The play opens with a speech delivered by the soul of Machevil. Although the world believes he is dead, Machevil declares that his soul flew to France and inhabited the body of the Duke of Guise. Since the Duke himself is now dead, the seemingly immortal Machevil has arrived from France "to view this land and frolic with his friends."
Although Machevil says that he has not come to "read a lecture," he puts forth several claims. He states that those who find his name odious actually admire him the most; that those who renounce his books actually read them avidly; that religion is but a "childish toy"; and that "there is no sin but ignorance." He then speaks along vague political lines, and he concludes by stating that his purpose of the day is to present "the tragedy of a Jew." Machevil claims that he has helped the Jew (Barabas) acquire his fortune, so the Jew "favours" him.
Act 1, Scene 1
The curtains rise to reveal Barabas counting his riches. As a Maltese merchant, the Jew has made such a fortune that he has become weary of counting all his coins-if only everyone could pay in wedges of gold, or precious stones by the weight! Just as we begin to see the extent of his wealth, a merchant enters to announce the arrival of ships carrying Barabas's merchandise. The merchant states that the bill of customs itself surpasses the wealth of many local merchants. A second merchant enters with news of Barabas's argosy from Alexandria, consisting of rich oriental treasures.
Barabas then delivers a short monologue on his wealth. To what ends does he amass such a great fortune, together with the rich Jews abroad who form a "scattered nation"? Although wealth is honored universally, Barabas is hated for being a rich Jew. But he declares that he would prefer to be hated as such, rather than be "pitied in a Christian poverty." He associates Christianity with both material and spiritual poverty: their faith, he believes, bears only "malice, falsehood, and excessive pride." Though Kings may be Christian, Barabas renounces any desire for political power, declaring that he gathers wealth for the sake of happiness for himself and his only daughter.
Three Jews of Malta enter the scene. They report that a Turkish navy has arrived, ready for combat. Especially given that Malta and the Turks are in league under a peace treaty, the three Jews are concerned about the warlike appearance of the ships. Why have all the Jews of Malta been summoned to the senate house? While assuring his three friends that he will look into the matter, Barabas reveals his selfish and duplicitous nature through an aside: "Nay let 'em combat, conquer, and kill all, / So they spare me, my daughter, and my wealth." He already suspects that the Turks have come to exact Malta's tribute (to the Ottoman Empire), and he begins to ponder how he can avoid difficulties if the Turks come his way.
Act 1, Scene 2
Selim Calymath enters, followed by Callapine and other Bashaws. Calymath demands payment from Ferneze, the governor of Malta, for ten years' worth of Malta's unpaid tribute to the Ottoman Empire. Should Ferneze refuse, he most likely would have to fight off a Turkish invasion. Unable to pay the due tribute on the spot, Ferneze asks for some extra time to make a collection among the citizens. Callapine reacts belligerently, but Calymath accepts the governor's request and promises to send a messenger in a month.
The Turks leave, and the Jews of Malta arrive to see Ferneze. The governor explains the situation and says that, due to recent expenditures for wars, Malta cannot possibly pay the required tribute. He therefore asks for a contribution from each of the Jews. The Jews protest alternately that they are poor and that, as "strangers," they do not usually pay taxes for the tribute. At this point, Ferneze gives up any pretense of a request and decrees that the entirety of the tribute shall be taken among the Jews. The Jews must agree to give up half of their estates-otherwise they will be made Christian and will lose all that they have. For his resistance to the decree, Barabas has his entire estate confiscated.
Barabas protests vehemently against what he sees as the injustice of the governor. In response, Ferneze and his knights declare that Jews are "infidels" and that their "hateful lives" have caused many Christians to suffer. Indeed, if the Jews now suffer in turn, the First Knight states that it is due to their wickedness and "inherent sin." At this, Barabas again voices his outrage: "What? Bring you scripture to confirm your wrongs?" Shall he be persecuted for his ancestors' transgressions, though he himself has lived righteously? Barabas then states that he would rather be killed than live without his fortune. Ferneze curtly dismisses Barabas's lament-the knights meanwhile have decided to convert Barabas's mansion into a nunnery-and all of the officials exit the scene.
The three Jews attempt to comfort Barabas, invoking the biblical sufferings of Job. But finding him unconsoled, they decide to leave the scene quietly, whereupon Barabas's daughter Abigall enters. Abigall expresses her concern over the turn of events, but Barabas reveals his foresight and cunning: he has a small fortune hidden under a plank in his house, ironically marked with a symbol of the cross. Since his house has been turned into a nunnery, Abigall must "dissemble" a conversion to the Christian faith and make a false confession to the Abbess. She thus will be able to access the treasure and secretly pass it to Barabas in the early hours of the morning.
Act 1, Scene 3
Mathias enters, ruminating over the strange turn of events surrounding Abigall. "A fair young maid, scarcely fourteen," why has the rich Jew's daughter suddenly become a nun? As Mathias ponders the question, his friend Lodowick suggests that they go visit Abigall. Mathias exits with the intention to do so, unaware that Lodowick also intends to go and see the girl.
The speaker of the prologue, Machevil, is presumably an anglicized reference to NiccolÃ² Machiavelli (1469-1527), the Italian Renaissance man best known for his political discourse in The Prince. The adjective Machiavellian, of course, derives from the same historical figure. Precisely, the soul of Machevil recounts how he inhabited the Duke of Guise (1550-1588), the patron saint of Rheims who infamously oversaw a massacre of French Protestants in 1572. Marlowe's The Massacre at Paris stages the events of this Massacre of St. Bartholomew's Day, and the play portrays the Duke of Guise as an archetypal Machiavellian villain.
The prologue suggests, to a certain extent, that the soul of Machevil will now inhabit Barabas: Machevil will "grace him as he deserves." Yet of all the characters in the play, Barabas cannot be called the most Machiavellian. In line with the general sense of the adjective, the Jew is certainly cunning, duplicitous, and unscrupulous, Machiavellian in a nonpolitical sense. But he is not Machiavellian in a strict political sense, insofar as he stands in no position (as of yet) to place political advantage over morality, or to use deceitful tactics to uphold authority. Whereas Barabas will act out of selfishness, love of money, and the desire for revenge, it is the governor Ferneze who will reveal himself to be the most Machiavellian schemer.
The governor's scheming is already clear in Act 1, Scene 2. Whereas he puts on a show of politely requesting the aid of the Jews of Malta, the swiftness with which the officers seize Barabas's goods suggests that the action unfolds in a manner already planned out by Ferneze. The religious logic that the Christians use, besides, is falsely self-righteous and entirely hypocritical. Ferneze declares:
No, Jew, we take particularly thine [fortune]
To save the ruin of a multitude:
And better one want for a common good,
Than many perish for a private man. (I.ii.96-100)
This echoes the priest Caiaphas's judgment of Christ (John 11:50). While model Christian readers should understand the biblical passage in an allegorical sense, it seems, Ferneze and his Knights take the passage literally in order to justify their extortion.
Barabas's outcry thus becomes particularly pointed. "What? Bring you scripture to confirm your wrongs?" Not only are the authorities using religious history to justify their actions-which is in itself questionable-but they are abusing history. As members of the majority religion, these Christians selectively and unjustly interpret history so as to support their present choices, and as those in power, they can get away with it. Few moments have passed before Barabas's mansion is converted into a nunnery. The Christians thus take full advantage of Barabas and subjugate the other Jews in the name of religion, using their religion more as a pretext than as a spiritual or moral guide.
The three Jews invoke the sufferings of Job to console Barabas, but the play has already signaled the difficulty of using scripture to justify one's place in the world. Besides, the world of The Jew of Malta turns above all around wealth. It is not by chance that the curtains opens to reveal Barabas counting gold; Barabas disparages Job by ridiculing the smallness of his fortune, and he sets out to retrieve his remaining fortune through scheming. In a counterpoint to the Christians, Barabas offers his own moral justification for Abigall's false conversion: "A counterfeit profession is better / Than unseen hypocrisy." It will be interesting to return to this scene in light of Abigall's second and true conversion to Christianity.
M. M. Mahood offers an insightful comment on the proceedings of the play thus far: "The world of The Jew of Malta is one into which ethical considerations do not enter"; that is, "intelligence alone counts. Characters are not good or bad; they have fewer or more wits about them" (46). Instead of morality, the characters are obsessed with their own advantage-financial, and in some cases, sexual. Act 1, Scene 3 introduces two young men who are potential suitors to Abigall. They surely are interested in her beauty, but Lodowick's later allusion to her as a diamond shows that her wealth never lags far behind her looks. When the curtain to the first act falls, we are prepared for many battles of wits. Will the cunning Jew be able to outsmart his oppressors? Will his daughter outsmart the nuns? Will one suitor outsmart the other and win Abigall by persuading her of his superior wit?