself as he sees the Turks coming, and Barabas is left alone to boast about his "kingly kind of trade, to purchase towns / By treachery and sell 'em by deceit."

Calymath arrives with kind words, and Barabas invites him to ascend the stairs-whereupon Ferneze jumps out of hiding and cuts the rope, revealing a cauldron into which Barabas falls. Meanwhile the First Knight has sounded a charge within. All look on as Barabas struggles helplessly in the pit, crying for help. Finally resolved to death, the Jew openly admits his past crimes and dies amidst a string of curses.

Calymath attempts to leave with the idea that he will persuade Turkey to give up its claim on Malta, but Ferneze points out that all his soldiers have been massacred by Barabas's contraption--Spain is the protector once again. The curtain falls with Ferneze's declaration that he will take Calymath as prisoner, followed by Ferneze's praise to heaven.


After Ithamore corroborates the accusations of Bellamira and Pilia-Borza, Ferneze exclaims: "Away with him! His sight is death to me." Barabas cries out in response: "Let me have the law, / For none of this can prejudice my life." At first glance, one may accuse the Jew of a type of legalism. He calls for the law only when it is useful to himself, thus adhering to its rules rather than its spirit. Yet, one wonders why the law would be useful to Barabas. Only a while ago, in the previous act, Friar Jacomo was executed swiftly and under the law respecting murder. There is no reason to think that Barabas would be exonerated, should a fair trial even take place.

Perhaps Barabas is scared that Ferneze will prematurely send him to his death. The governor's impetuous exclamation certainly does not bode well for the Jew. By calling for the law, then, Barabas is again bargaining for time, and he needs only a few extra moments; once the poison from the flowers works its effect, he might become safe under the law due to the lack of witnesses. But the witnesses have already spoken, so he needs time at least to take a "sleepy drink" to increase his chances of escaping the gallows. This device allows Barabas to survive, which serves the plot: he ends up outside the city to become the spy who leads the Turks into Malta.

The Turks having conquered the city, Calymath keeps his promise and makes Barabas the governor. But this does not seem so good to the Jew. As a corrupt governor, after all, he will be forced to lead the life of a tyrant:

But Malta hates me, and, in hating me,
My life's in danger; and what boots it thee,
Poor Barabas, to be the governor,
Whenas thy life shall be at their command?" (V.ii.30-33)

This line of thought reflects a view of the dangers of leadership dating at least to Plato's Republic (566d-567d). Though he may have power and wealth, the tyrant will lead a fundamentally unhappy life. Barabas therefore attempts to make best of the situation by serving as something of a double agent, plotting to return Malta to Ferneze.

Barabas takes considerable pleasure in the intricate plot to obliterate the Turkish forces. For the first time in the play, however, the plot fails miserably: the tables are turned, and Barabas falls into the deep pit designed for Calymath. Is this, as Ferneze suggests, the work of heaven? Perhaps, but several points distinguish Barabas's last plot. To begin with, he has built a large and conspicuous physical contraption-in opposition to his previous subtle scheming in the shadows. Barabas becomes so excited with the contraption itself that he declines to take the payment until later. He also unnecessarily explains the details to Ferneze who, he should know very well by experience, cannot be trusted. Finally, so sure of his success, he hands over the crucial device of execution to Ferneze. The execution of his plan, as it were, becomes his own execution: he mirrors the falling motion seen at the gallows when he falls into a cauldron-which also is a magnified version of the pot of porridge he used to murder Abigall and the nuns.

In Greek theater, the gods would have punished Barabas for his hubris. In The Jew of Malta, Barabas finally tastes his own poison, receiving poetic justice. He has become so proud and involved in his own plot of revenge that he almost forgets his place in the world as a successful merchant. The money he raises via Ferneze almost amounts to protection money. When Barabas refuses to take Ferneze's payment on the spot, though, he has involuntarily condemned himself-exactly in the manner of the friars Jacomo and Barnardine, when they forgot their spiritual paths and ran after Barabas's wealth.

Finally at the end of his rope in the cauldron, Barabas utters his one and only confession. But the confession does not bask in religiosity. In accordance with his character, he ends his life with a curse of frustration: if only he could have "brought confusion on you all"!

Despite all the havoc he has wreaked, Barabas serves a crucial role in the safety of Malta all the way to his death. His money buys Malta a month's time, during which Martin del Bosco minimizes damage to the city by helping the Turks to an easy victory; finally, he liberates Ferneze and allows Malta to assert its independence once and for all. Yet, it is not at all clear that the ending should be considered "happy." The governor Ferneze has after all revealed himself to be a hypocrite and traitor, no less Machiavellian than Barabas-in contrast to the invading Turks, who have acted with relative courtesy. T. S. Eliot famously called The Jew of Malta a "tragic farce." It is perhaps a farce because the tragic elements remain conspicuously unnoticed by the surviving characters, and a tragedy because the farcical elements ultimately lead to death.